Qarl Linden’s layoff is bad news for OpenSim

Linden Lab developer Qarl Linden reported that he was laid off yesterday. The developer — known as Karl Stiefvater outside of Second Life — was responsible for such innovations as scupties and flexi prims, making the in-world environment richer and more realistic.

“He is widely recognized as a competent and productive developer, praised and respected by the people in the company who work with him,” said Indigo Mertel, who launched a petition to bring him back.

Tautero Nino calls him a developer “who comes close to having super-powers.”

For Second Life users, the layoff is a major blow — Stiefvater has been working on bringing meshes to Second Life, which would allow users to bring in 3D content from outside sources, such as professional 3D design programs, and Google’s free 3D Warehouse. In protest, Second Life users have been burning their sculpties today.

Mesh imports would allow architects to import buildings from their professional architecture design software, allow manufacturers to bring in 3D models from their CAD/CAM systems, and allow ordinary users to gain access to the wealth of 3D content available outside of Second Life.

Another use for meshes would be to have nice avatars. Today, avatars in Second Life and OpenSim are created using a proprietary system of sliders that are used to adjust, say, the size of your nose or the width of your butt. It’s an intuitive system for new users but, unfortunately, isn’t compatible with the rest of the world. This means that if you make a 3D model from your photograph — which you can do with, say, CyberExtruder — you can’t import it into Second Life or OpenSim. Sure, you can import the photograph of the face as a “skin”, but not the exact shape of your face – that has to be done manually, by adjusting the sliders.

(Mesh is produced by CyberExtruder software based on headshot photograph.)

But mesh imports aren’t without controversy. By opening the gates to outside content, mesh imports could put downward pressure on prices for commodity virtual goods that are available for free elsewhere.

So what do Second Life mesh imports have to do with OpenSim? A lot.

OpenSim has long had the ability to import meshes, through the use of the modrex plugin and the realXtend viewer.

However, modrex makes OpenSim incompatible with Second Life viewers, since Second Life doesn’t support meshes. As a result, OpenSim developers have not included modrex as part of the standard distribution of Second Life, and no major public grid currently supports it, since most OpenSim users pick one of the Second Life-compatible viewers. Modrex is available from OpenSim hosting companies as a custom add-on, but so far has only been used for specialized applications.

If Second Life had started to support meshes, then all the Second Life viewers would have been updated to display them. Once all the viewers can display meshes, the standard OpenSim distribution would be able to turn on meshes as well.

This means that enterprises would be able to gain the use of meshes without the risk of losing compatibility with Second Life, and interoperability with the public OpenSim grids. For small businesses and educators that depend on hypergrid connectivity to other OpenSim grids — to shop for content, or to attend meetings — maintaining compatibility with mainline OpenSim is important.

Here at Hypergrid Business, I’ve been advising folks to avoid modrex and wait for Second Life to roll out mesh support. My thinking was that if Second Life was to roll out meshes this summer, and OpenSim would likely follow suit within a couple of months or so, then there’s not much point in getting modrex to work on your grid, and developing custom content in it. By the time you’re done getting it to work for you, and training your users on realXtend, it may be publicly available anyway and all your work would have been wasted.

If Second Life has abandoned mesh support for good, however, then the cost-benefit equation changes dramatically.

It may be worth it for users to start to experiment with realXtend and modrex if they need mesh imports, and for developers to improve backwards compatibility and figure out a way to enable hypergrid teleports across grids with and without modrex.

