Sunday, February 22, 2009

I can fly, but meh - Part II in our Gravity in Virtual Worlds series

Chasing a dream - Photo of Nessy Shepherd by Sennaspirit Coronet

Posted by Bettina Tizzy

Dreams of superheroes and their feats often populated my thoughts and aspirations as a child. My grandmother would tie the arms of my father's old business shirt around my neck in a makeshift cape, drawing a big "S" on the back, and I would become SuperWoman, tearing around the park in pursuit of villains, real and imagined, but still wishing I could lift off and become airborne.

Here is the first of seventeen Superman animated cartoons, all classics and marvelous to this day, which were released by Paramount Pictures in the early 1940s. Soon after, scores of children - clearly early candidates for Darwin Awards - believed they could fly and broke arms, legs or worse by "jumping off roofs with towels wrapped around their necks."

This cartoon - a work of art in its own right - is in the public domain

We wanted - ever so much - to fly as kids... so why aren't those of us in Virtual Worlds spending more time aloft and celebrating that fact? Flickr, which boasts more Second Life groups than you can shake a stick at, has one puny little group called Fly Away with a scant 388 snapshots, many featuring avatars not in unaided flight, but on brooms, flying contraptions and pegasi.

Wings are rightfully popular in virtual worlds. Red Caste Guardian by Ganymedes Costagravas

While I have no hard statistics to offer, I'd wager that collectively we spend hundreds of hours more adorning our avatars with wings and other devices for flight, than we do flying. The first gift I received in Second Life® was a Superman t-shirt, and soon after I was sporting wings (and this phase lasted several months), but I can't recall ever going on a barnstorming flying party or gliding for any other reason than to get from point A to point B or to put some distance between myself and a large party so that I could concentrate on an IM.

We even walk to fundraise in Second Life's annual Relay for Life to benefit cancer research - Photo by Janet Powell

Hamlet Au (aka Wagner James Au) agrees. He has been chronicling Second Life, both as its first embedded journalist in 2003 for the company that owns it, Linden Lab, and since 2006 on his own blog, New World Notes. In his book, certainly the definitive oeuvre on SL, The Making of Second Life (he's working on the paperback edition at the moment), Hamlet explains:

"...the ability of avatars to fly in Second Life actually began as a quick work-around, so the developers wouldn't have to devote time and resources to creating climbing animations. When it came to transitioning from Linden World to Second Life, the team opted to discard the jet-pack propulsion but retain flying. For Rosedale (SL's founder and Chairman of the Board), the power to transcend gravity was "innately, strongly interesting to people," especially when it did not come from an external mechanical function but was a graceful, effortless ability that came from within.

But if flying is a universal dream, few Residents have embraced it in full. Where one might expect airborne societies of people frolicking in the clouds, the overwhelming majority of Residents insist on remaining earthbound for most of their time."

Maybe the soon to-be-released Watchmen movie might change all that? I doubt it.

Hamlet goes on to say...

"Why the fear of flying? Many have speculated that the sensation of self-propelled flying is too jarring for extended periods, and that people's visceral empathy with their avatars means they need to maintain a visual reference of themselves on the ground in order to feel comfortable."

I don't believe we're afraid. After all, what's the worst thing that can happen? Our avatar falls down and automatically (and comically) dusts itself off. I think we don't enjoy watching our avatar's backsides (the default camera view) as much as we do being able to pan up and down and gaze upon our creations face-forward or from some more flattering angle.

Case in point, we adore watching our avatars dance, and one of the most fashionable animations on the grid is this one. I don't know what it is called or who created it, but perhaps one of our readers might help us fill this in?

Filmed and edited by Bettina Tizzy at Earth Primbee's Inspire Space Park during a particle show (teleport directly from here)

One is the loneliest number

Another common objection is that flight is a lonesome practice, unless it is with others, in which case it requires relatively good hand-eye and team coordination to keep up with each other, lest you be unable to find your way. This is, unquestionably, the best and really the only way to get completely lost in virtual worlds as you always know where you are (the name of the parcel, sim and coordinates are always in front of you).

In typical Hamlet Au fashion, he closes the topic this way...

"Whatever the case, flying remains a largely temporal behavior, sparingly used to quickly get around barriers. (Which was, when you think about it, the function's original purpose)."

Interestingly, there have been some new developments that I will share with you in my next post in this series that may help to change your avatar's gentle (and grounded) mind about all this.

See also:
+ Overcoming gravity (and reality) - Part I in our Gravity series
+ Oh, those intrepid gravity challengers - Part III in our Gravity in Virtual Worlds series
+ Climbing walls, sky dancing (in HD!), and weightless sex/showers - Part IV in our Gravity in Virtual Worlds series


LDinSTL said...

Yes I love that animation--got to go dig for the LM to the first spot I ever saw it in-world. It was beautiful! Still love it even tho it seems to be everywhere.

Cheers -- Chimera Cosmos

Godeke said...

My opinion of flying in world depends on context. It annoys me to fly (or have others fly) in a business meeting. I walk through well designed sims that provide interesting walk paths to take. I find a realistic looking sim that doesn't provide useful to walk paths less interesting than one that does.

Yet, there are sims that are either surrealistic enough or abstract enough where the flight seems natural and "approved" (the hyperformalism of Dan Coyote for example), where it doesn't bother me at all to fly or that a dozen others are floating and soaring.

I guess gritty realism or dealing with real world concerns "grounds" me, while the magical and artistic aspects free me to fly. Strange that context would matter to me, but it does.

Solo Mornington said...

Context is everything. SL is a place to create contexts in which conversations and relationships can occur. The context of Inspire Space Park allows flying and hovering and soaring. The context of a boardroom does not.

I think perhaps we have little way to signal people that they could or should fly, since there is a lack of RL cues to fly that can be brought in-world. So we go back to what we know by default: Stand around and give each other 'physical space.'

I fly quite a bit. I sometimes just soar down mainland rights-of-way. Sometimes I use the flight mode of the Simboard (which is the funnest way to travel on a vehicle in SL). It's a little bit like driving around the suburbs. Some interesting things, mostly junk. Perhaps if there were more to see from above, then people would want to be above.

Also, if you try to hold a conversation while hovering, you'll find yourself back on the ground anyway, due to the still-persistent sinking bug.

jeanli said...

Flying is really my favorite thing in SL aand I am always testing the limits as I try to fly out 'into the sunset' over open seas leaving civilization behind...these SL flying experiences have merged with my RL dream life, where flying is rare and memorable in the extreme. Personally I never utilize wings, seems redundant ;)

yrs--Sunshine Hernandoz

LDinSTL said...

Bettina - I found the dream-dance (as in Space Park) animation for free (copy) AND for sale (no copy) in two different places. I also had a no-copy version in my inventory already, it turned out. The creator is listed as Noir Cazalet on both, but it seems odd as his rez date is 2007. I thought it was older than that. He is the one selling copies though. Interesting.

Someone older than me in SL will have to sort out the creator issue. :-)

Bettina Tizzy said...

@Chimera. The fact that Dream Dance is free does make it sound suspect. Let's ask the people we know who created their animation and see if we can narrow it down that way. I seem to recall seeing it the first time on January 1, 2008. Maybe before. Thanks for looking into this.

@Godeke and Solo - You'll get no argument for me on context.

@jeanli/Sunshine - You are the first person I've heard say that! Wish I'd known this and you before I got started on this topic, which I'm about to put to bed for a nap.