Encouraging Exploration: Tales of Telehubs and Hypergrid Hops

We all have a desire to explore.  It’s in our nature as human beings to seek out novel things, both the conceptual and the physical.  To be human is to be an explorer.

Virtual worlds give us an opportunity to explore and discover new environments filled with new people.  And given the malleable nature of virtual worlds, we can design these environments in ways to specifically encourage exploration.

But trying to encourage people to explore by design is tricky.  Read on for some thoughts and examples.

Back in the early years of Second Life, we had an interesting feature in the world.

It was called the Telehub.

Telehub at Montara region in Second Life

If an avatar in Second Life decided to teleport to a specific location in Second Life, they would not arrive at their final destination.  Instead, they would arrive at the nearest Telehub.  From the Telehub, they would have to fly or walk to their final destination.

These Telehubs were installed by Linden Lab and scattered strategically across the grid of Second Life so that you wouldn’t have to fly or walk too far to ultimately get to where you wanted to go.

The intention was to encourage exploration.  By purposefully preventing direct teleporting, avatars would be encouraged to explore the world between the Telehub and their final destination.  And the Telehubs would become social gathering places, where avatars could meet new people arriving at them and establish new friendships.

Well…that was the intention.  The reality was something else altogether.

What happened was a lot of user annoyance.  People bought land all around the Telehubs.  They put up big billboards and stores.  There was guaranteed traffic, so it made perfect business sense.  And over time, many Telehubs became somewhat laggy because of all the development around them.  People generally hated having to deal with the hassle of navigating the last leg of their journey.  They didn’t want to explore. They just wanted to get to where they were going.

I was working at Linden Lab at the time this started to become a real issue for Second Life users.  But it took a while for us to decide to get rid of Telehubs.  I think one reason we waited so long to address this issue was quite simple.  Linden Lab employees could always directly teleport to anywhere in Second Life. So we didn’t feel the daily pain of our customers.

Eventually, Linden Lab decided to get rid of Telehubs.  I actually led the team of Linden Lab employees who went into Second Life and disabled them all.  We had fun doing it, too.

Pathfinder Linden burning down the Telehub at Stillman

Naturally, not everyone believed that getting rid of Telehubs would be a good idea.  Some Second Life users and Linden Lab employees believed that getting rid of them would reduce the amount of exploring done in Second Life.  But when we looked at internal traffic data for avatars, we actually noticed an increase in overall exploration after getting rid of the Telehubs.  And the community response was overwhelmingly positive.

So Telehubs were happily relegated to the dustbin of history.  And we learned that trying to encourage exploration by design can sometimes go wrong.  Lesson learned.

Today, we have Hypergrid connectivity with Opensim.  People can jump between completely different Opensim grids without relogging, bringing their identity and inventory with them wherever they go.

But there’s a catch.

Because of a bug, people cannot directly jump via the Hypergrid to a location that is more than 4096 coordinates away.  If someone is trying to reach a location that is too far away, they have to make intermediate hops.  Once they reach their final grid destination, then they can make a local grid teleport directly to where they want to go.

Sounds annoying, right?  And yes, if you’re in a hurry and trying to get to where you want to go on the Hypergrid, it can definitely be a pain.

But I’ve noticed something interesting.  Based on my own experiences with the Hypergrid Adventurers Club and speaking with other people who use Opensim on a daily basis, I’ve found that folks often really enjoy making these intermediate hops.  They enjoy discovering new locations en route to their final destination.

So what’s going on?  What’s the difference between the complete annoyance of the Telehub model and the rather successfully (albeit unintentionally designed) encouraged exploration of Hypergrid Hops?  There’s the obvious “pioneering spirit” of folks on Opensim that definitely contributes to an increased desire to wander around.  But I wonder if there’s something more at hand here.  Here’s an idea.

If a Journey to a specific goal requires exploration midway, that’s usually a Good Thing.

Imagine a real life road trip where you stop and wander around interesting places along the way to your destination.  You reach your destination city after many hours of driving, but you manage to quickly and easily find your hotel.  Such trips are fun.

If a Journey to a specific goal requires exploration at the end, that’s usually a Bad Thing.

Imagine a real life road trip where you drive directly to your destination.  You reach your destination city after many hours of driving and discover you must park your car and then wander around to find your hotel. Such trips kind of suck.

Summary: Encourage people to explore well before they get close to the goal of their journey.  Once someone is near the end of their journey, they usually just want to finish it.

The art of successfully encouraging exploration is much more complex than just these ideas.  What are your thoughts on encouraging exploration by design?  Your experiences with Telehubs and Hypergrid Hops?