Top uses for meshes

If your enterprise falls into one of these categories, you may consider starting to experiment with OpenSim modrex meshes even without mainline support:

  • Architects: RealXtend offers the possibility of importing actual architectural designs into OpenSim to give potential home buyers a chance to see the house from the inside before it is built. They can even suggest changes — different colors for walls, bigger windows, higher ceilings — and see the architect adjust the house right in front of them. And they can see how the sunlight comes in at sunrise, midday and sunset — can’t do that with a paper printout.  And it’s not just residential architects who can benefit. Architects working on commercial buildings can give their clients virtual walk-throughs as well. The architects I’ve talked to so far do the walk-throughs in their offices, so they can help the clients navigate the interface. With a more tech-savvy customer base, however, the clients can log in remotely from their home or work computers.
  • Manufacturers: RealXtend allows manufacturers to bring together staff who may be located in far-flung officers and have them work together in a virtual environment on 3D products — new products, components for products, or assembly lines. Having mesh support means that the in-world objects don’t have to be created from scratch — they can be imported from 3D modeling software. With a captive workplace user base, it doesn’t matter what the big public grids do — your users use whatever software you tell them to, and if they want to teleport off to FrancoGrid to shop in the French stores, they can do that on their personal time, using their personal avatars.
  • Retailers: If you want to sell your products in a virtual environment, you probably already have 3D models of your goods. With mesh-enabled OpenSim, you can pull those objects in from your digital warehouse to display them in the virtual world. The downside is that you won’t be able to bring in traffic from the big public grids — yet, at least — since the standard browsers won’t be able to display your stuff. However, you can use mesh-friendly Web-based OpenSim viewers like the proprietary viewer from Japan’s 3Di, Inc.
  • Marketers: Building an event venue using professional 3D design software can produce a richer, more realistic environment than building the same venue using the Second Life/OpenSim built-in editing tools. And it also significantly expands the talent pool of people who are able to work on your project. The problem is getting users into the world. Even the Web-based 3Di viewer requires visitors to download a plugin, and is slow and clumsy to use.

The wait-and-see bloc

For many categories of users, however, there is no rush to implement meshes.

  • Public grid operators: If you’re running a public grid, and want the maximum number of people to be able to log in — or teleport in from other grids – then you need to support the most widely-used virtual world viewers. Today, that means supporting the standard Second Life viewer and its third-party alternatives – Hippo, Imprudence, and Meerkat, among over a dozen others. This is especially true if your target market is refugees from Second Life itself.
  • Schools, non-profits, and small companies: Non-profits and small companies don’t have the budgets to custom-design 3D content or provide training for their employees. It’s much easier to send staff into Second Life for one of many free or low-cost orientation and training programs. There are also many fine tutorials available online for Second Life/OpenSim building. A new user can be designing furniture and homes within minutes. Of course, it can take years for them to get really good! But it’s the ease and accessibility of Second Life building tools that makes it such a hit with individuals, students, and small companies. The realXtend viewer — Naali — has a completely different interface from the Second Life viewers, and little or no support for new users.
  • Individual designers: Average users for whom OpenSim is a place to have a virtual home, or a place to show off their creative side, or who produce virtual goods for sale on OpenSim grids and in Second Life, would do well to avoid meshes for the time being. They take time to learn how to use, and there are few people you’ll be able to show them off to. If you make objects for resale, there isn’t — yet — much of a market for mesh objects in OpenSim, and no market in Second Life.

I have not been able to find any publicly accessible grids that use realXtend. Two test worlds are supposed to be accessible from within the Naali viewer, but I’ve never been able to get them to load, and all requests for help have, so far, gone unanswered.  The lack of a sizeable end-user community, limited third-party information about using realXtend, lack of support and tutorials, all make realXtend problematic for the general user.

This may all change, however, if the OpenSim community stops waiting for Second Life to roll out meshes and moves ahead on its own. If it does, progress will be unsynchronized and sporadic, and may lead to a fragmentation in OpenSim’s user base.

Having Second Life’s full weight behind meshes would not only mean a choice of viewers for OpenSim users. Second Life’s million-plus active users would also need tutorials, walk-throughs, dumbed-down videos for newbies, advanced videos and documentation for power users, orientation sessions and third-party classes and training programs — all of which would benefit the OpenSim user base as well. The OpenSim development team is run by volunteers without the time or skills to develop a wide range of training materials, and the OpenSim user base is currently to small to generate it all on its own.

