Why the fuss about Island Oasis?

Earlier this month, little-known Island Oasis showed up in our survey as the grid with the most satisfied residents.

Now, Island Oasis is tiny — it didn’t even break our top 40 list this month. So it’s not really fair to compare it to other grids, like InWorldz, which also did well in the survey.

But we’ve written about InWorldz before, and about Kitely, and about Avination — but we haven’t written about Island Oasis.

Frankly, it’s because we didn’t know it was there.

Island Oasis residents celebrating the holidays. (Image courtesy Island Oasis.)

Yes, we checked its stats each month — just as we do for some 160 or so other grids — but I didn’t really pay it much attention. It’s just another tiny little start-up grid floating around in metaspace. The only time I remember writing about it is when it rolled out a new currency option a few months back, and that was because it was the first grid to do so. Then, frankly, I forgot all about them again. When they popped up in the survey I had to Google them to find out who they were!

I didn’t even bother listing it as one of the options for folks to choose from. With so few residents, it’s unlikely that they would get votes, anyway.

But its residents — real people, I went out and talked to them — mobilized a write-in campaign for the grid. And not only did they give it the highest marks, but also wrote in reviews about their experience with the grid.

Now, it doesn’t mean that they’re better than the other grids out there. The sample size is too small to know for sure. Plus, you can’t really compare them directly to other grids which may have very different target audiences and expectations. After all, providing service to a few dozen people is very different than providing it to a few thousand. And people expect more from a larger grid.

But it’s still worth investigating.

When I went to Island Oasis, I found a grid full of contradictions. A commercial grid — running out of a home. A grid that puts merchants first, but allows hypergrid teleports and OAR exports. A grid that uses off-the-shelf OpenSim, but has vehicles driving and flying around across multiple regions.

Let’s start with the most contentious topic first.

The merchants and the hypergrid

OpenSim grids typically have to choose between making their merchants happy and locking down all the exits, or allowing hypergrid teleports and OAR exports and enabling the free flow of content between grids.

With the exception of a couple of grids in Germany, it’s mostly been an either-or situation — either you have hypergrid, or you have merchants.

Hypergrid teleports allow users to travel from one grid to another as easily as they travel from one region to another. They still have their avatars. Access to their inventories. They can make friends on other grids, send instant messages across grids, and save hypergrid landmarks. Wonderful, no?

But the danger — as some merchants see it — is that these travelers can also take content from one grid to another. For example, they could take the content to a grid they themselves own and go into the asset database and make themselves the creator of the content, thus by-passing permission settings. Or if they’re a region owner, they can put the content down on their land, then export the entire region as an OAR file — and then give copies to all their friends.

Most commercial grids restrict OAR exports as well, by the way. No point in closing down the hypergate exits, only to have all the content be simply downloaded.

Now, there are ways to have a middle ground. Kitely, for example, only allows items to be saved as part of an OAR file if the user has copy permissions.

And hypergrid teleports can be restricted as well — for example, grids can lock down content so that travelers can’t take anything with them off-grid — not even the clothes on their backs. Outsiders can come in and look — but not touch — and locals can teleport out if they don’t mind a little nudity. Or grids could only allow travel to other trusted grids. For example, Avination and InWorldz could, in theory, set up a hypergrid bridge that allows users to travel between the two grids, and nowhere else. But since InWorldz and Avination are competitors, this isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

So that’s the dilemma Island Oasis faced when the grid was being set up last spring.

The grid owners turned to the merchants for help.

“We had a meeting with all of our store owners, and we let them decide,” said Nicole Oberlin, co-founder and co-owner of the grid. She goes by Sugar Paolino in-world.

“Do we want to do hypergrid?” she asked them.

“This is potentially what could happen,” she said, laying out the risks. “We could make it so the content doesn’t leave.”

But the merchants decided to allow full hypergrid — even allowing their own content to leave the world.

This spinning globe on Island Oasis’ Welcome Village, takes residents to far-off grids like OSGrid and New World Grid.