-John “Pathfinder” Lester

15 thoughts on “Encouraging Exploration: Tales of Telehubs and Hypergrid Hops

  1. I think it’s much more a matter of if you are exploring then exploring is good. If you are going somewhere then exploring is bad. If I go from A to C once then a stop at B is fine. If I go from A to C ten times then that stop at B becomes extremely annoying. This was the basic problem with telehubs, and will become the problem with intermediate hops. They interfere with getting somewhere; which doesn’t matter if you aren’t going anywhere in particular, but quickly becomes intolerable when you wand to get to your friend’s place in time for the big game.

    The best way to encourage exploration is to make it easy to find places of interest. When Google searches start turning up Metaverse locations I think you will find that exploring the grids increases dramatically.

    • Great points. I particularly like your last sentence “The best way to encourage exploration is to make it easy to find places of interest.” I cannot wait for some enterprising person to invent Google Metaverse Search. There’s a huge need for it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks were working on such a thing right now.

      • There is something in the works by Diva Canto called Metaverse Ink. It’s rather a directory with built-in search engine. It would work better if OpenSim would register regions automatically.

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  3. The link was a natural hook for crawling the web and provided a basis for building a search engine. I can’t think of a natural counterpoint in virtual space. Landmarks are not simple objects to be found laying about when visiting a location. This makes crawling the metaverse more challenging. Most locations are effectively dead ends.

    Maybe we need to make an easily recognizable LM primitive type. Or more to the point, maybe there should be no types of things in virtual space which are not treated as objects. Then an LM could be rezzed and made available for others to take copies of. (Same for notecards.)

  4. I’m with Dharma on this. When people are out to explore – as the members of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club are — then side trips can be interesting and amusing.

    The first time.

    But when you’re going somewhere on a regular basis, it’s a real pain to have to figure out how to get there, and plan your intermediary stops. Especially since those regions in the middle might have moved, upgraded to a different version of OpenSim, or just be down for the day because they’re doing server maintenance or accidentally turned off the computer running OpenSim. So a trip that works today might not work tomorrow. I sometimes have to try several “middle” destinations before I find one that works when I’m traveling from upper to lower regions. And when the last hop fails, I don’t know if it’s because of a problem at the destination, or a problem at the intermediary location.

    Personally, I can’t wait for the OpenSim server and viewer folks to figure out how to fix this bug. And it means that any of us will be able to put up a gate to any other destination anywhere else. Today, we can only put up gates to regions within teleport distance.

    — Maria

  5. “What are your thoughts on encouraging exploration by design?”

    It’s a series of tricks and illusions. The best working parallel I can relate is most “free world” video games – GTA, Elder Scrolls, Red Dead Redemption, World of Warcraft, Fallout 3, and so many others. What we learn from these games are great best practices for any user behavior, be it virtual worlds, business, educators, et al. A list off the top of my head:
    – Give freedom in layers. After all, limits are only seen when the user starts to understand the system. When you start off in a small orientation area, we designers may know it’s small, but for a new users just getting their feet on the ground, that small area seems endless. Beyond that, you might have a local “noobie” area where it’s a fairly safe playpen, but allows more freedom of movement and pretty linear directed quests / tasks. Next a region, where learning the map and road systems becomes key. Then a world/multiverse where different modes of transportation is important. A lot of new users getting TOO much freedom at first will get frustrated and crash and burn. (I nearly did so in Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, after encountering enemies WAY too high level by walking too far north too early).
    – Wayfinding: Signs, Roads, Teleports, modes of transportation. Create expectations on what ways are to explore. Then use these to direct users to new things. If Telehubs had one central value, it’s that they acted almost like signposts.
    – Linking. This is how the Internet works. In video games, quests are the hyperlinks. When one place recommends another, it works the same way. Second Life and other virtual worlds don’t have enough built-in incentives. The landmark system is a text-based solution for a 3-D world, and that sucks. I love love love the portal system you have promoted because it’s a 3-D metaphor that is contextually much more sensible.
    – PRETTY. Bottom line, visually compelling pictures / video / geography are what inspires physical world explorers, video game explorers, and virtual world explorations. Also, STORY and MYSTERY drive this as well. (sometimes the setting alone can imply this: The creepy haunted mansion, the abandoned warehouse, the pristine wizard’s tower, etc)

    (… and now you’ve inspired another blog post from me. Curse you!)

    “Your experiences with Telehubs?”

    They sucked hard. Imposing artificial limitations to imitate physical world limitations and expect the same results as the physical world was short-sighted. I understand the “subway” metaphor, but a better search engine would have worked way better.

