Kudos to SpotON3D for viewer plugin

A lot of folks sit around complaining about not having a decent Web-based viewer for OpenSim and Second Life. (Okay, maybe just me.)

The existing stand-alone viewers require that users download and install the software. There’s nothing wrong with installing software, but as more applications migrate to the Web, folks are less and less willing to download stuff from strangers. I myself, for example, given the choice of a Web-based anything and downloading software to do the same thing, always pick the Web-based option. I opt for Web-based software for quick photo editing, creating GIFs, converting files from one type to another, and similar functions.

Downloading software requires a commitment. You’ve got the download. The unzipping and the installation. You have to decide what folder to put the software in, whether to add it to the start menu and the task bar.  Installed software also frequently requires a configuration step, or a check for system compatibility. Each one of these stops along the way is yet another opportunity to say “oh, to heck with it” and go do something else.

Using Web-based software usually requires zero commitment. Interactive websites typically use Javascript, which requires no plugin, or Flash, which is probably already installed. Some use Unity, which many people already have installed as well.

LBSA Plaza loads fast, no lag in chat, walking, or camera pans.

Having to install a plugin is somewhere between these two extremes — less of a commitment than installing software, more than visiting a plugin-less Web page.

Given a choice, I always pick a simple Web app that does what I need it to do over one that takes a plugin, and a plugin over standalone software. Even when the standalone software is more functional or runs faster.

It might not be completely logical to do so, but I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone in this.

Again, the SpotON3D viewer is the same exact software as the regular downloaded Hippo (customized for SpotON3D) — plus a plugin that lets it run inside a window on the Webpage. It doesn’t offer any extra functionality to the average OpenSim user and might even add a little lag.

If you’re a power user, this is not for you. This is for people who want to get into a virtual world without feeling as if they’re downloading a big hunk o’software. It is a psychological benefit to noobs. It is a marketing advantage for grids and hosting companies that offer this. And it’s a usability advantage for schools and companies that want to roll out OpenSim to their students and employees.

The SpotON3D viewer

SpotON3D’s Web-based viewer for Opensim is simply a plugin wrapper over the old familiar Hippo viewer. That means all the functionality of Hippo — building, inventory, camera controls, even hypergrid teleports (when you’re on a hypergrid-enabled grid). It also means that there’s no mesh, media-on-a-prim or other Viewer 2 functionality — even though all those functions are available on grids running the latest version of OpenSim.

SpotON3D upgraded to OpenSim 0.7.1 in January.

Even without mesh and media-on-a-prim, however, the SpotON3D Web viewer is miles — lightyears, even — ahead of its competition.

The Tipodean viewer, www.BuiltBuy.me, doesn’t display avatars correctly, has only limited messaging, no inventory access, and no building tools.

The 3Di viewer, Rei, also doesn’t display avatars correctly and is missing all the same functionalty as Tipodean’s viewer.

Both require a plugin — Unity 3D for the Tipodean viewer, a custom viewer for 3Di.

There are also several non-OpenSim Web-based virtual world platforms — VenueGen, Web.alive, Jibe, Unifier, Assemblive, 3DXplorer. All require a plugin, except for 3DXplorer, which uses Java.

So the SpotOn3D viewer is not significantly harder to install that those of most commercial Web-based virtual world platforms.

If the SpotON3D proxies non-standard message traffic, then users will be able to use it behind corporate firewalls without having to punch holes in company firewalls.

SpotON3D hasn’t responded to my questions about their plugin in yet, so I don’t know if they’re doing this or not, or if this will be part of a future update of the viewer.

Right now, all existing Second Life-based viewer use non-standard ports, which poses difficulties for corporate customers. A proxied, Web-based viewer circumvents this problem without requiring a complete rewrite of the viewer and server code.

Facebook integration

Today, I got to try out SpotON3D’s Facebook app, which will go public in September, according to SpotON3D land manager Victor Hua.

It allows you not only to run SpotON3D from within a Facebook page but to create a new user avatar based on your Facebook account — with a nice selection of starting appearances.

Or, if you have a SpotON3D avatar already, you can just use that, or create a brand new avatar with any name you want. Given Facebook’s real name policy, this might be an attractive option for folks using virtual worlds for role playing or other activities where their real names are inappropriate or unsafe.

Visiting SpotON3D via a Facebook plugin. (Click on image to see higher resolution picture.)

The only problem that I saw with the Facebook app is that the size of the viewer was limited to what could fit in Facebook’s app box — with Facebook stuff occupying the top of the screen and the right-hand panel filled with ads.

Hua said that a full-screen command will be available when the application launches in September. He also added that the SpotON3D team is working on other optimizations, as well.

