A call for a new viewer

Second Life has rolled out some great features recently, such as media-on-a-prim, which are great for business. And chief product officer  Tom Hale’s promise of mesh imports in the second quarter of this year is also great news.

As a business user, both of these features promise to be very useful, and I look forward to their implementation in OpenSim as well.

However, the new features demonstrate a common problem demonstrated by technology companies: they try to overcome bad interface design with additional functionality, hoping that the features will bring in new users despite the other problems.

There were a few cosmetic changes to the latest viewer release, but none addressed the core problems with the Second Life browser, and most of the alternative browsers.

They are simply too hard to use. Even for an experienced user, launching the browser, logging in, teleporting to a region, and finding the people you are trying to meet can be a lot of work. I’m finding myself turning to online video streams of important meetings instead of attending the event in person, or simply just reading the transcript later.

I’m not alone.

“If there are 100 people starting in Second Life, at the end of one year there will be one left,” Hale told artists and builders at a meeting last week. “That’s not a great experience.”

And the concurrency statistics back him up. According to data from Tateru Nino, the number of users online at any given time has been sliding for the past year.

Second Life Median Concurrency

Second Life Median Concurrency

In fact, concurrency seems to have peaked in January 2009 and has been on an almost continual decline ever since.

Why are people dropping out — and not, say, dragging their friends into Second Life instead?

The first reason Hale gave was “the complexity of the experience.”

This has certainly been true in my case. I have employees who pretty much have to do whatever I tell them, and I don’t look forward to ask them to attend meetings in Second Life or on our private OpenSim grid. Crashes, failed teleports and lost attachments don’t help, of course, but the main obstacle is the browser download and the steep learning curve.

The new SL Viewer 2 doesn’t address these concerns, and the OpenSim-friendly alternatives only load more features into the viewer — wind and light settings, multi-grid account management, hypergrid teleports. These are all great features for power users, builders, and designers. Not great features for the average employee who needs to attend a team meeting.

Other than the added functionality of media-on-a-prim, the new viewer only makes minor cosmetic changes.

New users still have to download a large piece of software and run it. Many of my employees refused to do that. Installing new software seems easy to those of us who download stuff daily. But it’s not a normal event for the average person.

Installing Second Life software in particular poses particular challenges. It uses non-standard ports. It requires a high-end graphics card. Most employees aren’t even aware of what ports are available, or what graphics cards their company-provided computers have.

SL Viewer 2 did not address this issue.

Next, users have to learn how to use the software. Putting on and taking off clothes and hair is not an obvious process. Camera movements are tricky for first-time users. After a few weeks of using a Second Life viewer, it’s easy to forget how hard the camera controls were at the start. And after a few weeks away, it can be hard to remember the difference between “drop” and “detach” or whether the camera is control-alt-click-pan or shift-control-pan-click.

Conference planners warn that new users will need an average of two hours of training before they use Second Life. I would add another hour of training for OpenSim users, because of the fact that technology lags a bit behind, and also to learn how to use hypergrid teleports to get to meetings on other grids — and to get rid of that ugly default “Ruth” avatar that most grids still start new users with.

This is not practical. It makes no sense to conduct two or three hours of training for a one-hour meeting — and then to repeat the same process two months later for the follow-up meeting, since everyone would have forgotten how to use the viewer.

Immersive worlds do offer a compelling environment for delivering certain kinds of content, however. Video game players are already voting with their wallets and opting for “first person shooters,” massively-multiplayer online role playing games, and similar 3D immersive experiences. Educational games and simulations are rapidly moving into 3D. The business workplace won’t be far behind.

The graphical user interface underwent a similar transformation. Back when office drones were still using MS-DOS, video game players had already abandoned their text-adventure games in favor of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Instead, traditional video games are now available for free on ad-supported websites, bundled into “nostalgia” packs. You can even play Pac-Man in Flash. But I digress.

The rise of the graphical user interface paralleled the rise of the Internet, also a point-and-click graphical system.

The business world first began switching over to a graphical user interface in 1990 with the advent of Windows 3, while Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, and the first website went live in 1991.  Netscape came out in 1994, Windows 95 came out in 1995, the same year that Yahoo was incorporated.

