10 predictions for 2010

I just got off the phone with a company building an educational grid for a company in China — in OpenSim. They picked the platform not for its cheapness, but it’s feature set.

This too often gets missed in the hype surrounding the various virtual worlds, but OpenSim is actually usable for enterprise applications.

The OpenSim developers will continue to call it “alpha software”

We know, we know, we heard it already. You’re still working on getting the bugs out. That’s fine. Meanwhile, my little company grid is up and running with no hiccups (thank you, Diva Distro!) and I’m about to bring a new round of employees and interns into the world. I’m very happy you guys are working on improving OpenSim, and can’t wait for better scalability, stability, and security. But meanwhile, it’s already good enough to use. In fact, it’s better than good.

OpenSim will get a Web viewer

The 3Di OpenViewer is almost ready for prime time, with avatar shapes still needing to be fixed. I believe that this viewer will be usable during the first half of this year, and folks will start embedding it in Web-based OpenSim applications. Other viewers might also appear, including a revival of the Xenki viewer, or a viewer based on the Unity 3D engine.

OpenSim will hold more than 100 avatars in a location

The folks at Intel are pushing the currency boundaries, as are the other core developers. With OpenSim’s modular, scalable architecture, we will soon start seeing the results of their work. Meanwhile, the folks at Deep Think and at Designing Digitally are working on load balancing projects. Designing Digitally already has client project up and in use that automatically distributes up to 800 avatars to different simulators based on availability.

Functionality will continue to move into objects

The standard interface model for current software is the menu approach. You want to change your hair? You look through menus to find the right controls. But the real world is object-based. If you want to change your hair you pick up a hair brush, or a curling iron, or a pack of hair dye.  Moving functionality out of menus and into objects will make the virtual world simpler and easier to use and navigate. It will also cause it to evolve quicker, much the way that Apple’s App Store has turned the iPhone into a multi-purpose tool for any occasion.

Here’s an easy example. If you want to put a poster up on the wall in your virtual office, doing it through the browser menus requires uploading a texture, creating and stretching a prim, and then applying the texture to the prim. Or I could use a smart poster frame that prompts me to upload an image file, or for the URL of an image on the Web. If I don’t like the built-in browser menus I have to wait for months before a new version of the browser comes out — and chances are, it wouldn’t have the new menu functionality I wanted, anyway. But if I don’t like my poster frame, I can throw it out and buy a new one.

The ecosystem of OpenSim designers and developers will continue to grow

There are currently several pay channels for distribution of virtual goods to the OpenSim universe, in addition to the many freebie stores dotting the OpenSim grids. Business and education clients need custom environments, in-world tools, and software — and are willing to pay real money for them. Buying them from legitimate channels means no copyright infringement hassles later on, not to mention better customer service.   Designers will increasingly integrate their products with server-side applications, making them difficult to copy.

Mesh imports will shake things up for the better

The ability to import 3D objects from design software and repositories such as Google’s free 3D Warehouse will be great for enterprise customers. Architects will be able to import buildings directly from their architecture design software. And business and education users will be able to access the huge selection of free, ready-made three dimensional objects — buildings, furniture, appliances, plants, clothing and much much more. Designers currently making a living from low-end commodity products that are available for free in mesh form elsewhere will either have to close up shop, upgrade their skills, or switch to doing custom designs for enterprise clients.

Business and personal avatars will separate

Today, most companies and educational institutions in Second Life expect their students and employees to create personal avatars — funny names and all. This practice has been carried over to OpenSim grids, with many users duplicating their Second Life identities. And many users identify with their avatars, and use them as means of personal expression. For enterprises, however, an avatar is more like an email address, just one way — among many — to project yourself in a virtual environment.  And employees using company avatars created on company grids will be expected to follow the same rules as with corporate email accounts. As a result, those people who are active in virtual worlds both personally and professionally will start to use separate avatars for these activities. They may have a personal vampire avatar in Second Life or on MyOpenGrid, for example, and a professional avatar in a business suit on Reaction Grid or their company’s private grid.

The backlash against enterprise users of virtual worlds will grow

Early adopters of Second Life were attracted by the boundless creativity and opportunities for personal expression that the platform offers. Personal creativity and self-expression are, however, not always compatible with a corporate existence, where the needs of your customers have to come first. In addition, these first users were innovators, risk takers, early adopters and visionaries. By comparison to these guys, the average person looks like a plodding simpleton. For some early OpenSim adopters, the reality is even more ironic. A platform that they had thought would liberate them from the corporate oversight of Linden Labs turns out to be a great platform for private corporate grids. Finally, the increased enterprise use of virtual worlds will marginalize many mom-and-pop operations. Not because existing corporations can do a better job than they can — historically, large companies have had a great deal of trouble transitioning from one medium to another. But enterprise customers demand higher standards and some mom-and-pops will meet the challenge and grow into serious professional organizations.  This won’t stop the other mom-and-pops from calling them “sellouts.”

