Second Life Information Desk System using Instant

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Second Life Information Desk System using Instant
Second Life Information Desk System using Instant
Messaging and Short Messaging Service
Technologies
S. Valério
J. Pereira
UTAD – Engineering Department
Vila Real, Portugal
[email protected]
UTAD – Engineering Department
Vila Real, Portugal
[email protected]
L. Morgado
P. Mestre
GECAD/UTAD
Vila Real, Portugal
[email protected]
UTAD – Engineering Department
Vila Real, Portugal
[email protected]
C. Serôdio
F. Carvalho
UTAD – Engineering Department
Vila Real, Portugal
[email protected]
PT Inovação
Aveiro, Portugal
[email protected]
Abstract — Organizations with a presence in the Second Life®
world typically only provide direct user interaction with staff at
specific schedules, or not at all. We present a system that
provides organizations with a simple way to enable constant
interaction with users of the Second Life world, by simulating
staff presence using automated avatars as communication
channels to real-life staff by means of instant messaging and
short message service technologies. Staff members are assigned to
communication with Second Life avatars based on a hierarchy of
information desk staffing priorities, and communication is
bidirectional.
Keywords – Information Desk, Help Desk, Second Life,
Messaging, SMS, virtual worlds
I.
INTRODUCTION
either in person or remotely, who may better cater for an
individual’s information needs.
A major difference between physical-world and virtual
information desks are that there is not typically a user
expectation of staff presence. Thus, users search documents or
input information requests in Web forms that can be handled
with some flexibility in terms of feedback time.
Virtual worlds such as the Second Life world (SL) present a
new challenge for information desks, in that users expect a
virtual world space to be populated. Thus, organizations using
virtual worlds face a new reality: the need for constant
animation or staffing of virtual premises or the acceptance of
defrauding expectations by providing deserted spaces [26].
This situation comes from the fact that while visiting a typical
Web site a user is not expecting a shared experience; but in a
virtual world, the constant feeling of being present within a
space brings with it the notions of company or loneliness; of
crowded spaces and deserted spaces.
Communications are a key element of everyday living. The
emergence of Web 2.0 participatory technologies and the
commoditizing of telecommunications services are making it
easier for people to access services and information from
different contexts and actively engage in on-line interactions.
Businesses and organizations need to adapt and evolve within
this landscape, leveraging the opportunities for enhanced and
constant interaction with customers and users.
Typical solutions for avoiding this involve organizing
events in the virtual world space, so that users have a
motivation to visit the space regularly, or even set aside
specific areas solely for entertainment.
Information desks represent a specific situation where
organizations need to interact at unscheduled times with a
reasonable number of individuals, and each interaction is an
opportunity for pursuing business and improving customer
relationships. An information desk may provide information
directly, or direct individuals to specific members of staff,
However, such solutions won’t solve the expectation of
direct contact with a representative of the organization. But in
order for a staff member to be on-line in SL, he/she needs to
have the SL client software running on a computer, and pay
attention to it regularly, to see if someone is attempting to
establish contact. For most organizations, expectable avatar
This work was developed by the University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto
Douro (UTAD), sponsored by Portugal Telecom Inovação, S.A.
traffic won’t likely justify the need for constant staffing of
business spaces and information desks in this manner.
Several systems allow users to be present in SL without the
3D component, remaining accessible by instant messaging, but
this exposes the internal information desk staffing organization
to external users: queue can form, should several users wish to
speak with the same staffer; or visitors are confronted with the
need to choose from a selection of staffers (as explained in
section VII), rather than simply approaching a generic
information desk staffer.
The system we present here allows staff members to
interact with virtual world avatars without having to use the
virtual world client software or even a computer: instead, they
use instant messaging software or cell-phone SMS services.
They are free to do other tasks while no communication is
taking place, and they can manage more than one conversation
simultaneously. Also, when too many conversations are
initiated, new ones can be automatically distributed to other
staff members. All this takes place in a transparent way for
virtual world users: from their point of view, they are in direct
communication with the avatar of a staff member of the
organization.
