The battle for the future of the 3D Web is about to get hot… and steamy. Utherverse CEO tells us that he’s planning to launch an all-out attack against the other virtual world platforms out there, with free hosting and a set of free building tools designed to attract business customers.
His main target is the hypergrid â€“ worlds based on the OpenSim, RealExtend and Second Life platform which all use the OpenLibMetaverse set of communication standards and can all be accessed by the same set of browsers (now numbering over a dozen), and potentially supporting hypergrid teleports.
Not all worlds running on these platforms support these teleports, of course â€“ the main Second Life grid being the obvious holdout, though there are also many OpenSim worlds running in private or behind-the-firewall mode. But hypergrid teleports are technically possible, and there are ways to approximate teleports by using, say, the Meerkat browser.
According to Brian Shuster, CEO of Vancouver-based Utherverse Digital Inc., the Utherverse platform, which is based on the Unreal engine, offers better graphics, better architecture â€“ regions can be any size, not limited to just 16 acres â€“ and can support an unlimited number of avatars in a single location.
In addition, the company currently has four million registered users, he said, who are familiar with the technology.
â€œWe’re comparable in size to Second Life,â€ Shuster said, adding that he’s surprised that his company hasn’t received anywhere near the same level of attention from the public or the media.
â€œWe hosted a four-day music festival with hundreds of bands who came to play,â€ he said. â€œWe’ve had film festivals where users could come and see dozens of award-winning films, and filmmakers could come and see feedback from people watching in real time.â€
Some concerts had tens of thousands of people in attendance at once, he said.
Second Life and OpenSim regions, by comparison, start to leg when more than 20 avatars are in the same area.
â€œI’m not a fan of OpenSim,â€ he said. â€œWe’re several generations ahead of where they are. And the browsers that Second Life use, that OpenSim use, are developed to the lowest common denominator, are very crippled. Our browser is several generations ahead of those other platforms.â€
Getting all those avatars in one location creates some challenges. For example, imagine ten thousand people chatting at once.
â€œYou simply can’t follow the chats,â€ Shuster said. â€œWe have proprietary algorithms designed to only display, say, text chat of interest to them â€“ language specific, or only people with whom they’re associated.â€
In addition, Utherverse uses Vivox for directional voice â€“ the same system used by Second Life. This week, some regions on OSGrid also rolled out support for Vivox. Vivox requires a paid license, however, so is not available out-of-the-box to everyone who downloads the OpenSim server software.
Utherverse also supports teleports between worlds, Shuster said. Not teleports to Second Life or OpenSim worlds, but teleports to other worlds running on the Utherverse platform.
NOT ALL USERS CREATED EQUAL
Second Life has about 16 million users, with about 1.4 million logging in over the past two months, according to Second Life statistics, about four times more than Utherverse.
Of course, the issue isn’t about regular old users. If it was all about the users, then World of Warcraft or one of those Korean or Chinese sword-and-sorcery games would be the foundation of the next 3D Internet.
The more important metric is the number of content creators â€“ businesses and educational institutions and individuals who are out there creating virtual environments. After all, people didn’t start leaving AOL for the Web because there was one really great website out there â€“ but because there were thousands of colleges, businesses, non-profit groups, and individuals putting up all kinds of sites, bad, good, crazy, and everything in between.
Today, all these groups are putting up islands inside Second Life, or creating their own virtual worlds in OpenSim. There are about 30,000 regions now in Second Life, and more than 4,000 regions on the most popular OpenSim grids â€“ but there’s no way to count up all the grids and regions being run using the OpenSim platform since anyone can download the software and put up a grid.
OpenSim has been growing particularly quickly over the last few months, as the technology has become more stable, and started to support voice and hypergrid teleports. The grid gained about 600 new regions in the past month â€“ a monthly growth rate of about 33%.
In addition, there are a handful of pilot users using the Second Life â€œNebraskaâ€ server platform, and another handful of major enterprises using IBM’s OpenSim-based Lotus Sametime 3D.
By comparison, there are only a dozen business users of the Utherverse server platform, said Shuster. The largest of these is Coolspot AG, a German company running the Secret City adult virtual world, which, Shuster says, currently has about a million users.
