There was yesterday the announcement about the public availibility of the voice beta version of Second Life. Since I had spare time and a new, shiney headset, I downloaded the special beta client and gave it a try.

The first thing you’re going to notice is that you are not seeing much difference to the normal beta clients at all. Voice capability is disabled by default, so you have to enable it by yourself in the preferences. The second thing I experienced is – it’s much better to enable voice in the so called push-to-talk mode – meaning, that you’re only transmitting audio into the game world when you’re pressing down some key. Otherwise all people around you can be hearning echos if your soundcard is not configured correctly, many computers tend to transmit much noise, well, let’s just say it’s a waste of bandwidth and computing power.

I know how voice is being handled by services like Skype. Skype automatically adjusts the microfon volume while you speak, so that the microfon level is always nice mannered and not too loud. In the Second Life beta you’ve got to adjust the microfon volume on your own, so you should better now how to setup the volume mixer under Windows or Macintosh. Yup, there’s no beta for this available at the moment under Linux.

Well, if you’ve got your settings then right you can enjoy the voice capabilites of the beta – or not. First you need to get to a region, though, that is voice enabled in the beta grid. There are not many available and you can see a list of enabled regions in the release notes of the beta client. According to Lindenlabs there are these voice enabled regions at the moment on the beta grid: Abbotts, Lusk, Pulveria, Spaceport Alpha, Morris, Da Boom, Tehama and Balance. BTW, it’s not advisable under Windows to use the Shift-Key for enable the push-to-talk mode, since this is per default enabled by Windows to enable some advanced features for people with disabilities after pressing it fives times. Better use another key or turn those features of in the system settings of Windows.

So, after you’ve got around all these hurdles, better go to such a region with some avatars in it and listen. At the moment there’s only one voice feature implemented so far – speaking in a room. But this is not done like voice conferencing with Skype. Since Second Life is a virtual 3d world, this is done approximity based like in ego shooters. People who are standing nearer to you are talking louder, when they’re leaving you while talking they’re gettting more and more silent. If the avatar is standing at your left side, you’re going to hear him in the left loudspeaker only, if he’s on your right side, you’re going to hear him from your right loudspeaker only, if he’s in front of you, you’re going to hear him from both loudspeakers. So you can really locate the avatar in the virtual world with your ears – this means spacial hearing. And this is a many-to-many communication, by the way, meaning that many people can speak at the same time, which can lead to a very hard to follow chatter at all.

Muting someone in the beta mutes text and voice at the same time. This is the first released beta of SL with voice capabilities, so I expect it to be more proof-of-concept and we can expect more voice features to be added in following releases with voice enabled.

People with voice enabled in a voice enabled region are walking around with a white dot above their head. When they’re speaking, around this dot green waves are going to shine, meaning, that they’re transmitting voice right now. If these waves though turn to red, the microfon level is adjusted too high and should be tuned down. This is a really easy way how to find out who’s talking and who not.

On the computation side I think decompressing and listening to such an audio transmission should have no greater impact than listening to an MP3 stream. Audio transmission is normally on the real low-bandwidth side. Of course, it’s advisable to turn video and music streams off before using voice transmission.

So, the question is – who is the audience of this shiney new feature, who is going to pay for it, if needed, and what is going to be the impact of

One thing is sure: while talking via voice in the world, many people are not going to type on their keyboards. So it’s either typing into the keyboard or talking via voice. Voice transmissions are not recorded by the client at the moment, like text, so if someone wants to record a voice discussion, he needs to use 3rd party tools at the moment. I wonder if this is going to change.

Using voice also means at the moment that all of the participants need some self discipline; while I was at different locations, it was civilised and most handled it that way: one speaks, all listen. That’s the best way how to use it, otherwise it can turn out rather chaotic.

Who is the audience of this feature? I guess it’s going to be nice for people who have spelling problems, business discussions, teaching business, public audiences and such. But be warned, this is really a thing that can destroy your whole SL experience, since you make up a voice
belonging to the avatar over the time in your head. Consider a furry, perhaps a big bear, speaking with a really high pitched voice. So, it’s
not suited for all kind of uses, anyway, and it can destroy much roleplay. For example, if a man plays a female avatar – whyever – don’t expect him to ever use voice. It can also be very surprising.

In the beta grid I’ve talked yesterday with Alterkatze Barnstormer and TD Goodliffe on Spaceport Alpha. Alterkatze’s voice sounded for me a
little bit like that of Joe Cocker – deep and vibrant, pleasant and it was very nice to talk with those two. But of course, not all need to turn out that way, it can be perhaps also a bad thing for language learners – or a good thing. It depends.

And the next thing is, of course – who is going to pay for this? On the beta grid there were some rather heated discussions about this. Some
thought this feature should be only enabled for premium users, so that LL can make some money with it.

I don’t know exactly from where
I got this, but it seems the plan seems that this is going to be done region wise. Modern class-5-regions should get it per default, also
private regions, while older regions on the mainland, which still pay 195 US$ per month as tier fee, only are going to get it if the owner pays a additional monthly fee for this feature.

Since – frankly said – many people can really live very good without this feature, I don’t expect that if this model really would emerge to be voice a wide spread enabled feature on the mainland.

It would be a different kind of matter, of course, if it is going to be enabled everywhere per default without additional cost for the sim owner. But, well, we’re going to see.

Having voice enabled seems to be a nice feature for some kind of usages. I don’t see, though, that users are willing to pay for it at all, since there are many different products for it are already available without any cost. Or like a friend of mine said: "If I need to talk with someone, I just use Skype!"

So, I’m looking forward how new voice based features are going to find their way into the client and on their impact. But I don’t expect voice to be the new number one communication medium in world when it’s going to be introduced to the main grid. It’s going to be an addition to text, but
text is going to be the number one at any time. It’s though the future of the main grid, so it cannot hurt to try it a little, if you got a headset.

BTW, this was the 100th entry to this little blog since it started. Yeah!

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