Whisper clear as a bell in OpenSim

Tonight’s meeting of the Hypergrid Entrepreneurs Group was an eye-opener for me and several other attendees — well, ear-opener.

We got a chance to try out the new Whisper directional voice system for OpenSim, and it was amazing.

Aug. 19 meeting of Hypergrid Entrepreneurs Group on OSGrid.

Not amazing as the way in Freeswitch was amazing, in that you could occasionally hear someone’s voice. For free. Whoo hoo!

But smooth. Clear. Easy to use. Effective.

In fact, it works much like the Vivox-based voice does in Second Life.

I’ve spent the last few weeks in meetings in Second Life — spending several hours a week on the platform, and comparing it directly to similar meetings on OpenSim — and there were three main and significant differences between my experience in Second Life and my experience in OpenSim.

It wasn’t lag. There were plenty of times I could barely move in Second Life. It wasn’t any particular functionality, not at the level of moderate use I was engaged in — I wasn’t creating any complex vehicle physics script. No, the differences were mostly not technological at all. Mostly.

Stuff

Second Life has been around for a while. It has a lot of stuff. Fancy stuff. Pretty stuff. Interactive stuff. OpenSim doesn’t have anywhere near as much stuff.

Stuff is good. Do I miss stuff when I’m in OpenSim? Yes, when it’s stuff I need. I don’t need or want most of the stuff in Second Life, so I don’t miss it. The amount of stuff that I need is actually small and manageable.

And it’s a short-lived problem. Not only is the amount of stuff available on OpenSim grids exploding day by day, but I can also hire Second Life designers to make custom stuff, or pay a little extra for them to export their stuff for me — or build stuff myself.

Even if I set up a private, behind-the-firewall OpenSim grid, I can turn on hypergrid connectivity at any time and teleport out to the other OpenSim grids, go shopping, find designers, and bring stuff back. Then I can turn hypergrid back off if I want to lock my grid back down.

People

Second Life has people. A million active users each month. If I wanted to talk to random people, Second Life would be the place to go.

But I don’t need to talk to all million Second Life residents. In fact, I personally only need to talk to a much smaller group of people. My colleagues. My employees. As a business user of virtual worlds, I’m not so much interested in making anonymous new friends. I’m interested in interacting with a smaller group of people whom I already know.

Similarly, a school isn’t likely to want its students to wander around Second Life’s clubs, sex shops, and nude beaches — though the students themselves may have a different opinion on the subject. Instead, a school might prefer that students and teachers interact only with one another, in the pursuit of educational goals.

If I have my own private grid, just for my company, I might start to feel isolated. What about meetings with potential partners? Potential employees? Customers? Here, again, I can turn on hypergrid — either for the entire grid or just for certain regions — and invite visitors from other grids for meetings, public events, or marketing showcases.

Voice

For me, the one big thing that Second Life has that OpenSim doesn’t is decent voice. Now, Second Life’s voice isn’t perfect. Group voice chat is tricky to enable, and doesn’t always work the way you want it to. Microphones can be hard to configure. There’s sound levels to set. And what’s with the voice morphing, anyway?

But overall, Second Life voice is smooth, easy to use, and clear — and the lip synching is pretty darn cool.

You can’t have a business meeting without voice. At the very least, the boss has to be able to hear her own voice. By “boss,” I mean me. I do like to hear my own voice. The single biggest problem I’ve had in OpenSim is that I haven’t been able to talk as much as I wanted.

My employees and colleagues haven’t been able to gain all the benefits of my wisdom and experience. Sure, I can type that stuff — but I talk much faster than I can type. Much, much faster.

Yes, typing means that I can use Google Translate. This came in handy on a recent meeting on FrancoGrid, when I realized that my high school French class was 20 years ago and all I had left was “voulez vous couchez avec moi ce soir” from Moulin Rouge. Which, I believe, means, “Are we meeting the quarterly budget numbers?”

With Google Translate, I can cut-and-paste the transcripts and see what people are saying — or use one of the many available tools that will handle the translation instantaneously — as long as everyone spells everything right.

And there are members of my staff who are not native English speakers and would appreciate being able to read things instead of hearing them.

But the availability of voice doesn’t prevent us from typing. In fact, in the FrancoGrid, the meeting started out in spoken French and switched to typing because not everyone present could understand that was being said.

So I’ve been eagerly looking for voice solutions for OpenSim.

