Sex king takes on the hypergrid

The battle for the future of the 3D Web is about to get hot… and steamy. Utherverse CEO tells us that he’s planning to launch an all-out attack against the other virtual world platforms out there, with free hosting and a set of free building tools designed to attract business customers.

Brian Shuster, CEO of Utherverse Digital Inc.

Brian Shuster, CEO of Utherverse Digital Inc.

His main target is the hypergrid – worlds based on the OpenSim, RealExtend and Second Life platform which all use the OpenLibMetaverse set of communication standards and can all be accessed by the same set of browsers (now numbering over a dozen), and potentially supporting hypergrid teleports.

Not all worlds running on these platforms support these teleports, of course – the main Second Life grid being the obvious holdout, though there are also many OpenSim worlds running in private or behind-the-firewall mode. But hypergrid teleports are technically possible, and there are ways to approximate teleports by using, say, the Meerkat browser.

According to Brian Shuster, CEO of Vancouver-based Utherverse Digital Inc., the Utherverse platform, which is based on the Unreal engine, offers better graphics, better architecture – regions can be any size, not limited to just 16 acres – and can support an unlimited number of avatars in a single location.

In addition, the company currently has four million registered users, he said, who are familiar with the technology.

“We’re comparable in size to Second Life,” Shuster said, adding that he’s surprised that his company hasn’t received anywhere near the same level of attention from the public or the media.

“We hosted a four-day music festival with hundreds of bands who came to play,” he said. “We’ve had film festivals where users could come and see dozens of award-winning films, and filmmakers could come and see feedback from people watching in real time.”

Some concerts had tens of thousands of people in attendance at once, he said.

Second Life and OpenSim regions, by comparison, start to leg when more than 20 avatars are in the same area.

“I’m not a fan of OpenSim,” he said. “We’re several generations ahead of where they are. And the browsers that Second Life use, that OpenSim use, are developed to the lowest common denominator, are very crippled. Our browser is several generations ahead of those other platforms.”

utherverse-sex-snapshot

Getting all those avatars in one location creates some challenges. For example, imagine ten thousand people chatting at once.

“You simply can’t follow the chats,” Shuster said. “We have proprietary algorithms designed to only display, say, text chat of interest to them – language specific, or only people with whom they’re associated.”

In addition, Utherverse uses Vivox for directional voice – the same system used by Second Life. This week, some regions on OSGrid also rolled out support for Vivox. Vivox requires a paid license, however, so is not available out-of-the-box to everyone who downloads the OpenSim server software.

Utherverse also supports teleports between worlds, Shuster said. Not teleports to Second Life or OpenSim worlds, but teleports to other worlds running on the Utherverse platform.

NOT ALL USERS CREATED EQUAL

Second Life has about 16 million users, with about 1.4 million logging in over the past two months, according to Second Life statistics, about four times more than Utherverse.

Of course, the issue isn’t about regular old users. If it was all about the users, then World of Warcraft or one of those Korean or Chinese sword-and-sorcery games would be the foundation of the next 3D Internet.

The more important metric is the number of content creators – businesses and educational institutions and individuals who are out there creating virtual environments. After all, people didn’t start leaving AOL for the Web because there was one really great website out there – but because there were thousands of colleges, businesses, non-profit groups, and individuals putting up all kinds of sites, bad, good, crazy, and everything in between.

Today, all these groups are putting up islands inside Second Life, or creating their own virtual worlds in OpenSim. There are about 30,000 regions now in Second Life, and more than 4,000 regions on the most popular OpenSim grids – but there’s no way to count up all the grids and regions being run using the OpenSim platform since anyone can download the software and put up a grid.

OpenSim has been growing particularly quickly over the last few months, as the technology has become more stable, and started to support voice and hypergrid teleports. The grid gained about 600 new regions in the past month – a monthly growth rate of about 33%.

In addition, there are a handful of pilot users using the Second Life “Nebraska” server platform, and another handful of major enterprises using IBM’s OpenSim-based Lotus Sametime 3D.

By comparison, there are only a dozen business users of the Utherverse server platform, said Shuster. The largest of these is Coolspot AG, a German company running the Secret City adult virtual world, which, Shuster says, currently has about a million users.

