Second Place

Birmingham might not be shit, but on first glance ‘Virtual Birmingham’ is. Launched today is a special version of Birmingham in Second Life — b-scape (yeuch) (link to it in Second Life, you must have Second Life thing installed and a bloody fast computer). From reports of the launch event (from Simon Gray here and others on twitter) and trying to access it myself I can’t see a coherent argument for Second Life itself, or for a public body to spend time on it.

I’d love to see this sort of thing work, I don’t want to join the chorus of boos, I want nothing better than to see Birmingham lead the way in technology. Please someone explain to me why this exercise is worthwhile.

As I see it Second Life itself is an unbelievably clunky way of interacting with anything. It’s too slow and your actions lag behind your controls that much that even if you’ve found something interesting you spend ages overshooting it and turning round to go back. All buildings become obstacles to your movement, you can’t ‘walk’ so you end up pressing the ‘fly’ button and not being able to see anything as it’s all obscured by trees.

The clumsy way you move your avatar around means you’re removed from anything happening to it — and if you’re interacting with something your avatar is in the way of you seeing it. You’ve about as much control over your presence as the kids had in ‘Knightmare‘ (a much more interactive ‘virtual world’).

Frankly Second Life is a tremendous barrier to interacting with anything.

But surely SL has a huge user-base, shouldn’t councils be taking the conversation where the people are? Well, SL was the hot ‘n’ hyped thing a few years back with Linden Labs (SL’s makers) quoting huge million strong user figures. But, anecdotally, most people try SL once or twice and never go back. According to internet community guru Clay Shirky:

“Of those users, the majority — something like 5 out of 6 — bailed in the first month. What we don’t know is what the other sixth are up to, but… we can guess the answer is “Not much.””

A clunky interface isn’t a complete barrier to people using something if it’s good for them, look at how many people manage to use SMSing despite most phones having worse user interfaces than the Ministry of Truth in 1984. What can the Brum in SL provide? There’s a video extolling the virtues of the ‘virtual briefing hub’ (the clever centrepiece):

It’s really using Second Life as a portal to other stuff, website links, photos, videos, augmented Google Maps, and impressive as it might look here I’m afraid I don’t see why you would.

And from the press release that is in the Birmingham Post, Paul Tilsley, Birmingham City Council deputy leader and head of the Digital Birmingham Partnership, said:

“The potential is enormous: visitors could browse the city’s attractions and amenities to see for themselves what it’s like before they visit, residents could access local services, event organisers could use it to showcase exhibitions and displays, and could even host events in the virtual world with performances accessible online.”

Google’s Street View camera car was around in Brum earlier this year, storing up all the panoramic views of the whole of Brum — which will be displayed in a much easier format to get at. That’s where “visitors [will] browse the city’s attractions and amenities to see for themselves what it’s like before they visit”, because it’s easier and because they won’t know about ‘virtual birmingham’ in SL.

Can anyone explain why the Google Maps stuff couldn’t be available in Google Earth or Google Maps itself, why the video couldn’t be on YouTube, the photos on Flickr — the effort spent on hurrying up the development of the much needed new council website? The effort spent on something else?

  • I’ve tried SL a few times, hoping vainly that the experience would improve. Sadly everything here rings very true for me. And I never got the point: there were lots of impressive 3d buildings but all the content seemed to be 2d images that would be much more accessible on a regular website. But maybe I’m just getting old.

  • Oh man I loved ‘Knightmare’ so much.

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  • I’ve been on 3 times and the progression was this:
    1. Not a clue and feeling v frustrated in the virtual zone.
    2. Clicking on a few web pages and images – pretty 3Ds but info was a bit so what.
    3. Pre-arranging a virtual meeting with a friend, teleporting into the council chambers for a spot of irreverent counsellor baiting and having a laugh.

    Ultimately it was the human aspect that was the most fun. If only there had been a virtual cafe, or a door into the barge or prettier 3D surroundings than Bullring webcams to relax and chat in, I’d go back but we’re off to Scandinavia next time around for a look there instead.

    Could be fun but a lotta lotta faff and useless on a slow computer!

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