Tag Archives: second life

Free 3D Software for Civil Engineers

If you regularly read this blog, you already know we strongly believe 3D visualizations and environments will play a big role in the future of civil engineering. Over the last several years we've seen an increasing use of 3D products to help people better plan and build large-scale developments and structures. Last year, FHWA incorporated 3D into their Every Day Counts initiative, and recently President Obama announced the launch of two new digital manufacturing hubs. It's interesting to note the President's weekly address this week covered those launches along with a push for innovative infrastructure – one day, in our industry, both topics will most likely be closely aligned. But like any change or new innovation, there are naysayers and those who resist the transition, and there is little we can do to change their mind. Like the old draftsman clinging to his ink pen and Leroy set, they will be left behind. Instead of worrying about convincing them, we wanted to reach out to all of you who are looking forward to the future yet might not know where to start or to those of you who might be wondering how to pick up some 3D skills without having to spend a lot of money. Below we've listed several programs available for free or at a low cost. They are grouped by complexity of the software.

Introduction to 3D

Autodesk 123D – an Autodesk suite of free 3D software:

While Autodesk's flagship products like AutoCAD and 3ds Max might have a price tag out of reach for most of us, the company fortunately offers several free products you can use to build your 3D skills. You can even use most of these programs to create a 3D print of your creation! Here's a list of each program you can try out:

123D Catch – a computer, web-based, or mobile-based program allowing you to transform a photo into a 3D object

123D Design – a computer, web-based, or mobile-based program allowing you to create 3D designs

123D Creature – a mobile-based app allowing you to easily create a 3D creature

123D Sculpt – a mobile-based app allowing you to easily sculpt 3D models

123D Meshmixer – a computer-based program allowing you to develop 3D models

Tinkercad – a web-based program allowing you to create 3D models (this is free for personal use at this time, but may in the future transition to a low-cost subscription based program).

 

SketchUp – SketchUp Make is the free version of the popular 3D modeling program now owned by Trimble.  

Sketchup Interface

 

3D Tin – this free, web-based program allows you to easily create 3D models. You can save and export them and even send them to a 3D printing site. The key thing to keep in mind before using this site is that it requires a specific type of browser. I was able to use the most recent version of Firefox to access it. Below is the screenshot of a few 3D letters I easily created with the object-based tools. 

 

3D Tin Interface

 

MakeHuman – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create human 3D models. 

tree[d] – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to easily create 3D models of trees. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

tree[d] interface

 

Intermediate Level 3D

The following programs will most likely require a little more effort to learn than those in the introductory category. Fortunately you can usually find your way around the software by making use of the tutorials and community forums available for each program:

Seamless 3D – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

Seamless3D Screenshot

 

Sculptris – a free computer-based program allowing you to create 3D organic looking models

 

AC3D – a low-cost, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. At this time, the cost for one license is $89.95. Below is a screenshot of the interface.

AC3D Interface

 

Wings3D – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a model I uploaded of a creature I made using the 123D Creature software on my iPad.

Rendering in Wings3D of a creature model

RaySupreme 3D – this is a low-cost, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. At this time, the cost of the software is $39.99. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a rounded cube.

Ray Supreme 3D Interface

 

Clara.io – Thanks to Mimetic Core for bringing this site to my attention after I posted this article. The site is in beta, but is very functional and easy to use. I am listing it as intermediate since it appears to offer more advanced 3D features than those included in the Introductory section. This is a free, browser-based program that allows you to create 3D models after you register on the site. There are also several pre-made models available for you to load and edit to get used to the software. You can see the ladybug model in the screenshot below.  

Clara.io Interface

Second Life / OpenSim – I'm including these free, computer-based programs even though many in the industry would not probably think of these as 3D modeling packages. This is probably because while both programs have always allowed people to create 3D models, until last year, whatever people created could not be exported for use in other programs. Fortunately within the last several months, a third-party developed the ability to export models created in these environments. So now, people can use the building tools in Second Life or Open Sim environments to easily create a 3D model and then export it. And even though the building of the model is relatively easy, I put the program in the intermediate category because the interface is much different than any of the other programs listed here and might take some time to get used to. This is because instead of just installing a software package and using the commands like a regular program, people build in Second Life/Open Sim by entering the software through an avatar or digital representation of themselves. I included a screenshot of the interface below showing my avatar building a basic cube in Second Life.

