Rescuing search in 'Second Life'

As the virtual world booms, users yearn for something more than a subpar search engine--and work is now under way.
Written by Daniel Terdiman, Contributor
With at least a couple hundred thousand users, hundreds of stores, endless commerce and millions of objects, virtual world Second Life is begging for a top-notch search tool.

Yet search is one of the systems most in need of help in Second Life. The latest evidence is the recent selection of a team working on such a system as a finalist in the Second Life business plan contest.

"There's a lot to be desired in the current (Second Life) search, quite a lot," said Tony Walsh, the editor of Clickable Culture, a blog about virtual worlds and other online cultures. "We need a Google for Second Life, something that works quickly and produces intelligent results."

Some might wonder how important search needs to be in a virtual world. But as the number of Second Life stores, places and objects explodes, it is becoming crucial that users be able to find what they need without trying keyword after keyword. And while that dynamic is more true today than ever, many people believe the search system has been insufficient for years.

And Second Life is not alone. Other online games and virtual worlds suffer from the same limited tools, say those familiar with environments such as There.com and World of Warcraft.

"The built-in search functionality (in online games) can be rudimentary and somewhat frustrating," said Ron Meiners, who works in developer relations for Multiverse Network, a creator of a platform for virtual worlds. "I think the problem is in part that we are still discovering ways to organize information in these worlds that is effective and meaningful. Aside from simple text searches, it's hard to define what a user can be looking for. It's one thing to say a dance club, but you really want to know other things, too: how many people are there, age ranges perhaps, or what music is playing."

That's why organizations like Electric Sheep, the largest of a growing number of third-party companies that build projects and software for Second Life, are putting a significant amount of effort into trying to solve the search problem in that virtual world.

The complexity of Second Life has gotten to the point where better search is a requirement, much like it was on the Web in the late 1990s.

"One of the problems that you have with virtual worlds is that you want to know where to go, whom to meet and what (to) do," said Giff Constable, the general manager of Electric Sheep's software unit. "People are looking for things to explore, and that's a huge information flow within Second Life that's extremely inefficient. I almost feel that within Second Life right now, if you do want people to discover you, it's like throwing a dart at a dart board made of cement. It bounces right off."

Linden Lab, the publisher of Second Life, also recognizes its search tools are not up to snuff, and says it is working on updating them.

"It is time to make search in Second Life really work," Linden Lab CTO Cory Ondrejka said in an in-world town hall meeting in December. "We are in the early technical and interface design period on search, but expect to be hearing more about it in (the first quarter of) 2007 with a goal of rolling (out) new search in" the second quarter.

"We need a Google for Second Life, something that works quickly and produces intelligent results."
--Tony Walsh, editor, Clickable Culture

Linden Lab would not divulge any details about its plans for new search tools.

But Constable said he has been spearheading a search project that is likely to bear fruit sometime in the next couple of months. And that's despite the fact, he explained, that anyone besides Linden Lab trying to create a new search tool for Second Life faces the obstacle of not being able to directly access the virtual world's database of people, objects and places.

Electric Sheep's probable approach to solving search in Second Life is a work-around. Constable explained that one idea he's trying is to employ an automated bot to gather data.

The bot would "basically crawl the (Second Life) grid and then figure out what we want to pull, what we want to save," he said, "and what we want to keep of the data."

Ultimately, he explained, the idea is that the aggregate data collected would give Electric Sheep enough to provide users with a searchable database, one that, while not as complete as what Linden Lab could offer, might be better organized.

Another approach could be that of Mario Gerosa, an Italian journalist, and Laura Cassara, an Italian architect.

The two teamed up to create a proposal for the Second Life business plan contest that was chosen as one of four finalists.

Their concept, Gerosa explained, is based on the idea of Second Life users weighing in on the places and objects they encounter, rating things as they come across them, and having all the resulting data be organized into a searchable system.

Cassara said that their system begins with a set of predefined places and things that, when encountered by users, offer alternative choices based on their ratings and preferences.

Then, she said, the system asks each user to rate the things he or she comes across, each of which gets added to the database.

"So we quickly get a database with ratings and associations," Cassara said. "All of this is based on crowd-sourcing."

Still, while several projects are aimed at making search better in Second Life, it's hard to know how optimistic to be.

But there's no doubt that Second Life users want a search system that works as well as something like Google.

And now that Linden Lab has made the Second Life client software open-source, a decision that allows anyone to make improvements to the existing system, Walsh thinks that the ultimate solution could come from anywhere.

Regardless, he thinks that a solution is necessary.

"Second Life by its nature is a place where every object is already tracked, so it's a shame not to be able to find exactly what we are looking for," Walsh said. "I don't really want to wander around a virtual mall actually browsing the shelves. I'd rather type in a search query and get a smart list of matches."

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