Today, SpotON3D has a little over 200 regions (the company hasn’t responded to repeated requests for updated region counts), which puts it significantly behind top competitors like InWorldz and Avination, which have over 900 regions each.

The Facebook functionality could potentially change that, and help the company leapfrog over its competitors.

A rich experience

I tried out the SpotON3D viewer both through Facebook and through SpotON3D’s website at 3durl.com/world and all the standard functionality works great. I have a fast computer, and a fast Internet connection, so results may vary for other people, but I couldn’t discern any difference in lag or responsiveness between SpotOn3D’s viewer-in-a-browser and the standard, downloadable viewers I know and love.

All functions worked great, the way they normally do. I couldn’t find anything that didn’t work as it was supposed to. I was even able to do a hypergrid teleport between my company grid and OSGrid and back again. I hung out at LBSA Plaza — OSGrid’s main gathering spot — and saw no chat lag or movement problems or any other issues.

When the viewer was used as intended, to access SpotON3D worlds, there was extra functionality — a sidebar panel on right side of the screen that could slide out, similar to the sidebar in Second Life Viewer 2. The panel included tabs pointing to SpotON3D features, and could also be used to show a Webpage.

SpotON3D's welcome and orientation area. Note the extra panel on right. (Click image to see larger view.)

Based on my experience, I have no problems at all recommending this viewer to SpotON3D’s enterprise clients.

Future improvements

Here are some areas that could be improved:

  • Full screen button: Right now, the viewer occupies a space inside a browser window. It’s a reasonable amount of space on the  3durl.com/world page, but too small a window on the Facebook site. A button to make the viewer window take up the full screen would solve the space problem — and SpotON3D’s Hua says this functionality is on its way.
  • Login credentials: Right now, if a user enters an incorrect avatar name or password, they get sent to the regular Hippo login screen, where they can add their own grids, or even Second Life. This doesn’t particularly benefit SpotON3D — and it certainly wouldn’t benefit corporate or education customers who want to use this to give their employees or students access to their private grid.
  • Proxying: Hua couldn’t tell me if the current version of SpotON3D’s viewer already supports proxying of non-standard OpenSim messages. If it does – double kudos to SpotON3D! If it doesn’t, schools and companies with firewall concerns will benefit if this feature is added.

The competitive landscape

Today, none of the other Web-based OpenSim viewers are practically usable for OpenSim grids. SpotON3D’s viewer, since it offers all the Hippo functionality, is a great solution and puts SpotON3D significantly ahead of its competition.

According to Neil Canham, CTO at vComm Solutions, the plugin has been created using the FireBreath open source toolkit for creating cross-browser plugins.

“You can see clear evidence of the FireBreath toolkit in the JavaScript code,” he told Hypergrid Business. “It’s also how I would start if I wrote a plugin. There is no proxying that I can see, it is pure and simple the full client that is running.”

This means that other companies can roll out similar functionality.

Second Life, for example, could definitely benefit, and it would be a great way to expand Second Life’s reach until a workable, no-download, HTML 5 viewer becomes practical.

Kitely, meanwhile, already offers Facebook logins and easy Web-based access to virtual worlds — a plugin like SpotON3D’s would not only create a seamless experience for users but also solve some technical problems for the company.

For example, if Kitely packaged up Imprudence to run in a Facebook page or from the Kitely Website, it could automatically pre-install the Whisper/Mumble software, instantly enabling Second Life-quality voice throughout the grid. A custom distribution of Imprudence could also make in-world teleports easier by having the viewer automatically use Kitely’s website to activate new regions instead of directly teleporting in. Kitely stores regions away when they’re not in use, and today users have to close down the viewer and go back to Kitely’s website to load up a different region.

Kitely is currently trying to spearhead an effort to re-compile Imprudence so that it runs in Javascript — no download required at all. SpotON3D’s solution might be a little bit quicker, in the short term.

Other companies that would benefit from being able to offer such a plugin to their customers are OpenSim hosting companies serving corporate and educational markets — especially if the plugins are designed to work well with enterprise firewalls.

Finally, grid operators looking to make their grids the default starting points for metaverse explorers could use the plugin to attract Facebook users and groups. By providing an appealing orientation experience and a nice selection of starting avatars, they could attract new users to the OpenSim metaverse.