Licensing the Utherverse software costs between $50,000 and $2.4 million, said Uther, depending on the size and scope of the project. By comparison, Second Life’s server product – code-named Nebraska – is expected to go for around $50,000 when its officially released at the end of the year. And a hardened, enterprise-ready version of OpenSim integrated with Lotus Sametime is available from IBM for around $50,000 as well. Of course, anyone can also install and run the OpenSim software for free, if they are willing to do their own maintenance and support, which makes OpenSim popular with educational institutions rich in talent but poor in money.

No colleges or universities are currently on Utherverse – but Shuster said that any educational institution can get free land on an Utherverse world. If they want it.

The company is also thinking about other business applications.

“We have the ability to put on trade shows, so far that ability has been used only in a limited sense, in test case environments,” Shuster said.

In addition, business users of Utherverse don’t currently have the ability to edit their own environments. By comparison, land owners in Second Life can put up their own buildings and create everything in them – or hire designers to do it for them.

According to Utherverse policies, business owners must request any changes – and pay for them. Oh, and wait for Utherverse to get around to carrying out the order. For entrepreneurs looking to sell products in Utherverse, they are mostly out of luck. Both Second Life and OpenSim support intellectural property rights – permissions are built into item descriptions, allowing – or forbidding – buyers from modifying, reselling, copying, or giving away the products. In Utherverse, entrepreneurs can make and sell virtual clothing and textures. “However, there is no method to prevent other users from copying your designs for their own use,” the company says.

BIG FREE LAND BOOM

Utherverse plans to address many of these concerns over the next two months, releasing a tool kit that will let designers make products and environments and upload them to the virtual world.

In addition, the company plans to make free land available to all who want it, and is already giving away tens of thousands of free assets. In addition, it is possible to import three-dimensional objects from other systems, such as CAD programs, and Google’s 3D Warehouse.

“It’s not the easiest thing to do, but yes, we have users that do it,” said Shuster. “We are working on making that toolset better.”

In addition, he said, in November, users will be able to upload animations from other design programs.

Users running their own virtual worlds using the Utherverse platform will also be able to set their own age restrictions. For example, Utherverse’s Red Light District virtual world is only accessible to people 18 and over – similar to Second Life’s main grid age restrictions. However, some users – museums, for example, or educational institutions, or toy companies – might want to have their worlds accessible by all ages.

For enterprises hosted on the Utherverse platform, however, the issue is a bit thornier – does Utherverse want to be in a position of tracking different age groups as they access different parts of their virtual worlds?

“It’s a question we’re in debate on,” Shuster said. “Hopefully, part of the virtual world environment is going to not have age restrictions.”

Utherverse currently makes money from premium user accounts – users need to pay $20 a month in order to access some of the racier functionality of the platform – and by renting out storefronts. Depending on how desireable the location is, storefronts range from $50 a month to several thousand dollars a month, Shuster said. In addition, residential users looking for more than the basic apartment that comes with the $20 membership can pay as much as $60 for a large country home.

Giving away free land is a major paradigm change for the company, said Shuster, and will help turn it into the defacto standard for the 3D Web.

“That demolishes the ‘walled garden’,” he said. “We look at ourselves like the Web itself. Any university, company or individual will be able to go in and create their own virtual worlds at no charge – we expect to see an absolute explosion of virtual worlds being created.”

These worlds can be interconnected or stand-alone worlds, he said, depending on how much privacy is required.

In addition, Utherverse will be giving away a set of business collaboration tools, based on open source collaboration software. “IBM wants to make money,” he said. “We want to do this for free. Our objective is to be the browser of the new web. By offering this to users to free, offering it to businesses for free, we want to achieve critical mass.”

However, he doesn’t expect to see any interoperability with OpenSim and Second Life worlds.

“Trying to engineer towards interoperability means cripping our software too much – in order for us to interoperate we would need to step back to generations in software,” he said. “Those platforms just don’t support infinite avatars.”

It’s not his company that’s the walled garden, he said – it’s OpenSim.