 

Second Life 3D Modeling Interface

 

Advanced Level 3D Modeling

The programs below are more involved than those listed above. Usually they have more advanced features and the interface is more complicated to navigate. While it will take some time to learn these programs, there are many tutorials and resources available online to help teach you what you need to know to use them.

Blender – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models. Blender is a very advanced tool with complex features including the ability to animate objects and create scenes, video games, and movies. Because of this, it does take some time to learn this program. Fortunately there are many resources and tutorials available.

Blender Interface

 

DAZ 3D Suite of Products

In addition to their higher cost 3D program, Carrara (which is still fairly low-cost at $149.95 and $285.00 for the pro version), DAZ 3D offers several free and low-cost programs. Occasionally they have also allowed a free download of their products for limited times throughout the year. While you might have to devote more time to learning how to use these programs, there are many sites out there offering videos and tutorials to help you learn. 

Hexagon – this free, computer-based program allows you to create 3D models. Below is a screenshot of the interface showing a basic 3D object.

 

 

Hexagon Interface

DAZ Studio – this is a free, computer-based program that allows you to create 3D models, scenes, and artwork along with animations and poses. While I've posted this in the advanced section so it could be grouped with the other Daz products, DAZ Studio is actually very easy to use. Below is a screenshot of the interface. My main use of it at this time is to create poses for 3D models of people.

 

 

DAZ Studio Interface

Bryce – this is a low-cost (at the time of the post it was selling for $19.95) computer-based program that allows you to create 3D environments

 

Unity3D – this is a free, computer-based program that can be used to create 3D models. However, most people seem to be using this program to develop 3D environments into which they place 3D models made in other programs. Unity3D is a full-featured, advanced software package that takes some time to learn. Like the other programs listed in this post, there are many sites available online where you can find tutorials and other educational resources to help teach you how to use it. There is also a higher cost pro version of the program available, but most people can get by using the free version – particularly if you are just trying to become familiar with 3D modeling. Below is a screenshot of the interface of the free version showing a scene I created by following a tutorial.

Unity3D Interface

 

(Post updated March 2, 2014 to add Clara.io site)

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Another Voice in the Wind – Thoughts on Qualities of a Virtual Leader

Photo from SL10B

Over the last few days I've been reading the responses to the departure of Rod Humble, the CEO of Linden Lab – the company that owns and operates Second Life. Here are a few sites where you can find some in-depth and thoughtful discussion.

The Oracle of Pixels on Andromeda, written by William Burns

Rod Humble Leaves Second Life on NALATES' THINGS & STUFF, written by Nalates Urriah

Three in ten: a look back over Rod Humble’s tenure at LL on Living in a Modemworld, written by Inara Pey

An Open Letter to the Lindens on Hypergrid Business, written by Maria Korolov

What struck me in a few of these articles is once again the similarities between local governments and Second Life. In at least the first two of these posts, you could replace "Second Life" with "local agency" and most of the article would still apply. There are also many interesting points and suggestions made in each article related to leadership and management of a community and specifically Second Life's community. The comments in these posts got me thinking about what qualities I believe a good leader of a virtual community should have. So I am adding my own voice to the others now discussing the future of Second Life. The points presented below are merely observations I have made from working about 30 years in and for local government, being a member of the Second Life community since late 2006, and actively reading and listening to opinions, thoughts, and ideas from other Second Life members including those from the articles listed above.

 

1. A community leader needs to be confident enough in their abilities and skills to listen to new or opposing views and ideas

This is one of the suggestions I got out of reading the post written by Will Burns. In it he points out that companies can end up with a leader who does not allow any voices of opposition or criticism. And as you might expect, this can lead to poor decisions, mistakes, and failed ventures. This is exactly what can happen with a city – a poor leader who is put in place through either an election or through appointment who refuses to consider any suggestions or comments that do not agree with their own will eventually prevent their city from innovating and growing at best and at worst will diminish its appeal, stability, and sustainability. In some cities, like in some companies, the population will realize something is amiss and will replace their leadership through an election. Other times, the citizenry is left unaware of the actual cause of the community's decline and the leadership remains in power. While I don't have insight into the type of leadership at Linden Lab that Burns might have, I do agree the best type of leadership for any company or agency is one in which opposing views are not blocked or dismissed with absolutely no consideration.

I've also worked at cities where people like Will Burns regularly challenged us, and he is correct to conclude having someone questioning leadership can help motivate and compel an agency/company to improve as long as the leader is willing to listen. This doesn't mean leadership ends up always doing exactly what is suggested, but more times than not, the challenge forces the agency/company to do a better job at making and thinking through decisions.