Last year, the hypergrid was invented. University of California at Irvine professor Crista Lopes invented the system, with which different grids can be connected and allow avatars to teleport freely.

Today, the hypergrid is tiny. We’re currently tracking  just under 200 destinations in our directory — while about half of all grids are now hypergrid-enabled, not every region on every grid is set up to handle incoming and outgoing hypergrid jumps, though some grids, like Cyberlandia, are starting to move towards full hypergrid.

When it comes to user interfaces, though, we’re still in the pre-Netscape phase.

Yes, OpenSim and Second Life servers will have to support more people if everyone is able to quickly log in using an HTML 5 Web-based or iPad-based interface. Intel and IBM are working on this for OpenSim, and are promising significant progress this year.

Connectivity speeds will have to go up, as will computer processing speeds. But this is happening naturally, anyway, with increased Internet broadband penetration, and the demands that Internet video is putting on networks. By scaling up to deal with video, Internet service providers will also be able to meet the needs of virtual world users.  And as existing computers fall off of desks, run over by lawnmowers, or simply suffer devastating hard drive failure, users are continually upgrading to faster processors and better graphics cards.

So, as a business user, this is what I would like to see in a viewer for OpenSim:

  • No downloads. None. Click on a Web link and the world comes up. Or embed it in a small window, like a YouTube video, that you can then expand to the full screen.
  • One-click virtual world login using a default avatar. Or an easy avatar name and password login if I already have an account somewhere.
  • Allow me to log into any hypergrid-enabled world using login credentials from any other hypergrid-enabled world. If the viewer has to do an extra hypergrid jump for me quietly in the background, that’s fine, as long as it happens quickly and I don’t have to worry about it.
  • It has to be quick. Did I mention that?
  • If I’m attending a meeting, I want to be able to look around, move, chat, listen to presentations, sit, and click on objects. Being able to talk — a nice plus. I want the controls to be intuitive. I hardly ever use the menus when I surf the Web. I don’t want to have to use any menus when I’m in a virtual world. I’m no interface designer but how about — arrows for moving and mouse for looking? Click to focus, move the mouse to pan, scroll to zoom in and out. Double-click on objects to activate them. Please don’t make me memorize control-key combinations. Really, please, I’m begging you.
  • Changing clothes also a nice plus, but I don’t mind if it happens through the use of scripted objects — say, a changing room —  rather than through the user interface. Also, if someone comes out with a better changing room or virtual closet, I switch over — easier than upgrading to a whole
  • new viewer. Scripted changing rooms are slower and less efficient than putting this functionality in a viewer. I know this. But I’m willing to make the trade-off. I’d rather have simplicity and ease-of-use. Besides, have you seen my inventory? I can never find anything in there. A nice virtual closet would be just the ticket for me.
  • Teleporting would be nice. I want to be able to enter my destination into an address bar and jump to it, regardless of grid or distance. And I want to be able to bookmark my favorite locations, regardless of what grid they’re on.
  • No building tools. No appearance editors. I’d rather use an in-world service or tool to create a new skin or outfit — or just buy one. On the Web, browsers typically don’t include HTML editors. We use content management systems, or go out and buy Dreamweaver or download an HTML editor and FTP software.
  • No map. If a region or grid owner wants me to see a map, they can put it in the world.
  • No friends or groups. I’d rather have third-party tools and devices to keep track of my relationships. After all, my friends aren’t built into Firefox or Explorer — no, I hop over to Facebook or Gmail to see who’s around.
  • No light settings. Let the region owner decide if it’s going to be day, or night, or natural light cycles. One less menu item to worry about.

Without all that excess functionality, the viewer should be light enough to load in a reasonable amount of time. People who want all the bells and whistles can still use the fully-functional standalone viewers — just as multiple Internet browsers coexist today, more or less happily.

Today, many virtual worlds are designed and operated by technologists. Technologists often seem to think that the best technology should win.

But the best, most wonderful feature set in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t figure out how to use in the time you’ve got.

Sure, people can learn how to do anything. With enough patience, any of us can learn how to use the standard Second Life browsers.

