For about three years now I have been using Ventrilo and TeamSpeak to facilitate group activities and quests in World of Warcraft. It’s a love-hate relationship. I love the speed and ease with which our group can react and communicate while listening to live voices, but it does ruin the fantasy factor for me. When I sit down to play, I shift my gears into a fantasy world. I think in terms of spells and magical abilities and bonuses that give me special powers. I see myself as mighty and noble and wise. I see the warrior in our group as a strong brute with the ability to engage and hold the attention of whatever fiendish creature we are fighting. I see the priest to be powerful and good, a caring soul who will sacrifice him/herself to save the lives of their group. I see the hunter with his powerful pet bear or boar or cat and huge gun or bow to be a formidable fighter, capable of protecting us all. I find it completely disconcerting to discover that my warrior is a 17 year old trash-talking girl who loves Chuck Norris or the hunter is a nerdy 15 year old boy who wants to talk about female anatomy and alcohol. I much prefer my imagination in the imaginary world to the reality. (They probably feel the same about me!)
A few months ago, WoW implemented live voice chat as a feature of the user interface. It’s pretty simple VoIP…you just turn it on at the options menu, and you can use it with a headset or computer speakers. You can just listen, or you can speak, if you have a microphone. Voice chat is a supplement to a robust text chat system that allows people to message to individuals privately, to small or large groups they are a member of, or several specialized topic channels that can broadcast to local or “global” listeners. Despite a flurry of complaints in the beginning about it causing server lag (which it’s not clear it did), I have found it to be useful, and the sound quality to be good. No scratches, no cutting in and out, no squeals and screeches, no echoes, and reasonably level voice volume. I was pleasantly surprised. The negatives are features that are missing and included in Ventrilo and TeamSpeak — like the ability to record conversations, the ability to save text logs of typed chat, and conversation management tools (like the ability to mute or kick out an offensive person). And putting aside the personal disillusionment factor, there is still the issue of unintelligible speaking accents or slurred speech–many people who participate in WoW or Second Life or other virtual worlds have English as a second language (to be generous). The accents can be tortuous to learn and understand.
A few weeks ago Second Life implemented its much touted new voice chat. Vivox has provided integrated voice chat for online games, virtual worlds and other online communities, including Second Life. The SL interface already has instant message type private communications, to a single person or a group. It is poorly designed, however — cumbersome and click-intensive to use. I’d rank it with where game communication technology was about 10 years ago — functional, but not conducive to quick or frequent use. Some interesting design choices were made. What is the point of having voice chat that can be heard by everyone within a large range around you? This is where Second Life shows it has lost touch with its audience. Teens and kids want to talk to everyone, and be friends with everyone. They love showing off and being noticed for their witty dialogue. Adults over 30, which is the majority of SL users, are more selective. If they want to have a conversation with someone, it’s usually only one or a small group they are collaborating with.
As with WoW, Second Life‘s voice chat is not realistic, in that you don’t hear a direction without surround-sound speakers, so it’s not easy to tell who is talking. Some sort of a “speaking” indicator would be nice…an arrow or star on the screen or over their heads. The sound is 3D, meaning closer players are louder than those further away. Paying attention to a conversation is hard. It is easy to lose track of who is speaking in a group, especially if you get distracted by something else…like a toddler pulling a cup of coffee off the table, or a cat stepping on your keyboard, or a struggle to locate something in your inventory. And you can’t go back to check what was said, like you can with typed chat.
With text chat, two lines of text never interfere with each other (although it can be tricky following the conversations in a group of typers). With voice chat, people speaking at the same time can’t always understand what each of the others are saying, because they can cancel each other out. In addition, there is no body language or facial reactions to show how a message is being received, which makes it challenging. There are scripts used to make an avatar perform gestures related to conversing, however, not everyone is expert at animating their avatars with the social animations or able to script actions they want their avatars to take in support of typed chat. Here’s a video discussing voice chat in Second Life.
One interesting and viable use for virtual world voice chat is teaching/learning foreign languages. The high quality sound will enable immersive language learning with native speakers. In a 3D world like Second Life, imagine logging in to a “city” with a bar, a hotel, an airport, a bank, some restaurants and shops, and all the locations a person might visit in a real city. Simply navigating around with an instructor provides an opportunity for dialogue that is situational and potentially easier to remember, as well as an opportunity to practice with other students. LanguageLab.com is building such a place, which includes office parks and a football-field sized Scrabble game.
Other interactive social worlds are building voice chat into their applications, too. There has voice in beta, and Kaneva is developing it. Voice capabilities provide an interesting dimension for musicians. By plugging into a Shout server, a musician can stream a live performance into Second Life. And groups like the Avatar Orchestra can provide live concerts using virtual instruments. Watch Bernhard Drax’s engaging video about the musical experimentation happening in Second Life here.
So is it a win? In some virtual worlds, for some specific applications, yes. For purely conversational socializing in 3D, the jury is still out. We are still learning how to use the tools that can make a 3D conversation as informative as a face-to-face chat. We seem to have mastered the sound quality issues. Now we just need to make it more intuitive to use. That won’t be a quick fix.