I saw a mention about web.alive a new online 3D webspace that runs inside your browser on the Second Life Educators listserv and decided to take a look. I went to http://apex.projectchainsaw.com/ and bravely downloaded the exe file. (The download was fast with no signs of N1H1.)
I began exploring the area and seemed to be gliding smoothly through the space. It looked like the kind of environment that you find around a large London railway station, an anonymous place designed for hordes of people to rush through. However, on the occasion of my visit there were no other avatars around making it feel more like an early Sunday morning. Everything around me was concrete and glass with small round pods situated here and there reminding me of those little shops that sell croissants and ties to commuters. Screens were set up in these pods and with a simple click these began showing Nortel movie advertisements. There was another screen in each pod that looked as though it could be enabled to show web browsers. (I wonder, does that mean that an avatar could be in a virtual world via a web browser accessing another virtual world via the in-world web browser? In other words we could access layers of virtual environments through web browsers?)
I wandered away to send an email and stopped looking at web.alive in my browser and was surprised on my return to see that someone had been trying to talk to me. I saw an avatar walking away and gave chase. I was helped by a little map at the bottom of the screen that showed an orange dot (the other avatar) while I was indicated by a red kite shape. I finally caught up with the other avatar who told me, via voice, that he could hear me typing and suggested I try speaking. I was very surprised to find that he could hear me straight away (especially as I normally spend a few minutes getting voice enabled in Second Life). I had done nothing to set up the voice connection, it just worked… good job I was not singing or swearing! I discovered I was chatting to a friendly fellow from Nortel in California who told me there were other environments available to explore (I plan to work out how to access those next.)
For now web.alive is in beta so anything I write that sounds judgmental is obviously a little unfair. Having said that I certainly feel that they could be braver with their sound effects and environment. Perhaps they will take these extra steps now that they have created such an amazingly smooth operating technology? Still, I really missed the lighting available in Second Life and this made me realize how important lighting is to conjuring up atmosphere. This got me thinking that virtual environments have an ‘Ambient Presence’ as opposed to Social Presence which describes the sense of the human being behind an avatar. ‘Ambient Presence’ describes the almost unconscious hooks which help immerse us in the sense of being within a physical space when in a virtual, computer generated environment. Ambient sounds and atmospheric lighting play important (almost subliminal) roles when it comes to absorbing us into an immersive experience.
My work involves communicating with over 100 sites all across America. I would love to find a cheap online vehicle that could really compress distance and make it possible for people to communicate easily when the whim takes them. That is, create a virtual space where I can talk to a colleague in another state as easily as I can walk across to someone else’s office in the physical world. Second Life has the ability to create beautiful spaces with ambient presence and avatars with Social Presence but the operating controls and intense hardware requirements keep ruling it out. web.alive has conjured up an excellent program that is astonishingly easy to use and can run in a browser. All it needs now is a little more imagination and it could become a major rival to Second Life for business and educational users. One more thing, I keep forgetting web.alive’s name! I wonder if they plan to keep it? I honestly prefer the name projectchainsaw! At least I can remember that!
Note: For more information: A quick check through Google found additional mentions of web.alive. Take a look at Digital Media Consultant’s post titled ‘Checking out lenovo’s eLounge’. Also see the web.alive blog and http://www.projectchainsaw.com/
Updates November 19, 2009 :