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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Technology: Second Life (C) on Text-based Viewers – Stareyes Galaxy Reporting...

Metabolt Chat Screen

There are times when an avatar, logging on, is restricted to low-bandwidth connections. Mobile laptop connections, firewall issues, or just plain choice may be the deciding factors to switch to a non-graphic viewer. Fortunately, the Second Life third-party viewer (TPV) list includes such gems as METAbolt ® and Radegast ®.

Sometimes one has to make a choice whether to log on at all, or to use text-only viewers. One of the earliest text-only viewers was the famous AjaxLife that was developed by then 15-year-old Katharine Berry and gained wide popularity until it fell by the wayside, probably due to the demands of the upkeep. Today, the TPV list has two text-only viewers, METAbolt and Radegast.


Radegast Chat Screen

The functionality of both METAbolt and Radegast appears similar, at first glance. Once the application starts, you see your avatar name in a right-hand side window, together with other avatars who might be nearby. On the left-hand pane, there is the local chat log. In this window, basic movements and chatting are available for you. METAbolt has also the option to “turn to” an avatar, making it easier for anyone in a graphic viewer to talk with you face-to-face.  Both viewers allow you to teleport. The METAbolt chat window has a mini-map which is lacking in Radegast that on the other hand has a complete “Map” tab as well as an elementary 3D viewer screen.

Both viewers have tabs that open other views. These include “Friends” and “IM” screens for each instant messaging chat you might wish to initiate. “Groups” tab allows you to interact with any group you belong to. In both viewers, the group dialog opens a new window. Group messages open new dialogs as IM screens. When the user gets an instant message, or there is a new item in chat, there is a system notice in METAbolt, and in both viewers the icon in the Windows task bar turns yellowish. This makes it easy to multitask on a computer and chat with your friends, as is appropriate in your situation.
Inventory manipulation is very intuitive, as the inventory folders act very much like Windows folders. In Radegast, inventory search results appear on the right-hand side. Filtering in Radegast (such as searching for “worn” items) seems to work faster than in METAbolt. “Search” in both viewers works in a similar way to how the graphic viewer search functions, but the results show faster. Curiously, a zero search result shows as “1 places found” in METAbolt. Just like in graphic viewers, you have to type the search string correctly to get the desired result.
Radegast 3D Screen

I went out on the grid to see how other avatars reacted to my being on a text-based viewer, first on Radegast, then on METAbolt.
On Radegast, it was easy to fall back on using the 3D scene viewer for navigation. I wished to avoid this, but tried it nevertheless. It seems easy to lose your avatar in the viewer, as clicking on the screen does not recall your point of view, and the camera controls work a little differently from graphic-enabled viewers. Interaction with objects was possible with the “Objects” screen. Notecard givers and tip jars worked fine. Turning on the 3-D screen, it was also possible to get a more complete grasp of the nearby environment, and this made it possible to sit on a chair, for instance. Avatars who I chatted with responded as if I was there. In the chat screen, it was impossible to tell my relative position or direction where I looked, but using the 3-D screen corrected this aspect of the social situation, and I was able to move about with some freedom. The sculpties in my clothes looked funny in the viewer, and there were a lot of rendering artifacts, but I still welcomed the basic 3-D viewability of the screen. I changed my group tag while in the 3-D screen, and curiously, this change never showed on my head.
Metabolt IM Chat


On METAbolt, you are more relegated to IMs and local chat. It is not easy to interact with objects, and having no way to visually grasp the local object space, I found myself a bit lost. In the chat screen, it was easy to “turn to” the avatar who was talking, and they did not really notice any difference to when I would have been on a graphics-enabled viewer. It was easy to multitask on a laptop and respond to IMs and group chat as new items were notified as system messages. Moving about in an environment is not easy at all on METAbolt, and I did not find out how to sit on a chair, for instance.
Having no visuals is clearly am impairment you have to live with, using text-based viewers, but how about visually-challenged people in Second Life? They surely cannot benefit from a graphics-based viewer in the same way others do. Gentle Heron, a coordinator for Virtual Ability, Inc., a volunteer organization that helps disabled people on SL: “One of the cool things about Second Life is how accessible it is, for a complex environment. There are so many different options available for doing just about anything here. It's wonderful that third party developers have taken the basic, varied, mostly accessible SL user interface and created additional options. The text-only viewers are part of that variety. Yes, they work well for people with low bandwidth. But they also allow blind and visually impaired users to access our shared virtual world experience, using their screen reader software. (SL isn’t a website, so a screen reader won’t work on the visible UI.) Yes, some totally blind individuals use Second Life.”

Radegast and METAbolt have each a slightly different flavor, but both are quite intuitive to use. I did not test voice or the various plugins that are available for both viewers, as I tried to keep the user experience as basic as was possible. Both viewers allow for multi-client interaction, so if you have “alts”, you will be able to release them on the grid simultaneously (for testing purposes, of course). Both viewers have their quirks, and the Radegast 3-D screen option, although not perfect, has to be taken as an imperfect crutch. Text-based viewer users usually tell you when they are on one, to explain their limited ability to interact. All in all, both text-based viewers worked very well for the task at hand: interacting with your friends while unable to use a high-speed internet connection or the graphical user interface of the mainstream viewers.
The testing was done on a Windows 7 laptop with METAbolt version 0.9.68.0 (BETA) and Radegast version 2.12.1354. Thanks are due to DrKaren Kanto and Lanai Jarrico for their help in evaluating the user experience.
Downloads:


Virtual Ability, Inc.: www.virtualability.org
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