But we don’t have the time. We have businesses to run. Books to balance. Customers to satisfy. We have to do our jobs, and we have to take care of our families, and of our friends. We need time to exercise, and time to relax. We need time to catch up, and we need time to plan ahead. Given all these demands on our time, it’s no wonder that learning to use a new technology — one that might not be all that crucial right now  — is far, far down on the to-do list.

The reason I’m not using Second Life and OpenSim for all my meetings isn’t because they don’t have enough functionality. There’s plenty of functionality, and stability will come with time as the bugs get worked out.

The main reason I’m turning to the telephone, Skype, or even the local coffee shop for many meetings is because they are easier and quicker.

I know I’m not speaking for the powerusers of Second Life and OpenSim here. They’ve invested in learning the technology, and can use it well. A Web viewer would be a simplistic toy at best, and a distraction for developers at worst.

I know I’m not speaking for developers. They love the the power that technology offers, and the more functional a tool, the more power it bestows. A Web viewer would be a crippled, neutered beast.

I’m speaking for the people who could benefit from immersive virtual worlds — but are kept out as a result of accessibility barriers and time constraints.

That includes most of my staff, the members of various networking groups I belong to, and non-profit organizations I support.

Linden Lab, if you are serious about improving the user experience and expanding your reach, release an HTML 5 viewer. Include built-in support for OpenSim and hypergrid teleports for those grids that have it enabled. Allow us to embed it in our web pages, Facebook discussions and LinkedIn groups. And let us run it on our iPads.

That will be a game changer that I’d like to see.

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.

  • Jonathan —

    OSGrid does release its historical data of online users:

    http://osgrid.org/stats/graph.php?graph=9&start=-

    As you can see from the chart, concurrency in OSGrid has doubled over the past 10 months.

    But OSGrid — which has 120 people logged in now as I write — is a drop in the bucket.

    I haven't seen any concurrency statistics for all of OpenSim yet, and I would guess that they would be very difficult to collect for the near-term future. Second Life users are funneled through a single gateway — the Second Life login screen. OpenSim users, by comparison, can log into any one of thousands of grids, both private and public, or can download and run their own copy of the OpenSim server. No OpenSim grid is in any way required — or even encouraged — to supply public information about its size, total users, or concurrent logins. Several grids publicize their total land area. A portion of those display total registered users, or users who logged in during the last 30 days. Some grids, such as OSGrid, also show how many people are logged in at any given time.

    Although we hear about the public OpenSim grids — and debate about whether they are a useful alternative to Second Life or not — the big story is happening behind the scenes, inside educational institutions and corporations. I'm hearing of OpenSim deployments that are geared up for 100,000-plus users, and am waiting for the users to be ready to go on the record about them.

    Given how decentralized OpenSim is, the best way to find concurrency numbers would probably be to survey the general population, as is being done now to find out how many Internet users there are. That won't be possible until the 3D Web becomes mainstream, however.

    For HTML 5, all I've seen so far was the Google demo of Quake:

    http://googlewebtoolkit.blogspot.com/2010/04/look

    No plugin, runs completely in the browser, and they claim they're getting 30 frames per second.

    The announcement was dated April 1, but the InformationWeek article about it, which goes into some technical details, confirms that it's not a joke:

    http://www.informationweek.com/news/software/open

    — Maria

  • Winter Seale

    I was with you up till "Without all that excess functionality, the viewer should be light enough to load in a reasonable amount of time."

    None of the functionality you described has any impact on loading time. It all essentially has to be there anyway (with a few very minor exceptions). That said, there are almost certainly some innovative ways of getting around load times when you can modify both the server and the viewer.

    In browser stuff is, right now, quite difficult to pull off. However we're on the cusp of really being able to do what you're asking for. WebGL is currently only available in betas of the Chrome browser, but in a few years it'll have seeped out everywhere (with the possible exception of IE), and creating an in-browser viewer will be a much more reasonable idea. Still, downloads are a major barrier to entry, a bigger one then I think most people realize. Non-technical users have gotten the message that in general "downloads aren't safe," and that's how they get spyware, because they aren't able to differentiate between safe and unsafe downloads.

