Designing Effective Vehicles for Second Life

Elegant vehicle design in Second Life is easy to pick up, hard to master.   I was noodling around Balance— the old-school vehicle testing sim– in a 2009 Tread, and realized that a few useful design decisions surface again and again in each of my successful vehicles.

The Tread is a 'simple' single mode land vehicle in Second Life
The Tread is a 'simple' single mode land vehicle in Second Life. Simple to the user because it has been scripted with much user-centric complexity.

Time to reflect on vehicle design principles a bit using some experiences, actual SL vehicle use statistics, and broader design ideas from the web and beyond.

Simple Dashboard, Powerful Engine

Perhaps my most fun (my metric for successful) vehicle in Second Life is the Elemental.  It transforms into about a dozen distinct vehicles: planes, airships, hovercraft, cars, submarines, etc.  Very early on in the design process for the Elemental, it became clear that a dozen (now even more than that! Crazy.) modes would need quite a user interface to keep things fluid and easy,  so that these extra features were fun and not a hindrance.  Immediately, the decision was to use a Heads Up Display (“HUD”).

The HUD for the Elemental is 100% buttons.
The HUD for the Elemental is 100% buttons.

The reasoning was simple.   Before SL added HUD attachments, users had to endure experience-disrupting blue dialog windows for the rare vehicle, like the Dominus Shadow, that was smart enough to use them.  Much more often, a user had to:

  1. learn chat command syntax (e.g., “start” and “hover” to activate various vehicle functionality)
  2. remember the syntax across sessions
  3. take the time to correctly type out the command, time away from having fun
  4. understand what the command would do

It is an experience design disaster.

So instead, Elemental users got a smart little HUD, where only the absolute minimum visual information necessary was displayed at any given time.  This is a design principle that Google, Inc. has in its very genetics, closely regulating the number of words on its homepage.  From a user experience standpoint, every moment my mouse is buried in the HUD is a moment I’ve lost forever.  So the HUD uses collapsing menus:

The Elemental HUD reveals additional UI elements and choices only as necessary
The Elemental HUD reveals additional UI elements and choices only as necessary.

This way, new users have a gentler learning curve.  Why?  Because SL has been hard to learn since Day One.  No need to make it any more frustrating.  This was especially important when I was designing vehicles through Electric Sheep Company for Nissan, Reuters, and other companies interested in having an engaging presence in SL.  They were bringing totally new users inworld, so things had to be dead simple to learn, but fun.

Of course simple, intuitive UI does not mean boring.  The Elemental is still one of the only vehicles to pack a dozen modes, cloaking, three combat systems, 5 point sound, skinning/coloring/custom license plates, decals, Tiny mode, autopilot, onboard music, and more.  But the point is that the decisions to use or ignore all these elements aren’t all clamoring for the user’s attention.  They are neatly tucked away, ready for when the user is ready to explore more fun.

A similar principle applies beyond HUDs, right into the physical shape of the vehicle itself.  When I was in the process of designing the precursor to the Elemental, the Tread, a series of informal qualitative interviews helped me to understand that the prims I was gluing together were more than a chassis, they were the user’s avatar with respect to the physics engine.

Note the invisible ramp prim affixed to the front end of this ground vehicle, used to skate over small obstacles.
Note the invisible ramp prim affixed to the front end of this ground vehicle, used to skate over small obstacles.

The ramp on the Tread above is invisible to the user, completely unannounced unless the user decides to edit the vehicle and discovers it for him/herself.   Given the extremely haphazard environment in SL, users get stuck in vehicles all the time.  So behind the scenes — under the hood, if you will– we vehicle designers have an obligation to protect the user from the sligns and arrows of cruel grid life, without limiting the user in his or her options.  Simple hacks like adding invisible ramps and the ability for cars to either jump or fly adds orders of magnitude more spaces that your users can access. And that means more fun for them and better-satisfied customers for you, the designer.

To drive home the point (pardon the pun): the following graph is a time series (x axis)  of vehicle velocity (y axis, m/s) for a typical Elemental user.   Note the average speed, but even more importantly, note how jagged the graph is.  This is a user battling rough terrain and the normal clutter of SL, trying to have fun.

Note the inconsistent movement rate of a typical land vehicle session.
Note the inconsistent movement rate of a typical land vehicle session.

By contrast, a similar graph for a helicopter user:

Note fewer speed inconsistencies, suggesting a better-controlled vehicle experience.
Note fewer speed inconsistencies, suggesting a better-controlled vehicle experience.

If you can hack an existing vehicle script to perform how you like, you can add a hover mode or jump functionality.  No excuses, do it. We all win when the general calibre of vehicle designs in SL gets elevated.

Who cares if cars can’t fly or jump in real life?  The immersion vs. augmentation shtick has been done to death for years now. At the end of the day, users still get stuck in vehicles too easily, when the vehicle desingers can easily solve that problem a priori.

