Thursday 17 October 2013

Walking With Avatars in Virtual Reality

Recently I posted a topic about virtual reality headsets and glasses to Opensim Virtual, the Google Plus community pages for sharing information about the free Metaverse and said I would certainly prefer these rather more stylish glasses illustrated on the cover of Clyde DeSouza book, MAYA  than the
present Oculus Rift head set, and wouldn't it be nice, I added, if it was equipped to read the wearer 's brain wave patterns to enable hands free keyboard and mouse functions? Well, it so happens that brain wave readers, or Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have been around as long as those old cumbersome head sets used from the 1980's onward to explore virtual reality. Even back then great big expensive embedded electroencephalograph (EEG) readers were used in the laboratory to send neurofeedback to equally expensive mainframe computers for analysis. But now there are relatively cheap head sensors and software that could be adapted to work with the Oculus Rift and the other new headsets in development.

Emotiv Insight, developed by Vietnamese emigre, Tan Lee and funded by a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign raising $1,643,117 recently, is a "sleek, multi-channel, wireless headset that monitors your brain activity and translates EEG into meaningful data you can understand" according to the makers. It is expected to start shipping in early 2014 and will be compatible with Android, iOS, Mac, Linux and Windows Platforms. The company will also be supplying an API and SDK for developers and researchers.

Picture Credit: Emotiv Insight
Basically, the Emotiv Insight can do exactly what I thought would solve the problem of hands free control while experiencing virtual reality. You just train the Emotiv Insight by thinking and making facial movements. The makers say, "the brainwear can understand and decipher basic mental commands. It can detect commands such as push, pull, levitate, rotate and even commands that are harder to visualize such as disappear. It also detects facial expressions such as blinks, winks, frown, surprise, clench and smile."

Couple all this with advanced haptic devices such as Fundawear, the high-tech vibrating underwear developed by the Condom manufacturer Durex which stimulates intimate parts of the body at the touch of a button, and you have all that is needed to engage in long-distance relationships over the Internet in a shared virtual setting.

In the novel mentioned above, MAYA, the author refers to Dirrogates, or Mesh-clad digital surrogates inhabiting a virtual space. They are not really the same as the characters from Neuromancer by William Gibson who where cybernetically enhanced humans that could "jack in" to cyberspace and when you consider some of the technology I am discussing here you can't escape the cross over between what is real and what is virtual. I mean, some of the headsets do actually allow one to mix realities in that the real world is overlayed on the virtual to whatever degree the wearer chooses and we, as 
Movie: Neuromancer. Credit: Interplay
users of the technology, will be closer to Molly Millions of Neuromancer fame than the Dirrogates of MAYA. We are perhaps more familiar with the term "avatar" though which we use to represents ourselves when we don a Rift and an Insight sensor to experience virtual reality. Whether we are able or disabled we would now be able to interact on equal terms with anyone, anywhere in the world. We could work, live and play and even experience sexual pleasures with the aid of devices like Fundawear and, to some degree, a certain level of danger and shock horror too. With mind control, advanced visuals and haptic devices we can indeed sit back and inhabit the Matrix.

This all holds out exciting possibilities for virtual worlds like Open Simulator or the many others. Opensim is, in my view, well placed and already feature rich enough to take full advantage of the virtual reality equipment that is fast becoming available and, moreover, anyone can pick it up and start to use it in anyway they want. No doubt, the online sex industry will take a lead and why not? Second Life was built on Adult themes. Educationalist that have flocked to Opensim since Linden Lab canceled the discounts they enjoyed may not approve of adult entertainment in Opensim grids but they lived with it in Second Life for years and had no control at all. At least with Opensim they can exercise a level of control unheard of in Second Life so they can isolate themselves much easier from it.

The future looks exciting!

The march of technological advancement is relentless and, judging by the truly amazing stuff in development mentioned above it remains only for me to list some of the headsets starting with the one's I think hold out the most promise...

Former Valve engineers Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson have launched a KICKSTARTER campaign to fund development of the castAR, a 3D augmented and virtual reality headset. The castAR system bridges the gap between the physical world and the virtual world. The final retail glasses are expected to weigh less than 100 grams, which is only slightly heavier than a pair of 
Credit: Technical Illusions

sunglasses, and requires no calibration or adjustment. If you wear prescription glasses, castAR is designed to sit easily on the outside of them. The aim of the designers is to make castAR the most versatile head-mounted display available. They also offer an attachment that transforms castAR into a true virtual reality system as well as a true augmented reality system. Whichever reality you prefer, there is now a single system capable of taking you there, they claim. The company, Technical Illusions, launched the KICKSTARTER campaign to raise $400,000 and it has already gained 1,086 backers pledging $260,821 with 30 days still to go at the time of writing this.

The castAR system has been quietly in development for the past 18 months while Oculus Rift has enjoyed the limelight. However, castAR looks more sophisticated and, together with other headsets about to come onto the market in the new year the Oculus Rift team might be hard pushed to maintain their present lead. In any event I should watch this space because Linden Lab, owners of the Second Life virtual world, are keen to support Oculus Rift according to CEO Rod Humble and maybe are looking for a project to buy up themselves. Linden Lab has been busy diversify their product range in the past few years since Humble took over and has released a number of video games as well as adding video game development features to Second Life. They have also bought up Desura, the game distribution site and my guess is they would surely like a virtual reality headset to add to their product range as well.

