Integrated voice coming to 'Second Life'

Virtual world's publisher to launch beta trial next week of voice chat built directly into the client software.

Second Life users who want to chat up those cute avatars across the virtual room can soon try to lure them over with voice rather than text.

Next week, publisher Linden Lab plans to unveil a small beta trial in which, for the first time, people will have access to integrated voice chat.

The company plans to launch the beta for all users by the end of March, it said.

Until now, Second Life users wanting to communicate with one another have had two basic choices: text chat--either personal or in a group setting--or the use of a third-party voice application like Skype.

But starting March 6, a limited number of people will be able to try out the new integrated voice chat, either in group mode--in which anyone with the feature enabled will be able to hear voice conversations in their immediate proximity--personal voice chat, or group voice chat.

"I will be using it a lot, an incredible amount."
--Terry Beaubois,
Montana State University

The latter two options don't require people to be near one other to have a voice conversation.

And because Second Life is a virtual world in which almost all land is privately owned, Linden Lab plans to give land owners the power to decide whether to turn on voice on their property.

For many Second Life users, integrated voice has been one of the most wanted in a long list of sought-after features. That's because it can allow them to have conversations that are more natural and free-flowing than in text, and potentially more reliable than a third-party option.

"I will be using it a lot, an incredible amount," said Terry Beaubois, the director of the Creative Research Lab in the College of Arts and Architecture at Montana State University. "It can actually extend your functional use of Second Life. When I'm in Second Life talking to someone with a headset, I can go longer periods of time before I feel like I have to take a break."

To be sure, Second Life isn't the first virtual world to integrate voice chat. In fact, has had that feature since late 2003.

By comparison, many Second Life residents have been clamoring for voice since its launch in 2003, and especially since launched the feature.

Until now, Linden Lab had been vague about if and when it would incorporate voice directly into the Second Life client software.

But with the proliferation of Skype and other applications like TeamSpeak or Ventrilo--which people often pipe into Second Life and into online games like World of Warcraft--the technology has appeared to be more possible. And it seemed more like a matter of when--not if--Linden Lab would get on board.

"We've been working on this for quite a while," said Joe Miller, Linden Lab's vice president of platform and technology development. "I think there was some skepticism that we'd be putting something out this soon. It's been in the works for 8 to 10 months in earnest. Voice has been viewed as a key missing piece to the overall solution."

Of course, as any Second Life user who has been around for a while knows, new features can be buggy or break other features.

But that's why Linden Lab plans to beta test voice with a small group of users for several weeks before making it available in a grid-wide beta in late March.

The technology is being provided by two Linden Lab partners: Vivox and DiamondWare.

Miller said voice will be free of charge to everyone during the beta and will work on any computer that can currently run Second Life. Afterward, mainland property owners and island owners who pay the current $295 monthly maintenance fee can use the feature on their property for free.

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