OpenSim business roadmap: past, present and future

My company is a small, enterprise user of virtual worlds. Over the past year, we’ve used them for meetings with partners, new hires, internal collaboration, and external business networking.

There were plenty of virtual worlds to choose from. But since we wanted to be able to customize our environment ourselves — and we are not professional 3D designers — and had a very limited budget, our choices were limited to Second Life and OpenSim.

But there were some major differences between Second Life and OpenSim that caused our company to choose the latter.

My virtual office on my company's OpenSim minigrid.

Content ownership

With OpenSim, our company is the actual owner of all the content on our grid — we’re not simply licensees under a TOS. As far as we are concerned, having our own OpenSim grid is very much like having our own website. We own the domain name. We decide what to put on the grid. Once we put up the grid, we can save backups, move it to different hosting companies, or even sell entire regions, if we wanted to get into that line of business.

If we hire someone under a work-for-hire or all-rights contract to build things for our region, then we own those things forever. We don’t have to worry about whether we have creator rights to the objects or not — if we have a rights contract in hand, then those objects are ours.

In Second Life, even with a copyright assignment contract, the creator’s name is on the content — not our company name — and we can’t export anything.  For us to have our creator name on content in Second Life, we would have to give access to one of our avatar accounts to the content creator for the duration of the building project, then get our avatar back when the project is done.  And even them, if the builder uses any third-party materials — such as textures or building components — then the content can not be exported, even if we have full rights to those third-party materials.

With Second Life, there are only limited backups of individual objects, no backups of full regions, and no third-party hosting alternatives. Those are really big risks for a company to take, and we weren’t willing to do that.

User controls

In Second Life, individual users create their own accounts under pseudonyms and people can’t use their real names. (This latter part is now changing — Second Life has promised that it will roll out “display names”.) The individual users control their own inventories and identify personally with their Second Life accounts — when they leave the company, they expect to be able to take their avatars with them.

With our corporate website, by comparison, we create the user access accounts for our employees, and set up their email for them as well. When they leave the company, they lose access to their corporate logins and email accounts.

OpenSim works much like the latter. If create a company grid, we can create individual accounts for our employees, using their real names. When they leave, the accounts — and inventories — stay with us. We’re a nice company, so employees will be able to clear out any personal belongings that may have accumulated in their virtual offices but, for security reasons, we can’t have former employees running around with access to company assets. So, say, if they use their own money to buy nice business suits, they’ll be able to take the clothing with them when they leave — but not corporate assets such as financial presentations or proprietary technology.

If an employee wants to use their avatars after working hours for personal activities, they can create a personal avatar on any of the many public grids that offer free avatars. This is similar to the way employees would have a work email from their employers, and personal email accounts with Hotmail or Gmail.

Price

We’d be lying if we didn’t admit that price was a major consideration. OpenSim land, on average, is a tenth the price of Second Life — $30 per region or less compared to $300 a month in Second Life.

Full list of hosting providers here.

For a month of Second Life hosting, we can get a whole year of hosting in OpenSim. Or, for the same price, we could get ten times the land. We wouldn’t have access to the Second Life community — but, as a small company running internal meetings, we don’t need or want to have a larger community accessing our offices. And, so far, all the content we’ve needed has been available for sale or for free in OpenSim. With free items, we’ve been careful to get to know the content creators, to help ensure that we’re not running afoul of copyright laws.

We’ve also enjoyed the personal service we get in OpenSim.

Hosted OpenSim regions usually come with personal support from small, hungry startup firms as well as a growing array of management features such as on-demand backups, new user creation, and upgrades and maintenance downtime on your schedule — not theirs.

We regularly ask our hosting providers to install special features, to upgrade our software for us, or to delay upgrades when inconvenient. A company our size wouldn’t get anywhere near this level of service in Second Life. Not even if we blogged about it night and day.

Hypergrid

The best thing about OpenSim — as far as we were concerned — is that we could have our own private grid, but still have access to the public grids out there. By enabling hypergrid, we can teleport, with our avatars, to other grids for meetings, events and, of course, shopping. And we can bring stuff back with us.