Because the flip side of content leaving the grid is that before the content leaves the grid, someone has to come to the grid and buy it. Hypergrid allows shoppers from dozens of other grids — including giant worlds like OSGrid — to come and buy virtual goods.

“Our store owners played the biggest part in deciding how we were going to proceed with hypergridding,” she said.

“It was something that would affect them the most,” echoed Karl Dreyer, the other co-founder of the grid. He goes by Damean Paolino in-world. “We also made it clear to them that if it becomes an issue, and they become uncomfortable with it, we would turn off the hypergrid. As of right now, they’re comfortable with it, and we’re comfortable with it.”

Similarly, if resident wants to make a personal backup of regions they’ve built, or download their region so they can move it to another grid, Island Oasis has no problem with that.

“It’s their content,” said Dreyer. “It’s their property. We don’t own their builds or their creations. So I’m comfortable with that.”

Users can also bring in outside OAR files — regions that they’re moving over from another grid like OSGrid, or one of the free starting regions from Linda Kellie.

“I think that’s part of the attraction for new users,” said Island Oasis resident and volunteer mentor John Mossman — known as John Mossman in-world, as well.

It doesn’t hurt that there are no upload fees, he added.

“My partner came over from Second Life and she has been busy building and creating content and its been a boom,” he said. “It was limited with the cost of upload fees in Second Life. But here she was really able to experiment. She’s just enjoying it. It’s so good for people to come here for the first time and be told there are no upload fees — they really love it.”

“The objective is to make them happy enough that they don’t leave,” said Dreyer. “But I believe that I don’t have the right to tell them that they can’t take their own content elsewhere.”

So far, having the hypergrid gates open hasn’t led to a big influx of visitors, he admitted — probably because few people have heard of the grid.

The hypergrid address, by the way, is islandoasisgrid.biz:8002 — just pull up your Map and paste that address into your search field. If you’re within range, Island Oasis will come right up.

A destination worth visiting — the 9/11 memorial on Island Oasis.

“But we do have a lot of our members hypergridding out, and they think it’s fun,” said Oberlin.

The grid has a hypergate set up — in the form of a giant globe — that takes residents to OSGrid, Hypergrid Mall, New World Grid, German Grid, and other destinations. Residents can also type in any address they like into Map and travel directly, without a gate.

Residents can even use the Island Oasis currency — the OMC — to buy products on other OMC-enabled grids. There are over 30 of them so far, including GermanGrid.

“And a lot of people have,” Dreyer said.

One of those frequent hypergrid shoppers is Oberlin herself.

“I think it’s fun,” she said. “I take field trips to the hypergrid. We go there, we shop, and we come back home and show each other what we all got.”

Her favorite places include the Hypergrid Mall, with its collection of freebie stores, OSGrid, which has OMC-enabled shopping destinations.

“If you go to a place on OSGrid that allows OMC, your balance will show [in the top right of the viewer screen] and you’re able to shop,” she said. “If it doesn’t allow OMC, you’ll see a zero balance.”

The cost of the purchases is automatically deducted from the user’s OMC account. This is handled by a third-party, Virwox, one of the largest virtual currency exchanges in Europe. In September, the company announced that it had traded over US$40 million in Linden dollars — that’s 10 billion L$, by the way — so the OMC currency is small potatoes for them by comparison. The company is registered in Austria.

The advantage of the OMC to users, besides being able to spend their money on many different grids, is that if their home grid closed, they wouldn’t lose any of their money. The advantage to grid owners is that they don’t have to deal with the legal or logistical issues of managing a virtual currency.

Owlhouse Footwear is one of the merchants on the Island Oasis grid. (Image courtesy Owlhouse Designs.)

But Island Oasis went a step further than other grids with their OMC currency. They were the first — in October — to roll out the new “OMC Pocket Money” service.