For about a year now, we’ve had FreeSwitch. It wasn’t directional — if you were wearing stereo headphones, you wouldn’t be able to tell where a voice was coming from. And it didn’t get louder the closer you were to the speaker. FreeSwitch didn’t have voice synchronization. Or those cool green lines coming out of the speakers’ head, so you could see who was talking.

But those are all minor quabbles. The big one was that FreeSwitch was just bad. Sound quality cut in and out. The voice would come on and stop suddenly. It was too difficult to use for real business meetings. It was okay for casual get-togethers and non-mission-critical events. But for real work? Not so much.

The great big hope of OpenSim has long been Vivox. That’s what Second Life is using. Vivox provides high-quality voice to big-budget multiplayer video games.

Unfortunately, OpenSim is small potatoes. All the public OpenSim grids put together have about a tenth of the users of Second Life. (The Hippo viewer, the most popular in OpenSim, has about 80,000 users.) And the public grids have about a third of Second Life’s land area.

This is bad enough. What’s worse is that all these users and regions are scattered around a hundred public grids, and who knows how many thousands of small, private closed ones. Vivox would have to sell the service to each grid and hosting provider separately. The support calls alone would be a nightmare.

A few months back, there was a rumor that Vivox was considering letting OpenSim providers have Vivox, at the low, low, low price of $50 per region.

OpenSim hosting for a moderate-use region runs at around $25 a region, so adding voice would triple the cost of a region.

I would be willing to pay that price for high-end voice — and it would still be cheaper than Second Life. But I couldn’t. Vivox voice never materialized on OpenSim. Maybe in the future, OpenSim would grow to the point that it was a viable market for Vivox.

I was starting to try to think of work-arounds. For example, I want to hear myself speak, but I’m not so anxious to hear other people talk. So if I was speaking, and everyone else was typing — well, I could just talk for a whole meeting without interruption!  I could do this by piping in a webcam feed over the new media-on-a-prim support that OpenSim developers rolled out in their latest release of OpenSim.

Now it looks as though I’m not going to have to go to that extreme.

The Whisper voice service is a free, open source product that acts, looks and sounds like Vivox. Directional voice. Little green lines over the heads of active speakers. Even lip synching, if you’re using a new viewer that supports it. And it’s crystal-clear. No cutting in and out.

Snoopy Pfeiffer of Dreamland Metaverse has it up and running on the “Mumble Sandbox” region on OSGrid, if anyone wants to see it for themselves.

Whisper is only available for the Windows platform right now — Mac and Linux will come later. For it to work with the viewer, the Whisper software needs to be installed in to the same folder as your viewer software — such as Hippo or Imprudence. Instructions are here.

Eventually, Whisper may come bundled in with Hippo or Imprudence so that users don’t have to download it separately.

A second component, called Murmur, needs to be installed as a module in each region’s server software. This is something that would normally be handled by the hosting company, your company’s tech guy — or by a talented at-home tinkerer.

According to Volker Gaessler, founder of vComm Solutions of Switzerland, the server-side module will be released as open source in the “next weeks.”

At that point, Second Life will lose its last remaining advantage — at least, as far as enterprise and education users are concerned.

Now, voice does add additional load on the server running it. This may or may not impact the performance of your region. With today’s test, we had about ten people in the region, most of us either talking or listening, and things worked fine.

It would be nice to see some larger-scale performance tests to see how many people the platform can really handle.

And there were a few glitches. For example, since the software was just released, it’s not packaged in with Hippo or Imprudence yet, and has to be downloaded separately. Also, it doesn’t immediately disconnect people when we leave a region — after we teleported out, we could continue to hear people we left behind, and they could hear us. This is likely to get fixed before the software is officially released.

Overall, though, this was a major step forward in usability.

Here is my prediction for enterprise uses of OpenSim: With media-on-a-prim, Whisper voice, and the more secure Hypergrid 1.5, OpenSim is now good enough to use for light-to-moderate enterprise applications. This means classes and training sessions, internal meetings, and small group presentations.

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.

  • Wizard Gynoid

    oh, maybe it's not news to maria, but i teleported into OSGRID from Reaction Grid for this meeting, using two jump-off portals and was oh so surprised to find myself arriving in OSGRID totally intact, with my hair and my clothing and my shoes. i had no idea that hypergrid had solved that HUGE issue!

  • I didn’t even mention some of the other things that were discussed at tonight’s meeting. Like where to rent regions for $10 each for a full region.

