Panel: Experts pick Second Life for community, stability

Because of its community and stability, Second Life is still the destination of choice for companies looking for a virtual world platform, said experts participating in a Second Life Community Conference panel about choosing the right virtual world.

“Communities are amazing in Second Life,” said Chris Collins, CEO of Tipodean Technologies. “You don’t just go out and replicate that in another platform.” Collins was previously general manager of the enterprise division at Linden Lab, but his company now focuses on OpenSim and Unity 3D development.

SLCC panel, from left to right: Jeroen Frans, Chris Collins, Kimberly-Rufer Bach and Ron T. Blechner.

Enterprise-focused virtual world platforms like ProtoSphere, VastPark, VenueGen, Avaya’s Web.alive, Altadyn’s 3DXplorer, Assemblive, Teleplace, SAIC’s OliveReactionGrid’s Jibe and SecondPlaces’ Unifier don’t offer common meeting areas where users from various companies can come together to share experiences, buy or share content, or attend public events. Instead, each company’s deployment of such a platform is a private, standalone world, and all content either has to be created from scratch by professional designers or imported and adapted from third-party mesh marketplaces.

Second Life’s in-world creation tools also allow people to build together, which isn’t an option in any of these other enterprise-focused virtual world platforms.

“The primary question I would ask… is whether you want to rapidly show [prototypes] to people and collaborate with people?” said Ron Blechner, virtual world consultant and panel moderator. “If you do, I think Second Life is actually a pretty good place to start from.”

Choosing Second Life is not only about community, it is also about cost and stability — even when compared to free, open-source platforms like OpenSim.

Ron Bletchner's (Hiro Pendragon’s) shop in Second Life.

“Many people think that Open Simulator costs less, and that’s not necessarily so,” said Kimberly Rufer-Bach, owner of The Magicians, a  software development company that focuses on Second Life. “You can rent a region for less perhaps, but that doesn’t mean your content’s going to cost less, or that you’re going to be able to get the content you want.”

In-world scripts also work better in Second Life, she added.

“In Second Life, the script engine is less flaky,” she said. “If you’re going to do something with a lot of interactivity and a lot of moving parts running around, heavily scripted systems, Second Life is still the place to be, closely followed by OpenSimulator. I would normally pick Second Life out of the box.”

Jeroen Frans, CEO of the virtual design firm The Vesuvius Group, agreed that Second Life is more stable than OpenSim, and has a large user base.

“The weakness is the scalability,” Frans said. Second Life regions are limited in the number of avatars they can hold, and creating multiple copies of the same region for events can quickly get very expensive.

Web-based worlds

But Second Life shouldn’t be the first choice for companies looking to create an easy to use virtual world environment — especially one that needs to be accessed via a Web browser.

“To get a little controversial at a Second Life community convention, I would probably recommend going with Unity 3D if you’re starting from scratch,” said Tipodean’s Collins. “What’s interesting about the Unity 3D platform is that you can run it multi-player, and that can be a multi-player client-server model, and it can be multi-player peer-to-peer model.”

It is a particularly fast and easy way to get a standalone virtual environment up on the Web, he added.

“You do that in half an hour,” he said. “And 70 million people have the [Unity] browser plug-in installed. It has its own marketplace with a ton of assets. They’ve got 500,000 developers. Ten of the top 25 iPad games are built with Unity. It runs on pretty much everything.”

Tipodean has a service where they convert existing OpenSim regions to Unity 3D, and there are free tools available for companies looking to create scenes from scratch. For companies looking for a richer in-world experience, Jibe and Unifier are full virtual world platforms built on top of Unity 3D.

There are non-Unity 3D Web-based virtual world platforms as well. These include Web.alive, VenueGen, and 3DXplorer.

“Web.alive is really simple to use,” said Blechner. “You don’t get a whole lot of interactivity out of it but it busts through firewalls pretty easily, and they have desktop sharing built in and the avatar customization is fairly straightforward and easy, and it works in a plug-in in your browser.”

