• Lively, why it should not die

    by  • 24 November, 2008 • Tech • 7 Comments

    Back in July I wrote about my new career as a kafeneion owner in the virtual world that Google launched under the moniker “Lively”. For those of you who don’t know, a kafeneion is a typical Greek gathering place where (mostly) men come together to have a coffee or rakí, read the newspaper, discuss the world at large and play some Tavli (Greek version of backgammon) or a game of cards. A perfect setting to be emulated in a virtual world.

    The room was decorated as a more or less traditional Cretan kafeneion, minus the white-wash and the fluorescent lamps on the ceiling (which were not available as accessories in Lively), but with really loud music (pulled from YouTube videos and integrated live into a wide screen TV on one of the walls) to make up for that lack of couleur local.

    My career as a kafeneion owner was short-lived however. The problem was that I could not run the kafeneion as a side job, while doing more “serious” work on my computer. The reason for that was the fact that I use a Macintosh computer for my daily work and Lively was not available to the Mac. It was “a high priority” according to then business manager for Lively, Niniane Wang, but a version for Mac never materialised to date. If the owner of a kafeneion is not present to entertain his guests, people are not going to linger long when they enter an empty place. If people don’t visit your place, your room does not figure high in the index of Lively and henceforth even fewer people will ever learn about your place and come to visit it. Circle closed.

    livelySo I came up with a different idea. Having been exposed to 6 years of tourist waves in Crete, I created a new room which would be more attractive to visitors, even if they would find themselves all alone when entering the “room”. The island of Crete was born in Lively, with some historically incorrect artefacts and semi-hidden or hard to find features (including a roaming Minotaur at the bottom of the sea) that would stimulate visitors to explore.

    I took on the persona of a direct-blood-line-descendant of King Minos himself, having survived 3600 years of every kind of (un)civilization that existed in that corner of the world, with a strong background in Greek mythology and ancient Cretan history. Heck, if necessary to make a story even more entertaining I wouldn’t shy away from having a remote aunt or uncle in the Andes during the heydays of the Incas (which I kept mixing up with Mayas or Aztecs too). After all, when you’re a descendant of an illegitimate child of Zeus himself, the sky is the limit. Thanks to an early bug in Lively, I even managed to lay my hands on an avatar that was not publicly available, but which was perfect for the role of the old Minoan. Everything was well.

    I still had to reboot my Macintosh into Bootcamp to be able to participate in Lively, but I could now do it whenever it fitted my schedule. As my current lifestyle is such that I don’t work continuously but only when I feel like it or need some extra money, this coincided perfectly with the first months of Lively’s existence. I also had time to visit other rooms now, and in each of them I played this role of an ancient Minoan, entertaining other visitors, mostly talking nonsense with a grain of historically more-or-less correct factoids. People liked it. I started to document myself more thoroughly on the subject of the Greek mythology and ancient Minoan history, my stories became better and people liked it even more. What was particularly rewarding was being able to tell those stories to people of other cultures that had little or no knowledge about those things.

    And this brings us to one of the most misunderstood characteristic of Lively. It has been compared to Second Life and it has been compared to IMVU. Let me tell you in just a few words what my experiences with those virtual worlds were. By means of proper introduction I have to reveal that I only explored those 2 because of the constant comparisons that I kept reading in the press. Lively still is my first encounter with this phenomenon. In Second Life I couldn’t get past the introduction. As simple as that. Call me clumsy if you want, but I could not navigate that place even if my life depended on it. In Lively, my sense for navigation was instantaneous and intuitive. In the couple of hours that I tried Second Life I saw a number of avatars passing me by or crossing my path. No-one ever uttered a word to me. I’ll come back to that later. About IMVU I can be even more concise: if your idea of a virtual world is to be dragged into a bedroom at every encounter with an avatar of the opposite sexe, by all means go for it. Your mileage may vary. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

    So, what is Lively (soon to have been)? With the risk of doing injustice to the work of many interesting people I have met on Lively which use the platform for artistic expression that surpasses my wildest imagination of what would be possible in such a limited world, for me Lively is a place of conversation. Because of — or maybe rather thanks to — its limitations in the realm of building blocks, animations, game scenarios, etc., Lively is a fantastic vehicle for having conversations with people you would otherwise never meet. There are of course many places where you can have an entertaining conversation, also “in real life”, but no place else where you meet such a diversity of cultures, of people that have interesting stories to tell with all the color of personal experience about worlds you only know through sterile documentation.

