EDITED VERSION OF ESSAY
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New technologies in the digital media marketplace have greatly changed the nature of information exchange and the framework for Human communication. From primitive cave paintings to quantum signatures, we stand on the precipice of a convergence of all communication into a single stream of data and the development of an electronic human network.
Older communication frameworks favored systems of proxies designated champions and sporadic polls - the greater populace was not included in the meaningful participation within the polis and scholarly imperatives. When using the older communication models participation simply was not technically or administratively possible to include a large population in expansive dialogue. Technology has torn down the barrier to communicate and participate in human communication throughout the polis and in all its facets is no longer the preserving the arena of an elite minority. Technology is opening the up the world and tearing down barriers opening communication for the masses.
Massively multiplayer online realities or M.M.O.âs are one tool in the new communication framework. M.M.O.'s are a technology showcase that emulates the physical presence and proximity of the participants by simulating each individual shared reality on a computer. The M.M.O. communities are vast forums for social networking experimentation in culture and perception. Precepts such as politics, religion, culture, and society are all the greater issues emulated modifying the core principals as the participants "play" with the boundaries of reality and society.
In one such MMO, Second Life, despite the effort spent on implementing the âvirtual reality,â communication still relies on the old framework. The visual aspects of the simulation are the priority in the development where dialogue is under control of a linear textual chat system seen in the former communication systems. In essence, the Second Life community of avatars learned to adapt to the limits of the linear textual chat system. The introduction of voice into Second Life will be another paradigm shift in communication technology with respect to virtual worlds.
Voice integration into Second Life is a bridging technology that will require certain social and technical measures are a requirement before the technology is widely adopted. The emphasis on text chat in Second Life facilitates the growth of the community to date but also impedes wider adoption by the non-technical or non-literate avatar. Linden Labs must not discriminate against the members of the community who chose to communicate textually and the community equivocally must not discriminate against those who choose to use voice. Second Life is not reality, the participants in the community agree on what form their reality becomes. Similarly, the Second Life community must be able to toggle voice integration on demand and "play" with their voice technology and concepts. We must not encourage divisive tiers in Second Life or insist that real life concerns echo in the virtual world.
Virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are an exciting new horizon to meet new people, listen to new music, or take an online class. Having voice capabilities in Second Life will allow a user that cannot type to take part in a world not available in reality, but the avatar should still have a choice to use voice-integrated communication. Maybe the individual does not like his or her voice. If the avatar could alter his or her voice slightly would the avatar not like to be able to speak to someone the avatar may meet in virtual reality.
Multiple groups in virtual reality use third party products to speak to each other, but having an integrated option is more efficient for user experience compared to aftermarket software downloads. If voice integrates into Second Life, the choice to use or allow the feature should be the right of the landowner or avatar. If Linden Labs add voice, having the voice technology for all groups and all computer types is necessary while simultaneously setting guidelines for use. Linden Labs could even have a young adultâs area, an adult area, or an educational area. Although the possibility exists for the avatar to try voice with a third part applications, a voice integration feature will only better the Second Life experience for the avatar and create a more efficient communication framework.
On the side of caution, the choice has to belong to the end user. In some cases, having voice may not be appropriate for voice to be available, or the voice integration feature may get confusing for some using chat while others are using voice. Coexistence of text chat and voice integration in the virtual environment can make Second Life and even better place to be with more tools at our avatars. Therefore, this is a plea for avatars, a plea for voice. Pleas to add voice to second life without hurting anyone else or taking away from those that want to type.
However, the plea for voice is the smudge of a fingerprint on the lens that distorts the vista for a sensible individual to see the negative impacts of voice integration in Second Life. The integration of voice in Second Life is a nuisance in disguise, but primarily to the impoverished. To what degree the Second Life community fully appreciates the negative influence to the penniless is still to come. Yet, computer networks that support voice over internet protocol and local area network gaming simultaneously need vast resources to operate properly and are quite expensive. Let alone the new computers with the graphic and sound card needed to do both. The impact of the voice integration is only going to affect those who cannot afford these technologies.
Imagine a world where the virtual social normality is serene and peaceful with nothing other than the sounds of the keyboard and the avatar. A world where the destitute can afford to participate freely and type thoughts not normally expressed in everyday indigent life. Now take that picture, and tell the needy to buy a new computer that is capable of using the new Second Life voice integration. The picture of serenity for the indigent looking to escape the life of poverty from time to time then turns to that world recognized so well â exclusion. Excluded by class, and similar to that of real life where the poor are historically seen as less than human would follow them right into the virtual world they use to escape this evil of humanism.