Unity 3D is an easier environment in which to create new content, however.

“Web.alive is geared more toward out of the box,” he said. “If you want to do heavier simulations and you want to program in more things, then I would lean more toward Unity 3D.”

ProtoSphere virtual environment. (Image courtesy ProtonMedia.)

ProtoSphere and SAIC’s Olive are downloadable platforms, so possibly less convenient for users.

But the companies behind them have experience developing rich content for enterprises, Blechner said.

Teleplace and VastPark are the other major commercial enterprise platform that require a separate viewer to access them.

Ask the right questions

According to the panelists, the choice of the right platform starts with asking the right questions.

““Does the client need high concurrency for events?” asked Rufer-Bach of The Magicians. “Do you need foot traffic or do you need some kind of security behind a firewall? Do you need a permissions system, groups, physics? Do you need to advertise within the platform or use a web-based integrated service? Is this project about functionality, looks, or both? Do you need or want to repurpose your existing assets like 3D models, or will you want to export them afterwards? What kind of budget do you have? Is this for a consumer audience, or is co-creation part of the draw?”

A knowledgeable consultant can help a customer find answers to these questions, and then choose a platform that fits. Unfortunately, there’s no easy-to-use tool for doing this.

“It’s too complicated,” said Rufer-Bach. “It’s always changing.”

Companies can also test out different platforms, and research their features.

“I’d love there to be a nice easy flowchart for choosing a platform, but it doesn’t always work like that,” added Blechner. “It takes a whole lot of work really comparing everything about a virtual world, considering all the different uses. Learning it yourself is probably the best way because you get more of a direct feel.”

One additional question was contributed to an audience member: “What’s the best virtual world I should use for my project? I want to make a million dollars in virtual reality in twelve months.”

Blechner rephrased the question in terms anyone could understand: “So the question is, ‘How can I scam people very quickly?’”

Frans, of  The Vesuvius Group, took a more serious approach.

“Honestly, I think Facebook would be first place,” he said. “Make a Facebook game and earn a million dollars.”

lawrence.pierce@hypergridbusiness.com'

Lawrence Pierce

Lawrence Pierce specializes in new media design and production. He began as a computer game programmer and has been a systems consultant to corporations such as DuPont and the J. Paul Getty Art Trust, art director on the first computer game for MTV and a featured artist in the Hollywood Reporter.

  • this article is basically "hey lets ask every one who doesn't work on opensim or has a competing product why you should use secondlife so you can use there product instead or not use opensim and use there server/tech instead" Whether Secondlife is stable or not is a mater of opinion. when i log into second life i can barely move on most sims. nt sure this qualifies as stable. Doing nothing fast is still doing nothing. yes a sim might not crash as much there but not being able to move or tp or having the viewer lock-up or crash isn't much better than a server crash. Unity3d and other platforms all have there "catches" and are like comparing apples to oranges when its comes to comparing them to opensim or secondlife.

  • I agree, Second Life suffers terrible lag and is worse now than ever it was. I visited two well-known sims this weekend and, on the first, my avatar was the only one there and it took ages for the over-primed region and all it's textures to download. Even when I could move it was slow – really slow! On the next sim it was pretty much the same but there was about five avatars plus mine and someone was sailing a boat.

    I would agree that some sims using Open sim can be laggy too but these are usually standalones on home PCs with home-use DSL (there are a lot of those connected to OSgrid) but venture to commercial grids like InWorldz and Avination and there is a marked improvement. I agree business users need to consider what they get for their money and a well resourced private label grid running Open sim where you control everything is still better than expensive Second Life where you have very little control of anything – least of all content.

    I have two sims in Second Life where I keep prims to a minimum, take great care with textures and keep scripts down too using low-lag items wherever possible. And yet I still find the sims laggy even when only a few avatars are present.

