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Testing Second Life on a mobile phone (get ready to text!)

June 5, 2008 | 10:37 am
Scene from Second Life

You can do lots of things on a mobile phone. Find directions. Play time-consuming games like Brickbreaker. Call your friends. Now, if you have one of 40 high-tech mobile phones, you troll around on an island, cavort with dolphins and maybe even go to a corporate meeting.

No, this isn't some new function of the iPhone. We’re talking about Second Life, the 3-D roleplaying game that was really popular, then wasn’t and then was again. A company called Vollee has launched a free beta version of Second Life on mobile phones, calling it the first time "residents can explore the entire virtual world from their handsets."

At first blush, it seemed hard to believe that Second Life could work on a mobile phone. The virtual world is often crowded and its servers so slow that an avatar will land at a destination and take 10 seconds for the castle or dance club she just entered to appear around her. A few YouTube videos show users trying to use the phone version. One video, created by Vollee, features dizzying techno music. Another was posted by a French user who kept saying things like "It's really awesome," and, “I really love it," so it was tough to take either as a reliable source.

It was time to decide for ourselves: is it possible to have a Second Life on a mobile phone too? The first order of business ...

... was to find a mobile phone that could run the application. That proved difficult, as so far, the application works on only 40 mobile handsets (there are 1,198 different handsets in the U.S. alone, according to research firm M:Metrics) and not BlackBerrys or iPhones (Finally! Something an iPhone can’t do!). Vollee says it plans to eventually have the application on iPhones, perhaps when the new version launches.

But the folks at Fusion PR showed up with a Pantech Duo preloaded with the application, and -– voila! -– there was Second Life on the tiny screen. Because the application is streamed over 3G networks, things loaded as quickly as they do on L.A. Times computers (maybe even more quickly -- our corporate network is not exactly blazing). My avatar was about one inch tall, but the resolution was clear. When I pushed up on the phone’s wheel, she walked. When I pushed left, she turned left. She plodded around just as slowly as she does on the computer, walking into a few walls and at one point ending up waist-deep in a large sea. Ladies and gentlemen, virtual worlds!

As can be the case in Second Life, it was difficult to find someone to talk to. Being on a mobile  phone made this even tougher. On the phone I was using, the only way to chat with other avatars (and really -– who wants to hang out in Second Life mute?) is to punch the numbers on the phone’s keypad, kind of like typing a text message. Unless you’re a teenager, this takes some getting used to. You also can't chat and see the screen at the same time, so momentous events might be occurring while you're typing, but you can't see them. I tried to type hello to an avatar, but it took so long he ran away.

Finally, at a Second Life establishment called Sweetheart’s Jazz Lounge, I found a cluster of people willing to talk to me. After an agonizing minute trying to type "hello," I asked an avatar named Lynx Nowicka whether she’d use Second Life on her mobile phone. She said no because she didn’t want to pay for the air time. I asked her if she would use it if she had unlimited minutes.

“No, I wouldn’t,” she said. Not exactly the most ringing endorsement. 

On the other hand, Second Life users are often accused of being geeks who stay at home in their parents' basements on their computers all day. Perhaps, after it works out a few kinks, Vollee’s mobile application can be a way to stay plugged in to what’s happening in Second Life while being out and about -– in other words, while having a first life too.

-- Alana Semuels

Semuels, a Times Staff writer, covers marketing and the L.A. tech scene.

Image courtesy of Second Life