  6. “I love love love the portal system you have promoted because it’s a 3-D metaphor that is contextually much more sensible.”

    I too prefer the porthole metaphor, though the only reason I see for not reducing it to a simple doorway is the the pragmatic one that jumps tend not to happen a lot of the time. In a mature and stable system I’d lose the notion of distance and jumping altogether, but I’m not here for the RPG and gaming which might require the notion of distance.

  7. Just a reply to the comments here, not an actual reply to the topic at hand: I don’t think we can ‘direct’ the users at all, because there’s no central entryway to OpenSim. Maybe Second Life could’ve directed the users to some extent, but even that didn’t work out as planned. They have the gateways, and still it seems to be a gordian knot to get newbies into the concept.

    I don’t have any solution to this. I don’t want it to be made any simpler, even if it was possible, because I enjoy the complexity of it all. I also don’t think we could do anything to make widespread adoption happen faster; again, SL couldn’t make that happen either.

    Rather, maybe, it just needs time. A lot of people are only now starting to get used to Email. In the meantime, we could make something for them worth visiting. Even for an intermediate jump.

    V

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  9. there’s only two designs for visual feedback interface navigation. ( lets hope IBM doesnt call ownership)- actaul they started with GUI – windows -mac etc.– command line required neither since it was text based.
    1. either bring ” IT” to “ME”
    2. or” I ” goto “IT”

    this works in 2d or 3d interfaces.

    Both use TIME as the medium. and time is as quick as a screen redraw on a monitor… so “what you draw” will determine the experience.

    Which will work better for a task all depends on the “need” level – one has for IT.

    funny, how LL employees (using Sl as a tool-money/time) took “how long? how many dead ears shown” to figure out that once they sold SL as a tool (L$ time) to “others” that the “explorer game shitck had to go away… same will happen with the hypergrid portals IF opensims finds any larger- metaverse-collective- value beyond how most of them are today.

    thast why search – Google- is the webs big dollar winner today…. dollars=time

    while facebook is only a “lobby” for email and gameplay..:)– MS is the real loser from Google… they had outlook express and other email tools for decades… but could never see the changing user of the computer….net.

    web browsing?… yahoos lists of lists..? all died out when the web got monetized for commerce/business in 96.-7 — again. a change in user/( first pundits/first geeks online) needs… they had to show a ROI of time and money….or they couldnt justify their pay as company geeks..:)

    anyhow— opensims without a cash ROI…of time spent navigating between them/ or any grids… will just be siloed playpens forevever…..

    every VRML world/file- “could” link to each other… they didnt/dont. and they were browser based… in fact everthing slide i saw at the webgl bootcamp could have had a vrml97 or x3d logo on them rather than a webgl logo in their corner….. and even bruce was in the room…same hair and all;)

    bst
    c3

  10. I remember some research by Daniel Kahneman and colleagues where they found that peoples’ affective memory of an experience is how they felt towards the end of the event. This works well with the end of the trip point, but it doesn’t explain why the journey might also be important.

  11. In virtual worlds there is no real distance to drive and therefore, to me, no feeling of either intermediate or proximal distance from my intended destination. Any interruption, “near” or “far” from my destination, is just an interference.

    In Second Life the annoyance was compounded by the ugliness, both visual and behavioral, that collected at Telehubs (and continued after they became Infohubs) like trash on a gutter grate. Hopefully new virtual worlds can avoid this, either by randomizing the intermediate stops so that they do not attract junky “tourist trap” development, or by creating well-managed hubs that display beauty and creativity, like the airports that feature art and museum exhibits.

    I think the reason people are amenable to wayside stops on a long real-life trip is that they become physically uncomfortable and mentally dull from sitting in the car. Diversion is welcome and healthy — and probably you had to stop anyhow, for a meal and a bio break and gasoline, so wandering among the huge life-size concrete dinosaurs in a nearby park is a fun addition to the stop rather than, in itself, an interruption.

    I might crawl around under the dinosaurs to see how they are constructed, and look for the names of whoever was admirably weird enough to think of mounting a lot of gigantic dinosaurs here, and read the name plate on an unfamiliar dinosaur figure, happy to learn what it was called. I might even exuberantly climb around on them in spite of the sign that says “Danger! Do Not Climb Dinosaurs.” I would relish the bizarreness, the absurdity of the place.

    But if I were detoured off the highway and required to climb onto the head of the aptosaurus to get my bearings and plot a course onward toward my destination, I would probably be all grumpy.

    Tom Sawyer is right: Work is what a body’s obliged to do and play is what a body ain’t obliged to do.

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