    What SL has got going for it is traffic (discounting bots, alts and campers) and a lot of content. But, with content, one has to remember a lot of it is either badly scripted or over-scripted with re-sizers and such which contributes a huge amount of lag to the sims.

    In terms of what works, yes, Open Sim lacks decent physics and some of the features we are use to in SL but consider group chat as an example; it's broken and has been for years despite LL recently claiming it has been fixed.

    My usual advise to people asking about SL is to forget it. It's expensive, laggy and full of griefers. If you hope to make money in SL then you need to be original because most stuff has already been made better than noobs can ever hope to do the same. However, if you want to be scammed or find gambling then SL has pretty much everything you want including some of the sickest adult content imaginable. Oh, and that's not to mention all the spamming that goes on.

    But there is one big downside to SL any business user should consider, Linden Labs has never been terribly good with customer service and their policy decision making tends to ride rough shot over community opinion.

    The "experts" appear to have conveniently neglected to mention all of that.

    • Lawrence Pierce

      I see the commentaries of the panelists in a different light. In fact, the experts are, for the most part, working diligently with alternatives such as Unity, OpenSim, web.alive and others. Nonetheless, experts such as Kimberly Rufer-Bach have made professional content and excelled at quality experiences, all in Second Life. The conference was a Second Life Community Conference, so there was an anticipated emphasis on the best of what Second Life can be and has to offer.

      • Thanks, Lawrence. 🙂

        While my company has been working in SL since 2005, we've also been developing projects in OpenSim for over a year. My team and I have worked on other platforms, as well. So, I assure those commenting and reading, my views on the pros and cons of the platforms about which I spoke, primarily SL and OpenSim, are based on professional experience.

        For most of my clients, SL has been the right choice, for reasons that vary from project to project. However, sometimes another platform is the right choice; there are many considerations … more of them than we were able to cover during the panel, let alone here in a blog comment. Anyone reading this will garner more from watching the video of the panel than they will from anything I type here.

        Anyway, while I'm here: Kudos to Hypergrid Business. As I said on the panel, I recommend it for keeping up to date on the rapidly changing offerings of virtual world platforms.

  • Lawrence Pierce

    I can understand the frustration experienced with Second Life, which has been the motivator for many to explore OpenSim and other virtual world technologies. However, in the context of this article, “stability” refers to some basic aspects of the platform, and some of the issues noted in the preceding comment are client specific.

    To be clear, OpenSim is still alpha software, and the developers specifically caution against using it in a production environment, while Second Life is a well-developed technology for which most problems are due to system design limits rather than outright system bugs. Used within reasonable limits, such as keeping avatar counts down, and by adjusting the graphics settings to a level the client can manage, Second Life provides a consistent experience without undue crashes. On the other hand, OpenSim is not yet a fully mature product. Various display errors, viewer crashes, building quirks and so on are a regular occurrence (viewer dependent as well).

    In the panel discussion of the current article, Chris Collins of Tipodean described the Second Life viewer as a “heavy” client, and he is entirely correct. The Second Life viewer requires a very decent computer and better than decent graphics card to give a satisfactory experience. This is true as well for accessing OpenSim grids, but the critical differences are content and environment related. Second Life regions are often very dense with prims and textures, and especially scripts. Second Life locations of any popularity, and events especially, draw many avatars and the impact on viewer performance is severe. I have the best video card available in a direct from Apple Mac, an ATI Radeon HD 5870 with 1GB VRAM, and when I attend meetings I need to put the graphics setting on low, otherwise I end up with a .5 – 1.5 fps frame rate, and that’s awful, to say the least.

    A major point of the article, however, is the importance of community, and that is where Second Life still offers an advantage for the casual user. OpenSim grids have very small numbers of participants. Specialized platforms are unique in that they have audiences tailored to the platform. The reason for using Second Life, however, is the existing broad-based infrastructure that it offers.

