The Virtual World Postcard Project: Straight to the Moon!

In Virtual Dublin, noone can hear you scream in frustration.

Dear Friends,

I woke up in Dublin. I didn’t know how I got there. I was wearing a space suit.

As movie premises go, this would probably do for The Hangover Part VI. But this wasn’t the movies. This was the end of a long and frustrating attempt to visit Moonworld, a NASA-sponsored simulation in Second Life. I began this venture weeks ago, before I posted my first entry in the Virtual World Postcard Project.

Relevant facts about me: I have an enthusiasm for space travel more suitable to someone 30 years my junior. I’m also a huge fan of NASA’s public outreach programs. (I treasure the cookie cutters I picked up from the NASA booth at the last American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting: each one is shaped like a different famous telescope. Magnifilicious!) A virtual-world lunar simulator is right in my strike zone.

The first few times I visited, it was unfortunately during a full moon – other SLers filled all the mission slots and I wasn’t permitted to leave the avatar holding pen. Fair enough – can’t begrudge other lunar lovers. Plus, the instructions in the waiting area were daunting.

It was as though I had wandered into some sort of bemusement park.

Ultimately, Second Life redirected me to a website where I registered and received a mission code. (I believe the mission was to collect rocks, but even this was unclear.) This website also recommended adjusting my “sky settings” by installing the “Lunar Morning Theme” This is a 7 step process, step one of which reads, “On the SL viewer menu, select World, Environment Settings, then Environment Editor. (In SL viewer version 2.0 and later, you will find the Environment Editor by selecting World in the menu and then Sun)”

More relevant facts about me: I worked for years as a computer systems technician for newspaper and magazine companies. I wrote tech columns for the Montreal Gazette and I was networking computers in my own home before networking computers in your own home was cool.

Point being: I’m no slouch in the computer department  – complex settings don’t generally flummox me.

I was flummoxed. Maybe there had been an SL client software upgrade, maybe it was a Mac vs. PC thing, or maybe it was some sort of dark joke, but NASA’s instructions bore only a passing resemblance to the actual software controls. (Made me feel better about never having become an astronaut.)

Things went from complicated to alienating. NASA and SL also wanted me to adjust my “water settings.” The menu options for water settings in the SL software client are:

Second Plague

I just wanted to visit the moon simulator. Why was I contemplating what it might mean to adjust my water settings to “Valdez?” It’s hard not to feel unwelcome when the software seems to be snickering at you.

I persevered. The simulator demanded my avatar put on a jumpsuit. This came in more than a dozen components – shoes, pants, shirt, gloves, etc. – each of which had to be downloaded and donned. Then I had to do it all again with a spacesuit – even more pieces with the backpack, helmet, etc. I only have a regular computer, not a video-card enhanced, fibre-optic connected gaming machine. All of these downloads were painfully slow.

Finally, finally, finally, I was ready to go. The lunar module moved down to the surface. I think a door opened. Then, somehow my avatar got jammed in a corner, wedged between two walls. I couldn’t walk out, I couldn’t teleport out. I was just stuck.

Realizing that I might well lose all of my hard work, but facing no other choice, I logged off and logged on again. Still stuck.

Tried again the next day. Still stuck.

Waited a couple of days and logged on again. This time, somehow I was back in Dublin, my homebase. Not only was I still wearing the spacesuit, though, but somehow my avatar was still experiencing lunar gravity. I bounced in slow motion through the streets of Dublin like Neil Armstrong bounding across the lunar surface.

What is the point of this story? I want to get to know Second Life. I want to understand and even like Second Life. But Second Life seems to keep sending me messages that it isn’t interested in my participation. Is this just the reality? Am I crazy to think that virtual worlds like this one will one day have broad appeal and be as ubiquitous as Facebook. (I assure you that even if you find Facebook alienating and confusing, it’s nothing compared to Second Life.)

Maybe Linden Labs is perfectly happy to leave its virtual world in the hands of dedicated designers, programmers and others who are willing to make the huge investment in time and technology necessary to get something back. Maybe people like me don’t really matter to the business model – or don’t matter yet – and that’s why there is no apparent effort to make the interface welcoming or intuitive.

It’s well possible that SL mavens will read this story as an indicator that I am using my own ignorance as justification for petulance. I continue to work at it, though – my curiosity still drives me.

Perhaps, one day soon, I will master this technology, and then, straight to the moon simulator.