Tuesday, January 25, 2005

What's next for next-gen consoles (and SL)?

BBC NEWS | Technology | What's next for next-gen consoles?

I wonder if some future version of SL will run on one of the new PS3s rather than an ordinary PC. Based on the article above, and more specifically this one...

Cell Computer Described

It really sounds like this may finally obsolete the horrible Intel architecture we have been saddled with for so many years. maybe that idea PC for SL that's "5 years out" may not be a PC at all!

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

What's Wrong with Secondlife?

I've been following the forum posts


with some little surprise. Not surprise that people should be mad about billing errors or 24 hour downtimes, but surprised that in a few of the postings people touched on some more fundamental concerns that I've had from the beginning, and I've been a user, follower, and supporter of Second Life almost from its beginning.

Of the original 10 issues posted I'll just say that most of them are to be expected of any leading edge technology. Let's get to those more fundamental things...

"2. Our inventories are transient data, its seriously questionable that your data can even be recovered from backups. "

Not having a backup strategy that works (in a usable way) is a problem. It's not all that uncommon for small shops to have a "disaster backup" that could be used to re-build the entire data center, but not have any means to recover selective parts from that backup. The latter, almost requires that you write your own backup process almost from scratch rather than rely on an off the shelf solution. For some organizations this is "good enough". For an outfit that sells services to individuals, such as a web hosting company, you really need to find a way to make each user's backup individually, and easily, in fact, perhaps automatically, accessible. Knowledge of this backup process needs to be built into the systems architecture. If user A wants to reset his house to the way it looked last week, more needs to happen than load some files from a tape. Activeworlds never solved this problem either. Every database corruption that involved using the backups was always followed by hours or days of downtime during which the programmers manually repaired the damage without taking the entire "grid" (they didn't use that term) back a whole week. Finally, this relates to item 9. More there.

"7. I still, a year and a half after the issue was first addressed, cannot use my top of the line ATI graphics card, one of the most popular graphic card companies in the world."

I'll just add, that this must be a frustrating problem. With video cards representing in some cases half or more of the cost of a system, many people aren't in a position to switch brands easily. On the other hand I haven't had much respect for ATI for a long time. I question whether the company will even be in business a few years from now. It might have been better for Secondlife to take an nVidea-only approach publicly until all the problems with ATI were ironed out.

"9. The promise of Intellectual Property rights for content creators has been trampled on. The lack of adequate controls to prevent reuse and with no ability to guarantee the safety and continued existence of player creations negates it. The glowing PR release that brought many of us into this world a year ago seems little more than that, a marketing scheme."

I don't know about "trampled on". But I don't think I ever really understood the early marketing that was done around this issue. 3D (and other) content creators online have always had to deal with other people stealing their stuff. Let's face it, some of it isn't really all that valuable to begin with. The whole idea that something that takes you 15 minutes to create is now worth thousands of dollars is part of our whacked out culture. In the real world, things get more valuable as they become HARDER to do. The reason it only costs $200 to have my sink fixtures replaces (all of them, including parts) is that I had the option of doing it myself. For me, it was good use of my time to pay a plumber to do it while I did something else. Had the cost been $2000 I would have probably just visited the hardware store.

Likewise, if I take a photo, diddle with it to make it a seamless texture, apply it and several others to a cleverly thought out prim, I MAY have something that someone will value more than the time it would take them to create such a thing themselves. If I get good at this, through talent, or hard work, I can increase the difference between the cost to me (in time) to make the thing and the cost (in time) to a beginner to make the same thing.

The rub comes when we get into this process on a regular basis, thinking we might make a little pocket money in the process, support our hobby, or even, in our fantasies, make a living at it. Once we go down that path, finding that our works have been misappropriated by others becomes very frustrating. How much are we willing to pay a lawyer to settle such a thing? Should we engage a private investigator as well to see just how extensively our products have been sold by others? The folly of this is obvious when you see that even well known recording artists don't go after piraters of their music on their own. It takes an entire industry, in the form of the RIAA to track these things down and prosecute them, and in the end, how effective is it?