Given the above discussion, it is interesting to note that Vivox, one company that is currently negotiating with Linden labs regarding voice integration into Second Life, states on their website that â85% of MMOG players regularly communicate outside of the game with people they play [regarding] game related issues [like] scheduling, advice/support, small talk.â (http://www.vivox.com/products_services_gaming.php) The integration of voice into the Second Life environment would allow that 85% to communicate inside the game and this presents concurrent advantages and disadvantages for its residents that are not mutually exclusive. We started our discussion by noting the progress that has been made by using massively multiplayer online realities as a medium to facilitate social networking. The traditional communication network was through the exclusive use of text messaging, which given the current state of technology, is akin to etchings on earthen clay tablet. With over 1.3 million residents in Second Life and more than half of that number being registrants from outside of the United States, according to the November 13, 2006, Wall Street Journal (citation omitted), we believe the integration of voice would better enable the social networking to keep pace with the population growth.
For example, it is not currently possible in Second Life to conduct discussions in any other language aside from English, but with the ability to bypass text messaging, and integrate an auditory component that is not limited by text recognition coding, more residents would be able to interact, and thus enhance the network. In addition to the global benefit from the integration of voice, it would also facilitate greater ease-of-use by residents who are less literate, non-technical, or merely slow typers. It can also be argued that since Second Life is not reality, but merely virtual-reality, where residents make a choice of whether to register their citizenship, that the "opt-in" nature of avatar registration mandates a choice be presented to residents of whether to use text, or voice.
Opponents of voice integration argue that the current state of the technology creates huge server-side demands that could crash the system, the transitions between voice and non-voice zones can be abrupt and disconcerting, and the quality of the voice is similar to a mobile phone, often static-laden. These of course, do not make for the best interactive experience, but they are all correctable, and should improve with time. The merits behind the principle of why voice technology should be integrated however are not outweighed by the above demerits. Some residents are also concerned about the potential costs of voice integration, but Linden labs has been very successful in raising money over the past three years from investors - a total of $18 million in venture capital has been raised - $8 million in October 2004, and $11 million earlier this year in March 2006. As indicated in a CNET article in March 2006 http://news.com.com/Second+Life+scores+11+million+in+funding/2100-1043_3-6054598.html), some of the investors are also major players in the tech industry with very deep pockets in the billions of dollars range - like Globespan Capital Partners, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, the Omidyar Network, and Catamount Ventures.
Assuming that the Linden Labs' financial partners have resolved how voice integration would be funded, it is our position that voice should be made available to all residents, and that residents have the option as to whether they will use text, voice, or a combination of both in their interaction. This will allow voice technology to be a medium that is better able to facilitate global interaction, rather than exclude non-English speaking or nonliterate members of the global community.
From this basis, the key social issue to be resolved is who will set the standards for how voice technology is adapted to the environment. Our concern is that the integration of voice may create an environment through which certain members of the community may be discriminated against as a result of their accent, vocabulary, or the existence of speech impediments. Conversely, there may be discrimination in the form of exclusion for those who are not computer savvy or literate in English, as they may be discouraged from full involvement. As indicated by our earlier discussion, we have resolved this issue through our findings that several of the largest software companies in the world recognize that the integration of voice technology into their products is the next stage of software evolution. For example, Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted in the book âThe World is Flatâ, that even Google believes that its current lack of voice integration is somewhat discriminatory. On page 153 of the book, he states "we do discriminate [but] only to the degree that if you can't use a computer or don't have access to one, you can't use Googleâ¦â He goes on to indicate that the Google feels that the best way to prevent that discriminatory treatment in this area, is through the integration of voice technology that would allow searches without any pre-existing knowledge of computer usage or instruction manuals.
Based upon that insight, our group also sees that the integration of voice technology will not only allow residents to interact, but could also allow better control of the avatarsâ appearance, gestures and behavior, since words and actions would be more synchronized, and thus more realistic â which is the ultimate objective of âvirtual realityâ. As noted in Raph Kosterâs âA Declaration of the Rights of Avatarsâ (http://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/playerrights.shtml) â communication and the ability to be able to communicate in manner that is inherently human, is a foundational principle of what it means to be resident in a virtual reality environment - our group supports this view. In conclusion, although there are some disadvantages to the integration of voice technology, it should definitely be integrated into Second Life, and codes of conduct established either by consensus, or a representative group, in order to ensure that all residents not only have access to the technology, but will have clear guidance on how the technology can be used, without infringing upon the rights of other voice users, or residents who prefer to type.