“Our expectation is that those software platforms are very much like the AOLs and the Compuserves,” he said. “They’re not going to exist for much longer, so there won’t be much need to make ourselves backwards compatible with them. They’re just not very useful. If they can step it up where they can to our level, then its something we can talk about.”

REALITY CHECK

So how good is the software? The online reviews are mixed, with many people complaining that the free membership doesn’t offer much. We weren’t able to get the browser software to run on a new Windows Vista machine, but were able to run it on a five-year-old Windows XP laptop. It was a massive, massive download, taking up more than 1,300 megabytes on my harddrive. The Second Life browser, by comparison, is just about 70 megabytes. The OpenSim-friendly Hippo browser is even smaller, just 62 megabytes.

Unlike Second Life and OpenSim – where the regions are wide open, and the land is contiguous, Utherverse requires a teleport when moving from any one area to any other area.

This allows for unlimited variation when creating virtual worlds – but also makes it more difficult to navigate. However, areas load quickly and are easy to move through – possibly because much of the content is pre-loaded as part of the installation package. In general, the environment has the look-and-feel of a first-person shooter video game. Specifically, it reminded of of Tomb Raider, if Lara Croft was able to take her clothes off.

The biggest problem with Utherverse from a business perspective, of course, is just that focus on adult content. Naked avatars appear throughout the company’s marketing materials and in the intro video. There’s even a “nude” button built-in to the browser, for getting undressed really really quickly. Needless to say, avatars come anatomically correct. In Second Life and OpenSim, the default avatars are more like plastic dolls. It’s possible to get anatomically correct equipment, but users have to go out of their way to find and buy it.

And the company actively markets its sex-friendly orientation. The big announcement this month on its business page is that it hosted a porn star party – complete with “working girls,” alcoholic beverages, and virtual sex.

Because of its adult focus, no major virtual world research firms or analysts currently follow the company or provide Utherverse development services.

“It’s great that there is some compeitition here, sort of a browser war for the future of the Net,” said Anders Gronstedt, president of the virtual worlds research firm The Gronstedt Group, Inc.

But he predicts that the adult content will be a high hurdle for Utherverse to overcome when it’s courting business users.

“We already have that problem with Second Life, working hard to separate that out,” he said. “The perception issue is going to be a problem.”

Advanced technology by itself isn’t necessarily going to give Utherverse an advantage, he added – as the case of Betamax versus VHS tapes demonstrated.

“It’s not the best technology that wins out,” he said.

For example, Sun’s Wonderland project has been getting some nice reviews, he said. “People are arguing that if they were to start from scratch, Wonderland is the platform that they would create.”

But Wonderland hasn’t seen any traction, he said, with only internal Sun users and some college use, but no mass deployments of the software.

“And if you talk to many of the OpenSim evangelists, they’re arguing that they’re just a year away from having a thousand people in the same meeting,” he said. “They’re really bullish on growing the platform.”

With IBM and Intel behind it working full time, as well as a large and dedicated open source community, Gronstedt said he’s bullish on OpenSim as well.

“I think that OpenSim is probably the platform right now that’s best positioned to become the de-facto next HTML of the virtual world.”

OUR TAKE

At Hypergrid Business, as the name implies, we kind of prefer the hypergrid.

But we can definitely see the potential of having a business platform that can handle thousands of avatars as well. This would be great for virtual conferences, for example — under all-new branding, however. Maybe spun off as an entirely new company, even.

Large-scale virtual business conferences require an easy login process. However, Shuster declined to disclose whether his company was working on a Web-based interface for Utherverse.

For small business users, OpenSim is still more attractive since you can actually own your own content and your own sim, and can host it yourself or choose a hosting company.

The OpenSim-Second Life environment also has a large ecosystem of builders and designers used to working with the tools, and the largest group of users of all the virtual worlds, not counting the pure gaming platforms and the kid worlds.

However, if Utherverse is able to attract customers with its free land offer, then it may help drive down land prices across the multiverse. That will be great for users — though possibly not so great for virtual world operators.

I myself would not want to hold business meetings in Utherverse — there is too much adult content around, and the browser is too large a download for my employees or clients.