II.
VIRTUAL WORLDS
Multi-user virtual worlds are experiencing a surge in usage,
with millions of users worldwide [33], and hundreds of
commercial products available [5], including many threedimensional,
graphics-intensive
worlds,
e.g.
the
aforementioned SL and also game worlds such as World of
Warcraft [29]. These spaces have been exploited by various
organizations, for uses as diverse as contacting potential
customers, brand awareness, e-commerce, and collaboration
tool for employees or business partners [6][25]. They can be
seen as places for conducting simulations, for cooperative
work, for communication.
Virtual world technology may be used to create a custom
virtual world from scratch, using various toolkits (e.g., [1],
[23]), an approach that organizations can pursue for specialpurpose applications or private spaces for their employees; but
services and applications can also be built on top of existing
virtual worlds, either through development agreements with
companies hosting virtual worlds or by using software
components and libraries to connect external systems with
those virtual worlds (e.g., [17]). This latter approach leverages
technological support for issues like user concurrency and
server bandwidth, and also allows services and applications
reachable to users already found in those worlds. This approach
is more adequate where widespread adoption is intended,
where there will be limited control over the technical context of
virtual world users, and for outreach activities that aim to
leverage the skills of current users.
Development for existing virtual worlds employs
combinations of world-side elements (software executed by
virtual world servers), client-side elements (software running
on users’ computers) and exo-world elements, software
running on other servers (e.g., Web services – [22], [27]).
Among current virtual world platforms, SL has had a
foremost presence in past few years in both the media, business
use, and research. Unlike most virtual worlds, SL is freeform:
users can create their own content, empowered by legal terms
of use that enable them to own intellectual property rights to
their content. This includes programs to support user
interaction with objects and for communication with external
servers on the Internet. It is not the world with the most users,
but still it presents remarkable statistics in terms of average
simultaneous users (August 2008: 46.817 users/hour) and
available virtual land (August 2008: 1834 km2) [19]. For these
reasons we chose SL as the platform to implement the
prototype of the system described here. Partly due to media
impact, partly due to the features described above and others,
increasingly organizations have been creating institutional or
active presences in SL (e.g., BBC, Cisco, Dell, IBM, Mazda,
Reuters, Universal, Wells Fargo) [32], even if in many cases
there isn’t a clear objective other than brand awareness and
acquiring know-how on the medium.
III.
INSTANT MESSAGING
Instant messaging (IM) services are used extensively in
organizations [7], allowing staff to be aware of when their
contacts are present on-line and communicate directly, but
without focusing solely on the conversation, as would be the
case with a phone call.
The main IM services, by number of users [10], are
Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and Google
Talk. There are also some widely-used services in
national/regional markets, such as AOL Instant Messenger
(AIM) in the North-American market [10] or Sapo Messenger
in the Portuguese market [8]. Most of these services employ
different communication protocols for communication between
user client applications and the IM service servers: MSNP
(“Microsoft Notification Protocol”), YMSG (“Yahoo!
Messenger Protocol”), XMPP (“Extensible Messaging and
Presence Protocol”, formerly “Jabber”), and OSCAR (“Open
System for CommunicAtion in Realtime”). Most of these are
proprietary, albeit reverse engineering efforts do exist. XMPP,
however, is an open protocol, used by GoogleTalk, Sapo
Messenger, and many other IM services.
IV.
COMMUNICATING BETWEEN SL AND THE OUTSIDE
There are two main options to establish a communication
channel between the outside world and SL: one can use the SL
client software to create scripted objects and activate then; or
develop programs running on external computer systems that
access the SL world as automated alternative client software.
A. Comunications using scripted SL objects
The SL environment is made of virtual lands organized as
regions and parcels, which may hold avatars and objects. The
latter can contain different resources, including scripts that are
executed by the SL servers’ software (not the client software).
Scripts are written in Linden Scripting Language (LSL) [21]
and among their abilities is communication with systems
external to SL.
