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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, There.com 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 There.com 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.

But he added that those residents who own older islands with lower fees may be required to upgrade to current pricing in order to enable voice on their land.

"It is a significant added value, and we thought long and hard about offering it to (those with lower) pricing," Miller said. "But, as I say, we may change our thinking around this based on the beta phase. So I would be reluctant to say that that is a hard and fast decision."

And while many people are likely to be happy about the new feature, there are those for whom voice may present more problems than it solves.

One of the groups most likely to object to it is those whose gender identification in-world is different than in the real world. And that's because it would be startling for some to hear a male voice coming from a female avatar's mouth, or vice versa.

"I'm a transgender male," said . "I identify primarily as female. For me, it's an extension of me in 3D cyberspace."

Kandora is concerned that some people are not ready to divulge their real-life gender.

He pointed to a situation recently in which he was invited to be a guest on an in-world talk show that feeds in audio using third-party tools.

When he e-mailed the host about his real gender, Kandora said the host didn't respond and the invitation appeared to be revoked.

Kandora also said that he is interested in third-party tools that let people mask the sound of their real voice. But he added that such tools are not yet advanced enough.

Miller agreed.

"The technology there, frankly, isn't ready for prime time," Miller said. "They turn your voice into an orc or a troll. You can sound like Darth Vader on a bad day with a bad cold."

At the same time, Beaubois, who has been teaching architecture classes in Second Life since 2005, said he appreciates the fact that text chatting--which can be easily saved--allows him to get exact transcripts of discussions between him and his students, something that voice doesn't offer.

To Beaubois, then, integrated voice is a nice option because it provides a hybrid of communications features.

"It's like if you had a pliers and a got a hammer," Beaubois said. "You don't throw your pliers away. It's another tool in your box. (Sometimes) it's nice to do it by voice. Other times, typing is great."

He also pointed out that Second Life users with hearing or speech problems might want to skip voice, as might foreign language speakers who are able to get by with text chatting, but for whom real conversation might prove too difficult.

Still, Kandora thinks that once it's widely available, voice will likely take over.

"It may become the norm of communicating, the accepted form of communicating," Kandora said. "And the people who stick to text only may become the fringe of Second Life because they're nervous about interacting with people."