Meanwhile, since all these new users would land on their grid first before hypergridding off somewhere else, the grid owners could take the opportunity to sell clothing and accessories to the travelers, or offer them land plots, private islands, or even entire private grids. This grid would be similar to the old portal websites — Yahoo, AOL, MSN — that helped introduce new users to the Internet. In fact, if traffic was substantial enough, the grid could also sell ads to folks looking to market other hypergrid destinations, virtual shops, corporate offices, and shopping malls. With hosting and bandwidth prices continuing the drop, the advertising revenues might be enough to allow the grid to offer free homesteads to its users and quickly grow to rival Second Life.

Bottom line

In my opinion, SpotON3D’s viewer plugin is one of the biggest usability improvements for OpenSim this year, second only to Kitely’s cloud-based, instant-on regions.

SpotON3D will probably have an exclusive marketing window of at least a few months until its competitors catch up — and, in the fast-moving world of OpenSim, this is equivalent to a lifetime.

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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. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

10 Responses

  1. ilan@kitely.com' Ilan Tochner says:

    Hi Maria,

    As stated in my similar reply on your site, there are various benefits that can be had by providing a browser-embedded viewer as part of our service and it is part of our long term vision to do so in one way or another.

    I'm not ruling out getting this functionality by extending our existing FireBreath-based plugin solution, but it isn't clear that this type of embedding is the best way to go about getting a viewer to run inside a browser. This type of integration has been done before by Pelican Studios, an IBM-backed startup that is now no longer in business, almost 4 years ago. See: http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2007/10/viewing-induali….

    If embedding the existing SL viewer via browser plugin proves to have public appeal then I wouldn't rule out Imprudence or some other TPV developer working on adding this capability. This really isn't that difficult to do and the first TPV developer to do it may see their viewer adoption increase significantly. This will have the benefit of being an open solution that doesn't tie people down to a proprietary provider such as SpotOn3D.

    The plugin implementation is quite simple:

    1) Take the rendered frame buffer and instead of sending it to be displayed on the screen pass it to a FireBreath based browser plugin for rendering.

    2) Take mouse and keyboard input from the FireBreath plugin, correct to the appropriate coordinate system and pass it to the SL viewer.

    3) Modify the SL viewer appropriately by replacing calls to the relevant input/output libraries.

    As a legal disclaimer let me restate:

    1) I am not a lawyer and any legal arguments I make are based on layman assumptions and interpretations.

    2) I have not seen SpotOn3D code or any patent applications they claim to have filed.

    3) I have asked SpotOn3D to provide the application/issue numbers of any patents they claim to have.

    4) I am not endorsing people to knowingly ignore anyone's patents.

    5) It is my good faith belief that the aforementioned implementation suggestion does not breach anyone's patents.

    6) I will not be held accountable if you base your actions on the aforementioned and my assumptions turn out to be false.

  2. ilan@kitely.com' Ilan Tochner says:

    Hi Maria,

    As stated in a similar comment I made in your site, the following is my free speech expression of my own personal belief:

    It is my personal belief that people who wish to see an open-source based metaverse emerge should, when possible, prefer spending money on services provided by people and organizations that contribute to the open source community. Legality aside, keeping improvements to OpenSim and the SL viewer proprietary or trying to prevent open source solutions from being developed using vague patent threats does not merit financial support in my opinion.

    Every company has its shareholders best interests to take care off but if we all keep our improvements to ourselves then there won't be an open-source metaverse and one proprietary solution or another will eventually win and be able to force its Terms of Service on us all.

    We at Kitely have chosen to place our bet on people acting to serve their long term best interest and have given back all the improvements we've made to OpenSim so far. As you stated, we're also trying to organize a community effort to get a real open-source browser-based no-plugin virtual world viewer created ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3t2s47TAiI4 ). If people want to convince other companies that it is in their shareholders best interest to work with the community and contribute their improvements as well then they can vote with their wallets to convince them.

    If people prefer to ignore this in order to get some attractive features that only a closed-source provider currently has then they shouldn't be surprised when they get locked in because no one is left contributing to the public open-source codebase and the open alternatives cease to exist.

    Again, this is my own person belief and not a call to boycott anyone.

  3. ilan@kitely.com' Ilan Tochner says:

    Hi Maria,

    BTW, as of right now we have 985 worlds in Kitely (most 1 region in size a few 4-region in size, e.g: http://www.kitely.com/virtualworld/Maria-Korolov/… ).

    I think that places us in the "top competitors" list 🙂

  4. fubat.enterprises@gmail.com' Sarge Misfit says:

    I wonder if the plug-enabled browser will let me access my stand-alone.