With a streamlined browser — minus the adult content — I can see using Utherverse for large one-time gatherings. But I’d still be wary of putting any permanent facilities — my office building, say — on land that I don’t own.

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.

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  • http://suezannecbaskerville.wordpress.com SuezanneC Baskervill

    Nice article. Glad I found the link. I posted a thread in the Second Life forums linking to this post. http://forums.secondlife.com/showthread.php?t=330

  • Jimmy

    it doesn't make sense calling this the 3D web when they dont use a web browser. These are big giant application downloads that have nothing to do with the web. It would be like saying World of Warcraft is gaming on the web, which we all know it is not. Both this product and Second Life are both walled gardens, big applications that take a very long time to download and install and thus are very user unfriendly, and most importantly are not on the web, in a web browser, connected to any web content, or easy to use like the web.

    No consumer business is going to use that kind of technology or strategy to reach it's customers. They know they have to be on the web where everyone is. That is why since early 2008 consumer brands and products have been abandoning Second Life. It is about the user access experience and being on the web. Unfortunately for Second Life they have an additional issue beyond the technology and access challenges for consumers, which is that their content is too adult for any consumer brand to be near.

    But the access and technology unfriendliness (compared to web sites, Flash, 3D web experiences like Vivaty, etc) for consumers are the real deal breaker issues. IMO.

  • http://tromblyltd.com Maria Korolov

    Jimmy — You're absolutely right. I'm personally very interested in the work done by the Xinki viewer. Adam Frisby over at DeepThink used to head this up, but got busy on other projects. I recently saw that Kevin Tweedy has taken it over, and he's got a nice demo video up.

    I personally am VERY excited about having a web-based viewer for the Second Life/OpenSim/Real Xtend worlds. It will make this technology much more accessible to the public at large.

    Meanwhile, most OpenSim and SecondLife deployments these days seem to be oriented towards INTERNAL business applications, not retail-focused stuff. For example, the IBM Lotus Sametime 3D product is designed for internal collaboration. Schools and colleges are using OpenSim and Second Life to hold classes. Architects use this to do walk-throughs for clients. I personally am mostly interested in these small, cost-efffective, and bottom-line-oriented uses of virtual worlds. Technology hype comes and goes, often without any successful businesses uses to show for it. But the OpenSim-Second Life-Rex stack of applications seems to be steadily growing in actual enterprise users. — Maria

  • Sandra Webwyre

    What a shame you felt you had to use the word SEX in the title of your article in an attempt to get attention. This was a well-written article that had it’s own legs to stand on. Businesses are having a hard enough time getting buy-in for virtual world use, another article with the word sex in the headline hinders progress more than it helps. I’m really disappointed you stooped to sensationalism rather then good reporting.

  • Been there, heard th

    Been there for quite a while now… I've learned one of many things…. Aside from the fact that the platform is extremely unstable, unreliable, over-priced, and just down right pisses people off at times….

    If it looks like bull crap, and it smells like bull crap….. Guess what, there's a good chance that it is bull crap.

  • http://www.slapt.me Lord Sullivan

    Maybe this is one of the many reasons people do not take Mr Shuster seriously

    http://www.ftc.gov/os/caselist/9823541.shtm

    and I quote

    " Adult Web Sites Settle FTC Charges

    "Free" Site Operators To Provide Refunds To Consumers They Billed

    Operators of "free" adult Web sites, who claimed they required a credit card number just to verify consumers' age, but then placed unauthorized charges on consumers' credit cards, have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that their scheme violated federal laws. The settlement will require the Web operators to provide refunds to consumers who were improperly billed, to post "clear and conspicuous"disclosures of their billing practices on their Web site, and will bar violations of the Truth in Lending Act and the FTC Act in the future.

    The FTC alleged that Xpics Publishing, Inc., and its principals, Mario G. Carmona and Brian M. Shuster, hosted a variety of adult web sites offering "free" viewing, or "free 30-day" or 90-day trials. Consumers were required to provide credit card information to verify their age. But consumers who visited the sites soon discovered that their credit cards were billed, sometimes in a matter of hours, after they registered for the "free" trial, the agency alleged. Xpics advertised that consumers who canceled in a timely manner would not be charged any fees, but Xpics used a variety of tactics to make it impossible for consumers to cancel their registration."

    would you deal with a company whose owner had such a track record and hand your credit card details to them?