    The viewer you describe, might be well optimized for running a virtual meeting, but it's good for little else. While I can certainly see dropping many of the things you describe, dropping friends list seems like a hard sell. Yes, you have them everywhere else, but in this case, this is just another website. And right now, virtually every website does in fact have its own idea of friends lists. Personally, I very much DON'T want my, for instance, facebook friends, mixed with my SL friends. This is all the more true if I'm doing business in SL (or other equivalent virtual world). As such, I do need a way of tracking contacts within the application.

  • Winter Seale

    PS Yeah, that Quake demo is WebGL. Right now to use that you have to download a special beta build of Chromium, the open source branch of Google Chrome. It'll be a while yet before more then a very small niche has a browser capable of doing that.

  • I'm not saying that OpenSim/SL should cede frien lists to Facebook. I'm saying that the friends lists shouldn't be part of the viewer — just like they aren't part of the Firefox browser. Instead, you could have an in-world device that shows you where your friends and what they're doing, or a watch that you wear, when you click on it, it tells if any of your friends are around. Or beeps annoyingly when they log in.

    That device could be provided by Facebook, yes, and fitted to work with a Facebook API. Or it could be provided by individual grid administrators, to keep you in touch with friends on that particular grid. Or it could be provided by LinkedIn, or some other company that is still being dreamed up by some kid in a dorm room. Probably next door to the kid inventing the WebGL viewer. Down the hall from the kid putting together a business plan for the next Amazon.

    Kids with no business experience, industry contacts, no money. I'd hate those kids, but I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

    And why would you say that functionality has no impact on loading time? If you take away all the menus, all the options, all the building tools and appearance sliders — won't you have a much, much smaller application?

    — Mara

  • Jonathan Bienworth

    Are there any statistics or graphs of concurrency in the Hypergrid?

    Does HTML 5 include the ability to render 3D graphics?

  • Juko

    I’m not sure what you want is an immersive world, because once it works the way you want to use it, it’s not immersive or a world. There is software for feature rich virtual meetings which suits your requirements – why use Second Life or OpenSim at all? And for Linden Lab, why lose the features of a virtual world to compete with virtual meeting software?

  • 100% ack…

    The standard user needs a light, easy to use interface for virtual worlds, best would be to implement it with a browser plugin, nothing to install, easy to use.

    The visitors of my gallery (Cyberbohemia in OSgrid) want to enjoy fine art, they don’t want to learn how to handle a viewer software just to visit a art exhibition. And i’m sure that’s true for 90% of the future visitors of our worlds.
    We must not forget, that right now, many users of OpenSim worlds are amongst the most advanced internet techies, but in a few years, the mainstream will (hopefully) arrive in 3d worlds. And for them we need to have something easy. They are not interested in technology, they are interested in easy consumable content.
    My vision is to have virtual world access already implemented in a black box, like a game console or in a TV.

    Greetings, Galen

  • Juko —

    1. None of the current web-based meeting platforms are easily editable, and are run by third parties. I want to be able to set up and configure my own world, and run it on my own servers, under my own domain name, and be able to take my own backups.

    2. None of the current web-based meeting platforms are hyperlinked. Each requires the creation of a separate avatar. I already have my avatar. In fact, I have one for SL, one for OSGrid, one for ReactionGrid, one for my own company grid… I’m sick of creating new avatars. At this point, if I can’t get somewhere by teleporting with my existing avatar, I’m not going to bother going at all.

    3. I already have my OpenSim offices. I’m already meeting with people there. I’ve got them looking just the way I like them. I don’t want to create a separate meeting space for casual meetings. And I have a lot of stuff that can’ be moved over, such as scripted, interactive objects.

    4. SL/OpenSim allows visitors to interact with their environment — most web-based meeting platforms don’t, or do so only to a very very limited extent. I want my visitors to be able to click on things and have things happen. Things I want to have happen.

    To sum up, I want: control, backups, hyperlinks, and interactivity.

    Can any non-SL/OpenSim platforms offer this?

    As far as I’m aware, you can’t export a world from one vendor’s system and run it on another’s. However, you can ask your OpenSim hosting provider for an export, and switch to a different provider — or move to Second Life Enterprise with your entire build, scripts and all.

