When most people compare virtual worlds, they do so from a technical perspective — how many concurrent users, what kind of interface is being used, what data standards are supported.
Too often, however, general business requirements are overlooked. This is a pity, because from a technical perspective there are few differences between the various virtual world platforms, and the differences that do exist are likely to vanish over time as users demand these features and vendors add them to their offerings.
The only significant technical difference between virtual worlds today is that immersive virtual worlds — those in which users have avatars and can walk around and look at things from various directions — are more limited in the number of simultaneous visitors they can support. Being able to wander around in a full 3D environment takes a lot of bandwidth and computing power. Currently, most immersive platforms can hold between 15 to 25 people easily before performance starts to degrade. Some worlds claim they can get up to 80 people in a room. But, from a practical business standpoint, all virtual worlds are working furiously on improving performance, scalability, concurrency and load balancing. By the time a company actually puts a virtual environment into production, all these numbers will have changed. Meanwhile, for thousands — or hundreds of thousands — of simultaneous users, companies need to look beyond immersive platform to pseudo-3D environments like On24. These are basically interactive websites with a little 3D graphics thrown in to jazz things up — users don’t actually inhabit avatars in these worlds, and can’t wander around inside a location.
Another technical difference between immersive worlds today is the degree to which they support 3D standards. Second Life and OpenSim, for example, do not support the COLLADA standard for mesh objects, while most other immersive worlds do. The ability to import mesh objects makes it easier to use professional modeling software to create environments. This is particularly useful for architects and industrial designers who want to use virtual environments for walk-throughs and collaboration. But Second Life plans to roll out mesh support this year, and OpenSim is expected to follow suit. In fact, there is already a version of OpenSim with full mesh support — realXtend (and there is also the modrex module for standard OpenSim).
Finally, the various platforms differ their voice options. Second Life offers the best option — Vivox directional in-world voice. OpenSim hosting providers vary from no voice at all, to the Freeswitch open source voice, all the way up to Vivox. Some platforms, like 3Dxplorer, force users to run Skype or another third-party voice platform. Over time, though, I expect full directional voice to become standard with all enterprise platforms.
So let’s say I am a small-to-medium business owner (which, in fact, I am) and want to use a virtual environment for small-to-medium business tasks. In my case, this is small group meetings, onboarding new hires, prototyping new physical office layouts, training, and business networking.
What are my main business concerns when picking a virtual world? Price is key, but it’s not everything.
When I first start using a virtual world, I don’t want to have a big cost associated with it. I want to start small, see if it works, and then build from there. Many virtual world platforms offer some degree of price variation. As my company gets more involved with virtual worlds, we may want to host our own environment, or design a high-end enterprise platform for employees, or a customer-facing marketing platform, and may be willing to spend a few bucks on it.
OpenSim: Pricex start at zero — the server software is a free download. Professionally hosted regions start at $16 a month. On the high end, IBM’s Lotus Sametime 3D product is $50,000 for four simultaneous regions hosted behind the corporate firewall, with back-end enterprise integration. Startup fees vary by vendor. There are no limits on the total number of users a company can have, though don’t expect to have more than 20 or 30 in a single region at the same time without seeing lowered performance.
LindenLab’s Second Life: Prices here start at $300 a month per region, and go up to $55,000 for a behind-the-firewall private world. Startup fees run around $1,000 per region.
Altadyn’s 3DXplorer: Prices start at zero for basic online meeting rooms, $49 a month for full-featured meeting rooms for up to 15 avatars, and $490 a month for large conference environments.
Nortel’s web.alive: Prices start at $10 per month per user for the standard platform and go up to $70 per month per user for the commercial product. The difference is that the commercial product supports advertising, more than 40 concurrent users, back-end integration, and customizable environments.
When I pick a vendor, I normally go with one of two options. Either I pick the biggest, most respected company, with the best track record, or I pick the company that’s the single best fit for what I need. There used to be saying: “You can never get fired for buying IBM.” Later on, the obvious choice was Microsoft — Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, and so on.
Is there a “biggest, most respected” option when it comes to virtual worlds? Here I’d have to give the nod to IBM, and their $50,000-Lotus Sametime 3D platform, which integrates with enterprise applications and corporate LDAP directories and runs on the OpenSim platform.
None of the other vendors come close in terms of respectability. Forterra recently laid off close to half its workforce. Linden Lab has image problems as a result of its consumer-oriented Second Life platform and its sexual subcultures. ProtonMedia and Altadyn don’t have much brand name recognition outside their small group of users, and Nortel is a recent entrant to this space.
If a pick a vendor and the choice turns out to be a mistake — or the vendor goes out of business — I don’t want to lose everything.
OpenSim: If I’m running my own grid, then I can save everything. And by everything, I do mean everything — regions, terrains, inventory warehouses, user accounts. And I can move all this from one host to another, move everything in-house to my own servers, or move everything from my own servers to an outside host. I can also duplicate regions or entire grids at will, or save them into archives.
Second Life: With Second Inventory or the Meerkat viewer, I can save individual items that I myself have created and move them to OpenSim, or vice versa. If I hire an outside contractor to create items for me, I can have them send me archived copies. However, there is currently no legal way to save an entire region or move a region from Second Life to, say, an OpenSim-based environment. There is also no way to save terrains or user accounts.
Other platforms: With proprietary platforms like web.alive, 3DXplorer, Olive, or ProtoSphere, archiving is up to the individual vendor. Moving a build from one platform to another is difficult, though the same off-line 3D files can be imported into any of these worlds. Since the back-end platforms are proprietary, moving user databases, inventories, and complete builds from one vendor to another would be extremely difficult or impossible.
The Second Life/OpenSim ecosystem is currently the largest, with over a dozen different viewers available (and Web-based viewers in the works), and hundreds of service companies available to do custom design, and thousands of vendors offering useful or decorative objects. In addition, for OpenSim grids, there are also dozens of different hosting providers, with new ones appearing weekly.
Some proprietary vendors require you to use their services for building, or choose from a limited selection of environments.
EASE OF USE
Today, no immersive world platform is easy. Ideally, you’d click on a link and — voila! — you’re in a virtual world. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. Users have to download special browser software, or Web plugins. The worlds can take a long time to load. Most put a heavy burden on the computers running them, requiring modern graphics cards and high speed Internet connections.
Once inside the world, users have to learn how to use voice, how to navigate, how to change their appearance, and how to use the business and collaboration tools they need for work.
There is currently no perfect platform.
However, there are places in Second Life designed to help new users master their environments, such as Help People Island. There are also welcome areas dedicated to particular communities, and regular training classes. Finally, Second Life users are able to take some time and explore just for fun — to visit a virtual museum, say, or take a hot air balloon ride, or visit a virtual mall. These kinds of opportunities, though not necessarily germane to my business, can offer a way for my employees to get familiar with the platform in a relaxed, no-stress environment.
I’m hoping that the ease-of-use problem will be solved this year with a one-click, Web-based viewer for the Second Life/OpenSim worlds.