Private viewers, dead-end worlds
The great advantage of using OpenSim is that a grid owner can leverage all the work done by the open source community. The OpenSim server platform is updated continually, with new bug fixes and new features coming out almost daily.
And the viewers — also open source — are steadily updated as well. For example, the new Meerkat and Imprudence viewers allow users to save backups of individual objects they’ve created, right to their hard drives.
Why would a grid operator want to duplicate all this work?
- To create a higher-end experience, and to charge users a premium to access it.
- To create a more constrained experience for, say, elementary school students.
The second reasons makes sense for schools and public libraries. Teachers and librarians don’t want to have the kids surfing over to virtual sex clubs or casinos. All the standard viewers — Hippo, Meerkat, Imprudence — allow users to visit any grid they have an account on. And creating an account is usually as simple as typing in an avatar name and password on a Web page.
This is the same reason that schools and libraries install filters on their Web browsers.
School safety zones
However, creating a kid-safe browser is a burden on developers. They need to stay abreast of the features being added to the mainstream browsers — or, at least, not fall too far behind. Otherwise, their users will get frustrated and stop using them.
The advantage of having your own browser go beyond restricting access to other grids. Custom-build browsers can also make login to your own grid easier, without any messy configuration details. And kid-safe browsers may also limit functionality – for example, by not allowing children to take off all their clothes and run around naked.
There are work-arounds to some of these issues. The nakedness problem, for example, may be resolved by making the default avatar skins with underwear painted on. (Hmm… actually, this would be useful in business settings, as well, especially when clothes take time to load and you’re standing there in the middle of a client presentation without a stitch on…)
And Web filtering software could be extended to prohibit access to dangerous 3D worlds. For example, ReactionGrid (a PG-rated, education-focused world) would be okay, but Avatar Sex Club would not.
For example, next year, Second Life plans to include full support for meshes. This is a great thing for content designers, since they will be able to bring in 3D items designed in professional design programs, acquired from manufacturers, or downloaded free from Google’s 3D Warehouse. For example, some architects use the realXtend spinoff of OpenSim, which already supports full mesh imports, in order to import the houses they built with architecture design software — and to import scale models of furniture and appliances from major manufacturers. Customers walking through the virtual house can see not just the layout of their future living room, but how their actual furniture will fit with the decor.
Now, elementary schools might not be handing out a lot of architecture degrees, but teachers would probably enjoy access to the Google 3D Warehouse — a free repository of thousands of virtual items.
Once Second Life updates its server software, it will update its clients software to match. And the OpenSim community will roll out its version of mesh support to work with the new viewer — in fact, an early version of mesh support is already available for OpenSim, called modrex, a spin-off from the realXtend project. If a school is using a custom-built viewer it will have to upgrade that viewer to include mesh support. That’s a lot of work.
One possible way to avoid this is to create a separate filtering program to use on computers that access 3D worlds, and allow students to use one of the standard viewers. With the default avatars having underwear painted on, of course.
Another use of private viewers is by grids trying to provide a more robust or complete experience than the standard OpenSim environment.
The downside here is that the OpenSim community is getting larger by the minute, with a number of big-name contributors working on improving and stabilizing the code base. Christa Lopes, Adam Frisby, and dozens of other developers are contributing innovative features and solutions, and IBM, Intel and even Microsoft are also contributing effort and resources. OSGrid and ReactionGrid and ScienceSim are helping test and develop these features further.
Can a single grid hope to stay ahead of this massive development effort?
Yes, every single grid operator can take a look at the latest OpenSim release and think, “I can do better. A tweak here, an improvement there, and I’ll have something really great.”
And, since any substantial change to the server hardware requires changes in the viewer, they make the corresponding tweaks and improvements to the viewer.
By going it alone, they get another benefit, as well — they don’t have to deal with the politics and the negotiations involved in contributing code to an open source project.
But then, slowly but surely, the OpenSim code base improves. The software gets stable. Christa Lopes invents the hypergrid teleport and the Diva Distro. ReactionGrid starts selling cheap OpenSim appliances. People set up stores to distribute products — even sell or give away entire region files.
