Opening up to OpenSim

I got a lot of responses to last week’s post about Second Life – more than to any other article. People emailed me and twittered me, asking for more information and advice on getting started.

First of all, I have to warn people – there’s still a little bit of a VHS-Betamax thing going on, with a variety of technologies battling it out for survival.

If you’re a business looking to set up your own virtual world, to use to train employees, to hold conferences, to do simulations for clients, to help the public understand better what you do, then you currently have two main choices.

One is to rent land from Linden Labs, owner and operator of Second Life. In the past, this was very problematic, as Second Life was rife with sex and gambling and role-playing weirdos of all kinds. More than one event has been disrupted by flying penises. Yes, you read that right.

Today though, a business can rent a private island, restrict access to just invited guests, or kick evildoers off their property. Better yet, a company can get the software from Linden Labs to run their own private world, behind their corporate firewalls.

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I recently attended several training events and conferences in Second Life, and the experience was fantastic – much better than attending a similar event via teleconference. And much cheaper than attending in real life. So all good.

I was able to walk up to presenters and ask questions after their speeches, and meet the other attendees – and have actually stayed in touch with people I met this way.

Second Life gives you plenty of opportunities for the kind of social chit chat that helps cement a relationship. For example, I was able to ask one of the speakers, a developer from IBM, why he was wearing a Star Trek shirt, and whether he wears them in real life as well (he does – it seems that the fabled IBM dress code is no more).

The big downside to Second Life is that it is a closed system. Linden Labs owns the software, sets all the rules – much like AOL and Compuserve did in the days before Netscape came long.

At their conference, the IBMers talked a lot about OpenSim, a public, open-source alternative. You can download the software and run it on your own servers and voila – you are the god of your own virtual reality. Unfortunately, their project was behind IBM’s firewall and closed to the public – I thought.

That turned out not to be the case. In fact, there is a version of OpenSim, called OSGrid, that’s run out in the public for anyone to enjoy.

While wandering around in there, I met Chris Greenwell. Greenwell runs Toronto-based KoolKam Industries Inc., a video technology company, and has recently branched into OpenSim development projects.

He’s got one environment, for example, running on his laptop. He is able to use this laptop to generate four regions – each over 65,000 square meters in size. In normal terms, each region is a square of land about one sixth of a mile by one sixth mile.

In order to keep the region up and running, you have to have your computer always connected to the Internet, of course – or rent space on someone else’s server to host it.

I found one service company that currently hosts OpenSim deployments – Sim-OnDemand (at http://sim.ec29.com) – which uses the Amazon S3 server to actually run the environment, and they charge based on how much processing power you need.

It was hard to tell from their prices how much it would actually cost in practice, but I can tell you what Greenwell gets with his laptop. On his almost-one-mile-square land area, he has variable terrain including hills and lakes and streams. There are buildings, and vegetation which sways in the wind.

Disclaimer: he’s letting me use half of one of his four regions to play with the building tools in OpenSim. So far this weekend, I’ve put up a house, planted trees, and put in a business conference venue with a big-screen display for powerpoint charts and seating for twenty.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to have twenty people come at any one time, however – so far, Greenwell has never had more than ten people at a time in one of his regions.

So, for a laptop-based virtual world, the verdict is: good for small business gatherings, not good for big conferences.

Another downside to OpenSim is that it’s a project still very much under development. The payment system is still under development, though there’s a work-around solution that takes PayPal payments. Voice chat, which works reasonably well in Second Life, is due any day now.

When I interviewed Greenwell for this article, we talked on the phone, though when he showed me around OpenSim, we talked by typing messages in the virtual platform.

OpenSim has many of the same things you can get in SecondLife – land, buildings, furniture, clothes and avatar shapes. You can pick them up from a store, or you can build your own – the tools are right in the two most popular browsers for it – Linden Lab’s Second Life browser, and my favorite, the Hippo browser.

Both work pretty much the same way, with almost identical interfaces.

Since I switch between Second Life and OpenSim, I use my Second Life browser for Second Life, and my Hippo browser for OpenSim.

Although IBM has been successfully able to teleport a person from Second Life to OpenSim, it’s not a path that other people can yet follow. When you switch worlds right now, you have a build a new avatar from scratch.

Would you like to visit my house and office in OpenSim?

It will take 15 to 30 minutes for you to set yourself up. You will need a high speed Internet connection, and a computer able to display graphics.

Step One:

Create a free OpenSim account. This part takes a few seconds, and only requires that you have an email address:

http://osgrid.org/index.php?page=create&btn=4

I used my real name for the signup, so you’ll know who I am if you meet me here.

Step Two:

Download the OpenSim browser. Again, I recommend Hippo. You can download it here:

http://osgrid.org/index.php?&page=smodul&id=7&btn=7

Step Three:

Run the Hippo browser, and sign in with your name and password.

Then go to Caladan by clicking on the Map button in the lower left, and typing “Caladan” into the search box. The map of the Caladan region will come up – the Trombly Ltd. offices are in the top right hand-corner. Click anywhere in there and hit “Teleport.”

You don’t have to teleport – you can also walk or fly from your starting point to my location. That’s because when people set up regions in OpenSim, they can place them in an unused space on the map.

You don’t have to have a region on a map, however. Your region can float off all by itself, unconnected to anybody else.

Or you could start a brand new map. There are a few of those. They call them grids.

Greenwell promised me that you can teleport between grids as well, using a portal. I imagined something like the StarGate, that takes you between worlds. Unfortunately, the portal he took me to wasn’t working. And it didn’t look like a StarGate – yet. Greenwell tells me that a new look is in the works.

There’s something else in the works, too.

According to Greenwell, there’s a project called Modrex that will significantly expand OpenSim’s graphical capabilities. Instead of the cartoony graphics we get now, which are based on building shapes out of cubes and spheres, it’s based on a mesh framework, like the most recent video games.

The results are hyper-realistic. Greenwell showed me a demo video of what it looks like, and I was blown away.

One application of this is that you and a friend will be able to meet in OpenSim, sit behind a computer together, and use it as you would your desktop in your office. I can already see the implications for training staff on using new software, for editing people’s articles while they literally stand there and watch what you do, and for tech support.

With my staff located in China, in India, in the Philippines, and in the US, this could be extremely useful.

Greenwell says that the technology is due out this summer. I’m guessing that it will take a little longer than that to get all the kinks out and get it ready for business use.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue experimenting with OpenSim. I know I’ll be on the bleeding edge of new technology, but as a young, fast company, that’s where we want to be, anyway.

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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.