    Or how to get actual desktop sharing in OpenSim — using something called Guacamole. (http://sourceforge.net/projects/guacamole/)

    Or which large OSGrid residential development popular with senior citizens.

    Or how one company has figured out how to enable true shared media in OpenSim (and Second Life) through the use of frames.

    I’ll be doing stories on these topics in the next week or so.

  • Wizard —

    That’s been in place for a year now. A year! I keep telling people, writing about it…

    And Wizard, if you had bought something on OSGrid (using one of several multi-grid currencies, such as G$, OMC or V$) you could have brought it back with you to ReactionGrid.

    Now, I can’t write a story titled, “you can now hypergrid around with your inventory, appearance and attachments all intact and buy stuff on multiple grids” every day… though some weeks, it seems like it. If Wizard missed this, probably lots of other people do, too.

    Maybe I should put up a big banner ad announcing this, so everyone who visits this site will know it right away.

    By the way, credit for this AMAZING achievement goes to Crista Lopes, who invented the hypergrid in early spring 2009, and recently came out with a more secure version of it called hypergrid 1.5. She’s now working on getting friends and instant messages to work with hypergrid, and inventing a new, super-secure, Hypergrid 2.0 system.

    She is a goddess in OpenSim and all who know her bow down before her.

  • anthm

    Perhaps you could be a little less rude towards our software you have been using for over a year for free. Telephone companies use FreeSWITCH in very high scale. We have thousands of users who all are quite happy. I think you are completely out of line to call our software "bad" when you clearly have a lack of understanding in how to use it properly. If you had problems, maybe you should have asked our community for some assistance on how to operate it properly. Indeed we do not support directional sound. We are a carrier grade soft-switch and that's hardly a pressing matter to address for us. I would appreciate it if you would please not spread any more FUD about us. If you don't need to use it anymore or it doesn't fit your needs, fine. Leave it at that……..

  • Right now, the Whisper does not provide directional or spatial voice. Mumble is capable of it, but it isn’t hooked up in the Whisper code. I know Volker is keen to do that, but I won’t commit him to how soon! But actually for many business use cases, directional isn’t necessarily what you want, especially if you have the green bracket speaker indication that tell you who is speaking (combined with crystal clear voice this can give you the psychological illusion of direction anyway) – if you have true directional voice like in SL you have the issue of adjusting volumes for speakers that are further away. However, where it would be nice is to be able to wander off from the group and hear them eventually start to fade so you can have a breakout area on the same parcel, but still slightly hear the rest of the group. This could be done by having an attenuation pattern that isn’t linear – say you hear everyone at the same volume provided they are within 5m of you, after that it falls off linearly.

  • ARADTech

    The Whisper system was totaly awesome , easy to install worked great right out of the box, sound quality was as good as skype if not better , bravo to Volker and his team and thanks for this giant step !

  • Sean —

    Everyone needs to have Whisper installed. Sorry.

    What I'm hoping is that it will come pre-packed with Hippo and Imprudence — ideally, with Vivox/FreeSwitch as the default, and then change automatically to Whisper if that's the voice on the region.

    — Maria

  • I’ve been on hiatus from virtual worlds for a few years and just getting back into them now. It looks like my timing is good. Like you Maria I hate typing, so I’m glad to hear voice on Opensim is starting to come together.

    Question: I suspect the answer is “no”, but if I have Whisper on my computer can users without it loaded still hear me, or do they have to have it too?

    Love the humour about your French! 🙂

  • Anthm —

    Hypergrid Business is all about enterprises uses of virtual worlds, not about enterprise uses of VOIP or telephony.

    Maybe it works in other settings — and maybe there are places in OpenSim where it works well.

    I’d be more than happy to do a point-for-point comparison of Whisper and FreeSwitch for OpenSim, if there are enterprise (business, education or government) users out there who are happy with their setups.

    As far as setting it up property — well, I leave that to the professionals. I trust that the guys who’ve set up the FreeSwitch I’ve been trying out have done the best job possible with it. And, from seeing in elsewhere, I think OSGrid, FrancoGrid, and Snoopy have all done a lot to try to make it usable.

    It may simply be the wrong tool for the job.

    — Maria

  • Ener Hax

    woohoo, we are getting the Mumble Murmur thing on our grid! i never do audio but once we are set up and if you are capable of HG1.5, come try it out! =)

    it's getting installed today i believe