As my staff and I begin building out our third — third! — company grid it’s becoming apparent how much manual labor is required in creating office space and landscapes.
The first time we set up offices, it was fun. Playing with landscaping, designing buildings, arranging furniture in offices — it was a kid’s dream come true.
Then there was the big wipeout of Summer ’09, when a hacker took out servers running more than a hundred thousand websites, and took out more than a hundred OpenSim regions as well, including ours. There was a lesson there, about being more careful about making backups.
So we started over. This time, we had a better idea of what we wanted to accomplish, and we knew we wanted a standalone so as to be insulated from OSGrid’s upgrade cycle, but on the hypergrid, so folks could teleport back and forth.
Then the hosting provider we were using went AWOL. Stopped answering emails or returning messages. That’s the price you pay for free hosting.
So we’re starting over again, though this time with backups. But during the time the grid was down, Christa Lopes released her Diva Distribution of OpenSim — allowing us to set up and run four regions as one big megaregion. Now that we have all this extra space to play in, we might put in a lake… a general store … and maybe some residential housing for employees who never want to leave the virtual world.
What all this building and re-building has taught us, though, is that we could really use a content management system for OpenSim.
On the web, for example, we’re using WordPress and Drupal for our company sites, and it makes a significant difference over writing in plain HTML. A content management system makes it quick and painless to create a site, and then easy to update content.
Similarly, an OpenSim content management system could make it easier for companies, individuals, and developers to create new grids — and to update and manage the content afterwards.
So, if there was an OpenSim Content Management System (OCMS), I would be able to select a template (say, “New England Charm” or “Old World Elegance” or “Modern Office”) and landscape (“City Streets,” “Grassy Parks,” “Cactus Desert”). The first region up would be the landing site — similar to a home page on a Web site — with a welcome point, navigation kiosk, maybe a help desk or a store selling company-branded merchandise. Then I could add other regions and populate them with pre-built office buildings, conference halls, exhibition spaces, project planning rooms, catalog showrooms, or other standard types of content.
The OpenSim Content Management System would ensure that all the facilities were connected by a teleport system (updated automatically if the locations moved or changed), that paths between regions lined up, and that all the regions were consistent in look and feel. If I decided to update the entire site, I could simply drop in a new template and all the structures — while retaining their furnishings and other content – would be automatically updated to the new look.
As with Web site development, I could either hire or contract folks to create custom templates for us, use or modify publicly available templates, or buy premium templates.
And, of course, if I wanted to drop in outside content, the template would allow me to do this — just as I can currently paste HTML code into WordPress posts if I wanted to add something in just one location.
Here are the top functions I would want to see in such a system:
- Use default templates, upload new templates from third-party providers, or create own templates
- Easy modification of some elements, such as the company color palette and corporate logos (to use in signage and navigation, as well as accent elements on structures), or the default background sounds (corporate theme music, say, or store announcements, or that music they play in stores to make people buy stuff).
- Easily modify global attributes such as time of day and weather
- Standardized design elements. On the web, we’ve come to recognize banner ads, links, and menus for what they are because they’re used consistently by many sites. Virtual design elements are still evolving, but some common trends can already be identified, such as the use of “StarGate” style gates for hypergrid teleports, and clickable sign boards for local teleports. A content management system would use standard design elements whenever possible, making it easy for new visitors to navigate and interact with a site.
- Easy drop-in of common structure types that were packaged with the template
- Upload or create new structure types and style them to the template’s default settings, so that they fit with the rest of the site
- Structures and landscaping arranged according to the one or more default configurations provided in the template
- Possible structure types:
- Office space
- Meeting space
- Lecture space
- Catalog showroom
- Exhibition space
- Project planning or collaboration space
- Residential space
- The initial landing point would have a navigation kiosk that takes the visitor to the most common destinations — similar to the menu bar on top of a Web site home page. Reaction Grid has a nice landing spot, with a navigation board full of teleport buttons.
- A dynamic map of the site, for visitors who prefer to walk to their destination
- Teleport links at entrance of each structure that would take the visitor back to the landing point, or to other relevant destinations, similar to the way nested menus and links help users navigate Web pages
- Street signs indicating directions to key areas or key structures inside those areas
- Ability to swap templates in and out, changing the look and feel of structures. One problem with switching templates is that the new template might not have room for all the structures of the previous template — but we have this with standard Web templates already, with a little tweaking sometimes required to bring them into sync.
- Ability to change global elements such as background sound, logos, color palettes
- Ability to reorganize the navigational structure or spacial positioning of regions
- Ability to add new regions easily, with the navigational system updated automatically
- Rights management: who created each element of the site? Is there a license that might need to be renewed? This includes objects, textures and scripts.