Hypergrid teleports have been around on OpenSim since spring 2009, and have become pretty seamless. Appearance and attachments travel as easily as they do with regular teleports.

For those who are particularly security conscious, hypergrid can be enabled or disabled at will. So, for example, if you’re having a team of designers come in to build up your grid, you can enable hypergrid so they can teleport in with their supplies and building materials — then shut down hypergrid access when they’re done. Hypergrid can also be enabled on just part of a grid, if we wanted to have some private office areas and some public meeting facilities.

Right now, we don’t mind visitors dropping by, so we have hypergrid fully enabled. As a small company, we don’t expect to have a flood of people showing up and creating havoc. If we do, we might segregate private office to a non-hypergrid area of the grid, or keep hypergrid up but limit access to certain areas to just a group of company employees. We have backups, so if someone were to come in and somehow mess up our region, we can simply restore it to the previous day’s version.

We will also implement access controls the minute we start sharing proprietary, confidential information on the grid — we don’t want a stranger wandering in and seeing a private document up on a wall.  We may also consider implementing security on the document level, instead — allowing members of only some company divisions to see particular sets of documents. For example, members of my company’s financial team should be able to have access to financial reports and employee salary data, and all employees — but not members of the general public — should be able to see the company’s active client list.

THE PRESENT

All the above features are nice, and the user controls and the backups were absolutely necessary. We weren’t going to enter a platform where we didn’t have either.

But they weren’t sufficient to create a great experience for us.

They were enough to get us started, play around with building facilities and decorating offices, hold some internal meetings and some networking events, but no full-scale deployment of the platform for ongoing business use.

There were two main things missing, and both are now on their way.

Voice

Second Life has a wonderful voice system, from Vivox, a company that specializes in voice for large-scale online role playing games. The voice is directional — you can tell where the speakers is located and how far away they are. The voice is easy to use, clear, and even synchronized to lip movements.

For the previous year, only FreeSwitch voice has been available in OpenSim. And, though one of the guys behind it tells me that their platform works fine for telephone companies, it hasn’t been a great fit for OpenSim. People get disconnected in the middle of the conversation. The first parts of sentences get dropped. And you get weird hold music if you’re the first one at a meeting and nobody else has arrived yet.

Compared to that, FreeSwitch’s lack of spacial functionality or lip synching is just a minor inconvenience.

Last week, an alternative voice platform has been demonstrated in OpenSim, using something called Whisper. The sound is crystal clear, conversations don’t get dropped, there’s no hold music — and the underlying platform, Mumble, supports directional voice. and I hear that there’s even lip synching, if you’re using the latest Second Life viewer.

I’m expecting to see Whisper integrated into the most popular OpenSim viewers soon, with directional voice to come at some point after that.

This is the voice system we’ve been waiting for, and we couldn’t be happier.

Shared media

Our parent company, Trombly International, is a media company. We work with editorial workflow databases, with shared calendars and spreadsheets, project management flowcharts. We edit documents collaboratively.

Back when we ere all in the same office, we could stand around each other’s computers, see what was going on, help new staff out with workflow processes, teach them how to use the systems. Over time, we became more and more geographically dispersed. Today, I work with guys and gals in Belgium, Shanghai, Mumbai, Wuhan, and Moscow — and training and collaboration have become progressively more difficult.

That may start to change this fall, as OpenSim hosting providers and grid operators upgrade to the latest release of OpenSim, which supports media-on-a-prim. This is a function rolled out by Second Life earlier this year, and allows you to put a webpage on any surface in your world.

So, for example, one wall in your virtual office could be a giant virtual monitor showing your Google calendar. Another wall can show your workflow database. A third can show your project status spreadsheets.

The surface of your conference room table can be a giant map showing your corporate locations and real-time personnel movements.

Anything you can put on a website, you can pull into your world. Training videos. Streaming webcam feeds. Google Documents.

