Friday 29 April 2011

Opensim: Finding open metaverse grids...

With SecondLife in slow decline and the open metaverse growing it is hard to understand why the third party viewer developers are not working to help users find the grids that already exist. Moreover, we know new grids are in preparation and due to come online soon but unless they get the kind of advertising and exposure that Avination  recently got they will be hard pushed to get any notice at all as more and more new grids come on line. What I have argued for in the past is for the third party viewer developers to take a lead and do more with the grid list to help users to find more grids and the operators to gain extra exposure right where it would get the most notice, in the viewer itself.

Linden Lab's own viewer, the much promoted and maligned Viewer 2, has no grid list for obvious reasons. LL are not going to help their competitors but the best known third party viewers do support the grid list. The problem is that, while they do often give support to new server features, they don't actually support the open metaverse by promoting it. Most offer a hand full of pre-configured grids on their list but it is left to the user to add their own favourites and, while it's not that hard to add to the list, many potential recruits to the open metaverse would stumble at this point or just connect to those grids the viewer developers have chosen simply because they don't know of any others. This, of course, leaves out the many grids not favoured and, from what I have been reading, popular viewers like Phoenix are being particularly selective. And worse still, their are viewers being made available by the commercial grids that naturally are biased in favour of their own grid and, perhaps, SecondLife. Once again, competitive interest has lead to a raft of viewers that appear to cold shoulder the rest of the open metaverse.

Now, there can be other reasons to release a viewer like the need to support home grown features on the grid server. However, all viewers are essentially based on Linden Lab's viewer code and will be using the grid list feature first released in the Hippo viewer to support Opensim so it's hard to fathom why viewers like Imprudence, which is targeted at a wider audience, has been so slow to upgrade in the very area that would be most supportive. In fact we now see commercial interests like Kitely bypassing the login process altogether by inviting their customers to download a small application that takes control of their viewer regardless of the make. Kitely  makes it easy just to click a button to activate the user's viewer and log them in to their grid as if it were the only one that existed, SecondLife excluded too.

The old MeerKat grid manager

As far back as January 2010 I asked on the Imprudence forum if they might improve the gird list manager and make it possible for owners to add their grid to a database via a web page so that the viewer automatically populates the grid list. I thought that when users open their viewer they could use a search option either on the login screen or in the grid manager to scan the database in various categories. This, I argued, would keep the grid list up to date and save users having to find grid addresses to add themselves and, at the same time, allow owners to get exposure for their grids by adding them to the listing page on the web possibly with a description and even a logo. How great would that be to open your viewer and search for places to visit?

At the time I posted about this to the Imprudence forum I was told by one of the developers they would look into it later when other, more pressing, work had been done. One year on it hasn't happened but I did see a new post on the forum recently which indicated they were working on it. In response to a request to be added to their grid list a new grid operator, AvWorlds, was told their grid details had been added to a Kokua issue tracker list so they will be included on a new web site that was planned. From what I gathered the viewer will call on the database to keep the viewer list up to date just as I had originally suggested  but this is still in the works and probably will have to wait until the Kokua (SL viewer 2 compatible) viewer is finally released. Even then, the grid list improvements probably will be way down the list of priorities and the list may still not actually be searchable.

From my point of view, and no doubt that of grid operators, a searchable grid list would be the single most helpful advance in third party viewers when it comes to supporting the open metaverse and yet catering to SecondLife users or individual commercial interests still seems to get priority treatment. Imprudence, and MeerKat from the Metaverse Foundation before it, did give support but in recent times Imprudence devs seem to be struggling with uncertain priorities and a degree of burnout. MeerKat, which discontinued, had unique features some of which found their way into the Imprudence viewer but some features got quietly ignored such as the method of teleporting from SecondLife to Opensim grids and back. Even now people will argue that the inter-grid teleport feature is superceded by hypergrid and so it probably is but hypergrid doesn't actually permit teleports to SecondLife. However, with the advancement of Aurora sim and the release of Astra viewer from the team who originally developed MeerKat we are seeing both teams giving some support to Aurora Sim features such as variable sized regions so perhaps Astra devs will look at the grid list again. A really useful feature of it was the ability to store different names and password to associate with different grids.

