Guess who's the newest kid on the block? I mean in the virtual world. None other than Google Inc - in a new avatar, Google Lively.
Spawned in July 2008, Google Lively is in the same vein as Second Life - that of making the virtual world your home. And once again it's all about creating an avatar and chatting with friends in rooms you get to create and design. What’s new about it? To be honest, nothing much. The method is pretty much the same. Lively users can create their own separate spaces, called "rooms". There are 19 "shells" or "room looks" you can choose from, including theaters, islands, and five-room penthouses. The disappointing factor is that these "rooms", unlike "land" in Second Life, are not connected to the big virtual world. Users can only hop-skip-jump from room to room through the provided room list. No crash-landing on school rooftops here. This, I feel, kind of takes away the free-roaming spirit that you so get to harness in Second Life, where a walk through Second Life’s larger, connected world can spring some memorable surprises.
Back to Lively. Once you've settled on the look of your pad, you move onto the next big thing - that of making it look and feel like a room straight out of "Better Homes & Garden". Lively offers you a host of furniture and accessory choices, each included with a price entry (a giveaway that Lively may have its own equivalent of Second Life's "Linden Dollar" and economy in the coming future). Decorating? Pretty much a girlie thing I would say, but then again visions of "Lazyboy" may seal the deal for guys. So now that you’ve got your own Zen space, your Chippendales, now it's time for "you" to make your entry. Come in, avatars. Did I hear someone say, déjà vu? As in Second Life you get to create an avatar, who will represent you in virtual world. "Be who you want to be” is what Lively advertises. Likewise, you get to choose how your avatar looks like and then get to customize it using various apparel options. That done, the "real Lively" experience begins.
In the words of Niniane Wang, Engineering Manager, Google Lively project, "If you enter a Lively room embedded on your favorite blog or website, you can immediately get a sense of the room creator's interests, just by looking at the furniture and environment they chose. You can also express your own personality by customizing your avatar's look, showing people who you are without having to say a word. Of course, you can chat with each other, and you can also interact through animated actions. In our user research, we’ve been amazed at how much more poignant it is to receive an animated hug than seeing the text “[[hug]]”.
An interesting feature that I noticed at Lively is that you get support for playing YouTube videos on your virtual TVs and can also display photos in virtual frames kept in your rooms. Moreover, gadgets in your Lively rooms can also run on your desktops. The home away from home feeling sinks in quite readily.
That said, Lively has a set of spoilers that get in the way of fun. To begin with, it lacks Second Life's voice-chat feature and its exhaustive "customize" capabilities that allow users to have a blast while designing their "new world" and “avatars”. It also offers no support for Macs. Something seems to whisper that Lively, in scope, is perhaps similar to the earlier VRML worlds (where avatars create worlds using World Building Tools) than the eye-popping 3D virtual world of Second Life. And the complaints from robust geeks have piled on. While some view Lively’s slow-to-load feature as a kill-joy, others have dismissed it as being a disguised "fancy chat room", a “failed social medium”, and very "un-Google like". It seems Google Lively has a long way to go before users come back for more. But then again, knowing Google Inc, the turnaround may not be too far away.
(Banshori Bhattacharya is Instructional Designer at C2 Workshop)