Business on OpenSim

Last week, I surveyed the state of OpenSim commerce, in the column Business in OpenSim. This included the beginnings of in-world retail shops, OpenSim hosting providers, and design and development services.

These are new industries, only really born last year, when OpenSim became stable enough for deployment and hypergrid-enabled.

But there are other ways that enterprises are profiting from OpenSim, and that is to use OpenSim as part of their every-day business. Just as the Internet has become part of the daily life of pretty much anyone working behind a desk, so the virtual worlds will — eventually — become a normal part of the working environment.

The following is an overview of what’s going on in OpenSim, based both on on-the-record interviews with existing enterprise users, and off-the-record discussions with the folks working on new projects.

MEETING AND TRAINING

The killer app for OpenSim is as a platform for virtual meetings. Virtual meetings are somewhere between face-to-face meetings and Web conferences, and allow for more interaction and immersion for the attendees.

Virtual meetings also allow for complete creativity with regard to the setting. Meetings can be held in copies of traditional conference rooms or offices, or on a beach on a tropical island, or a virtual museum, or inside a giant human cell. Attendees can sit on a chair and listen to a presentation, or walk around through exhibits or presentation panels, or interact with the virtual environment.

OpenSim can be an effective replacement for Second Life or other virtual worlds when the potential attendees are  new to virtual worlds. After all, if they have to learn how to use a platform from scratch, they might as well start out on OpenSim and allow the enterprise running the meeting to enjoy greater control at a lower cost than other virtual world platforms.

OpenSim can also be effective when the enterprise can dictate the virtual world that its users will use. A school or a company, for example, can simply tell its students and employees what the virtual world platform will be.

OpenSim is less effective as a meeting platform when the potential attendees have already selected a different virtual world platform, and are unwilling to make the effort to learn how to use OpenSim.  OpenSim requires that users download a new viewer, or re-configure a Second Life viewer to access a particular OpenSim grid. This may be technically challenging or inconvenient for some users.

Today, primary schools, colleges, and training institutions are already using OpenSim for education.

In addition, enterprises are beginning to experiment with OpenSim for meetings. For example, IBM offers an enterprise version of OpenSim, Virtual Collaboration for Lotus Sametime. IBM also uses OpenSim internally, to hold conferences and get new employees started with the company. Virtual “onboarding” enables IBM to save money — new employees visit a virtual orientation center instead of flying to a regional headquarters.

OpenSim’s modular, open-source approach means that companies can easily integrate the platform with corporate and student directories, enterprise resource planning systems, and learning management platforms.

VIRTUAL SHOWROOMS

There is currently one implementation of using OpenSim as a virtual showroom for a real-world store — Japanese electronics retailer Sanwa has launched a virtual storefront using OpenSim-based server technology from 3Di, Inc. This platform is currently only available in Japan.

Eventually, we will probably see a lot of products demonstrated in 3D environments — clothing, furniture, cars.

In practice, however, it is currently too difficult for the average user to enter an immersive environment. The process of creating and dressing an avatar can be fun the first time, but gets very annoying very quickly when they have to do it more than once. The hypergrid allows users to teleport their existing avatars from one OpenSim grid to another, but only half of all OpenSim grids are currently hypergrid-enabled, and most users don’t even know that it exists or how to use it.

3Di’s Web-based viewer currently only works in conjunction with 3Di’s server software, though a public version of the viewer is currently under development.

However, OpenSim worlds are being used as virtual showrooms in situations where the customer is physically present in a location but is unable to see the product in real life.

Say, for example, you are a real estate developer, agent, or architect and a customer visits your office. You have OpenSim running on a computer already. When customers come in, you show them how to use the arrow keys to move, and let them explore virtual models of buildings or housing developments. They can see what their houses or office buildings will look like before they are built, and can make instant changes to the design since OpenSim allows for real-time editing of the environment. Customers can request different wall colors, higher ceilings, bigger windows, or even rotate their house to get more sun — and immediately see how they will affect the way the house looks.

There is a module that can be plugged into OpenSim — modrex — that allows the import of 3D models from standard architectural design programs. The downside to using modrex is that it doesn’t work with standard Second Life-compatible viewers, but requires the Naali viewer. This isn’t a disadvantage though when running the world in a limited-access environment such as a real estate development office.

3D COLLABORATION

OpenSim can be a great platform in which to collaboratively build three-dimensional objects.

For example, one company I talked to has a project in which a giant oil tanker is being built simultaneously in real life, and in a virtual environment. The virtual prototype allows designers, builders, inspectors and other personnel who are located in company offices around the world to work together and make changes in the design on the fly if needed for safety, usability or other reasons.

Similarly, OpenSim can be used by architects to work together on building designs, by industrial engineers, or even office employees arranging furniture and partitions ahead of a major move or office redesign.

And, of course, OpenSim can be a useful platform for virtual designers working collaboratively on products for the OpenSim or Second Life platforms.

MACHINIMA

Companies looking for training videos or marketing animations are increasingly finding that virtual world filming — or machinima — can save time and money. Over the past year, machinimators have begun to experiment with the OpenSim platform for machinima because it allows for larger film sets and easy backups.

One example of a company filming in OpenSim is Pineapple Pictures.

MARKETING NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME

Many companies began considering using virtual worlds for marketing during Second Life’s big hype period two years ago.

However, it turned out that Second Life’s user base and platform design didn’t make for an effective way to reach and engage with large numbers of people.

The population of individual OpenSim grids is even smaller. Ony 4,550 people logged into the largest OpenSim-based grid, OSGrid, over the past 30 days. By comparison, more than a million logged into Second Life in the same time period.  Even with the population of all the hypergrid-enabled grids is taken into account, the OpenSim user base is still tiny compared to Second Life.

This may change as a Web-based viewer for OpenSim is developed, and more schools, enterprises, gaming companies and social groups move to OpenSim.

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.