Photo from SL10B

2. Advisory committees are helpful

Burns also suggests the establishment of an advisory board. To me this seems similar to the citizen advisory committees or commissions often set up by cities. These often provide needed insight and improvement to operations and policy. But for committees to provide the most value, it is critical that they are created and supported under certain guidance with careful regard for who serves in this capacity. Fortunately it looks like Linden Lab already has the Linden Endowment for the Arts – a working committee model from which they can build. Here are some more specific issues to keep in mind:

Decision makers are not obligated to, nor should they perhaps, always follow the recommendations made by an advisory committee. Yet they need to keep in mind that constantly choosing a path in opposition to a committee's recommendations will devalue the purpose of the committee and can risk alienation of its members. If that is happening, it is many times a sign of disconnect between the leaders and the community and both need to work on finding common ground.

These positions are typically held by volunteers from the community so that the committee members bring a more community-based viewpoint to the table. But consideration needs to be given in choosing these members so they are not those who will only use their position to improve their own interests at the expense of the community.  

Usually more than one committee or board is necessary, and for Second Life with its diverse and unique community needs, this seems even more true to ensure the majority of needs and aspects of the community are addressed. 

Committees and boards are supported in their efforts by the decision makers. If necessary this would include financial support in a manner similar to what is done with the Linden Endowment for the Arts.

Bay City at SL10B

3. The leader needs to be engaged

This is one area in which government typically excels over private business – probably because the leadership in a city is usually placed there by popular vote. And you don't get elected by being a diminuitive wallflower. While many companies can still succeed by ignoring this requirement because of the type of product they sell or service they deliver, a community-based company like Second Life cannot really do so and expect to provide anything more than average service. You can better understand the importance people in Second Life place on the engagement of the leadership at Linden Lab by reading the post by Nalates and Inara. Each discusses communication issues and accomplishments – both top issues upon which a citizenry places great focus and emphasis. Mayors and Village Presidents and other elected officials who understand this end up achieving much for their communities while still maintaining an overall positive reputation within the community. Sure they have some naysayers – after all they realize you aren't going to make everyone happy all the time, but they have somehow managed to figure out the secret sauce in pleasing enough people to make them the popular choice at each election. (This could be related to No. 5 below.)

This probably sounds crazy to most business people, but the critical need for this type of leader when the product involves community services makes me wonder if Linden Lab would do best to choose their next CEO from the pool of those who have served as popular and effective mayors. After all, they understand and have experience with leading and managing a community while effectively handling finances and still delivering projects and meeting needs of citizens. Some might suggest along this line of thought a city manager is better suited. But while a chief administrator of a local government might be able to manage a company, they normally lack the community engagement skills elected officials seem to naturally possess. 

SL10B Photo

4. Leaders need to convey passion and commitment to their community

The other critical skills needed by leaders are the ability to show great passion and belief in their community which is why leaders are best chosen from within. One of the primary reasons for this requirement in a leader is that communities, including Second Life, rely on financial investment and economic stability to succeed. Using a city as an example, if I own a major corporation and am looking for a community in which to build my headquarters or base of operation, which city would I pick?

In Strong City, I meet with the mayor – an outgoing, engaged person who makes me feel welcome throughout my entire visit. As the mayor describes their city and its benefits, I sense a strong passion and love for the place from this person. The mayor shares commitments and efforts made not only by the government, but by the private sector to improve, innovate, and grow the area. There is a care and dedication to the needs, assets, and future of the community and its members. The mayor also describes the involvement and engagement of the members of the community in many different areas. I leave with the idea this is a place that is focused on constant improvement and the needs and involvement of its members.

In Weak City, I meet with the mayor – a quiet person who makes me feel as if there is barely time in their day to accommodate our meeting by avoiding eye contact and glancing at the clock. The mayor's voice lacks concern or regard or passion for the place – instead I receive a canned description of what they can do for me and the requirements I must meet to set up shop there. It is all business with little to no discussion of the sense of place or community. The mayor rarely mentions the population or does so in a dismissive and annoyed manner.

If both places are competing for my investment, I am probably more likely to choose Strong City as the site for my new headquarters. Why would I want to invest in a community where even the leader does not seem to care? A positive leadership approach can also extend to attracting people and visitors to your community – not just businesses.