- Link tracking: do all teleport destinations go to viable locations? Are there any dead ends, or part of the site that are inaccessible through the navigation system?
- Traffic monitoring: where do people go when they visit the site? Are there bottlenecks? What are the points where people give up and go home?
- Security: Which areas of the site are public? Which are limited to certain groups or individuals? What types of behaviors are allowed in different areas of the site?
- Advertising: Where are ads located (either house ads, or third-party ads)? How effective are they? What are the rotation schedules for ads? Are any ads about to expire?
- Outbound traffic: Where do the out-going teleport links lead to? Are the destinations valid? Do the destinations have any security problems? (Last thing I’d want to do is send one of my visitors to a spam grid or a griefer grid.)
- Payment gateways: interface to my payment platform of choice (such as PayPal, a credit card processor, or a third-party payment platform specifically designed for OpenSim).
- Inventory management: if I use my site for retail sales, I want to be able to track who buys what where, and at which price point. I would also need integration with a fulfillment system for item delivery — either a virtual one, for virtual items, or a real one, for physical goods. If I’m selling physical goods, I would also need integration with my back-end warehouse application, to make sure I only sold items I had in stock.
Not all of the above need to be part of the core OpenSim Content Management System. In WordPress and Drupal, for example, much of this functionality comes from third-party plug-ins, widgets, and modules.
But what about creativity?
The other day I met a Web site designer who told me he refused to use content management systems, and advised all his clients against them. “All those sites look the same,” he told me. A content management system also encouraged customers to add content at will, without proofreading. By forcing all updates to go through him, he said, the site looked better. (It probably also made him extra money.)
I took a look at his portfolio, to see these great sites that he had created from scratch, and found a bunch of dated Web 1.0 brochureware sites with no interactive content, and the old-fashioned menus down the left side. His sites certainly looked different from today’s Web 2.0 sites — they looked old, ugly and flat.
On the other extreme, I know designers who produce sites that are true works of art — lots of Flash animation, splash screens, black backgrounds, and fancy graphics. These sites, while appropriate in some use cases, tend to be extremely difficult to navigate and difficult to read.
Sites produced by content management systems, on the other hand, usually adhere to well-established design principles and navigational methodologies. These make it easier for new users to make full use of the site. Companies can still add their own design elements to content management systems, but the framework forces them to do so in a consistent way, maintaining a common navigation system and style scheme across all the pages of a site.
Sure, there are OpenSim users who are fiends for design. In fact, many come to OpenSim because of the freedom and creativity it offers — and they are creating some spectacular builds that could never be produced with an off-the-shelf template. I applaud these folks and love visiting their regions.
As a business user, however, I’m looking more for ease of deployment and functionality. Sure, I want my site to look nice, but I also want it to be usable and predictable. I admire art, and might invest in art for the corporate lobby or main plaza, but I wouldn’t want the whole facility to be an art installation.
I don’t speak for everybody, of course — there are plenty of innovative businesses that will be experimenting with their grids, just as they experiment with their Web sites. These are companies for whom art and design creativity are a core competence.
At my company, our strengths lie more in editorial process innovation and subject matter expertise. (We provide editorial coverage to U.S. business magazines on topics such as Asian risk management and low-latency algorithmic trading.) My preference is for sites — and builds — with a clean, modern and functional look. A place that lets us get about our business with a minimum of fuss.
Intermediate step: a ‘Dreamweaver’ for OpenSim
It will probably take a while for the first OpenSim Content Management System to be built.
Until then, one intermediate step could be a system like Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver and similar applications allowed designers to create websites using a graphical interface, instead of hand-coding HTML. Dreamweaver also had rudimentary templates, allowing certain content — such as stylesheets, headers, footers, and menus — to be reused across an entire site. If the template changed, then all the pages based on that template were automatically updated. While this was nowhere near as powerful as the templates that are used in today’s content management systems, this was still a significant advance over hand-coded HTML, especially for sites with many pages.
Today, when it comes to designing OpenSim regions, what we have is the equivalent of hand-coding raw HTML. Each image and script has to be uploaded individually. Each structure hand-placed. Then painstakingly moved until it’s just in the right position.
If the terrain is raised or lowered or another structural element added, then existing structures might have to be moved.
And, with hand design, it takes a very, very, very keen eye to arrange elements — whether on a grid, or on a Web page — to make them look right. Even a pixel difference can make a design look “off.”
With a content management system, these kind of tricky issues are taken care of by the designer who built the initial template — leaving the user to just pick the content and arrange the furniture.
Arranging furniture — now that is a design task that never gets old for me.