I’ve now played with the new voice feature in Second Life’s Voice First Look Viewer, available since mid-June. Download it and take it for a test drive; it has clear sound and no apparent scalability issues, and gives you a sneak preview of what Second Life will soon feel like.
Integrated voice chat is going to completely change the dynamic of Second Life, benefitting those who see this virtual world as a immersive communications tool, though perhaps at the expense of those who see themselves as inhabiting an alternate virtual world.
The reasons for this shift is twofold:
- First, when your avatar uses voice chat, you can no longer lie about your gender. Avatars who always refuse to use voice chat, meanwhile, will be suspected of “lying” about their “real” gender. SL etiquette may well find a way to accomodate voiceless avatars, though they could become a class apart. (Also possible is that those who invest the most time in SL and its role-playing possibilities may not take to voice chat at all.)
- Second, the use of SL as a virtual conferencing tool will become much more natural. Yes, you can currently set up a text chat room on the web, send out a URL and wait for interested people to show up at the appointed hour, but such a solution lacks immersion — you can’t all watch the a movie synchronously, for example, or listen to a music performance, or get feedback about who is actively present and paying attention. You can do all this currently in Second Life with public text chat. Adding voice, however, turns this into a much more fluid, realistic experience.
Imagine, for example, that you invite the director of a short film to present her work in Second Life in front of a group of interested people. The film can be shown “live” via Quicktime Streaming Server in such a way that everyone sees the movie synchronously, while the director does a play-by-play voiceover, just like the commentary track on a DVD. You can say a lot more if you say it rather than type it — and meanwhile you can concentrate on watching the film, instead of on spelling.
But the arrival of voice chat won’t cannibalize text chat, for the same reason that we send SMS messages on our mobile phone or text chat with Skype or iChat. That’s because text chat in SL, especially when sending private messages, does not require the immediate attention or response of the recipient — just as with SMS.
And of course, voice chat doesn’t leave you with a text log of what was said… so you have to take notes, just like in the real world. But voice-based conferencing of the type that will now be possible in Second Life will be so compelling in terms of ease of use and that I think it will turn an experimental use of Second Life into a mainstream one.