Typically, OMC shoppers have to confirm their purchase on the Virwox website, to guarantee security. Closed grids like Second Life and Avination and InWorldz can afford to skip this step since they know who all their merchants are and restrict access to region servers.

But as a result, this has made shopping less convenient for OMC users. With Pocket Money, users put a certain amount of money into a “pocket” for immediate spending, no confirmation step required. The worst case scenario is that a hacker masquerading as a merchant is able to drain the pocket money — but won’t be able to touch any of the rest of the OMC balance.

I haven’t heard any reports of this happening yet, and grids that allow this sort of behavior risk losing their OMC affiliation. But as the hypergrid grows, so does the potential for mischief, so it’s good to be on the safe side.

“To my knowledge, we’re still the only grid that has it,” Dreyer said.

Vehicles and fishing and combat oh, my

It’s commonly believed that OpenSim physics can’t support vehicles.

Island Oasis runs the standard distribution of OpenSim, and uses the default ODE physics engine.

Island Oasis does run an up-to-date release of OpenSim — mesh, media-on-a-prim and other new features are all supported — but the secret ingredient is in the scripts, said Dreyer.

“We have the same physics engine as any other OpenSim grid out there, but we have really good scripters,” he said. “I have a full-time, on-staff scripter who works with us, and he and I have made the working cars, working bikes, working planes, and boats.”

Dreyer said he tested the Bullet physics engine, but avatars had a tendency to slide off the sim. “I was not impressed with it,” he said. “Until it stabilizes, we’re not going to go with it.”

Yes, that’s an airplane in that car race. (Image courtesy Island Oasis.)

The main difference between vehicles in OpenSim and vehicles in Second Life, he said, is that OpenSim vehicles can’t cross region borders.

Fortunately, megaregions alleviate this problem. A megaregion is a single large region made up out of four, nine, sixteen or even more standard regions — as many as a single server can hold. If the regions are mostly landscape — lots of empty space for car races and sailing regattas — then these megaregions can be even larger.

Since these megaregions act as if they were one big region, there are no border crossings — not for vehicles, and also not for avatars.

As a result, megaregions are popular for school and corporate campuses, and are a default configuration of the popular Diva Distro version of OpenSim as well as of Sim-on-a-Stick.

My first time out in a race car, I crashed into a wall. Those suckers go fast.

There are plenty of other scripted activities for residents to enjoy as well.

Its Special Forces Combat system features fully automatic weapons, grenades and collapsing buildings.

Combat on Island Oasis. (Image courtesy Island Oasis.)

There’s also a fishing game. And the ubiquitous vampire role play.

Domestic hosting

At a time when most grids run their regions on rented servers in data centers, or even in the Amazon cloud, it was a surprise for me to find out that Island Oasis runs out of Dreyer’s house in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Dreyer and Oberlin met in Second Life three years ago, and became a real-life couple. In Second Life, they ran a social club and apartment complexes.

“It was a lot of fun but the land prices just got exorbitant and we couldn’t compete,” Dreyer said. “One of our residents mentioned InWorldz to us and to be totally honest with you, I wasn’t even aware that there were other virtual worlds besides Second Life.”

Dreyer liked what he saw in InWorldz, and considered buying land there, but decided to wait for stability to improve before investing money.

“Then one day, I was at work, and I was reading some articles on your website, and there was an article about Sim-on-a-stick,” Dreyer said. “And I attempted that, and within half an hour I was a simulator running on my USB drive. I was all excited and showed Nicky [Oberlin] and I played around with the configuration and was able to get it so that she could log in from her computer. And I said, ‘We could do this. This is it.'”

Dreyer and Oberlin started Island Oasis with no money, building up slowly.

In January of last year, the grid was up and running, and then the Websites were up and the grid opened to the public in March.

Now, Dreyer isn’t just some random guy who decided to run a grid. He’s got 15 years of IT and software and networking experience.

During the day, he works at Ace Worldwide, a trucking company, where he’s the manager of the programming department.

He’s done business application development, and knows his way around C# — the language OpenSim is written in.

