Boutique Web Design Firm Goes 3D

This year, the 3d Internet is moving beyond niche applications like World of Warcraft and Second Life, with rapidly-evolving enterprise-level platforms – and development firms are springing up to serve business needs, ready to build product showrooms, community gathering places and corporate conference and training facilities. One of these companies is Germany’s Media Dialog (Google translation), where developer Andreas Mueller is currently building a virtual city, complete with a public business conference and convention center.

Media Dialog has been in business for 12 years, building websites and providing other technology services, including networking and software development. The company has three full-time employees and one intern.

Media Dialog has a track record of solving problems for business clients, and plans to put that track record to work on the new virtual web.

Or, as the kids are calling it these days, the “hypergrid.”

Here’s the quick background on the hypergrid – skip if you’ve heard this before:

In the olden days, if a company wanted to build a virtual world for a simulation or a conference, and wanted a nice, stable platform, choices were limited. To just one: Linden Lab’s Second Life. Yes, Second Life, home of online sex addicts, pedophiles, gamblers, and flying penises – and also home to museums, colleges, and business training centers.

Sure, some of these functions don’t coexist well, but what are you going to do? It’s not like you’re going to go to World of Warcraft to hold your conference. Unless it’s one of those trust-building team exercises for a tech startup.

Those bad all days – I’m talking last month here – have come to an end. A group of brave, selfless open source volunteers, together with some folks from IBM, Microsoft and Intel have reversed-engineered the Second Life platform and made it freely available to the entire world. Remember when the Apache server came out and everybody could have their own website, instead of subscribing to AOL? This is like that.

Anybody can now download the software, called OpenSim, and set up their own virtual world. You could do it on your home computer, but your would be limited in size to around 64 acres, and you wouldn’t be able to have more than a handful of people visit at once. Oh, yeah, and if you turned off your computer – your universe would disappear out from under the feet of the folks visiting.

There’s a reason people don’t host their own websites – and they’re not likely to host their own virtual worlds, either, unless they are big enough to have their own data center.

For everyone else, there’s companies like Media Dialog.

As a demonstration project, Mueller is now building his own grid, called NextReality, which will be home to Future City, a business destination.

“If a customer wants his business office replicated in virtual 3d to show to their customers, I can do it,” he said. “No problem.”

snapshot_004

One problem that’s likely to arise is when people make virtual copies of real locations. Say, for example, if in a virtual New York City, the Trump Tower is bought up by Trump’s arch rival and rebranded. During the early years of the Internet, the same thing happened with people buying up famous domain names and holding them hostage. – or, worse, using them for nefarious business purposes.

“Maybe in the future, some laws will exist, but at the moment, there is no law,” he said. “There is no law giving copyright to buildings.”

So if someone comes to him and asks for a copy of a building?

“I can build it. I will build it, and I will rent it to the company that will pay for it,” he said.

Mostly, however, he expects companies to use the virtual worlds to create shopping venues – as with the product that 3Di has just launched.

Retailers can see the possibilities of the virtual worlds he says. For example, their customers can shop with their friends, as a social experience.

And, in a virtual world, you can try on clothing and walk all around furniture, making it a richer experience that that of a typical e-commerce website. And, in fact, the first company that launched on 3Di’s new platform was a furniture retailer.

snapshot_007

At some point in the future, Mueller says, every company will have its own grids and virtual worlds, the same way they now have their own Internet domains and websites.

“But this will take a long time,” he said.

It is still early enough that Mueller doesn’t even have price lists up for virtual domains.

“I would say, for having a 3D website, I take the same price as for a normal website,” he said. “So around 300 to 400 Euros (US$390 to $520) to set up, then around 25 Euros (US$33) a month for the hosting.”

For this price, the customer would get a quarter of a simulated region, or four square acres of land.

For whole region, or 16 square acres, either attached to a grid or located on its own grid, the prices goes up to 60 Euros (US$78) a month, he said.

In the latter case, the region can hold up to 40 visitors at a time.

For a higher price, 80 Euros a month (US$104), the Internet pipe can be expanded to allow for up to 60 people.

Three dimensional worlds take a great deal of bandwidth, he explained.

Doubling the number of visitors more than doubles the bandwidth requirements, since each visitor also interacts with all the others already there.

In fact, as the number of people rises too high, the system is likely to crash. Second Life has the same problem, with difficulties getting more than 40 people into the same area. As a result, the platform is currently most suitable for smaller events, though this is likely to change fast as technology improves.

And it’s not just virtual worlds, he added – even Skype has problems running a conference call for ten people.

“I hope in a few years it will grow, and we will have all the bandwidth we need to do all these things,” he said.

In fact, OpenSim doesn’t yet have built-in voice capabilities. It’s possible to stream in voices through add-ons. For example, a speaker can give a speech in OpenSim, but they first have to run special streaming software. And audience members won’t be able to ask questions or talk to each other, except by typing instant messages.

Meanwhile, if a business is looking for a place to hold a conference, with a nice meeting hall and a podium, white boards and other facilities, and a way to stream in the speaker’s voice, Mueller said he can organize it for free once his conference center goes live.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.