We will start to see the early sprigs of new virtual enterprises

The World Wide Web gave us Amazon, PayPal, eBay, and Google. Why didn’t existing bookstore chains dominate online bookselling from the get-go? Why didn’t existing banks offer online payments instead of PayPal? Like the Web, the new 3D Internet will be a disruptive force. At first, companies thought that the Web was simply a way to distribute catalogs and brochures. Successful Internet companies, however, took advantages of the unique aspects of the Internet, such as the ability the leverage the network effect. This year, I predict that we will see glimmers of what unique aspect of virtual worlds will make companies successful. Will it be the interpersonal interaction? The way that functionality can be embedded inside virtual objects? The companies that are able to figure this out stand to make billions.

OpenSim will continue to move ahead of Second Life in functionality

I’m talking about business functionality here, not issues related to the social or gaming experience.

Yes, Second Life has more people. If my company made virtual goods for sale to in-world residents, I would want to have my retail outlet in Second Life. But I would still have many manufacturing facility in OpenSim.

Let me list the reasons:

  • Integration with back-end enterprise software, including corporate directories and company databases. There’s a reason why IBM picked OpenSim as the platform for its Lotus Sametime 3D virtual meeting product.
  • Real names. This is a must for schools and enterprises. I need to know who the employee standing in front of me is. On a related note, I also want to own the avatar accounts of all my employees. Not because I’m evil, but because I want corporate property to stay corporate property when an employee leaves the company. Also, I don’t want my employees using their company avatars for personal adventures — the same way that I don’t want them to use company email accounts for embarrassing personal stuff. Sure, I know my employees will still do both. But by letting them know ahead of time that the account belongs to the company, not to them, they’ll be less likely to load it up with personal property and personal networks.
  • Backups. If I hire people to build a virtual development for me, I want to be able to take regular backups of the work, in case something goes wrong. With OpenSim, I can backup an entire region with one command. Having backups also allows me to switch regions in and out. Today, that corner of my virtual property is a garden where I can take potential clients for quiet chats. Tomorrow, I can load in a conference center. The day after that, a training facility. And if I want a lot of regions up for a while for a big event, I can load up multiple copies of the same facility in minutes. And if I don’t have enough server space, I can put them on Amazon’s EC2 cloud service for only as long as I need them.
  • Megaregions. Thanks to Christa Lopes’ Diva Distro, I can combine four or more regions into a single megaregion. No more border crossing problems, and plenty of space for visitors.
  • Hypergrid. It would be pretty lonely, being on my OpenSim grid all by myself. It would, if it wasn’t for hypergrid teleports. Since last spring, we’ve been able to teleport between OpenSim grids as easily as we teleport between OpenSim regions within a grid. As a result, I can attend meetings — and get furniture for my company — on OSGrid. And pick up a new pair of shoes to go with my new suit on FrancoGrid or the Italian grid Cyberlandia. Now, some companies prefer to keep their grids private. That’s fine, too. In fact, ScienceSim and ReactionGrid have both backed away from hypergrid in the last couple of months. But I don’t mind the public visiting, and I’m not too worried about content theft. After all, most of the intellectual property my company produces is already out there, available for the crooks to steal, in the form of magazine and newspaper articles (and these blog posts). We know how to deal with this.
  • No age limits. This is a major major factor for my company. We have interns working on our grid, including the occasional high school student. Our landscape designer is just 12 years old! We wouldn’t be able to have them visit our facilities if they were in Second Life. We also host occasional networking events for business and professional organizations, one of which has student chapters. Again, Second Life’s age limits are a liability.
  • No dirty stuff. I’m no prude — okay, I’m somewhat of a prude — but I don’t want my employees or clients exposed to salacious material at our place of business. It’s disruptive, it’s distracting, and it could lead to a workplace sexual harassment suit. With my OpenSim grid, I have complete control over the content that’s on my grid. I can also have default avatars that have underwear painted right onto the skins. That way, if my employees do engage in virtual hanky-panky in the virtual supply closet, at least they won’t be doing it naked. And if clothes take a while to download, I won’t have to worry about addressing a client meeting in the nude.
Maria Korolov