“It didn’t take me a lot to get the software running in a stable environment,” he said.

That stable environment, by the way, is in his house.

“We buy all of our hardware and build it and we host it here,” Oberlin said, who works full time as the Chief Operating Officer on the grid.

Oberlin’s day job includes taking visiting journalists on fishing trips. Wow, I’m short.

The only time Island Oasis goes down is a scheduled hour for backups on Friday mornings — and not even that for much longer, as the asset database is being moved to a dedicated server.

The Internet connection is a “business class” line from Time Warner Cable, Oberlin added.

And, so far, the grid’s concurrency hasn’t exceeded the limitations of that connection.

“We haven’t reached our limit yet,” she said. “We’ve had as many as 40 avatars on at once, that would be our peak. But we’re planning on growing big. When it reaches the point when we’re going to need more bandwidth, then we step up the line to the next business class. And when we get to the point when we’re that big, that’s when we’ll go into an office space that will have fiber going directly into the building.”

The grid also has one server in reserve at all times, she added, to stay ahead of growth.

The cost of a data center is prohibitive for someone who’s starting out without a lot of investment capital, Dreyer explained.

“Even if we were to do colocation hosting and, say, put one of our boxes in a Time Warner data center, it would cost us a considerable amount of money to use their bandwidth and power,” he said. “We’d have to charge more per simulator.”

Currently, a 7,500-prim homestead region goes for $30 a month, and a 15,000-prim full region is $60 a month, both with a $60 setup fee.

This is generally in line with the prices charged by other commercial grids.

Oberlin said Island Oasis also saves money by not leaving empty regions running.

“I’m not here for statistics, I’m here for the members,” she said. “If someone no longer wants a sim, we don’t leave it on the grid, we delete it from the grid.”

“Running a region is taking resources away from active members and active regions,” added Dreyer. “It didn’t seem like a good way of doing things.”

The secrets of Island Oasis

So we’ve got hypergrid access and pocket money, OAR exports, vehicles and combat.

Was there more? Were there other secrets to keeping residents happy that Island Oasis knew — and that other grids could benefit from copying?

It’s not just that they’re a small, cozy grid. There are lots of small grids out there that barely showed up as a blip on our survey — if they showed up at all. It’s not the cheapest grid. But it may well be one of the friendliest grids.

John Mossman chilling on Island Oasis. (Image courtesy John Mossman.)

Many OpenSim grids have welcome areas, and some have mentors or guides ready to greet newcomers, maybe point the way to a freebie store.

“Our mentors here have much higher expectations,” said Dreyer. “They’re required to friend them, give them a welcome folder, walk them to the freebie shop, and then give them a tour of the grid. We take it over and above what some might expect.”

Dreyer himself will readily get up out of bed at 3 a.m. in the morning to restart a crashed sim, he said.

“I’ve been to Second Life, Kaneva, a lot of other worlds,” said Island Oasis land owner Steve Dalton. “And when I came here, what kept me here was the people and the owners who care about the product they put out. Most of the other places, its all about the money and nothing about your experience and how you’re enjoying it. These people care about the product. I hold three sims right now, and will be expanding very soon. I terraform, set them up, and rent them out.”

Island Oasis also tries to avoid nickel-and-dimeing its users. In addition to free uploads, there is also no charge for classified ads.

The grid is currently in the process of rolling out an online directory.

A final word

I don’t personally endorse any grid. Each has its unique benefits, and its own community feel. But folks looking for a welcoming social grid that offers tropical settings, activities, shopping, and hypergrid access wouldn’t be wasting their time checking this one out.

Again, you can teleport in from any hypergrid-enabled grid by pasting islandoasisgrid.biz:8002 into the search field in the Map window. I teleported in from a centrally-located region — at 7000, 7000 — so if you’re coming from a southern grid like JokaydiaGrid you might need to travel to an intermediary region first. Or you can go to the Island Oasis website, create a free account, and log in directly.

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