    Personally, I see a future where there will be alternatives based on needs rather than running from one set of limitations to another. We are moving in that direction, but are in an awkward stage of getting there. We are so enthusiastic for these systems that we start using them before they are ready for all of our demands. Naturally there will be issues.

  • Unity games already run on almost every major platform (including Unity Web Player, Mac, PC, iOS, Android, Xbox, and Playstation). Unity will become even more interesting once Unity games run in Flash Player, because about 95% of web browsers already have that installed.

    That’s not a pipe dream either. Flash 11 (currently in public beta) supports full GPU-accelerated 3D graphics and Unity Technologies is actively working on making it possible to publish Unity games to run in Flash Player.

    http://blogs.unity3d.com/2011/02/27/unity-flash-3

    @gaga: The expression is “ride roughshod over” not “ride rough shot over.” I guess you must be one of those young whippersnappers who has never dealt with horses. A “roughshod” horse has horseshoes with nailheads projecting to prevent slipping. Imagine if a roughshod horse rode over you. Ouch!

  • The panel made it clear that the Use Case approach precedes any choice.

  • "participating in a Second Life Community Conference panel"

    who would have thought they would have chosen SL? derrr!!!!

  • @Lawrence. I have a Q4, 4gig ram Windows OS with NIVIDIA GForce 8600 GT and high speed Internet so I shouldn't really have any problem with Second Life. I have been a resident in SL for over 4 years too and I have known it to be better than it is currently and with weekly server updates and constant issues with scripts failing there after that worked fine in the past. Every week I have to go check teleporters to reset them and find other scripts failing. And I have lost track of the times objects have been lost to the scene and from my inventory. All this and plenty of other issues dose not lead me to describe Second Life as a fully developed product.

    To be honest, I also have a two virtual servers running Opensim on one and Aurora sim on the other. Of all three products, Second Life I rate as weak on performance. Opensim marginally better and Aurora sim considerably better than both. Linden Labs charges $1000 to setup a sim and $295 a month service and for that you have very little control while putting up with a product in constant development just the same as Opensim and Aurora which both cost a lot less to operate and you do have considerably more control. And Linden Labs don't let you connect to the rest of the open Metaverse either.

    There are advantages and disadvantages in all three platforms and I have substantial investment both in money and time in all three. I think that makes me at least an informed users if not an expert. I do the footwork you see and experience the good and the bad so I can make the comparisons.

    Using Opensim and Aurora I expect to encounter problems – I accept it is alpha software and I don't use it commercially anyway. With Second Life I expect more given the high cost and, from an ordinary users point of view, I do not consider it value for money but, like so many others, I am hopelessly addicted to experiencing virtual worlds and working with them. I have made many friends in SL too so I know how they feel and believe me everyone complains about lag. It's a lot of money to pay for a laggy experience and, while I might try to understand the problems, most just want to have some escapist fun. Lag is not fun for anyone.

    @troymc. *laughs* I stand corrected!

    I pulled that word from the back of my head and, your right, I know nothing about horses other than they make me sneeze when I go near one.

  • Lawrence Pierce

    Your dissatisfaction with lag echoes my experience as I noted in my comment about a low fps of .5 to 1.5 at a meeting. It seems we agree that Second Life does not always perform to our satisfaction.

    However, I indicated that Second Life is "well-developed", not "fully developed", and I stand by that assessment. Second Life has a complex monetary and accounting system, a robust Web interface, avatar creation and orientation methods, a large economy and high avatar concurrency, not to mention thousands of regions, thousands of vendors with products that residents continue to purchase and enjoy, and more activities than a person could hope to visit even if in-world 24 hours a day. That to me is pretty much the definition of a well-developed system.