Scripts can communicate in three different ways [16]:
sending and receiving email, responding to external calls by
means of a remote procedure call mechanism (XML-RPC), and
message exchange using the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol
(HTTP). The features of these communication methods are
synthesized in Table I.
TABLE I.
Method
E-Mail
message before sending the next. Finally, an open XML-RPC
channel is reset in various situations, such as updates of server
software or server resets [15]. This also makes XML-RPC in
SL inadequate for high-throughput or interactive applications.
COMMUNICATION METHODS AVAILABLE IN SL SCRIPTS
Who initiates
communication
Anyone
(script/external system)
Message
length
Execution
delay
4096 chars
20 seconds
XML-RPC
External system
254 chars
3 seconds
HTTP
request
LSL script
2048 chars
None
When an email is sent by an LSL script [2] (Fig. 1) an
identification of the object that contained that script is included
in the e-mail address as [email protected] In order
to respond (or initiate other communications later), the external
system only needs to use this email address. The email service
of SL servers also includes in the email message body
information such as the name of the object that contained the
script generating the email and its location in the SL world.
Figure 2. Outside-to-SL communications via XML-RPC
The third method, communication using HTTP message
exchange is employed by invoking LSL scripting functions to
make an HTTP request and process HTTP responses (Fig. 3).
This means that communications by this method must always
be initiated by the script (although plans for accepting HTTP
requests from the outside have been announced by Linden Lab,
the company who developed and manages SL). HTTP requests
are not hindered by SL servers in terms of communication
speed; nevertheless, they are throttled to a maximum of 25
requests per 20 seconds, supporting a sustained rate of 1 per
second or a burst of up to 25 [20].
Figure 3. SL-to-outside communications via HTTP message exchange
Figure 1. SL-to-outside and outside-to-SL communications via email
The SL servers limit the frequency of outbound emails, for
bandwidth management and to avoid being used as spam
sources. Consequently, for delayed or low-throughput
situations this method is adequate, but not for interactive or
high-throughput applications.
The second method, XML-RPC, is provided by a dedicated
server in the server grid of the SL world (Fig. 2). An external
system can use it to invoke a script in SL, using the HTTP
protocol and XML-encoded messages [3], as long as the script
has previously opened a channel for message reception.
There are several disadvantages with the use of XML-RPC
in SL. Besides the delay and short message size presented in
Table 1, there is a scalability issue due to the existence of only
one server in the SL world to process all such communications.
Furthermore, this server only buffers one message per
destination channel, which means that external systems must
serialize message sending, i.e., wait for the response of a
B. Communications using alternative client software
The source code of the SL client software is open, as is the
protocol for communicating between SL clients and SL
servers. This allows developers to create custom clients for
special purposes: for instance, a software system can employ a
custom client to access the SL world as if it were a human user
and perform any action that is available for human users. The
most streamlined approach in this direction is to employ an
open source software development library, libopenmv
(formerly libsecondlife), which provides most of the
functionality available in the client.
Obviously, communications using software that relies on
libopenmv must be started by systems external to SL, since
there is no method internal to SL to “force” an avatar to login.
A disadvantage in the use of libopenmv regarding the
previous method of LSL scripts is that eventually the library
needs updating. The protocol for communication between SL
clients and servers is updated regularly, and sometimes such
updates impose a matching update to client software. This
means that applications using previous versions of libopenmv
must be reinstalled or rebuilt using an updated version.
V.
IM SYSTEMS AND SL
Several systems/products exist for communication between
SL and outside systems by instant messaging. Possibly the
most obvious is SLim, a special-purpose SL client that accesses
the SL grid without the 3D engine and allows users to send and
receive instant messages [18]. A similar application is SLeek,
which allows users to do other simple tasks besides messaging
– e.g., check their inventory [11]. There are also similar, but
Web-based, alternatives, such as ajaxlife.net and
movablelife.net. Users are in effect logged in SL while
using SLim, SLeek or the Web alternatives mentioned, and
there is no connection to non-SL IM networks, so users will
need other IM client software on their machines.