This is what I mean by mixed priorities though. All third party developers must follow Linden Labs policy on TPVs and, enevitably, they will give priority to new secondLife features in viewer 2 which, unfortunately, was developed by a team of egocentric clowns known as 80/20 whose idea of what a viewer should be was something akin to a web browser and a cluttered mess of popup menus with thumbnails, icons and all manner of pointless gibberish that would appeal to Facebook users - so they hoped. But read how 80/20 saved SecondLife for yourself. Fortunately, the third party viewer developers seem to have heard the universal disaproval for the UI display, even if Linden Labs ignores it,  and are putting in great effort to disentangle the clutter from it. It seems to be getting priority treatment though while features needed by Opensim users are being pushed on the back burner.

I just hope Imprudence and Astra devs will look away from SecondLife for a moment and ask themselves what they can do for Opensim and the free metaverse that would be really helpful. A searchable grid list and stored identities would be something a lot of us would thank them for but I wouldn't hold my breath to see it any time soon.

For a current grid list check this out

Monday 18 April 2011

Kitely: Virtual clouds over deep troubled waters

When I first read about Kitely I thought, what a great idea but the more I looked into it the less sure I became.

Kitely is an Israeli based start-up company financed out of the pockets of it's founders. They are leveraging the user ID system of Facebook to offer cloud-based virtual worlds to it's members and setting up your region is actually pretty easy once you download a small application from their web site. Then, after you login, you simply click a button and the apps calls up your viewer (assuming you have one installed) and you are into your very own region. No need to download anything. No set-up headaches. It's all done for you and you can start building and inviting friends right away.

At first I was reluctant because I didn't want to join Facebook but, apart from Maria of Hypergrid Business 's glowing report all I seem to read were somewhat negative comments about Kitely, mainly centred on the un-signed application and lack of a published TOS statement. But the apparent cheapness (which is probably not so cheap for any more than light use. See my breakdown further on) and it's ease of setup my curiosity got the better of me and I thought, what the hell I can always delete FB after I try Kitley out. So I went ahead and signed up with FB and visited the Kitely web site to download the application. My Norton firewall blocked it straight away because it was unsigned and deemed too new to risk. I had read about this so let it pass my anti-virus and set itself up. I will be absolutely honest now. It all went like a dream!

Kitely web site

First I clicked to enter Maria's sim and my  Imprudence viewer sprang to life called up by the Kitely application. It logged me in with my real life name and the sim rezzed super-quick. It really was happening faster than I expected for an Opensim world. There I stood fully dressed as my new avatar fit to begin my adventure. I started to walk expecting to waddle like a duck but not a bit of it! The sim downloaded an animation to my Imprudence viewer automatically and I was walking normal - perhaps a bit girly but it was a female walk. I toddled off to look around and rezzed a prim box to check that out - no problem, it was fast and efficient. Good stuff I thought and took back the prim (I don't like to litter in someone else's sim) then went to appearance and messed with my shape some to try that out. Fine,,, Perfect.

So, after a while I thought I should really leave now because here I stood for the first time ever with an avatar that bears my real name. What if someone comes along? Yeah, I thought. I best leave and so I did. I returned to the kitely site after closing my viewer and clicked something to get some credits. It told me my Facebook profile was not up to much since I didn't have a picture of myself and 20 real FB friends so all I got was 10 credits instead of the 50 I might have got otherwise. Anyway, so much for that, I clicked to create a sim and, my word! it was ready in, like, seconds or so it seemed. Up came my viewer and I was logging into my new Kitely sim.

