Why my autism project left ReactionGrid

[Editor’s note: We encourage groups using virtual worlds to tell us about their experiences — both good and bad — in order to educate the public about this new industry segment, and to encourage platform and hosting vendors to improve their services. If you would like to contribute a review, please contact us at editor@hypergridbusiness.com.]

In April of 2011, I canceled my subscription to ReactionGrid. The reason why I selected ReactionGrid and the reason why I canceled my subscription are the same –services offered and customer support.

I do volunteer work for the autism community, and among the projects that I am developing is the use of OpenSim as a virtual world for people who have an autism diagnosis. There is an active autism community in Second Life, but most members cannot afford to own land due to the high monthly tier costs. There are also parental concerns about younger people with autism being in the unmonitored areas of Second Life that may have a high sexual content.

To start my grid, I received a grant from a local autism organization to pay for six months of hosting, and I volunteered my time to work out the bugs for group members. I registered a domain and developed a specification which I provided to Kyle Gomboy at ReactionGrid. Simply stated, I needed to have all the functionality of Second Life working in OpenSim to create a useful forum for the autism community. In addition, I needed a logon website which would provide simple avatar creation, currency exchange, a way to see who is already in-world, and email verification to assure autism diagnosis. Once logged on, I needed voice communication, the ability to purchase items in-world, and the ability to transport to other grids so that we didn’t need to create every item and every script ourselves. Providing hypergrid transport became the stumbling block for ReactionGrid.

A typical hypergate connecting one OpenSim grid to another.

I selected ReactionGrid because I believed that a commercial grid would be able to get the functionality I needed working quickly. If I had the website and grid working, I could start inviting members so that the grid could pay for itself. Prior to starting the project, I had an extensive email exchange with Kyle Gomboy where I provided him a list of the features that I needed. He assured me that all of the functionality I needed would be possible with ReactionGrid. On launching my grid, I spoke with Kyle and received a one hour phone tutorial covering backup and restoring Sims and setting user rights. I was struck by how manual managing a grid still is, requiring that commands be typed into one of four text-based windows. I was also surprised that I needed to manually edit the underlying database for user rights management. OpenSim is in an earlier state of alpha than I had understood. At the end of our conversation, Kyle told me that the tutorial he gave me was more than he gave most customers. Retrospectively, I should have canceled my subscription on that day.

What I came to understand is that ReactionGrid primarily rents server space, and OpenSim is just a preinstalled application that they provide. Their expectation is that you will be able to manage your own grid without assistance. When ReactionGrid failed to supply a logon web site for my users, I attempted unsuccessfully to use Microsoft’s application installer to load WordPress onto my ReactionGrid server. I heard about Simon Gutteridge, an OpenSim consultant who runs PioneerX Estates. He installed WordPress so I could build at least a minimal site, and he was able to provide a hypergate for me to use in-world.  Simon explained that since ReactionGrid was still using OpenSim version 0.6.9, I could only transport to locations that had not yet upgraded to 0.7.0. Since most other grids had already upgraded to 0.7.0, this meant that I could only transport to one other grid in the list that I had.

I felt that if I had even a month or two of hypergrid transport working before my grant ran out, this would be enough to build an impressive demonstration world. I repeatedly asked the people at ReactionGrid when they would upgrade to a later version of OpenSim, and waited while their upgrade estimate went from January to March 2011. In March, I contacted ReactionGrid again, through their help site MetaverseHeroes.com. I was told that due to a problem with the integration of their billing system, the upgrade to OpenSim 0.7.0 was going more slowly than expected.

While waiting, my builders and I experienced several in-world mishaps. One large structure exploded into hundreds of disjointed parts while being moved. Due to ReactionGrid’s limited backup and restore ability, this structure needed to be manually rebuilt. We also had a problem where the gaps between the regions allowed avatars to fall thousands of meters before being suddenly transported to the other side of the sim. We built in-world walkways over these gaps to prevent this from happening.

Nine months into my subscription, ReactionGrid still had not yet upgraded to OpenSim 0.7.0, although 0.7.1 was by then available. I still did not have a working hypergrid transport or integrated website. My time was up and my funding ended after a three-month extension. I backed up my sims to OAR files and I canceled my subscription with ReactionGrid.

I am surprised that ReactionGrid is making their customers wait for upgrades when it is likely that OpenSim will reach full adoption in five years or less. At the moment, OpenSim is in the development phase where the technology is hard enough to maintain that it is offered as a service. As the technology becomes more stable, OpenSim will become another standard web application with a single-click installation and upgrades. When full adoption of OpenSim occurs, there will be much less need for companies like ReactionGrid. History has shown that the companies that survive these kinds of transitions develop enough infrastructure to have consistent customer service.

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