And now the private grid has a major problem on its hands. It either has to re-do all these fixes on its own code base in order to allow its users to get the benefit of all this content being created, or branch off entirely on its own in a private little incompatible island.
Users gossip. They know about the regions others can get for free on OpenSim stores. About the collaboration tools that others can access. About the easy backups of regions and objects possible on other grids. About teleporting between grids — to have a house on a nice little residential grid, say the German-themed neighborhood on Grid4Us, and go see the Eiffel Tower on Franco Grid, and visit the Fashion Research Institute’s fashion store on ScienceSim.
And this is just the beginning. OpenSim has only been stable and hypergrid-enabled for the past few months. And there’s still no easy way to save or use hypergrid teleport addresses. (I’m sure the folks working on the viewers are fixing this as I write.)
Finally, the biggest reason not to use a private viewer is that we’re now seeing the development of real Web-based viewers for OpenSim, such as the 3Di Rei viewer.
It’s currently buggy — avatars don’t show up right to users of other browsers, and all look like Japanese businessmen from inside the 3Di Rei viewer — but it’s already got the basic functionality. Meanwhile, there are folks experimenting with using the Unity platform to create a Web viewer for OpenSim as well.
What these viewers will make possible is ad-hoc meetings. I want my staff to join me in a region for a quick chat, I send them a link, and they’re in. No downloading software, no learning how to use it, no navigation issues, no hardware compatibility problems, no worries about getting dressed. Sure, the viewer is limited — they won’t be able to build, or create scripts, or do anything interesting (yet), but they can show up for a meeting in a couple of minutes, instead of in a couple of hours.
But 3Di already has customers already using the viewer. One is a Japanese store that used it to create a virtual 3D storefront, integrated with their back-end inventory system. Another is a hospital using it for virtual facility tours.
Having Web-based access allows for the viral networking effect to finally kick in for virtual worlds. I can hold a meeting for my staff one day, for potential clients another day, for my professional networking group the following week. As these new people get comfortable with and used to virtual worlds, they’ll start to want their own. Yes, they’ll need a more robust browser to actually build their worlds, or hire designers. Fortunately, both the robust tools and the professional designers are readily available.
Does a private grid really need to cut itself off from this?
The biggest reason that I hear for closing off a virtual world, and setting up a private client, is to protect the world’s currency system. After all, the reasoning goes, you don’t want to go to one grid, buy a bunch of local money there, then teleport to another grid, and spend the money there — possibly at a far different exchange rate. Or have the money stolen by an unscrupulous grid operator.
This makes sense in the short term. After all, the standard release of OpenSim doesn’t support an in-world currency system.
But it is possible to have a private currency using a public browser.
After all, PayPal is accessed over the public Internet — it didn’t create its own browser to ensure security. Facebook has its own e-commerce system. And there are thousands of Web-based gaming worlds with their own currencies.
Currently, the main solution for individual grid operators is to use one an OpenSim in-world currency module and create an in-world virtual currency. Most of the grids that have gone this route have turned off hypergrid teleports — users need to log in directly and are not able to teleport in from other grids. However, many grids that have in-world currency systems are using standard browsers and viewers.
And, after all, Second Life itself uses a standard viewer, compatible with all the OpenSim grids, without any detriment to the security of its currency system.
Personally, I prefer a different solution — using PayPal or PayPal Micropayments with Adam Frisby’s payments module. Most e-commerce entrepreneurs are already familiar with the benefits of using PayPal, or one of many alternatives, such as Google Checkout and the Amazon Flexible Payment Service. By accepting real payments, merchants can avoid the entire hassle of dealing with converting in and out of a virtual currency system.
Private payments is the approach adopted by OSGrid and ReactionGrid as well, alleviating the grid operators from having to create and maintain a currency system. Private payments also mean that people can visit from other grids in order to go shopping.
With in-world virtual currencies, users are effectively limited to doing their shopping in just that one world, unless they go through the hassle of setting up an account and buying virtual credit on another grid.
A user might do this for a special reason — if the world is unique, for example, and offers benefits not available elsewhere. But there are only so many virtual currency accounts that any given individual can keep track of.