SL20B Photo

 

5. Leaders need to understand the bell curve concept

I've been meaning to write a whole post about this since over the last year, I've come to discover how much of a key the bell curve is to most things that happen to us. But to sum it up in a short paragraph specifically as it relates to a community, good leaders realize the bell curve can be applied to members of a community – those on the left side represent the negative people in the community. You will never win them to your side so quit trying. Those on the right represent community supporters and fans. There is nothing more you can do to win them to your side – they are already there and will always be the community cheerleaders. The key is with the middle or majority of the population. They can go either way and will based on what they hear and see or sometimes who gets to them first. That is the group upon which you focus your attention and resources. I will add here that when this concept was first presented to me, I thought it at first harsh, but since that time have had it explained to me from several unrelated angles. I now believe understanding the bell curve is a crucial part of managing or running anything, but will save the entire discussion for a full post because it is a fascinating yet potentially scary concept I really want to explore.

Photo from SL10B

Moving Forward

While people have questioned if Philip Rosedale was right for the job, I have always thought he made a good leader for the community because to me he displayed all of the aspects of a good community leader based on the requirements stated above. And while this seemed to be demonstrated somewhat in his reference as "Governor Linden" I wonder if Linden Lab never truly embraced the local government similarities or approach because people in general tend to portray and think of government in a negative light. (In mentioning my respect and admiration for Rosedale, I do not mean to imply I think he should return as CEO – he seems to be pursuing new opportunities, and a good leader understands a healthy cycle of new leadership, as long as it is still of a high quality, ensures the community will benefit from new ideas and energy.)

It is too bad these misconceptions about local government exist in people's minds because if Linden Lab would really look into how much they operate as a local government, they would find numerous resources in the local government sector to help them in their management and understanding of and service to the community. They would also find organizations, associations, and millions of other government employees who do understand exactly what they have on their hands and who would freely share tips and advice on managing it all.

Photo from SL10B


A side note and update on my own meager efforts to offer local government resources

For years I've been writing posts on this site about the parallels I've noticed between Second Life and local governments. So much so that I begin to think people are probably tired of reading about it. Those who aren't in Second Life or haven't visited a virtual world probably can't relate to the comparisons nor imagine how something like a virtual world can possibly function as a true community. As for those who are members of Second Life, I don't think many are local government employees and if they are like most people, at least those in the U.S., they don't pay a lot of attention to exactly how local government works. So the end result has been that I'm not sure I've done very well in convincing people of this overwhelming similarity. But I continue posting articles about this topic because the similarity is so glaringly obvious to anyone who has worked in local government right down to the problems and issues that arise because the company has not adopted good local government management practices.

 

A while back, my frustration built to a point at which I moved forward on the one action I felt I as a member of the community could take which was to initiate and help prepare a comprehensive plan for the community. While this started out well, I was forced to slow down the effort last year about this time when I accepted a job offer from a different government agency. If it had been a move to a similar type position, I don't think I would have had to suspend much of what I had been working on, but my new job involved performing in an entirely different function within a whole new framework. It was and continues to be a tremendous opportunity for me so I've been focusing most of my time and attention on getting up to speed and working hard to maximize the value of my work. Over the last year, I was able to complete a few of the other commitments I had already made prior to taking that job, but they were short and didn't involve as much time and effort as a comprehensive plan for a virtual community. Now, after spending almost a year getting familiar with my new job, I finally feel more comfortable getting back involved in developing the community plan. And with the recent loss of the CEO for the company that runs Second Life, I have even more reason to dedicate the time and effort to complete this project. If you want to follow its progress, you can visit the Virtual Vision 2020 website. A draft of the introduction section of the plan is under review and will be posted there in the near future for community review and comment.

(All photos in this post are from last year's Second Life Birthday Celebration – a community run event)

 
Photo from SL10B
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Terrain Files for 3D Worlds

For some time I've experimented with creating terrain for use in 3D immersive spaces. Usually I am trying to alter DEM files to create simulations of project sites. But lately I've started to explore creating specific shapes or designs, and I think I've finally found a work flow that might make the whole process a little easier. Here is a file I created that can be used in a world like Second Life or OpenSim. If you have estate powers, you can go to the estate menu and upload the file as a RAW file to create this land. It is a square measuring 256 x 256 meters with 4 star-shaped hills rising out of star-shaped water features.

Star Terrain Overhead View  Star Terrain Ground View

If you click this file name, you can download the file for your own use. I am releasing it under a Creative Commons license that would allow you to basically use it for anything except selling it as is. Since this is my first time offering a file I created, please let me know if it does not work for you.