Licensing the Utherverse software costs between $50,000 and $2.4 million, said Uther, depending on the size and scope of the project. By comparison, Second Life’s server product â€“ code-named Nebraska â€“ is expected to go for around $50,000 when its officially released at the end of the year. And a hardened, enterprise-ready version of OpenSim integrated with Lotus Sametime is available from IBM for around $50,000 as well. Of course, anyone can also install and run the OpenSim software for free, if they are willing to do their own maintenance and support, which makes OpenSim popular with educational institutions rich in talent but poor in money.
No colleges or universities are currently on Utherverse â€“ but Shuster said that any educational institution can get free land on an Utherverse world. If they want it.
The company is also thinking about other business applications.
â€œWe have the ability to put on trade shows, so far that ability has been used only in a limited sense, in test case environments,â€ Shuster said.
In addition, business users of Utherverse don’t currently have the ability to edit their own environments. By comparison, land owners in Second Life can put up their own buildings and create everything in them â€“ or hire designers to do it for them.
According to Utherverse policies, business owners must request any changes â€“ and pay for them. Oh, and wait for Utherverse to get around to carrying out the order. For entrepreneurs looking to sell products in Utherverse, they are mostly out of luck. Both Second Life and OpenSim support intellectural property rights â€“ permissions are built into item descriptions, allowing â€“ or forbidding â€“ buyers from modifying, reselling, copying, or giving away the products. In Utherverse, entrepreneurs can make and sell virtual clothing and textures. â€œHowever, there is no method to prevent other users from copying your designs for their own use,â€ the company says.
BIG FREE LAND BOOM
Utherverse plans to address many of these concerns over the next two months, releasing a tool kit that will let designers make products and environments and upload them to the virtual world.
In addition, the company plans to make free land available to all who want it, and is already giving away tens of thousands of free assets. In addition, it is possible to import three-dimensional objects from other systems, such as CAD programs, and Google’s 3D Warehouse.
â€œIt’s not the easiest thing to do, but yes, we have users that do it,â€ said Shuster. â€œWe are working on making that toolset better.â€
In addition, he said, in November, users will be able to upload animations from other design programs.
Users running their own virtual worlds using the Utherverse platform will also be able to set their own age restrictions. For example, Utherverse’s Red Light District virtual world is only accessible to people 18 and over â€“ similar to Second Life’s main grid age restrictions. However, some users â€“ museums, for example, or educational institutions, or toy companies â€“ might want to have their worlds accessible by all ages.
For enterprises hosted on the Utherverse platform, however, the issue is a bit thornier â€“ does Utherverse want to be in a position of tracking different age groups as they access different parts of their virtual worlds?
â€œIt’s a question we’re in debate on,â€ Shuster said. â€œHopefully, part of the virtual world environment is going to not have age restrictions.â€
Utherverse currently makes money from premium user accounts â€“ users need to pay $20 a month in order to access some of the racier functionality of the platform â€“ and by renting out storefronts. Depending on how desireable the location is, storefronts range from $50 a month to several thousand dollars a month, Shuster said. In addition, residential users looking for more than the basic apartment that comes with the $20 membership can pay as much as $60 for a large country home.
Giving away free land is a major paradigm change for the company, said Shuster, and will help turn it into the defacto standard for the 3D Web.
â€œThat demolishes the ‘walled garden’,â€ he said. â€œWe look at ourselves like the Web itself. Any university, company or individual will be able to go in and create their own virtual worlds at no charge â€“ we expect to see an absolute explosion of virtual worlds being created.â€
These worlds can be interconnected or stand-alone worlds, he said, depending on how much privacy is required.
In addition, Utherverse will be giving away a set of business collaboration tools, based on open source collaboration software. â€œIBM wants to make money,â€ he said. â€œWe want to do this for free. Our objective is to be the browser of the new web. By offering this to users to free, offering it to businesses for free, we want to achieve critical mass.â€
However, he doesn’t expect to see any interoperability with OpenSim and Second Life worlds.
â€œTrying to engineer towards interoperability means cripping our software too much â€“ in order for us to interoperate we would need to step back to generations in software,â€ he said. â€œThose platforms just don’t support infinite avatars.â€
It’s not his company that’s the walled garden, he said â€“ it’s OpenSim.