  • http://tromblyltd.com Maria Korolov

    I have been waiting for twenty years to use the phrase “sex king” in a headline. My day job consists of writing about enterprise risk management software at financial firms — not too much call for pruriency.

    However, your reaction — that this may scare away business customers — is exactly the point of the story. How will Utherverse attract enterprise users if most of their marketing consists of selling virtual sex?

    - Maria

  • http://secondthoughts.typepad.com Prokofy Neva

    I'm wondering why other platform providers feel it necessary to brag that they have "10,000" on a sim when Lindens have "only 20". It's terribly misleading, as usually what they mean is that they have users all experiencing one broadcast event on one stream, but from different shards.

    That's possible in SL too where you might get thousands watching a Metanomics show or other event but from different sims. If you can only render so many avatars and only enable so much perception of chat and realistically interact only with the same 20, or even 100 people, in another world with this "10,000" then what is the point of bragging?! It's not as if you are meaningfully able to pick anyone in the crowd of 10,000 and interact with them, so don't be silly. If you don't render the 10,000 or even 100, stop making the claim. The 100 that might be a bit laggy in SL are all people I can really interact, talk to, give objects to, and show things to in real time. Thank you, that works for me, I don't need 9999 other grey avatars along with that.

    I don't know why geeks make such a big fuss about downloads and imagine that consumers need web browsers. They don't. Millions are happy to download and play World of Warcraft for $15.95 a month with nary a whimper. Even Second Life has 1.5 million in 60 days willing to download a world. With browser worlds, you are merely encountering the nuisance later in the session, when it constantly loads and loads and loads to make the world visible or enable interaction or rez the next sim when you teleport to it. It's actually a worse experience. Those complaining about "walled gardens" invoke consumer convenience but what they really mean to say is "we need hook-in ability to sell our APIs and widgets off this platform" — and I'm sorry, the consumer is not here to help you with that, and might likely rather take the services from the original platform provider than endlessly resupply personal data and credit cards to widgeteers without track records.

    What it sounds like to me that Shuster is doing here is cynically and nihilistically destroying the value of other worlds by undercutting their land market by offering free land, but then signing lucrative contracts with some larger enterprises or ad buyers. The same cynical model, essentially, as Craig's list, which gives ads for free, except for employers who have to pay $25 — but that undercuts newspaper ads and helped destroy classifieds for newspapers and helped kill off their ability to pay for good journalistic content — all in the name of Craig Newmark getting fairly wealthy and then funding only lefty causes he approves — sort of a latter day Robin Hood.

    Then the "employers" that buy the ads are mainly escort services anyway, and eventually the states attorney generals crack down on these ads as creating a climate of criminality for illegal prostitution and a setting where even murders take place.

    Those who cynically devalue property and use sex to lure in the masses to provide something for adsters to data scrape eventually find that if the law doesn't come for them first, users leave because they have no rights and no valued property, either.

    I guess I will stick with Second Life and the Lindens which, like democracy, are the worst system — except for all the others. They have a TOS and a history of judicial decisions of sorts that more or less constitute something akin to the rule of law.

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  • http://grid4us.net Hallow Palmer

    I tested Secret City 1 year ago.

    The way to the next Metaverse generation is a Browser based 3D Application.

    And the Utherverse App is wide away from that.

    Utherverse is no competition for open structured Grids like Opensim is.

  • anon

    This is such a joke. None of the stats Brian listed are legit. I've been a member there for going on 3 years. They've never had anywhere close to ten thousand people inworld at once (they can't even handle 3k without severe lag and stability issues), they're using ancient and closed accounts to make up the numbers saying that UV has as many people as SL, none of the chat features he talks about are actually an option in world, tech support is non-existent, they routinely bypass the QA system and take massive "upgrades" live without any testing whatsoever…I could go on.

    This guy is very good at blowing smoke up people's asses.