 

 

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3D Visualization of an Alley Streetscape Project

Downtown alley looking westA while back I was working on a project to change an alley from a typical asphalt driveway to a pedestrian walkway. Because it is in a downtown area, this project allows for many design opportunities to enhance the downtown area and the pedestrian experience. During its planning stage, we had a lot of input from property owners, co-workers, and others in the community on what they wanted to see in that space. But as I put together the civil drawings, I thought it would be so much better to also have a 3D view of it so we could actually see what it would look like when we put in everyone's ideas. I decided the easiest and fastest way for me to build the best looking model for this was to use something like Opensim or Second Life software. Due to the size and purpose of this project, I ended up setting it up in Second Life since I could make it in a premium sandbox, take a photo of it when done, and then store it in my inventory. Below is the result of my work.

Downtown Alley in 3D

If you look close, you will probably notice it really is not a perfectly executed model. This was intentional on my part. For this particular project, my goal was to see how fast I could set up a model that while not perfect was good enough for visualizing a design.This is because when I have built things like this before, one of the main questions I get from co-workers and other engineers is "how long did it take you to do that?" And in the past, I never really paid attention because I was more focused on the building aspect and trying to make it look exactly like the actual site. But for professional design work, time is one of the most important considerations. So I wanted to focus on how fast this could be done yet still achieve the goal. In the end, for this project, which covered roughly 30 feet by 400 feet, I would say it took about eight hours to take the photos, create the textures, and build the model. I might have been able to finish it sooner, but it took me a while to shop for the string lights and buy them in a Second Life store.

Here are a few more photos with different lighting and different views. Obviously with more time, a lot more elements could have been added and more ideas tried. The good thing about having a model like this is once it is built, it is so easy to just add other objects or try different designs:

 

Alley 3D Visualization Looking East

Alley 3D Visualization Looking West at sunset

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Update to “How Much Credit Do You Have To Give?”

At the end of last year, I published a post exploring copyright issues titled "How Much Credit Do You Have to Give?" Recently Bay Sweetwater contacted me to let me know some important information related to copyright and the Terms of Use for Second Life. She also shared a link to a very informative, copyright-related post published on her blog, Second Living. In her article Bay points out "Linden-granted rights are far from sufficient to monetize an SL video. And the Linden Snapshot & Machinima policy can lull you into thinking it’s all very easy. It sounds as if you can check a few land covenants, shoot your video, go post your Youtube video, receive a Youtube invitation to monetize, and you’ll be rolling in the dough. Don’t. Do not pass Go. Stop first. Make sure, for ALL content, you truly either own the copyright or have a license for commercial use."

In the "How Much Credit Do You Have to Give?" post I had mentioned the Linden Lab Terms of Use and took them to mean users were allowed to take photos and machinima of content as long as the person owning that content placed it in a publicly accessible space. Here is the actual language from those terms:

You agree that by uploading, publishing, or submitting any Content to any publicly accessible areas of the Service, you hereby grant each user of Second Life a non-exclusive license to access the User Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content In-World or otherwise on the Service solely as permitted by you through your interactions with the Service under these Terms of Service. This license is referred to as the "User Content License," and the Content being licensed is referred to as "User Content." excerpt from Second Life Terms of Use

One of the issues Bay picked up on in the Terms of Use that I missed is the fact that the word "commercial" is absent from this language. So while you might be able to take photos and produce machinima if you meet all the requirements, you still might not have permission to use it commercially. Bay also questions the permission to film avatars. Because her site offers so much more detail and more fully explores copyright issues and the use of Second Life material, I highly encourage anyone with an interest in copyright to visit Bay's blog and read through her entire article.

However, as a final disclaimer, both Bay and I are not lawyers – only a couple Second Life users interested in highlighting and sharing the incredible content we find there. But there probably are attorneys out there with knowledge and experience in this topic. It seems like it would be very useful if we could find a few willing to attend a series of talks in Second Life related to copyright issues.

 

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The Virtual Real Estate Market

Many people might be surprised to find out there is a virtual real estate market and have had a hard time understanding how someone could pay money for something that you can't physically touch like virtual land. Before visiting virtual worlds myself, I would not have believed people would pay money for something like that. It was only after spending time in places like Second Life that I began to see the value people found in having a virtual space and virtual objects. Over the years I've watched as this value increased to create a billion dollar virtual goods industry – reported by TechCrunch to have reached $2.3 billion by the end of 2011. 

