How open are virtual worlds?

There are three ways in which a particular platform or service can be considered to be “open.”

One is whether it runs on multiple systems, or is locked into a system from one particular vendor.

For example, Apple’s Leonard operating system only runs on Apple computers. The Windows operating systems, by comparison, can be installed just about anywhere.

The Wii Sports game only runs on the Nintendo Wii. Microsoft Word can run — sometimes with emulators — on pretty much any machine out there.

CAN IT RUN ANYWHERE?

Today, with the exception of gaming-oriented virtual worlds like Sony’s PlayStation Home, virtual worlds can be accessed by visitors using any standard operating system.

But that’s for the visitors. There’s another side to virtual worlds — creating and managing it. This is similar to the way that websites can be accessed by browsers — Firefox, Explorer, and Chrome — and run on Web servers like Apache and Windows Server.

Some virtual worlds can be run from any location, while others are significantly limited.

Some hosted virtual worlds, including the enterprise-focused platforms Web.alive, Venuegen, Assemb’Live,  only run in cloud mode, on servers operated by the vendor. The consumer version of Second Life only runs on Second Life’s own servers. The defunct There.com only ran on their own servers.

Many enterprise platforms are more flexible, and can run in alternate locations, such as behind corporate firewalls or at third-party hosting sites. The Second Life Enterprise system, for example, is a package of software and servers that companies can install anywhere they like.

ProtonMedia’s ProtoSphere is software which runs on the Windows operating system, and can be loaded and installed anywhere, as is SAIC’s Olive (recently acquired from Forterra).

Teleplace also has a behind-the-firewall solution, that can run on a company’s own computers, in addition to its hosted service, as does Altadyn’s 3DXplorer.

The benefit of being able to move a world to your own computers is that if something happens to your vendor, you still have the world. You may not be able to get ongoing support from the vendor, but at least you have time to find an alternative platform.

OpenSim-based worlds can run behind the firewall, or with a number of vendors who provide hosted services. Another open source project, Open Wonderland, also runs on behind-the-firewall servers.

CAN YOU MOVE THE CONTENT?

Many software vendors try to lock their users into their platforms, to a lesser or greater degree.

A console-based video game, for example, isn’t going to let users save their game levels and characters into a file to email to their friends so that they can then continue playing the game at that level or with that character.

Other programs will let you save files, but not open them in other systems. Microsoft Word files, at one point, could only be opened from inside Microsoft Word. Today, however, Microsoft Word documents can be opened by most competing word processors — though some formatting elements might be lost. For example, OpenOffice and Google Docs can both open Microsoft Word files.

Today, many virtual worlds platforms will not let you save the virtual worlds as separate files, though some allow the export of individual objects. That is similar to moving a Microsoft Word document to a different word processor by copying and pasting it one paragraph at a time.

Hosted worlds in particular — including the public grid version of Second Life — do not not allow exports of full regions of virtual spaces. Most behind-the-firewall, enterprise class virtual worlds do allow regions or scenes to be saved. This allows companies to archive previous versions of their virtual worlds.

Export files also allow for one department in a company to, say, create a virtual conference center and then share it with other departments. Or a teacher can create a virtual reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg and then share it with other history teachers.

In addition, exports allow third-party developers to create content — such as entire worlds — and sell them to customers. A company using a building for internal meetings, for example, doesn’t need to have a unique, original creation for this purpose — it’s cheaper to buy an off-the-shelf building with the most-used functionality already built-in.

Today, there are several such clearinghouses for OpenSim worlds, though I haven’t seen any for other virtual world platforms. An OpenSim region export — called an OAR file — includes all objects, textures, terrains and scripts located inside a particular region.

Instead, most enterprise-grade virtual world platforms allow the import of Collada 3D objects, but not normally the import of full worlds, complete with scripts and other interactive elements.

Some hosted virtual worlds limit the choice of world designs, or force customers to work with the vendor or select third parties to design the world.

The public Second Life platform, while it does not currently allow the import or export of full regions, does allow customers to use vendors of their choice to design their builds, or to buy individual objects from third parties.

In addition, Second Life and OpenSim are currently the only examples of cross-vendor compatibility as individual objects and scripts can be moved from one platform to another with little or no modification.

WHAT CAN YOU SWAP OUT?

If you edit photographs, and you get tired of your computer, you can replace your hardware and continue with no interruption. You can even, today, switch operating systems and still access your files and use most of your favorite photo editing applications. If you get tired of your photo editing software, you can replace it with any of hundreds of alternatives. If you get tired of your photos, you can close them out and load up new ones.

All of these options are obvious, and necessary, when it comes to business productivity software. You wouldn’t consider buying a word processor that didn’t let you save your document.  Even hosted, online-only word processors like Google Docs allow exports to your hard drive.

As virtual worlds move from being gaming platforms to enterprise platforms, this flexibility will eventually become standard there as well as well.