    Clearly, though, Second Life is not meeting the needs of everyone who values the virtual world paradigm. I found the panel credible because they did not give a blanket endorsement to Second Life (even though it was a Second Life Community Conference). Chris Collins was even apologetic when he suggested Unity 3D as a best choice for creating an online studio showcasing artwork, and he often came back to Unity 3D as a powerful virtual world platform. Jeroen Frans prefers OpenSim to Second Life for education projects that need scalability and sees Unity 3D as a major component of the 3D Web. Ron T. Blechner made the case for using Web.alive from Avaya and also brought to light many other platforms that offer more content than Second Life for enterprise applications.

    From the panel discussion, it seems to me that we have much to explore and look forward to. Second Life may or may not improve, but we have many growing, viable alternatives. I think that is what was most strongly conveyed in the conference.

  • @Lawrence

    Just a case in point, Tateru Nino has published an article that, to my mind, sums up the current state of Second Life, it's shoddy customer service and the huge problem of lag…
    http://dwellonit.taterunino.net/2011/08/29/so-goe

    I agree with you that Second Life has a diverse culture and large economy but, seriously, most of the work creating that was done by residents while Linden Labs fumbled along from one bad mistake to another. Customer service use to be far better when Lindens had their feet inworld and listened to the residents. In recent years they have simply lost any real connection with the people that pay the bills and Ron Hubble said it all when he said "Second Life is a success but he doesn't know why"

    What he should have said is Second Life is in decline and we need to find out the reasons why and address them urgently.

    But, of course, you can't expect them to admit what the metrics are saying.

    Gaga

  • in my experience, which i think is balanced, i find OpenSim as we have it deployed to be more stable than SL

    Four years inSL with two of those being with 19 sims vs. 2 years in OpenSim with our own private grids

    the only times my regions go down is when i take them down – i have never had a grid crash or any time that i could not access my regions in OpenSim. inSL there were many times where none of my sims were reachable (never for long periods, but still times with no access)

  • to Gaga's latter point – customer service used to be great at LL – i even had two Linden's join me in-world to troubleshoot something on a sim! i rarely needed customer service but twice did phone support and each time they took care of it within a minute! that's what i expect for $295 a month (actually was $2920 a month)

    in the last year of my sims, customer service fell drastically and i actually got better customer service with my $39 a month cable provider!

    LL effed themselves by disenfranchising creators starting two years ago or so

    • Ener — I always have a lot more usability problems in Second Life than in OpenSim. Part of the reason is that I spend a lot of time working on my own grid — like you, with dedicated servers and a great customer support guy who responds immediately if there are any problems.

      When I visit other grids, they're usually less populated than the SL regions I visit (typically for big events). But even the regions that do get a lot of traffic — like OSGrid's LBSA plaza — work well for me. I guess they allocate enough server resources to them.

      By comparison, voice in SL requires a re-log each time, most of the avatars there stay gray for the entire event, moving is slow and laggy — it reminds me of OSGrid's Wright Plaza during weekly developer meetings two years ago.

      One caveat, however — I'm typically in SL for big events. In OpenSim, I'm usually working by myself, in small groups, or doing interviews with just one or two people. So it's not a completely apples-to-apples comparison. Folks who have made the apples-to-apples comparison among those I've interviewed who moved to OpenSim from SL do tell me that they're able to achieve better performance by having dedicated servers — there's no chance that a party on some other sim will bring their region to a crawl.

  • bristle

    you know, there is second life, opensim, opensim-auora, realXend, and bluemars. none of them can work together to produce a server that is open for all. the rest of the packed — opencroquet, openwhateve, metasomethingorother, the thing (or whatever it is called) have given up.

    there is room for one entity that can support all the variations. right now, it is opensim because sl doesnt want to lead.

  • cubicspace

    makes you "almost" miss VRML…
    amazing how stagnent or reverse everything still is eh–for last 6 years. not like anyone suggested it would be any different;)

  • Guest

    “Choosing Second Life is not only about community, it is also about cost
    and stability — even when compared to free, open-source platforms like
    OpenSim.”

    Except when LL doubles tiers on non-profits and you cant take anything out of your sims