OpenSim gains a great deal from moving in lock-step with Second Life, and loses a great deal if the Lindens abandon the mesh effort.

What is a mesh, anyway?

A mesh is something that looks like chicken wire in the shape of an object.

(Source: BlenderArtists.org)

Typical building in Second Life is done using primitive building blocks — “prims” such as cubes and spheres — that can be twisted and stretched. A cube, however, only has six sides, while a mesh can have an unlimited number of faces, making for much more complex objects. In addition, each face of a mesh can be filled with a different image, which can result in photorealistic objects — but also creates a burden for virtual world servers.

And yes, for the technically-minded grammar police out there, I know that a prim is technically a type of a mesh. But feel free to point it out again in the comments. 🙂

A “sculptie” — or “sculpted prim” — is a funky cross between a regular prim and a standard mesh, in which the 3D map is applied as if it were a texture to a prim. As a result, sculpties first appear as solid blobs in the viewer before they fully resolve into their final shapes. You’ve probably seen sculpties around Second Life and OpenSim in the form of cushy couches, gnarled tree trunks, and artistic hedgerows.

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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.

  • Folks interested in working with meshes *today* in a low-cost, high-function, 100% open-source virtual world environment may want to check out http://openwonderland.org

    Screenshots: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maggiel/tags/project
    Blog :http://blogs.openwonderland.org/
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/openwonderland
    Faceboolk: http://www.facebook.com/openwonderland

  • The main thing I want to know in regards to mesh in Second Life is whether or not it will be editable once uploaded in-world. I have heard from two different sources – one saying yes and the other saying no. Considering that Second Life is a world that "one size does not fit all" I see a problem if we cannot edit mesh in-world. Yes, I know there is no-mod stuff sold everyday in Second Life now but I'm guessing it's the smallest percentage of items sold. It would be interesting to know the stats on that.

    As for your example above, everyone knows that a shape in Second Life, regardless of its quality of design, is only as good or bad as the skin applied. Ask any expert shape maker. Yes, some shape makers sell no-mod shapes. However, people can still create different looks by applying different skins and therefore not be running into clones everywhere they go. Of course this doesn't apply to creating and uploading one's own shape. Only the pre-made shapes/looks that are sold on the mesh sites.

    If mesh is so highly sought after by the masses, and is already supported in Open Sim, how come someone has not modified an Open Sim viewer to accommodate mesh? Would not that benefit the Open Sim community and give them an advantage over Second Life in regards to appeal and draw? If I knew how to design a viewer I would surely be capitalizing on this. The only way Open Sim will ever step out from under Second Life's shadow is to offer things that Second Life does not have.

  • Maggie —

    You're right, Open Wonderland does currently support meshes, as does another open source virtual world project, Open Cobalt. In addition, several proprietary platforms support mesh imports, including ProtoSphere and Teleplace. The latter two are used by "hundreds" of corporations, including quite a few Fortune 500 firms — but come at a steep price. (Open Wonderland and Open Cobalt are both open source and free.)

    Open Wonderland has some steam behind it in the educational sector, particularly with computer science classes. However, I've so far been unable to uncover an enterprise user community — am I wrong? In addition, there don't seem to be any commercial public grids running Open Wonderland and the platform is incompatible with Second Life/OpenSim. That means that you have to train all of your users yourself, and create all of your content yourself.

    I also haven't been able to confirm that any companies are offering commercial hosting of Open Wonderland grids, and get their prices and service features.

    OpenSim, by comparison, has around 100 public grids (not counting the thousands of private behind-the-firewall deployments), a huge amount of content, a great user community, and access to all of Second Life's training materials, courses, videos, and content developers. Not to mention the content — scripts, objects in Second Life (remember to check with creators before taking content to other grids) and all of these plus entire regions available for free and for sale on various OpenSim commerce platforms and in in-world stores.

    Without the content, the training, the other services, Open Wonderland is an interesting and elegant technology experiment, not a viable business environment.