Until then, however, you can swap out:

Hardware — if you are running behind-the-firewall applications. This includes ProtoSphere, Teleplace, 3DXplorer, Olive, OpenSim and Open Wonderland. With packaged appliances like Second Life Enterprise, you can move the servers around to different data centers.

Software — if you are running Second Life Enterprise or OpenSim. But if you swap out one platform and replace it with the other, you will need to move the content pieces that make up your virtual world individually, or hire a vendor to do it for you.

Virtual world files — if you are running behind-the-firewall applications like Olive, Teleplace, ProtoSphere, 3DXplorer, Second Life Enterprise, Open Wonderland, and OpenSim. In fact, vendors usually provide several different starting worlds, such as conference centers or meeting rooms, as part of the default package.

Remember to check with your vendor before making any final purchasing decisions, since this space is evolving rapidly.

THE TRADE-OFFS

There are several choices a company has to make when selecting a virtual world, and they involve trade-offs. No one platform can meet every enterprise need — though, over time, we will see more and more gaps get filled.

Web-based viewers are easiest for users, but provide less functionality than full, downloadable viewers. Web.alive, Venuegen, Assemb’live, 3DXplorer  all run in the browser with plug-ins, as does the proprietary 3Di viewer for OpenSim (only available in Japan).

Hosted worlds are easiest for enterprises — they pay their fees, and their world is instantly up and running (design and customization may take extra time). But they offer the least control and flexibility.

Commercial products offer the best combination of features and support from a single vendor source. Open source projects are a free or low-cost option, but companies need to find support from third-party service providers, and may not yet be able to get all the features and stability that they require.

The single most flexible virtual world platform for enterprises today is Open Wonderland. It allows full Collada-format 3D imports, in-world desktop sharing, a Java client that downloads itself and a virtual world address that’s a simple URL. However, Open Wonderland currently has no ecosystem behind it. It used to be run by Sun, but after Oracle’s acquisition of that company it’s been set adrift as its own open source project, run by former Sun employees on a volunteer basis. There are some pilot deployments, but no public worlds to visit, no clearing houses of content, and no vendor communities. Open Wonderland also requires a great deal of technical skill to install and run.

The next most flexible virtual world platform for enterprises is OpenSim, also an open-source project but with backing from Intel, IBM, and Microsoft as well as a large community of users and developers, and several for-profit hosting companies and service vendors. There are dozens of free large public worlds to visit, thousands of private worlds, and a very vibrant ecosystems of users and designers who share content. In addition, OpenSim uses the same viewers as Second Life, and there’s a great deal of cross-pollination between the two platforms, and a lot of movement of content and designers. OpenSim also requires some technical skill to install and run, though the hosting vendors can do it all for you. In addition, for those of moderate technical skills, there are a number of automatic installers that will configure and run a virtual world on a company’s — or individual’s — own server. Prices range from free for a self-serve installation to $55,000 to a pre-configured, hardened version of OpenSim from IBM — Virtual Collaboration for Lotus Sametime.

The enterprise-grade, behind-the-firewall virtual world platforms like Second Life Enterprise, Olive, Teleplace, 3DXplorer and ProtoSphere are currently more stable and resilient than the open source options. In addition, Teleplace, Olive and ProtoSphere offer more collaboration features for enterprise uses. The vendors also offer custom-designed, interactive training and collaboration environments, though at a significant price.

The Web-based, hosted products like Web.alive, Venuegen and Assemb’live — as well as the hosted versions of products from Teleplace, 3DXplorer, Protosphere and Second Life itself — are easy to set up and easy to use. However, they also offer the least control to enterprise users and make customers dependent on a sole provider for the existence and maintenance of the virtual world. In addition, in the case of Second Life, companies using the public grid have to submit to a number of restrictions on user names, ages and content — and risk losing access to their worlds and their communities of users if a server crashes or Second Life decides to shut down their regions (as recently happened to Woodbury University).

Finally, only one platform currently offers full teleports from one world to another: OpenSim. If my company has an OpenSim world that’s hypergrid-enabled, and your company is also running a hypergrid-enabled OpenSim world, I can teleport from my office to yours with my existing avatar, with my appearance, clothing, accessories — even the PowerPoint slides in my virtual briefcase. I can buy stuff on your virtual world and bring it home with me, or share content — such as my PowerPoint slides — with users of your virtual world.  Even if our worlds are running on different servers in different countries, running different versions of OpenSim (though not too different — backwards compatibility only goes so far.)

In our hypergrid directory, Hyperica, we’re currently tracking more than 200 hypergrid-enabled destinations on more than 40 different grids — from large public social grids in the U.S., Germany, Italy, and Portugal, to small grids run by individual companies, designers, and virtual worlds hobbyists. The number of destinations is rising quickly, and is expected to jump sharply when a new, more secure version of the hypergrid protocol comes out later this year.

Meanwhile, the VWRAP standards group is working on a set of protocols that would allow multiple platforms to share identity information, pass messages, and even allow full teleportation between different proprietary worlds. Organizers say that it will probably take two years for a full teleportation standard to be developed, however.

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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.