WonderSchool streams world to a tablet
Open Wonderland — an open source, Java-based alternative to OpenSim — is now available on a tablet. According to WonderSchool, a subsidiary of Germany’s THINSIA, clients can now access the platform on an iPad by having their user session streamed to the device.
The streaming is not cheap, however. WonderTablet, a service which streams Open Wonderland to a tablet device, is US $13 (10 Euros) per user per month. A similar product, WonderClient, streams Open Wonderland to PCs and Macs, at US $6.50 (5 Euros) per user per month.
The Open Wonderland server software can be hosted by WonderSchool as well, at US $130 (100 Euros) per month, for up to 25 users.
Open Wonderland lacks some of the virtual world features of OpenSim, such as user inventories or in-world building tools, or easy access to many public grids, shopping malls, and freebie stores, but does offer some advantages for collaborative work. Those include application sharing and drag-and-drop for OpenOffice documents.
According to Wonderschool CEO Roland Sassen, an elementary school in the Netherlands has already decided to hold classes for 11 and 12-year-old students on the platform.
WonderServer is available immediately, Sassen said, and WonderClient and WonderTablet will be available next spring.
“Most virtual worlds — like Second Life, OpenSim and Open Wonderland — have a heavy client, which uses the user’s graphics card for rendering,” he said.
Users have to download large programs, install them, and run them. These programs require a lot of memory, fast computers and the latest graphics cards.
This can make it difficult for light-weight devices — such as netbooks or tablets or ancient computers with obsolete graphics cards — to access these environments.
WonderSchool runs the client software in a cloud, generating a separate graphical view of the environment for each avatar, then streams the picture to the user.
The service can be used to run other kinds of software as well, he added — it’s not limited to just running Open Wonderland.
“With this technology, people can use their Windows Word and Excel and all their school programs on an iPad or other tablet as well,” he told Hypergrid Business. The license fees for these programs are included in the WonderClient monthly fee. The service can even be used to stream Second Life or OpenSim, he said, though usability and performance may vary.
WonderSchool didn’t have to write a new application for the iPad — the application was already there, in the form of the Oracle Virtual Display Client for iPad, released this past July to the Apple App Store. It’s an emulation of the Sun Ray device, which is a very thin Sun client. Oracle acquired Sun in early 2010. Sun is the company that created the Java language that Open Wonderland is built on, as well as Project Wonderland itself — the predecessor for Open Wonderland.
Using Open Wonderland on a tablet requires a little bit of additional tweaking, however. There’s no mouse, and arrow keys — or keyboard keys — are difficult to use because the keyboard then takes up a good portion of the screen, for example. One solution could be allowing users to touch the screen to walk to a particular location — or to create an on-screen arrow pad that’s independent of the keyboard.
And these tweaks are coming, said Sassen.
“Folks from the Open Wonderland Foundation will make a few extra buttons for the iPad,” he said.
“Another option to move the avatar is by moving the iPad forward, backwards, left and right, or just by thinking,” he added.
Streaming versus native
With streaming, no processing at all is required on the user’s device — just the ability to show a picture. It’s a lot like streaming a video on YouTube, except that users can interact with the environment.
All the processing is handled in some data center somewhere — with a separate virtual server allocated to each new user. Generating a virtual environment takes a lot more computing power than sending out a video, however, and explains why this kind of streaming is so expensive.
Video game companies have also considered offering streaming to their users, for an additional charge, to allow them to use handheld devices and older computers. Linden Lab has experimented with streaming for Second Life, and OnLive, Inc. offers streaming of a variety of popular video games for $10 a month.
But lately the trend for game developers has been away from streaming to native applications — apps that use the computing power available in tablet computers or in browsers to run the games.
For example, the Unity 3D plugin is used to power ReactionGrid’s Jibe environment and Second Learning’s Unifier environment — allowing both to run in the browser and, soon, on tablet devices, without any streaming required.
In the future, WebGL — a set of standards allowing browsers to show 3D images and animations — will allow these platforms to run in the browser without any plugin whatsoever.
Katalabs, for example, released a WebGL client for the Sirikata virtual world platform last December. Right now, it only runs on the latest Firefox browser, but will eventually run on all browsers and mobile devices — no additional plugins or downloads required.
To the end user, it looks like any other Webpage — you type in the URL, the page loads, and the game is right there.
The downside is that the graphics aren’t as good. The upside, however, is that tablets and browsers are both getting better and better, so that some browser-based games and iPad games are starting to look almost as good as those on high-end machines.
In the end, streaming may turn out to be a short-term solution, until WebGL and HTML 5 evolves sufficiently to offer all the needed functionality.
Until then, schools and companies that need immersive 3D environments on old PCs and tablets can see if streaming works for them.
Or the pace of development of virtual environments may outpace the ability of browsers and tablets to render them, in which case streaming is here to stay.