That connection is available in GnomiChat (formerly SL
Messenger). This product, while also linking itself to SL as a
special-purpose SL client, allows the user to import contacts
from accounts in various IM networks and thus conduct all
conversations in the same messaging application [14].
A problem when using these systems for information desks,
however, is that they disclose the identity of their users to
visitors. Thus, should an organization wish to maintain a
common channel between visitors and several staff members,
that organization would have to allow staff members to have
common access to the organization’s avatar password, and logout/log-in to pass over the service from a staff member to
another. In case too many people approach the information
desk at the same time, they will have to wait their turn, because
in effect there is only one person in charge of all
communications.
IBM provides a software development kit that employs bots
to integrate SL communication with the IM system of Lotus
Sametime (a groupware solution). This allows developers to
create scripted SL objects to capture chat and send IM
messages to Lotus Sametime users [9]. This technology is
flexible, since it could be used to develop a system similar to
the one we propose here, albeit restricted to Sametime users.
VI.
line, in effect allowing avatars to make phone calls to physical
cell phones [31]. It is not possible to communicate neither with
non-InsideOut users nor for cell-phone users to initiate the
communication.
Swisscom Mobile’s SMS service in SL is accessed by a
phone booth object that is found in various locations (it’s free
to copy and use). As in the Vodafone service, the user must
initially make a registration [28]. This system only allows one
avatar near the booth at a time to send SMS messages. There is
no provision for receiving responses from outside SL.
That provision exists in Switchboard. This is an SMS
system build on top of the SLoodle e-learning platform, which
also allows SL avatars to send SMS messages to cell phones.
Cell-phone users can then reply to those messages and the
reply SMS is sent back to SL [13], moderated through a Web
interface. There is no provision for cell-phone users to initiate a
conversation. A different approach was taken by Comverse
Technology, which developed an SL client able to run on cellphones, integrating SMS functionality and other features [24].
Finally, the Spanish company Telefónica announced at the
Mobile World Congress 2008 that it will provide a service able
to receive and send SMS and MMS to and from SL [30].
These services are not yet modular enough for supporting a
generic information system routing textual communications
seamlessly between SL users and cell-phone users.
VII. INFORMATION DESK SYSTEMS IN SL
Many organizations use information desks in SL. One
example presented in Fig. 4 is at the e-Justice Centre, a
partnership between the Portuguese Ministry of Justice, and
two universities, including a Law college, providing conflict
mediation and resolution for users that are identifying only by
their avatars [12].
There are two methods of interaction available. Within the
announced scheduled, a member of staff is present in SL,
waiting for people to show up and request conflict mediation or
simply request general information. The other alternative is to
create a plain text document (which in SL is called a
“notecard”) and insert it into a “drop box”, which will deliver it
for processing.
SMS COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS IN SL
A low-priority communication option of the information
desk system presented here is that when no staff members are
available in IM clients, the system relies on SMS messaging
with cell-phones.
There are several SMS systems emerging in SL, developed
by both telecommunication companies and individuals. These
systems typically employ a scripted SL object that avatars can
use as a “SL phone” to send and receive SMS messages or
even establish voice calls. The main ones are Vodafone
InsideOut, Swisscom Mobile’s phone booths, Telefonica’s
SMS/MMS service and Switchboard.
Vodafone InsideOut users can send messages amongst
themselves, that are routed by the service – by SL messaging if
both parties are logged into SL, and by SMS if one if off-line.
It also allows SL users to call (by voice) InsideOut users off-
Figure 4. Information desk at the e-Justice Centre
Obviously, having a staff member on-line just waiting for
potential visitors is not an efficient allocation of an
organization’s resources, unless sufficient visitor traffic exists
to support it. The “drop box” alternative, possibly one of the
most common methods employed by organizations in SL for
user contact, lacks the immediacy and effectiveness of direct
contact; and, as explained in the opening section, does not
contribute to an interactive experience in virtual facilities.