Linden labs/SecondLife though, has offered to help us with this in some way. I'm still not sure how. Not allowing us to take physical possession of our own creations might be offered as a security aid, to keep such things from being stolen. On the other hand, to really be effective, the object would have to be visible on any users computer, without any user being able to "capture" the essence of the object. Simply making something difficult to steal, but impossible to get hold of legitimately doesn't make a lot of sense, but as far as I can tell, that is pretty much where the technology stands.

Again, this might have been a promise best unmade by Linden Labs. Let users have their own backup files, allow offline manipulation of them (as a feature). Let users solve their own ownership issues (which it would seem they have to do anyway) and at some point in the future, revisit this when (perhaps) better encryption or other display technologies are available.

"10. On top of all these issues Linden Lab has announced that they are now dividing their efforts and creating what amounts to a second program, catering to children without seeming care to the fact that the residents are fairly unanimous in the opinion that this world is still half baked."

Actually, from the beginning, I have thought that the idea of offering a system for "adults only" was half-baked. Of course there are such offerings on the Internet. We call them "Porn Sites". Do porn sites offer online banking, tick-tak-toe, put-put golf, educational services, as an added convenience for their users? Not that I've ever heard. Generally when people go online for sexual gratification they are not interested in much else, and when they are done with that, they go back to accessing the web at large (hopefully). I've always thought that Secondlife should be FOR EVERYBODY, just like the Internet is. If there is a need to support those "special" activities we normally associate with being an adult then it is THAT activity that should be on a separate, isolated grid.

Maybe my vision for Secondlife (or something like it) goes way beyond that of Linden Labs. It's awfully easy to see LL right now, not so much as a visionary 3D-VR company as it is a visionary marketing company. It's well known that porn is the most profitable business on the Internet. What might not be well known is that trend is starting to change. There is only so much of that that the market can absorb, and Secondlife, with so much of the space dedicated to scanty clothing, and the like, may be finally bumping up against that trend. I can see a children's SL being a very popular thing. With it though, LL will have bitten off the censorship responsibility that they have tried so hard to avoid (unsuccessfully) with the original grid.

Maybe in the long run there will be three grids: the new grid for children, where parents can with relative safety park their kids while they go off and do other things, (2) the Adult grid where anything goes, and (3) the grid in-between where people of all ages can come and interact, conduct business, chat, educate, and essentially, behave by doing things we do during our normal lives (as we would, let's say in a mall rather than in a strip-club).

The irony is that it's that third grid, the normal-life grid that does not seem to be in the LL plans.

Well, thats what I have to say about the original ten points. Some other, even more interesting items came up during the thread that follows though. I'd like to comment on them without using names, or numbers. Here goes...

Viable Infrastructure. (I'll go with that as a working title as I can't think of anything better). During the Beta there was a series of teleconferences during which Philip talked about the direction of the product and asked for feedback. I say "there were a series", but I was only invited to the first one. Maybe there is a reason for this. I pressed real hard, maybe too hard, on my concern about the resources that SL consumed. Not so much the CPU resources, as there was a statement that SL was being targeted at the typical PC "5 years hence". I had no trouble imagining that a PC 5 years down the road would handle the 3D content, and the even harder realtime display of it with much greater ease than my old (barely capable) Dell. The five years hasn't passed by the way, so I can imagine multi-gig memory machines, super fast hard drives with tons of space, and processors with multiple cores (in other words four PCs on one chip for example). These divices may even get here soon enough that by the time the 5 years have passed they will be affordable.

What hasn't happened, and isn't happening, is better bandwidth. We don't all have fiber optic links to the Internet, and we don't live in a country with a backbone capable of supporting us all having such connections. The Internet, by my reckoning, is getting slower, not faster. When I sit here and wait for a page to "rez" on the web It's not my bloody PC thats the problem, nor is it my DSL connection. It's the fact that bandwidth on the net is becoming more unpredictable, and in many cases it's the bandwidth, at the source, that is bogged down. In SL terms, it's the servers on the grid that are maxed out, and in spite of regular denials, I'm quite sure that there are issues there at the data center, not of total bandwidth, but on instantaneous throuput: Your at a meeting, several hundred users, someone rezes a heavy new object, how fast can you get it out to everyone and still maintain all the chat about it and the audio, and the clapping, and the body language, and the scripts firing off?... We know of course, that SL cannot yet support a meeting of several hundred individuals. Will it ever be able to?