Bottom line for this aspect of SL vehicle design: think so your users never really have to.  Not that they can’t.  Just that they shouldn’t have to if they don’t want to.

SLNN’s Ashley Gasser Interview

Ashley turned this chat into a very nice article over at SLNN.  Read it here:

[11:16] You: Hi, it’s very nice to meet you finally!
[11:16] Ashley Gasser: hi nice to meet you happy new year
[11:16] You: Happy new year to you as well. =)
[11:17] You: What can I do for you?
[11:17] Ashley Gasser: thanks
[11:17] Ashley Gasser: i actually wanted to talk to you about charity and giving to charity in sl
[11:18] Ashley Gasser: i know you run a group that is about charity
[11:18] Ashley Gasser: could you tell me a bit about that
[11:18] You: Sure, no problem.
[11:19] You: I started the !Meta charity group after a lot of thinking about how SL could be more than just a fun diversion for (primarily) well-off Westerners.
[11:21] You: So I figured, why not make something fun like the Elemental vehicle, and if people enjoyed it, !Meta would provide a way for them to offer thanks in a way that helps a community in Africa.
[11:22] Ashley Gasser: can anyone set up a charity or giving to charity in sl
[11:23] You: Informally, yes. Formal nonprofit charities are a bit more work than that. !Meta’s in the process of becoming a U.S. 501(c)3 organization, which just means lots of paperwork and things to become gov’t-certified.
[11:24] You: For example, Jade Lily’s Relay for Life in SL was (if I understand it) informal, but donated thousands of dollars to a formal RL charity.
[11:24] Ashley Gasser: so your group is in rl as well, right
[11:25] You: It is in the process of being in RL as well, but we’re not *quite* there yet.
[11:25] Ashley Gasser: what are you doing to get there
[11:26] You: At this stage, working through how the RL nonprofit will be structured, according to the rules at
[11:26] You: This is a pretty new way of doing things, so there are a lot of question marks to get through.
[11:27] Ashley Gasser: so what exactly is your group and what does it do
[11:27] You: As you know, the government only just got started investigating taxation of online profits– they’re still getting used to the idea of virtual charities.
[11:29] You: Well, !Meta is the group and essentially it acts as a conduit for SL merchants to donate a portion of their profits to charity. We’re currently discussing with several merchants about them donating entire products to the effort, so to speak.
[11:30] You: On the RL side, !Meta cashes out those $L to $US, and then wires the funds to active charities, such as the Kibaale Community Center in Uganda. The last step is to provide documentation of all these transactions so that people know their donations are getting to the right places.
[11:31] Ashley Gasser: so people can go through you to get the money to the charity
[11:32] You: If they prefer to, yes, though I must stress we are not yet a 501(c)3, so we cannot provide tax breaks for donors. Still working on that part. =)
[11:33] Ashley Gasser: so do you as charity get a lower l/us dollar exchange than other residents of sl
[11:34] You: Not that I’m aware of, though that’s an excellent idea to bug Linden Lab about.
[11:34] Ashley Gasser: i think so
[11:35] Ashley Gasser: :)
[11:35] You: Of course, by aggregating lots of small donations together, we save a bunch of $L on transaction fees and get more to the destination charity.
[11:35] Ashley Gasser: so why should people donate to charity in sl instead of rl
[11:36] Ashley Gasser: how can residents know that people raising money for charity in sl will really give it and keep their word
[11:38] You: That’s a huge concern for us, and it’s exactly why !Meta’s moving in the direction of becoming certified by the US government. Also, it’s the reason for the documentation I mentioned earlier.
[11:38] You: As far as donating in SL versus RL,
[11:39] You: I guess we don’t recognize the distinction between the two– the SL money is destined for the RL charities anyway, so at the end of the day the only difference is where the donors are.
[11:40] You: If people are more comfortable donating in RL, then we support that 100%. The point is helping charities, not making !Meta be the big name in SL charity work.
[11:42] Ashley Gasser: i know there are probably a lot of charities set up in sl and residents trying to raise money for charity. what can those wishing to donate do to investigate and make sure the claims are letgit
[11:42] Ashley Gasser: legit
[11:43] You: Good question! I would always advise as much investigation as is possible. If *anything* seems suspect, simply walk away. As you said, there are plenty of other charities that could certainly use the money.
[11:44] Ashley Gasser: how can residents investigate
[11:45] You: Be certain that the charity has a clearly articulated mission and provides adequate evidence that they DO what they say. Residents can investigate by contacting officers of the charity, past recipients of the funds if any are provided, etc. It all comes down to doing one’s homework responsibly to ensure that the charity is being responsible as well. =)