Another approach is to let visitors know whether staff
members are on-line elsewhere in SL. This method conveys a
stronger sense of ongoing activities; and visitors become aware
that staff members are indeed on-line (thus avoiding feelings of
doubt on whether the organization is indeed committed to its
SL presence). One such system is used by Anshe Chung
Studios at the Dreamland Central Hub (Fig. 5). This location
([4]) supports this company’s virtual real estate business.
People wishing to purchase or rent virtual land in their
properties, or discuss related issues, can travel to this location,
where a series of balls represent staff members: black balls
means that specific staff members is off-line, whereas balls
looking like Earth represent an on-line staff member. The balls
also allow visitors to send a message to its associated staff
member.
this, we developed technology that integrates SL with IM
networks and enables two-way SMS communication.
The overall idea is that visitors communicate with an avatar
at the information desk, without being aware that it is in fact an
automated avatar – a bot. The bot routes public chat and private
messages to an actual staff member, chosen from a list of
staffing priorities, based on scheduling criteria, such as who
currently has an IM contact on-line, and how many
conversations that person is already handling. If all staff
members are unavailable through IM, then SMS messages to
their cell-phones are used.
The two communication methods are thus IM and SMS.
The SMS service is established by two GSM modems, one for
receiving, the other for sending. IMs are exchanged between
the messaging client software of the user’s choice and SL by
means of two midware layers: the aforementioned SL bot,
which relays chat and IMs from SL users to the system, and
sends chat and IMs from the system to users; and an automated
IM contact – an IM bot – that is present in the contact lists of
staff members’ IM client software and provides similar
functionality at the other end of the communications channel.
The diagram on Fig. 6 presents an overview of the system.
The Management Server integrates the various technologies
and hosts the website presented further ahead, as well as the
programs controlling the GSM modem, the SL and IM bots,
and the system logic. The full system has four parts: the
registration and management website; the SL bot; the IM bot;
and the modem communications software.
Figure 5. Information desk at the Dreamland Central Hub
An issue with this approach is that it doesn’t provide a
single point of contact for new visitors. It is adequate for this
real estate company, since each visitor will likely require a very
personalized and possibly long contact, and all staff members
provide the same service, but possibly not for most
organizations. Another issue is that it requires that at least some
staff members be on-line in SL. While that is likely for Anshe
Chung studios, since SL is a core area of activity, it is not the
case for most organizations; and certainly not the case if one
wishes to create similar information desks in several different
virtual worlds.
VIII. SYSTEM OVERVIEW
The aim of the Information Desk System presented
herewith is to allow organizations to offer direct staff
interaction to visitors of their virtual space in SL. To achieve
Figure 6. System model
To use the service, an information desk administrator
registers with the website and creates a list of staff members for
the information desk, entering their IM contact data and/or cellphone numbers, and how many simultaneous conversations can
be handled by each. This information will be stored in a
database, used by the IM bot to send “friendship” requests to
the IM accounts of the staff members specified. In the current
prototype, staff members can use this system with Windows
Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AIM, and any IM client
software that uses the XMPP protocol, such as Google Talk,
ICQ and Sapo Messenger.
After completing these steps, the administrator registers an
SL avatar with the management server, to be used as the SL bot
for the information desk. The administrator can then decide
when the avatar should be logged in to SL.
When the SL bot logs into SL, it will record all chat from
SL users nearby, as well as SL IM sent directly to it, and stores
them in the management server database. This intermediate
storage step between the SL bot and the IM bot is done in order
to simplify the management of contention situations, and
consequently, have simpler and lighter bot code. It also allows
the server to re-route communications if necessary (for
instance, if a staff member goes off-line during a conversation).
Since the IM bot, shown as a single IM contact at staffer’s
computer (or the cell-phone number of modem, in SMS
messages received by staffers), will be used as a gateway for
several conversations, the Management Server creates
conversation sessions when a visitor addresses the SL bot.
Sessions are defined using parameters like the online state and
priority of staff members, and can be of two different types,
depending on the used communication method: IM session and
SMS session.
The response messages from staff members, either through
IM client software or SMS, are received by the IM bot or GSM
modem, respectively, and follow the inverse route: they are
stored in the Management Server database first, and then
routed to intended SL visitor, through the adequate channel
(public chat or private SL IM).