â€œOur expectation is that those software platforms are very much like the AOLs and the Compuserves,â€ he said. â€œThey’re not going to exist for much longer, so there won’t be much need to make ourselves backwards compatible with them. They’re just not very useful. If they can step it up where they can to our level, then its something we can talk about.â€
So how good is the software? The online reviews are mixed, with many people complaining that the free membership doesn’t offer much. We weren’t able to get the browser software to run on a new Windows Vista machine, but were able to run it on a five-year-old Windows XP laptop. It was a massive, massive download, taking up more than 1,300 megabytes on my harddrive. The Second Life browser, by comparison, is just about 70 megabytes. The OpenSim-friendly Hippo browser is even smaller, just 62 megabytes.
Unlike Second Life and OpenSim â€“ where the regions are wide open, and the land is contiguous, Utherverse requires a teleport when moving from any one area to any other area.
This allows for unlimited variation when creating virtual worlds â€“ but also makes it more difficult to navigate. However, areas load quickly and are easy to move through â€“ possibly because much of the content is pre-loaded as part of the installation package. In general, the environment has the look-and-feel of a first-person shooter video game. Specifically, it reminded of of Tomb Raider, if Lara Croft was able to take her clothes off.
The biggest problem with Utherverse from a business perspective, of course, is just that focus on adult content. Naked avatars appear throughout the company’s marketing materials and in the intro video. There’s even a â€œnudeâ€ button built-in to the browser, for getting undressed really really quickly. Needless to say, avatars come anatomically correct. In Second Life and OpenSim, the default avatars are more like plastic dolls. It’s possible to get anatomically correct equipment, but users have to go out of their way to find and buy it.
And the company actively markets its sex-friendly orientation. The big announcement this month on its business page is that it hosted a porn star party â€“ complete with â€œworking girls,â€ alcoholic beverages, and virtual sex (check out new omg kinky sex guides).
Because of its adult focus, no major virtual world research firms or analysts currently follow the company or provide Utherverse development services.
â€œIt’s great that there is some compeitition here, sort of a browser war for the future of the Net,â€ said Anders Gronstedt, president of the virtual worlds research firm The Gronstedt Group, Inc.
But he predicts that the adult content will be a high hurdle for Utherverse to overcome when it’s courting business users.
â€œWe already have that problem with Second Life, working hard to separate that out,â€ he said. â€œThe perception issue is going to be a problem.â€
Advanced technology by itself isn’t necessarily going to give Utherverse an advantage, he added â€“ as the case of Betamax versus VHS tapes demonstrated.
â€œIt’s not the best technology that wins out,â€ he said.
For example, Sun’s Wonderland project has been getting some nice reviews, he said. â€œPeople are arguing that if they were to start from scratch, Wonderland is the platform that they would create.â€
But Wonderland hasn’t seen any traction, he said, with only internal Sun users and some college use, but no mass deployments of the software.
â€œAnd if you talk to many of the OpenSim evangelists, they’re arguing that they’re just a year away from having a thousand people in the same meeting,â€ he said. â€œThey’re really bullish on growing the platform.â€
With IBM and Intel behind it working full time, as well as a large and dedicated open source community, Gronstedt said he’s bullish on OpenSim as well.
â€œI think that OpenSim is probably the platform right now that’s best positioned to become the de-facto next HTML of the virtual world.â€
At Hypergrid Business, as the name implies, we kind of prefer the hypergrid.
But we can definitely see the potential of having a business platform that can handle thousands of avatars as well. This would be great for virtual conferences, for example — under all-new branding, however. Maybe spun off as an entirely new company, even.
Large-scale virtual business conferences require an easy login process. However, Shuster declined to disclose whether his company was working on a Web-based interface for Utherverse.
For small business users, OpenSim is still more attractive since you can actually own your own content and your own sim, and can host it yourself or choose a hosting company.
The OpenSim-Second Life environment also has a large ecosystem of builders and designers used to working with the tools, and the largest group of users of all the virtual worlds, not counting the pure gaming platforms and the kid worlds.
However, if Utherverse is able to attract customers with its free land offer, then it may help drive down land prices across the multiverse. That will be great for users — though possibly not so great for virtual world operators.
I myself would not want to hold business meetings in Utherverse — there is too much adult content around, and the browser is too large a download for my employees or clients.
With a streamlined browser — minus the adult content — I can see using Utherverse for large one-time gatherings. But I’d still be wary of putting any permanent facilities — my office building, say — on land that I don’t own.