You can even stream your desktop, live, into the virtual world to demonstrate to your employees how to use a particular tool — or to edit a document in front of an employee while explaining why you’re making those edits.

How will this all work out for us? We’ll keep you posted and let you know after we’ve been doing it for a while.

Currency

Strictly speaking, enterprise grids don’t need in-world economies. I’m not going to charge my employees rent for using their virtual desks, or make them pay for their own virtual supplies. An education grid might not want retail stores setting up shop on their grids.

But some kind of OpenSim payment system is nice. Say I need new desks and chair for my employees. I could hire a designer to come in and make them, and pay them through official channels for their time as I would any contractor. Or I could simply teleport out to any of the dozens of stores that have opened up recently on the various public OpenSim grids, and browse through their furniture collections, and buy the stuff I needed for just pennies.

Today, business presentation tools, clothing and avatar shapes, furniture and office decorations, even entire buildings are available at low cost. In fact, there are even many collections of free items produced by volunteers hoping to jump-start the growth and development of OpenSim grids — or who just enjoy the process of creating and sharing with other people.

Note of warning: there are also illegal knock-offs in the virtual worlds — just as there are everywhere else. To avoid potential future copyright infringement lawsuits, check the provenance of the items you buy. Most professionally-run commercial grids are good about keeping an eye out for and taking down infringing content, since they would also prefer to avoid lawsuits. When dealing with small, individual distributors, check with the store’s proprietor for the provenance of the goods. Some will have prominent signs explaining where the work came from, and under what terms. As a general rule, avoid picking up content when the display stand has a clearly marked price in Linden dollars, but the item is being given away for free: it is likely that the content was stolen — together with its display stand — from Second Life.

THE FUTURE

With the voice and media features added to OpenSim, the platform may become a usable environment for business on a par with many of the other enterprise-level virtual environments out there.

Here are some of the features I’m looking forward to the most.

Web-based viewers

Second Life is working on a web-based viewer for their platform. In the past, every Second Life viewer has also been usable in OpenSim, so there’s hope that whatever Second Life comes up with, OpenSim will benefit from.

A web-based viewer would allow people to click on a link and be right there, inside a world — no need to download and install special software.

If Second Life doesn’t step up, there are a couple of other groups working on web-based viewers as well, with 3Di currently in the lead with a working, commercial Web-based viewer for customers in Japan.

My vision is that, eventually, we’ll all be running 3D operating systems, so we’ll be in a 3D environment from the moment we turn on our computers. In fact, Web browsers will be running inside virtual worlds, not the other way around.

I wonder whether the company that invents the 3D operating system will be Apple, Google, or some startup we haven’t heard of yet.

Mesh imports

Mesh imports will allow companies to hire professional 3D designers to create their virtual environments in professional 3D design programs, and import these designs into OpenSim. Architects can import directly from their architectural design software. Manufacturers can import from their CAD systems.

The rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their labors, in the form of nicer, more realistic products and clothes and hair that flow more naturally and also pose less of a burden on virtual world servers.

Most proprietary enterprise virtual world platforms — like ProtoSphere and Teleplace — already support mesh imports, as does the realXtend version of OpenSim.

Mesh imports are a must for some industries. For my company, they’re a nice-to-have, not a necessity, but if more companies enter the virtual world space as a result of mesh imports, then we’ll all be better off.

Safe and easy hypergrid

The hypergrid technology that allows teleportation between different OpenSim worlds is just over a year old. It still has some security holes. The security issues got quite a bit of attention with the latest release of OpenSim and the Hypergrid 1.5 standard. Even more security is expected with the Hypergrid 2.0 upgrade.

There are also usability problems. Hypergrid addresses are extremely non-intuitive. If you want to go to a region on OSGrid, for example, you won’t be able to teleport to an address like osgrid.org/region_name — instead, you’ll have to enter something like: 123.45.67.89:9903:region_name.