IX.
and available in open source under the Apache license. This
library is written in Java and allows a high level of abstraction,
enabling the communication with any XMPP server in a
simplified way. Using it, one can create a complete XMPP
client (instant messages and contact presence detection) – the
IM bot.
X.
OPERATION
As mentioned in Section VIII, the information desk
administrator first registers with the Management Server Web
site and creates a list of staff members (Fig. 7). The
administrator must include himself/herself on this list, in order
to be part of the information desk staffing.
Figure 7. Specifying staff members and their data
Afterwards, the administrator registers an SL avatar with
the management server, to be used as the SL bot for the
information desk, and requests that it logs into SL (Fig. 8).
TECHNOLOGY
A. Technological base
The Management Server used for the current prototype uses
the Linux operating system with an Apache web server. The
administration web pages were developed using Drupal, an
open-source content management system. For information
storage a MySQL database was used. Communication with the
GSM modems was made using daemons programmed in Java,
which store received messages in the database and query it for
new messages to send to cell-phones.
B. Communication with SL and Public Messengers
The SL bot is logged in by means of an executable program
developed in C# using the libopenmv library (vd. Section
IV). To establish a legitimate communication channel with the
largest possible number of IM networks and client software, we
developed the IM bot for the XMPP protocol. Interoperability
with non-XMPP IM networks is achieved using a XMPP
gateway service that routes IM information between XMPP
clients and other IM clients (currently, Windows Live
Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AIM and ICQ). Google Talk,
Sapo Messenger are native XMPP clients, as are many others.
The implementation of the IM bot for the XMPP protocol
was done using the SMACK API developed by Jive Software
Figure 8. Bot management page
In SL, users at the information desk will see the bot as if it
were an actual staff member. They can chat near him or send
him SL IM privately, as they would with any regular avatar. In
Fig. 9, the bot is the avatar in the centre, and the two others are
people requesting information. A public chat conversation is
ongoing and it’s also visible a private SL IM window.
These conversations reach a staff member (selected by the
Management Server, from priorities, on-line status, and limits
on simultaneous conversations), as messages from a contact
named sl_bot_messengers (Fig. 10) or SMS from the
modem.
When avatars communicate via chat or IM, sessions are
automatically created by the Management Server, and
presented to the staff member identified as numbers. For
instance, in Fig. 11, session 0 is the public chat, session 1 is a
private SL IM conversation with the avatar named Takeda
Kanto, and session 2 is another private SL IM conversation,
with the avatar named Chlecer Cuttita.
demonstrates the possibility of creating an information desk
system for SL based on common IM clients and cell-phones.
Figure 9. Information desk with bot and visitors
Figure 11. Sample message exchange with sessions
We believe that such a platform is an important element for
organizations of diverse sizes to have a virtual space in SL and
other virtual worlds that is interactive and provides users with a
sense of staff presence in that space.
Figure 10. Side-by-side comparison: SL client and IM client
In the same figure, we can see that the staff member can
use these numbers to define where his messages are sent (if no
number is specified, it is assumed that one is still using the
same session as for the previous message).
XI.
CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE WORK
Several tests were run both in conversations with single
visitors and with various simultaneous visitors. We confirmed
the correct operation of the prototype system with IM client
software in general, but with a slight delay for Windows Live
users.
There is still a need to conduct actual field tests with teams
of staffers, to establish whether the current interface
(particularly, the session-management mechanism) is adequate,
as well as determine other elements that may be required in
order to improve the SL bot’s behavior (for instance, facing the
person it is speaking to). We have also experienced some
issues with the current XMPP gateway (we are using the public
SAPO gateway), and further work is needed at this level.
Regardless of the amount of work still to be done, we
believe the current results enable us to conclude that the system
Since only the SL bot is SL-specific, and many virtual
worlds allow the programming of similar bots, we also believe
that this system may allow organizations to easily convey this
feeling of staff presence to several virtual spaces at the same
time, even on several different virtual worlds.
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