SLGo puts virtual world in the cloud

Last week Linden Lab and the OnLive cloud gaming service debuted a new service aimed at delivering Second Life to almost any device capable of connecting to the internet. While still in beta and available for PCs, OSX and Android — iOS support is coming — I had an opportunity to play with SLGo and, from a technical standpoint, it truly is revolutionary.

SLGo-screenshot

What are Onlive & SLGo?

Most of you reading this are probably already familiar with the hybrid client/server model that functions as an interface between you and Second Life or your favorite MMORPG. Essentially, a user downloads a client — or a Second Life viewer — that acts as an interactive layer and display. For Second Life, the client allows you to download object and avatar rendering data for the regions you’re in, as well as, download and interact with various ancillary items like your inventory, private messages, maps and so forth.

However, most of this data — with the exception of cached objects — is stored in Linden Labs’ servers. To render your world, the client downloads the data uses your computer’s resources to process and display it on your screen. For those with more modest systems and internet connections, rendering and navigating a view might be a time consuming and often frustrating chore. Even with every object in a region cached, rendering each frame on high settings using a mid-range GPU while navigating the world can be a jittery experience to say the least.

OnLive – and, by extension, SLGo – and cloud gaming in general seeks to eliminate that frustration. At its core, cloud gaming — or “gaming as a service” (GaaS) as it’s also been called — is not unlike using YouTube. The difference is that a user interacts directly with what’s being streamed in the video. If you log into a game via the OnLive service, the entirety of the game is hosted, rendered and played on OnLive’s remote servers. You are simply seeing a live video feed. OnLive’s propriety thin client has only one job – display the video (and act as a marketplace and social hub). Any average computing device with a typical internet connection, from an older LAN-connected laptop to a WIFI-connected tablet, can stream the video in HD.

The end result, as I experienced with my five-year-old, dual-core Dell Inspiron laptop, is a stunning view of Second Life at 50 FPS with all settings set to Ultra.

Why this is a big deal…

While live video streaming has been around a relatively long time, being able to interact with that stream in real time is a whole new ball game.

Because the heavy lifting of rendering is offloaded to high end data centers, video capable devices (which includes most devices these days) now have the ability to provide an experience nearly identical to a high end, multi-thousand dollar system at a fraction of the price! At the time of this writing, a subscription to OnLive was about US$10 per month – which includes hundreds of popular games. Many of the games are a year old or less. SLGo is based on hourly usage and starts at US$3 per hour. A 10-hour block can be purchased for US$25.00. There is also a free 20 minute trial if you just want to try it out.

More pros than cons

If you’ve ever wanted to use Second Life (or any other game for that matter) with all your settings maxed out and with zero screen tearing (the term for that annoying effect you get when you spin your avatar and two halves of different frames appear on screen), then OnLive and SLGo is for you. And, if you want to have access to a ton of different games without paying for each one, the OnLive service is perfect.

Cloud gaming does have a few cons, though. The two most important technology issues are lag and dropped packets. Lag is the difference in time it takes for you to provide an input such as a mouse movement or keystroke and the time it takes for the remote system to calculate, render and stream the response to your screen. Depending on your connection, this can range from an unnoticeable 15 milliseconds to a noticeable but tolerable 60 milliseconds .

Dropped packets are when a piece of transmitted information is “lost” during the transfer. This can happen for a variety of reasons – corruption during transfer, a moment of excessive lag, and so on. This most often happens in a WiFi scenario where multiple users can create cause spikes and lulls in data transfer and atmospheric or environmental effects can degrade signals.

The other issue is cost. Currently, three dollars an hour is pretty expensive for something one can do for just the cost of one’s connection.

Reality and the future

During my real world — though not scientific — testing, the technical problems went from annoying but tolerably infrequent on a home WiFi connection to virtually non-existent using a wired LAN connection. Indeed, when plugged in, the streamed version’s graphics and performance were vastly superior.

All this said, the technology is evolving quickly. But for virtual worlds like Second Life and slow-paced strategy games, cloud gaming is already perfect. With the advent of high-bandwidth, low-latency and dual-spectrum AC wireless routers, you can expect the lag and dropped packets issues to be greatly improve. And, as more people join, costs should go down.