    On the Web, you can take your website running on Apache, export the Web pages, and run it without any changes on a Microsoft Web server. And if you don’t like your Web host, you can switch to another in a heartbeat. As a business owner, I like that. Vendors go out of business all the time, or don’t deliver on their promises. You don’t want to be locked in.

    With hyperlinks, I can’t see any of the existing vendors allowing logins from avatars created on different customer worlds — much less allowing logins from avatars created on competing platforms.

    With OpenSim, I can take my OSGrid avatar and teleport from OSGrid to any of a number of other, competing grids, run by different companies. As the hypergrid grows, I’m betting that Second Life will eventually resolve the content issue and drop its garden walls, the same way that AOL eventually embraced the Internet.

    — Maria

  • Akira —

    Wonderland does have some nice features. I wouldn't mind if it became the next standard.

    However, there's no user base for it right now, compared to what we're seeing in OpenSim.

    And there are no hypergrid teleports between worlds.

    And there's isn't the huge community of support that you've got developing around OpenSim — multiple hosting providers, designers, a huge wealth of content (both free and commercial), objects, scripts — even entire regions.

    I'd rather be part of a large community and wait for the functionality to arrive than be using a more functional tool that I'm using all by myself.

    Of course, this situation can change tomorrow, if Wonderland takes off, or if they begin to support hypergrid and allow teleports in and out of opensim grids. 🙂 Or roll out support for LSL and OSSL scripting languages and object imports.

    Things move so fast these days. You can't predict even a week out. 🙂

    — Maria

  • Hi Maria,

    It seems to me that you are looking for openWonderland! It has almost everything you need there, Slideshows using PDF, inworld document editing, inworld web browsing using the firefox browser you can even do pair programming inworld. Viewer comes without installation ( Java Web Start ). Voice is the default, Inworld conferencing with inworld displays in order to link a webcam in a real world meeting room with a room in the virtual world. Actually, the project is very alpha ( Version 0.5 ) but it is based on proven Enterprise Class technology ( Java, Glassfish ) and has a nice web based administration front end. Building is done outside using Google Sketchup. Google 3D Warehouse gives you access to a vast range of objects.

    Okay the avatars don’t look as nice as in SL or OpenSim Worlds but this could change as well with the integration of Avatars created on Sites like “Evolver”. A nice modular structure lets you extend the server with new functionality.

    Sure there are flaws and bugs as probably in every application at a 0.5 level.

    OpenSim on the other hand is very nice too especially the possibilities for creating Landscapes and buildings inworld are really nice. Scripting to add interaction to static content is nice too. Therefore I like OpenSim based virtual worlds more for leisure and creative experiments and a lot of the nice experience would be lost if the inworld building tool were missing. Not having all my items in my pocket or inventory as it is called would be very annoying, I even would vote for a much better inventory with nice previews of the objects inside the various folder. A texture with a generic icon and the name “Grass” does not give you the same idea as a small ( adjustable ) preview of that particular textre. How many objects do you have in your inventory with the name “prim”? there will be some. A small preview of that especially if it consists of several prims would be really helpful. The same goes for clothes etc.

    OpenSim is a nice 3D construction environment, where the Users can build and create content, where they can gather and socialize and having fun. There is certainly a lot room for improvement on the viewer side but right now the focus should be on stability, because the current situation with a lot of crashes from the viewer side, missing or blurry textures, failing Teleports, i don’t even talk about hypergrid makes the eperience quite unsatisfying.

    Wonderland on the probably better suits your business needs. There’s also a lot to improve the handling of the viewer looks quite strange to users which are familar with Second Life or OpenSim based worlds. The interface looks pretty basic and the inworld experience is not beautiful as Second Life, OpenSim, RelXtend, Blue Mars or others, but the business features are great.

    I like OpenSim and i hope it will stabilize and give us a much better experience than now. On the other hand I’m glad Project Wonderland turned to openWonderland. Currently I’m living in OSgrid ( OpenSim based ) but I’m also watching what’s going on at the Wonderland side.