    I hear you saying now “you can have that in traditional chat rooms or IRC channel too”. Yes, you’re right, and in a way Lively is a big collection of chat rooms. But there is one thing that sets Lively apart from a purely text-based chat room, and I feel this aspect has not been adequately exposed in everything I read about Lively. By providing a model of a physical world in three dimensions, with participants taking on a persona of their choosing, a conversation is augmented in a way that is absolutely impossible in text-based chat rooms.

    Let me illustrate this with a few examples.

    First of all you can freely move around a room by using the mouse. It’s very fast and intuitive. Secondly, a text balloon pointing to the participant speaking gives a clue who it is that says something in a way that feels so naturally you forget that this is just some text typed on a keyboard. Commenter “abitterdigit” on a rather gleeful article about Lively’s demise on Terra Nova puts it this way: “What virtual worlds bring to the table as a form of communication are a sense of place and person. Forums, text chat and email are entirely disconnected from that; they work much, much better for writing, but they’re very poor mediums for talking.”

    How does that work in practice? For starters you can join a conversation by moving towards the originator of a text balloon even when (s)he is not in sight. The text balloons are always in sight and it’s easy to drag your own avatar towards the place where the speaker is located. This accomplishes 2 things: you express your interest towards the speaker in what (s)he just said; moving closer to the other speaker(s) also has the advantage — with the proper camera angle which you can as easily adjust as moving your own avatar — that you filter out the noise of other simultaneous conversations: the speech balloons of the group you just joined will be clustered together, making it much more easy to follow and participate. Inversely, you can move away from a conversation that you have no interest in. Don’t underestimate the significance of this, it can be a very strong visual clue that you don’t want to be part of this conversation. You speak through your body language.

    After a while you learn where interesting people regularly meet or which rooms attract people with an interest in a specific topic. So you go there more often. You learn how your “body language” (if we can speak of that in the case of an avatar) has an effect on being accepted or not. You also learn which places to avoid as the plague. After Google opened the floodgates of Lively hell by flirting with the MySpace crowd (apparently a higher priority than attracting Mac or Linux users), Lively was for a while a real torment. Conversation was reduced to “waaaazzup?”, “where you from?”, “what ur hobbies?”, “u have msn?”, and I won’t mention here the numerous expletives that were the rule rather than the exception. Some of the more popular rooms were a real pain to be in. Then one day, there were 4 or 5 of us “veterans” (and somewhat older than the usual crowd) seated in a corner arrangement of sofas in what had become our regular hang-out, practicing our “art of conversation” (even if the content was nonsense, the rules of conversation were obeyed), an unknown male avatar joined us. He sat quietly in a corner of one of the sofas and said nothing for at least half an hour. When a natural pause crept into the conversation he spoke up and said “I’m only sixteen, can I say something on this subject?”. A properly formulated and grammatically correct sentence! And brought with a grace that I had long given up on expecting from that age group, in light of our initial experiences. I swear I had tears welling into my eyes. I could have kissed the guy were it not that animations are limited when seated in Lively and it would have been embarrassing for both him and me. My point is this: had it not been for the physical presence of his avatar, demonstrably just listening in to the conversation under way, without disrupting it, this whole experience would never even have existed.

    Enough of my ramblings.

    All that is in danger of being part of the past soon. Google has announced that they’re going to shut down Lively, as a matter of better aligning business priorities or some such sterile explanation. But some of us are not going to go under without a fight. A number of Lively users, called Livelizens, have come together to appeal to Google to stall the shutdown. Lively is a great platform for interaction as well as creativity. It is easy to use, browser based, embeddable on webpages to bring a 3D experience right on your website. While Lively has been in beta and has limited capability in terms of the objects and avatars available, the Livelyzens have been able to come up with very creative ways to create art from what is available. All this in a “clean” 3D world thanks to Google’s vigilance in getting rid of rooms with inappropriate content. More than anything, Lively has become a place to make friends for life – from all over the world with wonderful people.

    Please visit the website http://livelyzens.com and participate in the Lively Machinima contest we are conducting to show the creative potential of Google Lively. Please also sign the online petition at http://livelyzens.com/petition.aspx. We kindly request netizens to support us in reviving a wonderful 3D world that is a kid friendly and a creative space for art and interaction amongst adults.

    A petition signee hit the nail on the head with this comment “I love Lively, who loves GMail?”

    Did I mention that I wouldn’t mind seeing a Mac version?

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