    Can this change? Maybe. Migration would need to be easier — the ability to bring Second Life/OpenSim objects, scripts and region files into Open Wonderland would ease transitions. Hypergrid teleports to and from OpenSim-based grids would help.

    Open Wonderland may also leapfrog OpenSim if it offers a Web-based viewer and an easy one-click install to run the world on your own computer. Today, running OpenSim at home is free — but takes a bit of technical know-how to set up the MySQL database and forward the ports.

    A low-cost hosting product would also help. Today, low-end OpenSim regions can be had for under $20 a month. Free or low-cost Open Wonderland hosting may inspire some of the creative community to move over to set up their studios and museums, especially if they had a Web-based viewer to show off their work. They would need easy building tools, however, and easily available training, as well as hypergrid teleports between grids.

    None of these are insurmountable, but most are business problems, not technology problems. OpenSim lucked out in that they're able to leverage on the business success of Second Life — which is very handy, since open source developers tend to focus on the tech side, and not on the marketing side.

    — Maria

  • Tinsel —

    OpenSim developers aren't allowed to work on the third-party viewers. The viewers are on an incompatible open source license. So if you glance at Hippo code, you're not allowed on the OpenSim team. And vice versa.

    There's good reason for this. The Second Life open source viewers are licensed under something called GPL, which means you can't take them, modify them, and sell them under your own brand name.

    OpenSim is licensed under BSD. That means you can take the free OpenSim code, add your own bells and whistles, and charge people money to use it. This is great for the business community, and one of the reasons so many people are jumping on the OpenSim bandwagon — they can see the potential to make some serious dough.

    The solution is to write a brand-new viewer from scratch, under the BSD license. And the OpenSim folks have done just that. It's called the realXtend viewer — the latest incarnation is Naali — and I mentioned it in the story.

    Since they built it from scratch, they could fix up the interface, add mesh support, all the goodies that anyone ever wanted.

    Unfortunately, that means that the viewer looks nothing like the Second Life viewers. For techies, that's a good thing. For business folks — not so much. It means that you can't use the Second Life tools, training videos, courses, and all the other materials they've got to train your staff and customers.

    And even though realXtend has now been around for a while, I've seen very little adoption of it, beyond a few isolated use cases. Again, it's an elegant technology — but fails at creating a business-friendly ecosystem.

    Again, a Web-based viewer might help as would backwards compatibility with OpenSim grids (today, you can't take your realXtend avatar to an OpenSim grid — it doesn't show up to the regular viewers).

    If Second Life deploys meshes, then all of these issues become moot overnight and the entire metaverse can move ahead. Without Second Life, you've got realXtend, Open Wonderland, etc… trying to solve the chicken-and-egg problem: Without content and support — no users. Without users — no content or support.

    — Maria

  • Yes, I know about the conflicts and license do's and do nots. I have been following the open sim movement for the past 3 years.

    What I have trouble understanding is how the "cannot modify" part of the of GPL applies for the viewers since many of the viewers offer things that the SL ones do not. Therefore are not they being modified? Maybe I'm just confusing modified with enhanced. As for being for sale, I'm not aware of any that are so I'm not sure what you mean by that comment, unless it was just a generalization.

    I tried the RealXtend viewer with their software early on. Worked fine but I found the avatars to be unattractive. I also tried to use it with Open Sim and Second Life but was never quite clear if it was supposed to work with those or not. Either way, I passed on RealXtend until some future date. To be honest, at that time the layout of the viewer appeared to be the same layout as SL 1.2x viewer. As for the latest Naali – I have not tried that. Perhaps a re-visit is in order.

    As for not building a new viewer because it would look nothing like the Second Life viewer, with the release of Viewer 2.0, that is now a moot issue! {:o)

  • Tinsel —

    The viewer developers — the guys behind Hippo, Meerkat, Imprudence, etc… — can modify their viewers as much as they want. For example, all have added support to log into multiple grids, which is only useful for OpenSim users.