Drafting Table in Second Life

But while the virtual goods market has increased, the virtual land market, at least in places like Second Life, has seemed to follow a trend similar to that of the physical real estate market in the U.S. In both places, land values have dropped and the amount of vacant and abandoned land has increased resulting in a surplus of properties. Because of the similarities I've seen in the offline and online markets and their affects on communities, I thought it would be interesting to look at a comparison of the physical and virtual markets and explore movements towards recovery.

To get an idea of the amount of land available for sale in Second Life, I took a screenshot showing the large number of parcels for sale in an area of Second Life. Each dollar sign indicates a parcel on the market. (The green dots represent people who are visiting a space.)

SLmapJan2013

In most offline communities the number of vacant and abandoned parcels would not appear to be as large as what is seen in the virtual land market in Second Life. But there is one place where it does seem close – Detroit. Below is a screen shot of a website called Why Don't We Own This by Loveland Technologies showing the number of foreclosed or tax-distressed parcels in an area of Detroit.

Why Don't We Own This - Detroit

To better understand the performance of the virtual land market, we need to know how land is handled in a place like Second Life and what drives people to buy it. The world of Second Life is made up of many islands of virtual land also referred to as sims or regions. Each sim measures 256 m by 256 m. People enter the world in an avatar form which is a digital representation of themselves that they can use to explore the world. The basic land, sky, and ocean are provided by the company hosting the world of Second Life. Everything else that someone would see there was created by users. This can include plants, buildings, and other objects placed to enhance the user experience. People can also build upon or change the ground, water, and sky features with objects they create.

Typical customization of land, ocean, and sky in Second Life

However, all of these objects take up space in the world and use up computer resources. So Linden Lab, the company hosting Second Life, assesses a fee to users who want to leave their objects permanently displayed on a parcel of land. And because it would be chaos for people to just randomly leave things everywhere, they control where people can place their items by requiring people to own the land where their objects are displayed. At a basic level, you can think of it as renting storage space on a server where you are allowed to store your files. The only difference here is that in Second Life your files can be displayed as 3D objects and you and others can visit them in avatar form. I suppose it could also be compared to renting a storage unit where you can keep your physical possessions. Although one difference is that you are only allowed to take out objects or files in their entirety if you created them – you are not allowed to take something out of Second Life's system just because you purchased it.

Anyway, here's how the costs are assessed in the virtual world. Because the fees are dependent on the resources used, Linden Lab first sets a limit on the number of objects, which are called prims (a prim is a basic building unit), allowed on a full sim to 15,000. To get an idea of how prims are incorporated into objects you can look at the photo below taken inside of a building in Second Life. The highlighting outlines each prim used to make this building.

Prims highlighted in Second Life

Then Linden Lab offers users a choice between two different types of land for display of their items: Mainland and Private Islands. Mainland is a large group of islands or sims available to anyone to purchase and then subdivide and resell. Below is a detailed map showing parcels for sale in an area of mainland in Second Life. For reference, the large, yellow square is a full sim measuring 256 m by 256 m. Before the fall of the land market, mainland islands sold by Linden Lab through auction could cost about $1,000.

Second Life map showing land for sale

Back then, the lowest resale cost was a few dollars per square meter. Today the cheapest resale cost is $0.17 per square meter. This difference is simply a reflection of what happens when supply exceeds demand. It almost sounds exactly like what happened to many developers in the physical real estate market who had invested in subdividing land and were left with vacant lots and no buyers after the market fell. Many of those developers went bankrupt and lost the land to the bank. In Second Life, when owners abandon their parcels, they return to the ownership of Linden Lab. Below are a few statistics of the status of mainland in Second Life (these numbers come from Tyche Shepherd). Because of the amount of vacant and abandoned land, the amount of mainland has remained close to the same for some time at just over 7,000 regions with no new regions being added – there's just no demand to justify the creation of new land.

