(Sorry about the lack of pictures here; this post is about sound, and I couldn’t think of anything applicable.)


By now you’ve probably heard that Linden Labs is working to bring voice to Second Life. In some ways this isn’t anything new, because you can already use voice in Second Life with Skype and services like it. But of course making voice part of Second Life means that it will be available to almost everyone and that many more people will use it. In some ways, this is really neat. In other ways, it creates a huge mess, like turning a lawnmower on, flipping it over, and throwing dead possums into it.

The two worries I’ve heard most about voice in Second Life are that it will make Second Life even slower and that it will prevent people from being able to be anything different than their First Life selves

Tooooo Sloooooooow!

The bandwidth worry is kind of a misunderstanding, because Second Life’s servers won’t be handling the voice anyway. But then, if the thing that’s slowing you down is your own internet connection, then maybe it will make a difference. I guess we’ll see!

You Don’t Sound Like Yourself Today

The problem of sounding like you sound in your First Life is a big one, though, for anyone whose avatar is the opposite gender or a child or anything like that. But it’s also a big problem for anyone who doesn’t have a nice voice, or who has a strong accent that they don’t want to define themselves in Second Life, or who stutters. It gets worse, but first let’s ask the question: so what? Why don’t those people just keep using text? They don’t have to use voice if they don’t want to.

Second Class Second Lifers

Well, lots of people probably will keep using text, but from what I’ve been reading, it seems like in other systems when voice is introduced, there’s a very quick separation of voice people from text people, and the text people get kind of trampled. After all, if there’s a conversation and everybody else is using voice while you’re using text, you’re not going to be able to get a word in edgewise. By the time you press the enter key, six other people will have spoken and you’ll look like a dork. So whenever there are a lot of voice people around, it’s very likely that the text people are going to be shut out.

So it *does* matter. I’m sure some people will hold the opinion that everyone should be in Second Life whatever they are in their First Life, and will be glad that voice will help enforce this. I won’t even address that here, because I think I’ve addressed it just fine in other posts, but the short version is this: we don’t any of us have the right to tell everyone else what to do.

Second Language in Second Life

Another group who are going to have trouble with voice are people for whom English is a second language. People like this may be able to understand written English and work out a typed response, sometimes with help from a translator program, but they may not be able to keep up with spoken English, which is much harder to do. The other night I was at a club when a Spanish-speaking man came in. The only people he could talk to there were me and one other woman, and neither of us speak excellent Spanish. If we had been working with voice I would have barely been able to communicate with him at all. Using text, I understood everything he said (although I had to look two words up) and was able to write understandable replies.

So voice is also going to be very bad for international relations. At best, it will tend to force people who speak a particular language to hang out together and ignore people who don’t speak that language. We already have that in First Life; we don’t need more separation in Second Life.

But It’s Good, Too!

Oh, hang on: by now I’ve probably convinced you that I’m completely opposed to voice in Second Life. I’m not, really. Voice will really help people who can’t type well and currently are forced to mostly be at the edges of conversations. It will especially help people with arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. It will enrich a lot of relationships and allow a lot more expression between people who use it. It might make it easier to communicate in languages that are difficult to type, like Japanese. And to top off the list of advantages, one word: karaoke!

So it’s not all bad, and in a way it’s inevitable. Voice is a cooler, more advanced technology than text, so Linden Labs almost has to try it. I still wish they wouldn’t, but you can’t blame them, really. (Well, you can, but it’s not very original. Linden Labs gets flamed every time they add a new feature. It must be a pretty emotionally draining place to work. But then, imagine working at a place that changed the weather or the nature of reality or whether or not you could exist; the hate mail would be unending. This is just a smaller version of the same thing.)

In the end, we have to face the fact that Linden Labs isn’t providing a world: they’re providing a technological platform for a world. What’s in that world, and the culture of the people (and furries and tinies and faeries and robots and everything else) is entirely up to us. In a very real sense, it’s just not their problem.

You Don’t Sound Like Yourself, Part II

Back to problems with voice, and specifically back to people not being able to be their fantasy selves. This, to me, is the saddest thing about voice, because I know a lot of people who get a lot of happiness out of being someone different in Second Life. But you can’t be an 18-year-old girl in Second Life and a 60-year-old woman in First Life if you use voice, or at least you can’t do it convincingly. Age and gender and ethnicity or lack of ethnicity or…well, it’s all kind of problematic, isn’t it? Maybe this will spur a renaissance in voice altering technology, though, which could be interesting. Apparently the voice changing technology they have out there already isn’t very good. I don’t know about this first hand, though: I don’t know if it’s unreliable or just sounds bad or if there’s some other problem.

I Can’t Hear You!