There’s no technical reason for this not to get fixed soon, but the OpenSim developers do have more significant issues to worry about, like performance and stability and scalability.

Then there’s the 4,096 bug — you can’t hypergrid more than 4,096 regions in any direction. That means that you can’t directly teleport from ReactionGrid center to the OSGrid center 9,000 regions away — instead, you’ll have to jump to some other grids or regions first that are located at mid-way points.

Again, there’s no reason for this not to get fixed soon, but it does require some coordination between the folks working on the server software and the guys working on the viewers.

Finally, we don’t currently have hypergrid bookmarks, or hypergrid-enabled chat and instant messages. We’re probably going to have all of these soon enough, as well.

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.

  • Ener Hax

    very nicely written post comparing the state of the two major virtual worlds. we are excited about hypergrid 1.5 as well as media on a prim

    like you, mesh is not that important. we both have done blender work but “normal” prims suit us fine as well

    it’s a bit like YouTube – so many people use YouTube to learn from and the videos do not need to look like a major movie to work – if they did, there would be far fewer videos and far less learning going on

  • Nice post. I work for a teenage cancer charity and we are looking to set up a virtual world for teenagers with cancer. We where looking into Teen Second Life, but now after that is going to be closing down we started looking into OpenSim and I am thinking that even if Teen Second Life was not closing, OpenSim may still be the best way to go.

    The only two things that are stopping us from going straight ahead with it are;

    1) Which hosting provider to go with? SimHost seem all OK, and $189 per month for a dedicated server seem good. What do others think? Also is there any others that can be recomended/you have had experience with?

    2) Buying objects. I did like the market place with SL, it was so easy to buy objects, buildings, etc for the world. I know there are some inworld places on OSGrid, but no where near the size of SL. The main thing I am looking for is actual buildings, I have found loads of avatar customisations and some furnature, but not many actual buildings.

  • Chatworld —

    The ones that I've heard the most positive reviews about from customers are ReactionGrid, SimHost and Dreamland Metaverse — with ReactionGrid being the largest operation, SimHost next in size, and Dreamland Metaverse the smallest of the three (in terms of staff and customers).

    Whichever provider you go with make sure you gets LOTS of backups in the form of OAR files. Not only will you be able to revert anytime to a previous version of the world, but you'll also be able to switch hosting providers easily and efficiently. No mess, no fuss. If you're running a private grid with them, also ask for full database backups (these include not just all the regions and their assets, but also all users and their inventories) and IAR (inventory archives) backups.

    All you need to do is point a domain name to the the IP address your hosting company provides — and point it to the new company when you switch. None of your users will know the difference — you should be able to change providers over the course of a weekend.

    What that means is that there's no pressure. If you pick a provider and find that they aren't as responsive as you need, or have all the features you want, you can switch very easily.

    If you're looking to be buying objects, you want to ask your hosting provider if you can turn on and turn off hypergrid at will.

    For example, you can have it turned off while programs are in session, and turned on while you are constructing your grid. You can also have just part of your grid hypergrid-enabled, so that outsiders aren't jumping into the middle of private events.

    Once you have hypergrid enabled, you can visit some of the many locations on the hypergrid that offer free and low-cost items to outfit your grid with.

    For buildings, I recommend checking out Builder's Gateway on OSGrid:
    http://www.hyperica.com/2010/04/builders-gateway/

    If there's a particular Second Life building you're interested in, you can approach its designer and ask for a site license for your private grid. You might need to pay a little extra for off-grid rights, and you should also ask for a written license agreement so that there are no misunderstandings.

    Remember that stair step heights are slightly different in OpenSim than Second Life — expect to put down a few transparent ramps here and there to keep you users from stumbling over the stairs.

    If you come across any other places that sell buildings — or office supplies — please let me know!

    Good luck!

    — Maria

  • Thanks for the help Maria. I took a look at Builder’s Gateway, there was a couple of things of intrest there.

    It’s mainly things like, a coffee shop building and interior, for example. Objects that can then be easily edited to add a more unique look.