  5. Hello Ilan,

    If you want to be a top competitor based on Number of Worlds, tell us how you compete based on client educational requirements management for an EDUCATION GRID…

    Immersive Education Technology Group (IETG) :
    Education Grid Requirements Specification http://mediagrid.org/groups/technology/grid.ied/s

    VastPark.com is your benchmark competitor here…

  6. Sarge — Yes, currently, you can access your standalone with the plugin same as you can access Second Life or OSGrid, by adding it to the grid list or hypergrid teleporting in from OSGrid. They'll probably shut this down since it doesn't really benefit them. But it doesn't benefit you either – you wind up having to jump through hoops, so you might as well just use regular Hippo or Imprudence.

    James — OpenSim is already on the Immersive Education approved technology list. Also, I don't know of any numbers of educators using VastPark. Except for specialized uses where mesh is critical, I'm hearing that its too difficult for practical use.

  7. James — I talked to an educator (and technologist) last night who's been unsuccessfully trying to get VastPark going because he needs a heavy-duty mesh-based world for some training simulations, and hasn't been able to get it to work.

    In addition, VastPark — like Open Qwaq — is a product spearheaded by a single vendor. The fact that's its open source helps, but without a broad community of users, content providers, training opportunities, and lots of hosting companies, it's hard to the average educator to get much out of it. It will probably be a niche product used in programming or 3D design classes.

    OpenSim has dozens of vendors to choose from, and many make it very easy to switch. Kitely is among those that offers extremely easy OAR uploads and downloads, meaning that educators can easily take their regions and go to another vendor if they're dissatisfied with the service.

  8. VastPark is a Grid Operator, just like Kitely and SpotOn3D…

    The IT capability maturity of VastPark structures and processes as Grid Operator exceeds and benchmarks more, compared to what I have seen from others (e.g. 1st & 2nd level IT service management and helpdesk support), and besides, requirements management compliance to iED's Education Grid is the way to go…

    VastPark provides solutions based on client requirements, this is the standard Procurement and project-driven way. OpenAvatar from VastPark shows the repository data approach they pursue… a fallout product of their previous consulting experience…

    The iED EDUCATION GRID is not a niche thing, it's about the "Create Once, Experience Everywhere" approach.

    If you look at the use case diagrams of iED, it becomes clear why this proposed Master Repository Architecture outstrips the ad hoc heroic and chaotic efforts of those "this and that" tool development efforts…

    Education Grid http://theeducationgrid.org/About_The_Education_Ghttp://mediagrid.org/news/​2010-11_iED_Create_O

    If a Grid Operator wants to be serious from a Procurement view, then they would have to start to spell out why and how they have a role in the Compliance of Client Requirements for the emerging Education Grid… Thus, describing Target vrs Actual capability maturity…

    Education Grid Requirements Specification http://mediagrid.org/groups/te​chnology/grid.ie

    Kitely gets these Procurement driven questions, SpotOn3D as well… http://getsatisfaction.com/kitely/topics/how_does

    VastPark seems to display transparency, integrity, and accountability in promoting and responding.

    Whereas other rogue grid operators tend to go into hiding or exclusion behavior… For Procurement purposes, this is useless… Procurement people want to know who benchmark in their domain…

  9. "I don't know of any numbers of educators using VastPark"

    Well get acquainted with the thousands of Immersive Education Initiative iED members, universities, and companies… and keep on questioning the groupthink vendor lock-in attitude of score numbers of educators…

    The Immersive Education Initiative today issued an open call for the 1st European Immersive Education Summit (iED Summit). Universidad Carlos III de Madrid will host the two-day iED Summit from 28th to 29th November 2011 in Madrid, Spain. http://mediagrid.org/news/2011-07_iED_2011_Madrid

  10. James — VastPark is not a grid operator. It is a platform vendor. It is not in competition with OpenSim or OpenSim grid vendors — Kitely and VastPark are going after very different customer segments, and offer very different services.

    VastPark is a platform vendor. Its closest competitors are Teleplace (which also has an open source version — Open Qwaq) and ProtoSphere. And, on the fully open source side, Open Wonderland. It is a mesh-based, scene-based virtual environment platform. The main deployments I've seen so far have been high end military and corporate immersive training systems.

    VastPark isn't — outside of comp sci classes – something that a teacher or professor would just decide to do on their own. It's not a ready-to-go virtual world environment the way that Second Life, ReactionGrid, Kitely, or any other OpenSim grids are. It is a platform on which corporations build virtual world environments.

    For educators looking at VastPark, the question isn't VastPark or Kitely — the question is VastPark or Open Wonderland or Open Qwaq.

    There's a huge difference in scale, usability, and affordability here.

    The folks considering Kitely, meanwhile, are deciding between it and Second Life, ReactionGrid, JokaydiaGrid, OSGrid, or another grid or a standalone, or a behind-the-firewall deployment of OpenSim.