And of course speech is a nasty raw deal for deaf people. Not only can they not participate in voice conversations, they also get saddled with the suspicion that they’re hiding something, just like anyone else who doesn’t use voice. It’s always nice to add insult to inconvenience when dealing with a person who happens to have a physical disability.

But I know this isn’t the intention of the people who are getting voice to work in Second Life, and maybe there’s hope that speech recognition technology will help even that playing field a little, at least. Let’s hope so!

This might be a smaller problem, but anyone who is having trouble with their audio equipment or doesn’t have a mike and headphones is going to have some trouble communicating with voice, too. Of course, microphones are cheap, and practically any computer powerful enough to run Second Life in the first place will have a working sound card.

I Can Hear You, and I Don’t Want To

Another big problem with voice is noise pollution. You walk into a club, and all around you there are half a dozen other conversations, some people speaking loudly, not to mention the music. Just like in a First Life club, it may be hard to hear yourself think. First Life is already full of loud places. It’s a shame for that to happen in Second Life as well. But if you turn off voice, which you’ll be able to one way or another (even if it means turning off your speakers), you won’t be able to hear people when they’re trying to talk to you, or when an announcement is made.

Vocal griefing is worse. It’s one thing for someone to IM you with something nasty, but it’s seven levels of creepiness higher for them to whisper it in your ear. Yes, you’ll be able to mute them–after they’ve already started in. Men, this may not be as much of a concern to you. In any case, it’s one more reason to try to stay in places where people are generally pretty nice.

Shhh! My Kids Are Sleeping!

And think about anyone who needs to keep quiet while using Second Life. What if the people you want to be with are using voice, but you have three children under the age of six sleeping in the next room, and not only don’t want to wake them up, but have to be quiet so you can hear them if they do wake up? Or what if you simply want to say something private? You can say it privately to another avatar, but anyone nearby you in your First Life will hear it too. Which leads to my personal greatest problem with voice, which is…

I Can’t Be Anonymous If You Hear My Voice

Now, it takes being slightly paranoid about letting your Second Life leak over into your Real Life to be worried about this one, and I admit, I’m in kind of an unusual situation. You see, I’m broadcast on mass media every once in a while, and while I don’t have the most distinctive voice in the world, I do have a particular way of talking. If I use my voice in Second Life, I’m running the risk that someone has heard me on a broadcast and will put two and two together.

But that doesn’t mean much to most people. What may, though is voiceprinting. I know, I know: nobody does that. Voiceprinting just isn’t a widely-used technology these days. But it’s not as though all those things you’re saying in Second Life are going into a vacuum: they can be recorded by anyone within virtual earshot and kept pretty much forever. If voiceprinting does get more common, it will be possible for anyone who has heard a voice to make a voice print out of it and compare it to other voices for a match, which may well mean that in five years or ten years there will be huge databases of voice prints up for grabs, even if all the people in those databases haven’t consented to being in them. A simple search, and suddenly you find out that the girl who dumped you in Second Life back in 2007 is really a married, male architect in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Revenge time!

So, I admit it, that’s really paranoid. But there’s nothing to prevent it from happening, and while I haven’t been dumping people and don’t have to worry about gender dissonance, I still am very firm about keeping my Second Life in Second Life.

Ignore the Man Behind That Curtain!

Another way in which voice can make it hard to stay anonymous is background noise. Most microphones will probably do a pretty good job of filtering that out, but imagine sitting at your computer, having a quiet chat with a friend, when someone in the next room bellows “Hey JULIE!” It comes through clearly over the voice channel. Your friend stops, and then says “So, your name is Julie?” All kinds of things can get through this way.

Am I trying to scare people about the problems of anonymity with voice? I guess so. Sorry about that. Usually I’m not such a scary person, except sometimes when I have bed head.

I Can’t Talk to You Right Now: I’m Talking to Someone Much More Important

This probably depends a little on your typing speed, but what’s the most people you’ve ever IM’d with at once? In my case I’m going to say it was probably six, while carrying on a conversation with people who were right in front of me. This goes right out the window with voice conversation: there’s no history window to let you remember where you were in the conversation, and saying something out loud usually means the person expects an immediate reply. So long to multichatting for voice users.

But Other Than That, No Problems!

So that’s about everything I can come up with. It’s a long list, isn’t it? Some of the problems are obvious right away, but some of them don’t sink in for quite a while.

What will I do? Well, you’ve probably already guessed: I’ll type. And we’ll turn off voice chat on our land so that anyone who comes to the Sylph Refuge (where we live) will need to type, too. And if I have friends who start using voice all the time, I probably won’t be able to spend time with them unless they’re willing to wait for me to type answers to what they say. Maybe there will continue to be a Second Life for me after voice catches on, and maybe not, but there’s no use worrying about that. After all, you can’t fight progress.

^^^\ Kate /^^^