I highly recommend giving SLGo a try.

David Kaplan

David Kaplan is currently Senior User Experience and User Interface Engineer at Oracle. Over the last twenty years, David has worked with large Fortunate 500 companies such as Oracle, JPMorganChase, DuPont and University of Pennsylvania, as well as small, innovative start-ups and organizations. He has been on Second Life for seven years, has run multiple OpenSim grids and is also an indie game developer.

  • Tank Laville

    LOL, $2.50 per hour, not $25!

    • Thanks, fixed that!

      • But I still think it’s too expensive… might as well save that money towards a new computer with decent graphics.

        • Vanish

          Yeah, between me and my partner, we’re in SL roughly 3 hours a day. That’s 21 hours a week, or about 90 hours a month, which would amount to… almost 250 $ per month! That’s just for accessing SL, on top of what we already pay LL in tier and premium fees anyway. God, at that price I could by myself two high end machines every year that would do the same job!

          • Hi Vanish —
            Thanks for the comment. As I noted in the article, the cost of SLGo is not cheap. However, there are three things to consider.

            First, in this case it helps to think of this technology from two viewpoints: “What can it do for me today?” and “What can it do for me in the future?” With that in mind, try and look at the bigger picture. Cloud services, in general, are a very new way of doing business. People and businesses have barely begun to use cloud-based technology – let alone cloud based streaming applications. As I said in the article, as more people use it.. economies of scale come into play and things get cheaper. Of course, that’s all in the future. But, what about today? That brings me to my next point.

            I’m hesitant to define another company’s application or service. But, as it stands today, I would say SLGo isn’t meant to be a replacement for your home or business computer. At least, not yet. What it’s good for today is SL “on the go” (which is probably why they chose the name). If you’re an SL business or frequent SL socialite and also have a “first life”, dragging your desktop around with you as you run errands isn’t an option. Even hauling a laptop around isn’t that fun. But, a tablet? Maybe you’re at a cafe and want to jump on for 20 minutes to reply to some PMs or modify your store. Maybe you’re a business with an SL presence and want to demonstrate a product in world. Pull out the tablet, give it a few swipes, and you’re in. You’re paying $3/hr for convenience. And, considering 25 years ago I used to spend my entire weekly allowance as a kid on arcade games (which was a lot more than three bucks!)… $3/hr isn’t much for a quick SL fix.

            Lastly, in my next article I’ll be going into much more detail about cloud-gaming and “VR-as-a-service” including some very promising free and open source projects that will allow you to do things like stream your OpenSim grid (if you run one) the same way Onlive streams SL.

            Best,
            David

          • “Economies of scale” only apply to a limited extent here, since this platform is basically running a virtual machine with a viewer in it for every user (or however many viewers they can fit on one machine). The more users, the more virtual machines they need to spin up, and the more individual streams they need to have going.

            So the price will drop as the price of cloud computing drops — eventually — but not right away.

            And a computer fast enough to run Second Life can be bought at Walmart for around $300. It won’t be the latest fanciest gaming machine, but it will be good enough.

            Meanwhile, replying to private messages or managing your marketplace shop shouldn’t require a full viewer, anyway.

        • “Decent graphics” is a pretty subjective term. Though SL has lagged behind in terms of advanced graphics, graphics technology and GPUs are constantly evolving.

          Like I said to Vanish, it’s a new technology and adoption is going to take time. As more people adopt, investments in capacity go up as does competition (tons of companies are getting on board with cloud-based virtual worlds). All these leads to smaller price tags.

          It’s fair to say that most people don’t have or want $2000+ gaming systems. Virtual world technology is allowing extremely talented people to create worlds nearly indistinguishable from real life. Hopefully, the engine that drives SL will get to that point too. As each new generation of graphics technology hits the market, the GPU you once thought marvelous now becomes inadequate.

          Assuming the price for SLGo drops to something in line with the rest of Onlive’s titles (roughly $10/mo), would it not make more sense to invest a fraction of what you’d spend on a high end gaming system on an average system (or mobile device) then only spend $10/mo to access SL anywhere with any system?