Gaga at Maria's world pretendng to be a real world person

I was really quite excited even though I was now standing in the middle of a vast sea on a tiny island. But it was mine and I had gained it so quick I was just left dumb-struck. I just felt this whole thing was marvelous! So now I thought I would raise some land and try that out before doing a bit of quick building. I raised the land very quickly. It was not sluggish or jerky. Up it came and I smoothed it off but, before I could drop a prim on it, Bang! The viewer closed and that was that. I returned to the Kitely site and tried to re-open it in case I had just crashed but it told me my region had been suspended for lack of credits. Ten don't go far.

Having lost my credits and no way to buy any I thought to look at the Feedback which would be the start of my troubles. I saw a comment mentioning the same problems I had just come up against, lack of credits, no pic, no friends. And yet, the nice Mr Ilan was saying no problem, sorry about that, here is 600 credits so you can go right back and finish your trial. Let me have some of that, I thought! And posted a request. Now, what happens is Kitely uses a system for comments and feedback called "Get Satisfaction". Up came a box, I typed my request and it gave me choices of user ID. Now, with hindsight I should have click Facebook but usually with comment boxes it picks up my Google ID and I am so used to that I clicked to accept Google without really thinking. Big mistake! The damn thing posted my comment in my avatar name - Gaga Gracious!

I realized my mistake immediately and deleted the comment then went into a bit of a panic because I knew I might have connected my avatar name to my Facebook real ID, and so I had because when I checked my Google profile it suddenly showed my home location. I removed that and took my real picture off any profile I had it on in a flurry of activity trying desperately to cover my tracks, and all the while cursing Facebook.

Next I returned to Get Satisfaction to be sure that comment had been deleted and it immediately recognized me as Gaga. So I went off to dig around on the Get Satisfaction site to try an close the account. I got up the profile created for me and found I was due to receive daily emails from them. I clicked that off then thought to myself, this is outrageous! Get satisfaction had taken my Google ID, my email address and created an account with spam emails set on by default. So then I found a comment thread where some 90 people were asking to have their account closed. In fact, you can't close the account, you have to post a request and hope an admin dose it manually for you.

To cut the story short I am pleased to say the nice Mr Ilan got in touch and promised they would make updates to address the problems I encountered. He also said they would work on other ways to access Kitely that didn't involve Facebook so I have to thank Kitely for that and, well, as they said, it's a pre-beta test release and they value the feedback. Perhaps they should have foreseen the kind of problems I faced rather than giving themselves the task of damage limitation addressing these issues after the event answering a host of blog and forum complaints.

I can not fault the Kitely product in itself from what I have seen though. Few times have I ever entered an Opensim world and not experience problems or varying degrees of lag, as well as things taken for granted in SecondLife that just don't work on Opensim worlds but given that Opensim is still officially alpha code we have become use to it's failings while it continues to improve. Kitely manages to deliver a sim in super quick time and it runs very well. However, I don't personally think it will come that cheap if put to regular use on a daily basis. The way it works is that your region is called from the Amazon cloud and activated anytime you or a visitor wishes to access it and then it starts to cost you money. It costs you $0.20 for every user hour which doesn't sound a lot but adds up if you spend as much time as I do in my Opensim region or SecondLife (virtual worlds for people like me are very addictive!). I mean around 30 to 40 hours a week just for me! Even this though is not too bad on my own since it adds up to just $8 at most per week which is $32 a month and yet, if I am just working on content, I can still get a sim connected to OSgrid for as little as $10 a month. So now add a little traffic, say as many user hours again for casual visitors, and the cost has doubled. but, it's still not a lot of people.

Now, lets get serious and try to use a region to run a club or mall. Or maybe a role play game with players dropping in for averages of four hours every day. Multiply that by ten which makes a smallish game and the cost would quickly spiral upward. For example, in SL there is a general practice for role play sims to associate where one will send a raiding party to attack another sim (all done in the spirit of role play of course) and the raided sim returns the raid at a later time. This, typically, can involve as many as ten or more players fighting it out for some time but it may even end up involving captures and return negotiations to free prisoners. You think that doesn't happen? Well, I am involved in role play and I promise it dose, and, what's more, it can get even more involved on busy successful regions.