[11:46] Ashley Gasser: what about charities in rl vs those in sl
[11:46] You: I’m not sure I understand your question?
[11:47] Ashley Gasser: sorry should residents stick to charities they have heard about in rl
[11:47] You: Oooooh! Ok
[11:49] You: That is a safe, conservative strategy, yes. For people who decide that SL/virtual charities are worth the investment, it’s a pretty good idea to spread out donation over time, to give the donor a chance to track what the charity does with the money.
[11:50] Ashley Gasser: how can people track what is done with the money
[11:50] You: In !Meta’s case, most of the donations fall within the $L 10 – 2000 range, which is less than a nice cheeseburger in RL, so people can safely make small donations and see what happens.
[11:52] You: A good way to track donations is to check the charity’s website for scanned receipts / wire transfer slips, or once you know where the money ends up (for example, the Red Cross, though !Meta does not work with them currently), just contact the Red Cross and ask if they got the donation that the charity SAID they did.
[11:52] You: Always, always ask questions, yeah?
[11:53] Ashley Gasser: definitely
[11:53] Ashley Gasser: i guess you can’t say approx how many charities have set up in sl
[11:54] You: I sure don’t know, no. Hamlet Au would have a much better sense of that, as he is the ‘reporter’.
[11:54] You: But as SL grows rapidly, I would expect the number of charities to grow alongside that.
[11:54] Ashley Gasser: are more coming to sl is this a big sector of the economy
[11:56] You: Human nature being what it is, I would always expect the weapons and sex economic sectors to be much larger than charity work. However, the Relay for Life and the Katrina Relief charities were huge successes.
[11:56] You: I won three Linden Labbers for an hour each during one of the Katrina celebrity auctions. =) Great fun!
[11:57] Ashley Gasser: what was that
[11:57] You: A bit after hurricane Katrina, folks got together and hosted a number of charity events. Let me see if I can dig up a URL for your further research.
[11:58] Ashley Gasser: thanks that would be great
[11:59] Ashley Gasser: anything else
[11:59] You: As featured on MSNBC:
[11:59] You:
[12:00] Ashley Gasser: thanks
[12:01] You: Nothing else comes to mind. !Meta’s still getting set up, so I’d urge folks to hold off on donating for now if they have any reservations or doubts. Organizations like the Red Cross can always use the help, though. =)
[12:01] Ashley Gasser: so what will your organization donate to or is it more of a go between
[12:03] You: !Meta is designed as a go-between, yes, in the sense that we don’t spend the donations. Instead, we are the means to transfer lots of small donations to the folks on the ground doing the work, (in our case, at the Kibaale Community Center, ).
[12:04] You: If SL is 2 million-plus strong, imagine all the good stuff to be done if each person passed on $L 100 to their favorite charity. Good stuff.
[12:05] Ashley Gasser: if someone raised money and get your organizaton to handle it and give it to the organizatin of their choice
[12:06] You: We figure if someone can afford a powerful SL-ready computer and broadband, then $L 100 won’t hurt them too much. =)
[12:07] You: Eventually, yes. The initial plan, however, is to concentrate donations into the Kibaale charity, so that transaction and wire-transfer fees are held to the absolute minimum. As we grow, however, we’d *love* to be able to help additional charities that donors are interested in.
[12:07] Ashley Gasser: what is that charity
[12:08] Ashley Gasser: are u the only ones in sl doing it this way
[12:09] You: Given SL’s rapidly growing and already large size, I’d be surprised if we were the only one doing it this way, but I’m not aware of any others yet.
[12:10] Ashley Gasser: so do most charity supporters in sl just exchange the money and write a cheque to the charity
[12:12] You: It is difficut for me to speak for other charity supporters, but I supect you are correct. Especially given that LL exchanges currency out to Paypal, which is a pretty liquid (and therefore easily donated) format. Good question.
[12:12] Ashley Gasser: anything else
[12:12] You: The only other thing is that I’m honored to be interviewed by SLNN. =D
[12:13] Ashley Gasser: thanks for your time
[12:13] Ashley Gasser: best wishes with your organization and work: 0
[12:14] You: Thanks! It’s exciting stuff!!
[12:14] Ashley Gasser: c u
[12:14] You: Nice to meet ya! See ya!
[12:14] Ashley Gasser: u 2
[12:14] Ashley Gasser: thanks
[12:14] You: /wa
[12:16] Ashley Gasser: btw if you have any pics of yourself or the org could u send them to me
[12:16] Ashley Gasser: thanks
[12:16] You: Sure, will do!
[12:17] You: would you like them as textures or emailed as jpgs?
[12:17] Ashley Gasser: jpegs email is
[12:18] You: Excellent
[12:18] You: I’l take care of that today
[12:18] Ashley Gasser: have fun with the wings
[12:18] You: =)
[12:18] Ashley Gasser: thanks
[12:18] Ashley Gasser: c u
[12:18] You: Later!