    Greetings Akira

  • Hello Maria,

    You are right Wornderland is not that as visible as OpenSimulator, but that's probably not yet the goal with the 0.5 version right now. Second Life had a huge hype in the press in 2006 when i joined Secons Life but that hype is gone now. But too much Hype could be counter productive. There are a lot of people coming over from Second Life to OSgrid with the whole Second Life mindset knowing about the features and then see the "emptyness" of the OpenSim Worlds in terms of Avatar count, seeing a lot of features they know from Inworld Second Life which is not available outside and together with the instabilities in the System they mostly leave OpenSim based worlds afteer a short time. This mindset could have even a worse impact on Wonderland which definitely has an other approach.

    Teleports between worlds was even part at Version 0.4 and probably earlier versions of Wonderland. Second Life has a very centralistic structure with the central Asset and other services surrounded by a lots of Region Servers. It is a closed world and OpenSimulator which based on the same protocol as Second Life has this centralistic structure as well with all the problems we are facing nowadays especially in big highly distributed grids like OSgrid. Therefore because of conceptual and architectural differences there won't be such a thing as Hypergrid which is confusing anyway. Please explain the difference of a teleport jump and a hypergrid jump to a user… In openWonderland you just enter the url of another world and jump as you do it in your web brower. Stargates are also available inworld to have a visual representation of the concept of teleports.

    Community Support. Because there is no content which is created inside Wonderland there can't be any content available. But on the other hand there is the whole Google 3D Warehouse whose objects can be used in openWonderland. I don't have the numbers but google 3D Warehouse compared to …. you got the idea.

    Teleports to OpenSim based Worlds is basically a problem of lacking standards. There is the Linden Lab protocol which is supported by OpenSim. openWonderland has its own architecture and its own protocols. A common protocol like the http protocol for web sites and a common format of content like html would be the key to integrate those 3d worlds. Hopefully the future of the 3D web won't be based on Linden Lab protocols and formats, which works quite well in the closed! Linden Lab world. Collada which is already supported by openWonderland will probably be the format of choice in future. Therefore the question is not when will openWonderland avatars be able to teleport to OpenSim worlds, the question will be, when do all the platforms agree on open standards and inplement them. The viewers which have to display the content will probably quickly adopt those standards. You have written a nice article: "Will Second Life be the next Netscape". It is even worse, Netscape at least implemented the browsing of the standard that became standard of the Internet, and added some proprietary features which caused headache to the successors. In the case of Linden Lab the question should be "Will Second Life be the next AOL" Aol had a proprietary browser a proprietary format. Netscape was killed by microsoft when they added the internet explorer to their operating system for free. But both Netscape and Internet Explorer implemented the standard protocol if the internet.

    Scripting Languages: LSL and OSSL… openWonderland has scripting support on its roadmap. It probably won't be neither LSL nor OSSL because both are closely related to the inworld building concepts with those prims.

    To be clear I like OpenSim. I'm managing several servers with several simulators on each server in OSgrid, i spend a lot of my spare time in OSgrid. Too bad most of the time i spend there supporting users with all the technical problems those users have with that plaform. Really hoping that the big refactoring of the code base brings some relief in order to let me focus on the funny part of the game (and btw. all those viewers which are available are also part of the problem and not yet part of the solution). But I like the concepts of openWonderland as well and advocate a bit for those concepts does not harm at all. Competition brings choice to the end user and that's what we want and therefore I think it is important that openWonderland succeeds and gets its place and I'm more than open to other alternatives as long as they are open source and are not purely business driven.

    I will be interesting what the future brings!

    Greetings

    Akira

  • Akira —

    A hypergrid teleport in OpenSim is just like a regular teleport, except instead of entering a region name in Map and clicking "Teleport" you type in the hypergrid address. Otherwise, it looks and feels the same.

    The hypergrid is growing fast. Right now, we've indexed over 200 regions in the Hyperica directory, on 47 different grids: http://www.hyperica.com

    You're right about the stability and usability issues, and the bugs — but I remember the early days of the Internet, when websites took forever to load, the browsers crashed all the time. Right now, it feels as though OpenSim is at the same stage.

    — Maria