          Would it not be useful to you if you own an SL business to have easy access to your store and messages on the go? What if you’re a business and want to quickly show an in world product demo to some colleagues?

          I think these are all practical use cases that certainly fit SLGo as well as other virtual platforms.

  • Savino van Meirhaeghe

    Cool this will i in Opensim 9
    bihahooooo

  • George Walsh

    I agree with some who said the price is too high, further… promoting Second Life in any form is not good for OpenSim in my opinion. Lastly, Second Life is old tech and pointless to emulate.

    • As a merchant operating both in SL and Kitely, I think this is just a silly comment.

      SL and OS have a synergistic relationship. At this point, they need each other and to be blunt OS needs SL much more than visa versa.

      Like it or not, the main user base of OS are disillusioned LL customers. SL also encourages OS to push its development to keep up. I doubt we would havethings like mesh or materials without SL being there in the background, pushing us along.

      Plus, without the TPVs we would be totally stuffed. I do agree that SL is old tech and any OS based Grid that wants to be around in the next 5/10 years needs to keep up with SL developments, but also look at new emerging platforms such as Mesh Moon, High Fidelity and whatever Yahoo decide to do with the Cloud Party tech (if anything).

    • Second Life is typically the first step into virtual worlds for most OpenSim users. Second life has tons of events to draw people in, and so many how-tos, tutorials, videos, and communities that help people get started — OpenSim can’t yet come close to any of that. Plus, Second Life spends money on marketing, to bring in new users. Few, if any, OpenSim grids have any significant marketing budgets.

  • BSpiritor

    Now … this is a good article and comment followup. IF one could operate an opensim business worldwide -without having to pay LL through the nose to operate in 3D VW’s – IF all the benefits of SL functions existed within OpenSimulator – overhead would become more affordable and OS-GO would be a far reaching tool. ( as opposed to SLGo, of course ) – I can visualize 3D inworld immersion being used, finally then, by RL business efforts to millions who have never graced the virtual halls of any VW. That’s when VW’s finally become the next level of the internet 0to some degree. ( Just my thoughts, unchanged after 5 years in this, waiting patiently )

  • Tuna Oddfellow

    At $9.95 per month unlimited or 1 dollar an hour which can be purchased in 1 dollar and 5 dollar prepays it now becomes worth it for some of us to use SLgo if you are someone who needs SL on the go when you don’t have a PC around there are a lot of reasons this ends up being a much stronger viewer than some of the other light client.

    Do you know if there is a community we can join to share ideas and get support on the viewer. Is OnLive talking about opening this up to other virtual worlds when it it’s out of beta?

    • Ah, yes, that would be a good idea to go beyond SL in it’s use.

  • Suzen JueL

    I absolutely love this app! I have an older PC and firestorm (though i love it) just doesn’t work so well anymore. I build a lot and also put up a lot of my art, which SLGo is “EPiC” for. I’m also a Musician and perform frequently in SL…. SLGo does NOT support live performance yet. I’m hoping it will.
    What happens is the stream (my live stream) cuts and clips for the audience…and when I attend other live shows…their stream cuts and skips. Now…..when that happens, I have to use the dreaded, laggy and often frozen Firestorm (i’ve tried all the other viewers..) and can usually get my avatar to stand wherever she lands for the duration of my performance .. then my PC freezes and the entire computer goes out. Screen turns black, pc shuts down and for the next couple hours it goes into reboot and scan disc, before it comes back up.
    So when SLGo came along, that was it….except again..for live performance.
    This could very well be a strange connection on my part…though we run at 100mbs or more ……
    If SLGo would work as smooth as firestorm or other SL viewers for live shows it certainly would be worth the monthly fee.

    • Suzen JueL

      also, considering i upload my art, into SL….the app does not allow that yet either….again, i have to use firestorm (if it doesn’t freeze me lol) …
      They’ve made many improvements in the several weeks I’ve been using it, but uploading art and live streaming would be a HUGE plus for Many people that use SL for this type of platform/business/venue/artist/builder