I've had several new users comment to me "they don't seem to be using cache here". That was my impression too. Still is. I'm alone in a Sim. I face a wall. There is no script running nearby, no sounds, no animated textures, I'm not moving, and there is nobody here to chat with, and my router light is "blinking off the hook". Now these may all be very tiny packets, but there is absolutely no way that I've been able to quiesce that router activity in SL, and obviously other users have noticed the same thing. What are the latency requirements of all those packets? Are they just pings to make sure I'm still here? Are we updating the grid as to my location 10 times a second even though I'm not moving and there is nobody around to care if I was? Who knows? I don't, and I'm not likely to do a packet trace to figure it out. Someone has, presumably, been paid to do that basic back of the envelope calculation regarding the total number of users that the infrastructure can support. And that number has supposedly been used to figure out what the cost of the basic service has to be in order to be profitable. Will there be dozens of grids around the world to distribute the load? Will there be a higher two way minimum bandwidth requirements per user? Who knows? I hope it's on the back of an envelope, somewhere.

If those questions haven't been asked, and answered, LL won't be alone of course. My last "gig" with the government involved a rapidly growing database. I asked embarrassing questions about that too. How fast is is growing? What is the backup plan? Can you do an incremental and partial restore? Is there an archive? Has the raid array been live-tested? Blank stares. That of course from the PC part of the enterprise. Those questions have long ago been asked, and answered for the mainframe side. It's a cultural thing. One that will work itself out eventually, I hope. Even that government group was recently hit by a virus that took much of it down, they trotted out the mainframe group to say (truthfully) that they didn't know anything about a virus and everything was fine. Let's hope they don't have to resort to such subtrifuge indefinitely.

Viable Staffing. The other part of the equation is the staff. The founders of TSO soon found that they continually underestimated staff requirements. Not for programmers, but user support. It's tempting for a business to think that they can define a product that has little or no support costs. Built-in help systems, automated accounting, and on and on you would think it ALMOST possible to eliminate the human element. But the science of Artificial Intelligence hasn't come that far after all. Disputes between users, censorship issues, and those nagging questions that no amount of help text seem to be able to cover. Of course none of us want to the cost of using the system to skyrocket in response. The trick is to grow the user base steadily, rely on volunteers for many things, maybe even, eventually, franchise some of the activities out to others. On the other hand, this is where I think Activeworlds started to run into problems. They got in too big a hurry to build a cash inflow for themselves that they produced a system that nickled-and-dimed to death anyone who wanted to participate at other than the basic level. To be a content provider you might have to deal with two or three other vendors, unless you wanted to take on all the responsibilities yourself. Fortunately, SL hasn't grown to that point yet. But with the dedicated Sims, we might be getting close. Time will tell.

Finally, by way of a disclaimer for the above, I should say that I admire and respect SL and LL, flaws and all. I gave Activeworlds the same respect up to a point, and had high hopes for Adobe's Atmosphere, up to the point where they discontinued it in mid December. What the 3D-VR "space" needs is more players not fewer. LL seems to be the sort of company you'd like to see succeed at this. Are they really such a company, or is it just a good act? Again, time will tell. So far, it's hard for me to detect anything but sincerity from them. That's different from saying that I think they will be THE 3D-VR company in the long run or even that there will BE such a company as opposed to a standard (such as HTML) around which many companies compete.

I don't pay to use SL. I find it amazing that anyone would spend $400 a month on it, although, when I had a high paying job I spent lots of money on things I didn't need. I have the advantage of seeing SL from both perspectives. During the Beta I decided that I would be willing to pay a one-time price for SL use if it was reasonable but not a monthly charge. Maybe they read my mind, or my chat sessions, but that's what they provided and I am most gratefull. I think SL could be one of the "next big things", as the industry has advance beyond the point of having THE next big thing, and it is a privelege to be a witness to whatever happens. I don't ever have to worry about "putting my money where my mouth is" and signing off one last time in a huff. I've been there before though and I understand the difficulty in making such a decision. I hope, that anyone contemplating such a thing at least do only a tier down rather than a tune-out as I expect that there may still be good things to come.

Or not.