    However, they're not part of the OpenSim development team. They don't know how OpenSim would implement meshes, for example. They haven't fixed the 4096 bug (which only lets you teleport short distances — not a problem in Second Life but a huge problem in OpenSim). Even though we've had the hypergrid for a year, they haven't added the ability to bookmark or share hypergrid addresses.

    OpenSim developers themselves can't go in and modify the viewers.

    I agree that they should be working more closely together. The 4096 bug should have been fixed two years ago, hypergrid bookmarks should have been added last summer. A better hypergrid addressing scheme would also be nice — right now you can't teleport directly to, say, OSGrid.org/Region_Name — and there's no technical reason why not. Instead, you have to teleport to the IP address of the server running the individual region.

    More coordination between the various teams working on the viewers, and the team working on the OpenSim server, would help a lot. Unfortunately, these various groups all have different goals. And making things easy for the business user community isn't always on the top of the list.

    They're all volunteers, so we can't exactly order them to do anything. 🙂

    Some commercial grids have developed their own viewers for their grids, but their goals aren't to improve performance for the hypergrid as a whole, but to make their grids unique from all others, so as to attract customers. Can't really fault them for that!

    Since you can't sell the viewer afterwards, there isn't much impetus for businesses to get behind viewer development.

    Compare this to OpenSim development — IBM has thrown a lot of resources into it, and sells its own version of OpenSim with built-in enterprise integration to IBM software for $55,000.

    And you don't have to sell the whole thing. You can make and sell individual modules, for example. A few core developers do volunteer work in OpenSim and then go off and develop proprietary modules or selling development services.

    Sure, there are always some programmers who are motivated by the work itself and are willing to work for free forever. But a lot of folks have bills, and the possibility of a payday, even if "someday", can be a great stimulus to continue to work on a project.

    — Maria

  • Linden Lab CFO Bob Komin posted a note this morning about Stiefvater's layoff:

    "Having one or a few working in a country or state is often not feasible. Taxes and regulations in a world of budget deficits are a reality… Unfortunately running a business is complex. Things like taxes and regulations driven by where you are doing business matter."

    http://twitter.com/bk_linden

    It seems that Komin is saying that Linden Lab can't afford to keep Stiefvater around — even after laying off some 100 of his colleagues.

    I'm hoping that this means that all the mesh work is completed, tested, and debugged and ready to go live.

    — Maria

  • Wouldn't say mesh is dead just yet. Final testing was being done and a "mesh city" was being built to showcase its capabilities. There is a mesh viewer already as well. I think its just about ready to roll out, however, Phillip Linden did say in a public address that they want to make the user experience stable first and would not be implementing additions that would decrease this experience. If mesh is going to cause a new influx of lag then I expect that is what will keep it from coming out at this time. It seems they wish to stabilize the performance for users across the grid then add things in a more controlled manner than had been done previously. If they delay releasing mesh for say four months while working to perfect everything from the search option, group chat, general lag and voice then I think its probably a good idea to do so.

  • @ Bryn Oh – This new mesh viewer – is it based on 1.2x or 2.0x? I'm hoping both. I'm still using the Snowglobe 1.2x. It's been the best viewer for my dsl connection.

  • SuezanneCBaskerville

    I'd be much more inclined to spend time in Opensim worlds if they weren't so much like Second Life, which probably means not being fully compatible with Second Life. The need for a different viewer is not a problem at all, so long as it will run on my old computer system.

  • Ener Hax

    it's funny, a few years ago i did a lot of blnder 3D – some weeks were 40 hours of just blender, but i have never made a sculpty for second life or opensim

    i am not sure why – i love the simplicity fo the prims in-world and i really like how easy it is to teach someone how to make things

    by being forced into simplicity, there is a certain beauty that is achieved

    if you have ever done blender, then you know that you could spend hours on the smallest of details. maybe that is what i see as not attractive in using meshes

    before anyone says i am bonkers, think of the English alphabet. it has not changed that much in a few hundred years yet it can create incredible imagery

    26 simple letters can create worlds and so can a few low poly count prims =)