  • 46.5% of mainland is owned by Linden Lab
  • 10.6% to 11.6% of mainland is abandoned (assuming not yet returned to Linden Lab)
  • 7,121 Mainland sims in total (that's about 467 million square meters of land)

Total mainland regions in Second Life 2007 to 2013

The alternative land choice available to users is a private region or island. These are available in full sim size only and can be sold or subdivided, but ownership cannot be transferred at the parcel level. Private islands vary in cost based on how many objects you can place on the land because Linden Lab does offer full private regions with different resource allotments. A full island allowing 15,000 prims costs $1,000 to purchase, a "Homestead" island allowing 3750 prims costs $375, and an Openspace island allowing 750 prims costs $250. You also have to own a full island to be able to purchase a Homestead or Openspace sim. In 2008, there were almost 27,000 private regions. Today there are about 20,700, and the number seems to be decreasing at a steady rate.

Total private regions in Second Life 2007 to 2013

One question that some of you might be wondering, if you are not familiar with Second Life, is why would people abandon the land they bought? Why spend $1,000 for a private region then just let it go? The answer is in the fees Linden Lab charges for the use of the land you buy. These monthly costs, often referred to by users as "tier," can also be thought of as a type of rental charge for the resources used to store and display virtual objects. Tier varies depending on the size of the parcel. A full sim (65,536 sq meters) on mainland costs $195 a month while 512 sq meters costs $5 (512 sq meters of land is limited to 117 prims). A full private sim or region costs $295 a month. So just like in the offline world where you might have no mortgage yet still lose your property because you cannot afford the taxes so too in the virtual world. You might have been able to buy the land at one time, but usually it's the ongoing costs that cause you to give up your property. In the physical world it might be the real estate taxes, and in the virtual world it is the land use fees or tier.

For Sale sign on mainland in Second Life

People who have owned land in Second Life, including myself, have complained for many years that tier is too high. Many of us have said that people increasingly cannot afford land if tier is not reduced. And this seems to parallel exactly what happens in the offline world. People who cannot afford the taxes in a community complain and try to get them lowered. But while there is somewhat of a relationship in the physical world between the amount of taxes and the size of the parcel, other factors influence the rate. Real estate tax is set by government based on the school costs and cost to the government for providing services. It can only be reduced so much without cutting back on education or services or investment in assets. In the virtual world, the fees or tier are also needed to pay for services such as the hardware supporting the world, upgrading of software and features, and customer support. But a significant difference is that because the virtual world is owned and managed by a private company, fees also support profit – in the physical world, profit is never part of the equation for assessing taxes.

salesign_002

So for those of us facing high real estate taxes in our physical spaces, we can complain to our elected officials and demand taxes be reduced or frozen. But if they decide to cut or freeze our taxes, it will be by reducing services which we might not want to accept or which might cost us more in the long run. Of course we can move to a different community, but there are several down sides to this solution. Education and government services have a similar cost across the United States. Sure there might be some areas that save money because they don't have to deal with costs for handling winter weather or they have cheaper labor costs, but most people don't analyze city and school budgets and compare them to each other to figure out if the difference in tax rate is due to these factors which are actual cost savings or if they are due to a reduction in services. Uprooting your family and moving them across the country to find the most cost effective community in which to live is also a major challenge. This would require a significant investment of time and money along with the need to find a new job and perhaps if children are involved a search for a new school or daycare. Most of us just don't have that kind of mobility in our physical world so we are limited in our ability to move.

Wastelands in Second Life

Government has tried to explore other methods of reducing the cost to live in a community. There are assistance programs for those who qualify and freezing of taxes for senior citizens. Based on a comment from one of my Facebook friends, it appears the U.K. might be trying to encourage people to downsize to a home that might be more affordable for them by assessing a fee on unused bedrooms in a home. Affordability of housing is and probably will be an ongoing challenge for communities.

Living Space from 2012 SL Home Expo

In the virtual space, people have pointed out that some of the operation costs for hosting a virtual world have been reduced because of lower costs for the infrastructure so tier should be lowered to reflect this. But others have argued that fees cannot be lowered or profits will be lost. In the end, Linden Lab has not indicated in any way that tier will ever be reduced. So people who are upset with paying the level of "taxes" or tier have to make a decision between accepting the costs or moving to another virtual world. After all, Second Life is no longer the only virtual community out there.

But a downside to making that virtual move is that people can experience an "uprooting" similar to what they would feel from a move in the physical world because they are leaving their friends and community, but that is where the similarity ends. The time and investment needed to make a virtual move is significantly less than what it takes to move in the physical world. And there are usually no jobs or schools or other factors to have to worry about. People still risk the reduction in services by moving to a world with a lower cost, but it's much easier to research and explore what those reductions will be if any.