Charting the costs...
  • Small store or home: 5 users clocking 50 hrs per week = $40 a month.
  • Medium store or venue: 20 users clocking 200 hrs per week = $160 a month.
  • Large store or club/RPG: 40 users clocking 400 hrs per week = $320 a month.
  • Busy large store, club/RPG: 60 users clocking 600 hrs per week = $480 per month.

On the large store figure you are close to the monthly tier charge of  SecondLife  regions but I can't deny the fact that Linden Labs will charge that fee regardless if your sim sits empty or not. With Kitely you pay for what you use and that's it. Moreover, you don't have to find the $1000 setup fee LL charges so it's added value. Of course it could get more expensive than SL which doesn't seem likely but imagine regular spikes in traffic if you are running a music and dance venue. 60, 70 and 80 users, if Kitely can actually handle that sort of load, could start to clock a lot more hours and one would hope you are making serious money from the traffic to make it worth while.

On all the charges down to the Medium store figure you are still going to be better off in one of the established Opensim grids.  InWorldz will charge $75 a month and  Avination, $60. Even  Meta7 at $105 is still cheaper than Kitely on those user numbers and you wont be paying any setup fees in most Opensim grids either so Kitely looses that as a bonus to it's customers. And, in the short term at least, Opensim grids can offer more support since they have established customer services already and considerable content available not to mention established communities and well built sims and venues to visit.

For light use I definately think Kitely can offer a cost effective and valuable service given the speed and ease with which it is delivered. Typically, I think Facebook people might enjoy having the benefit of a virtual home they can fix up to their taste and have friends visit on occasion rather than relying on forums and text-based chat rooms, or even video conferencing, voice and web cam. Being able to walk  about virtually and emote realistic actions such has hugging, kissing and, well yes, even simulated sex too. I am not convinced though the vast majority of people can visualize themselves in the virtual setting let alone having any form of sexual encounter that way, or even manage the learning curve or embrace virtual worlds as anything more than a novelty. SecondLife has been around for near on ten years. It is perhaps the best known virtual world and yet it has never gained the kind of user base that Facebook has in half the time. Even now, SecondLife gets up to 10,000 hits a day on their web site and many do try it briefly so they are getting the people through. My view is that if the masses really wanted to use virtual worlds then SecondLife has been high profile enough for long enough to have attracted them and it hasn't so why should Kitely succeed where Linden Labs have so far failed?

Perhaps the short answer is that Facebook is basically a web site that offers a useful service. It doesn't require a viewer download or present any technical difficulty to the average person. Facebook provides a service to people engaged in real world activity. The vast majority are just that; real-world people happily net-working in that mind set. Now that is not to say some can't or wont try virtual worlds but the fact is the vast majority know about them but haven't bothered to any great extent. Perhaps it all comes down to mind set anyway. The majority want to socialize and make contacts in the real world while a significant number will happily play in challenge-based virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft purely in a gaming mind set just as others will prance about in front of their Kinect or Wii screen at home. In contrast virtual worlds like SecondLife probably only really appeal to people that live in their minds anyway. Call them actors or the true avatars if you like. I don't think the masses could or would ever want to see themselves as anything other than a real person in a real world.

For those real world people who might venture into virtual worlds given the ease of Kitely they probably wont have the intense interest or dedicated a serious user might have but I am sure they might have more modest needs so I guess the cost might not be so bad for them. Perhaps an occasional business meeting or for schools and collages it might be cost-effective too but I don't go with the argument a Kitely sim would be great for content makers to use as a secure workshop since people with that level of knowledge and dedication to virtual worlds are probably already using sim on a stick or have Opensim on their computer to use securely and at no cost at all. For others Opensim is already cheap enough since you can get a hosted region connected to OSgrid for as little as $10 a month and it's always up and can even be a cheap to run showcase for your work or even a store selling your stuff. In any event I think most would rather know what their bill is going to be from one month to the next and, since Kitely charges for time and user numbers, there is no way to be certain what your bill could be but that's not to say it wont appeal to vendors selling clean PG-rated stuff. Kitely, you see, is tied into the user TOS of the registration processes they leverage and, in Facebook, that excludes Adult content. But, lets face it, mature and adult content is a major part of virtual worlds and their trade.

We have seen Kitely has already nailed it's policy position to the mast while not yet producing a full TOS statement. Currently, like Blue Mars that has largely failed, Kitely has banned mature content. On the other hand, SecondLife is more advanced and has market lead including a degree of tolerance for mature content and a huge content base in place. It is already well known Linden Labs has it's eye on the Facebook minions. It would take very little for Linden Labs to upstage Kitely since all they need is a similar plug in to launch the viewer and LL is in a good position to strike while the iron is hot too. SecondLife has existing traffic, a large user group on Facebook and a viewer that has been re-worked (much to the annoyance of the majority of existing residents) to appeal to Facebook people. And, lets face it, what Kitely boils down to is a cloud server farm and a plug in to launch a viewer which still has to be downloaded anyway!

Would Linden Labs serve sims from a cloud? Hell yes, I'm sure they would if the potential revenue generated looked like it was worth it. I mean, how long would it take LL to develop a plug in given their huge financial resources? I doubt for one minute that LL has not taken a look at Kitely's methods and business model. Nor do I think other Opensim hosting business' are blind to Kitely's operation either. SpotOn3D and Sim-OnDemand have been serving sims from a cloud for some time as well.

I think Kitely has a lot of work to do - and learn even - so perhaps I am judging them harshly but I think they are demonstrating a degree of naivety if they think their policy of shutting out mature content and forcing disclosure of identity will work for them. Kitely is another walled garden that just happens to use Facebook member identity and boldly imposes their own values on potential customers. In that sense they have gone one step further than Linden Labs who still allow alias names in place of real names and thereby actively guards people's privacy. Anyone that is aware of the furore generated by the Red Zone controversy in SecondLife will know right away that many people in virtual worlds have more than one alt name and, for the most part, do so for legitimate reasons - often simply differing role play characters. It's actually a common thing in virtual worlds and it's taken as an assault on privacy if anyone attempts to link alts to a single IP address or a real world name.

SecondLife was not built on any notion of social networking. It was built on the art of making virtual content for money that served all comers with both passive and mature content. This included also a lot of escort venues, red light clubs, BDSM, etc, etc, and some seriously aggressive role play thrown in while making it possible to create a degree of realism that made it interesting and enjoyable. That's why there is a viewer called Restrained Life and the Emerald viewer was so successful with it's bouncing boobs feature. A lot of what SecondLife is about is pure unashamed erotic escapism and even Linden Labs has tried to curtail it some after they started letting kids on the main grid and putting feelers out to the FaceBook community but, while it might be making some headway into FaceBook territory, it is loosing people to Opensim grids which, to put it frankly, are leaving SL because they are sick of LL's ever more restrictive Terms & Conditions. That is to say, paying high prices to Linden Labs and being controlled by the perceived values that suit their current business model.

People want freedom. Not to abuse it although a tiny minority always will regardless of your TOS policy. People can have more freedom by running their own server and sims and, with hypergrid, they can still be connected and not isolated behind garden walls paying good money and lip service to someone elses values. This is what Kitely is going to come up against and it wont be limited to that either. They will need content sellers and the best still resist leaving SecondLife while those that have, well, yes, many sell mature content!

Opensim is still not out of alpha and yet Kitely appears to be selling it as beta software fit for use on a par with SecondLife and established Opensim grids, most of which are advancing the software to improve stability. Teleports are, as yet, impossible and so too are border crossings because their apps is forcing a by-pass of the viewer login process which means there is no grid as such, just a collection of standalones called from the Amazon cloud. Presently they demand fall identity disclosure through FaceBook, picture of self and 20 real friends. And they don't allow mature content. Add to all that the possibility of running up a huge bill while your not looking and I have to say I don't think it will work out that well for more than light use. But, in all honesty, it is too early to tell and I think the jury is still out.