Fantasy Faire 2012

So let's finally look at what happens to a community when costs of land do not decrease, services decline, and the population becomes alienated from its caretakers. Again we will look at Detroit – in the last decade, this city has lost 25% of its population (see Wall Street Journal article). Some of the reasons cited for this loss are affordability (taxes and jobs) and a reduction in services. It almost becomes a viscious cycle because as people move out values fall, properties are abandoned, and taxes must be raised to offset losses. So many properties in Detroit were abandoned that some sections were even closed off. But as shocking as Detroit's current situation appears to be, it seems it has been steadily declining for decades. There's an interesting discussion about the causes here: The Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline by Pete Saunders.

Population of Detroit, Michigan

Those who follow the virtual land market in Second Life might see some similarities in that declining graph. And while the elements within the virtual and physical communities might be different and the downward trend not as long, people believe Second Life's land decline is caused by management issues that sound a lot like Detroit's: a refusal to discuss or address the decline and the cost of maintaining land, a focus on meeting the needs of one or two primary groups, and a lack of investment in the community to the point where people sense a feeling of neglect. And when I say this, I don't mean the company managing Second Life is actually neglecting the world. As a person working in government I am well aware of the essential work and effort that goes into operating a community – work that no one knows about or wants to know about. And I believe Linden Lab is taking care of all those operational duties much like a public works department works in the background to make sure a city keeps functioning. The neglect comes about because in addition to keeping the gears turning, a community needs nurturing to be successful.

Old Packard Plant Detroit - from AcrylicArtist on morgueFile

Even if you think you are meeting the needs of the people, if the population thinks you are not, then you are not. For those of you who used to play Sim City it is kind of like the newsflash you would get telling you what the people in your city thought about the job you were doing. When they were unhappy, you would try to figure out what you could do next to change their opinion to one that was more positive. Well, unless you were the type who liked to inflict disasters and mayhem on your city just to see how bad it could get.

After 60 years, Detroit is now working hard to stop their decline. They are engaging the public and offering incentives to encourage people and business to move to their community knowing it can ultimately lead to lower costs for everyone as revenue increases. And they are no longer listening to only one industry – now everyone in the community has the potential to voice their ideas and opinions through online sites and public meetings and workshops like the one shown in the image below. The people who love and care about Detroit do not want it to slip into oblivion.

Detroit Can Do Camp

Those of us who love Second Life also do not want it to slip away, but we do not seem to have reached the point yet where the owners of the world have expressed any concern about the loss of land and investment. And we face a challenge somewhat different from people in places like Detroit. Those running our community do so to make a profit and they alone have ownership. In places like Detroit, the people own the community – in the end, they have the power to keep the lights on or turn them off and walk away. In Second Life, this decision is ultimately up to the company owning that world.

Waymount in Second Life

Perhaps the owners of Second Life are content to make as much money off the world as possible while allowing the decline to occur until expenditures exceed revenue. Then at that point, they just shut it all down and go on to their next thing. Or they might expect the decline to eventually stabilize and as long as they are still making an acceptable profit, they will be content to leave the world at that size. After all, not every community wants to become a metropolis. And some communities only want a demographic that can afford to "live" there.

Land company in Second Life

Finally the other option is what Detroit has chosen – address the decline and determine a path to turn it around. And just as Detroit is investing significant effort now to accomplish growth, this option would also be the most work for Linden Lab. There are some who have suggested Linden Lab is pursuing this option by launching other potential revenue streams. And some have suggested imposing new fees unrelated to land. If these steps were taken, the company could choose to use new revenues to help meet costs of operating Second Life and still ensure profit while allowing for a reduction in tier. This is somewhat similar to a city adding new taxes or service fees or a city that works to attract a heavy sales tax or industrial base and uses the additional revenues to offset a reduction in taxes for residents. But if the company chooses to build a new revenue base, the key will be to diversify, because history shows relying on one group or industry or revenue stream eventually leads to a collapse. The video below is a trailer for a documentary about communities and the aftermath of this type of collapse.

As the young man points out in this video the "The soul of the city . . .are the people." So if Linden Lab chooses to follow Detroit's path, they need to also follow their example of engaging and informing the community and embracing the people because the people really are Second Life. Without them, there is only water, ground, and sky. And people cannot be expected to invest time and money in a community without knowing its plan for the future or feeling like they have a say in that future. As decades of emigration and our example of Detroit have shown, when people have no clear path to the future and lose faith in leadership on top of facing high costs, they will eventually seek out a new world and opportunities.

Statue of Liberty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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