Not to be out done a bunch of students have demonstrated yet another virtual reality system which uses Oculus Rift together with PlayStation Move for positional tracking and Razer Hydra for in-game control. However, the weight load is high as demonstrated by Richard Mitchell at IndieCade 2013. "All the components are self-contained with a backpack and a helmet," he said,
Credit: Richard Mitchell
posting to joystiq, "meaning there are no wires to trip you up, allowing you to actually 'walk' inside of virtual space. I took Project Holodeck for a spin," he went on, "trying my hand at some virtual zombie slaying, and the experience was certainly unique." So, the system needs a backpack, a helmet with huge post device on top which I'm sure dirty minds out there will find amusing, and finally Oculus Rift to provide the viewer experience.

However, as I said, there are more headsets in the running now and Maria Korolov, writing in Hypergrid Business, has listed a number including Durovis Dive, which offers 3D Virtual Reality Gaming on a Smartphone, Eyedak vrAse who also ran a KICKSTARTER campaign to raise $55,000 back in August.

Avegant which, they say, "your eyes no longer have to focus for themselves the gadget does it all for you." According to Avegant CEO Ed Tang, this effectively mitigates the problem of eye strain, and makes the device easier to wear for extended periods of time.
Credit: VUZIX

Finally, Maria lists three others which are aesthetically more pleasing but appear to lack the functionality that makes a true virtual reality headset. These include Sony HMZ-T3 Personal Viewer, Vuzix Wrap 1200AR, and the Zeiss Cinemizer OLED.


If the free Metaverse takes your interest then find out more at Google Plus Opensim Virtual

Saturday 28 September 2013

Who the hell owns Second Life anyway?

In light of yet another Second Life TOS change which gives Linden Lab absolute rights to take content uploaded by their resident/customers and do with as they please for ever, it comes as no surprise to me that there has been a shock wave of protest working it's way across the Metaverse. I reported recently on Opensim Virtual that, CGTextures, which used to allow their free textures to be used in Second Life has now withdrawn license to do so and now Renderosity, another free textures site, has issued the same ban (read here). The Second Life forums are buzzing with complaint and the protesters are calling for content creators to turn their regions pitch dark!

    Renderosity follows CG Textures and bans 
uploads of their textures and models to Second Life

Shava Nerad, a well known Second Life content creator posted a topic to Google plus "Dear Linden Lab -- it's been a nice eight years but you just broke the social contract with me as a creator in Second Life. BG TIME." The full text and many comments expressing disgust at the Lab's TOS change can be read here but Shava Nerad ends the topic with...

"What in the world are you thinking, taking my stuff like this?

We should be dumping tea in your harbor.

No, never, mind.  We should just pick up our toys, and leave.  It's not worth it any more.  So sad.


Oddfellow Studios has gone pitch dark, with nothing but a notecard giver with this essay on it.

I encourage other creators to turn their sims dark too, nothing but black and a notecard giver explaining the new TOS and why we have left nothing behind but a protest.

You really blew it."

Tuna Oddfellow has announced his studio will open a sim at Inworldz grid and urges other content creators to do the same. On New World Notes a hot debate rages too and other SL residents are declaring their intention to leave. It has to be said though there are die hard's fighting off the discontented rants with apologetic comments of their own in support of Linden Lab while making outright attacks on Opensim. However, the fact remains that Opensim grids, which are of course free of Linden Lab TOS and more tuned to Creative Commons licensing, are not being included in the ban imposed by CGTextures and Renderosity.

Will Burns writing on his blog, ANDROMEDA Media Group has also joined the protest and laid into Rodvik Humble - CEO of Linden Lab - and puts the blame squarely on him, calling him Gaming Jesus as he rants, "Ever since Gaming Jesus took the wheel at Linden Lab, it’s been insult after mockery to everything that Second Life actually is and the community that literally helped create it. Every step of the way proclaiming he 'gets it' when in reality he doesn't have the single foggiest idea what the hell it is that Second Life represents or how to work within that ecosystem."

Whether Humble actually cares about Second Life or was brought in to get the community under control - given his reputation at EA - and re-focus LL as a video games company is not easy to say for sure but it dose look like the Second Life community that created just about everything but the platform itself is just being dictated to by the changes in TOS. Certainly, I think there is a method in all this madness and I think Will Burns nails it somewhat when he mentions that Humble sees "a mountain of content, services and millions of years of man-hours put into the creation of a virtual environment that would have taken arguably billions of dollars had an in-house design team been charged to create it all." So, with that in mind, what was Linden Lab's latest acquisition?

Yes, they recently bought up their own indie distribution site Desura to rival Steam from Valve whom they initially flirted with. It was thought to be an odd pairing considering mod-friendly Desura which brought mods developed with player-created content and turned them into commercial video games such as Guncraft, but maybe not. "We're looking forward to growing both Desura's global community of gamers and its fantastic portfolio of thousands of games, mods, and other content," said Rod Humble in Linden Lab’s press release at the time. 

One might be forgiven for thinking Linden Lab is genuinely trying to improve the lot of residents in Second Life and get the economy growing again with new opportunities related to their expansion into video gaming but, really, I suspect it is just about the Lab's own bottom line at the end of the day because, despite the controversy, they say they are happy with the TOS changes and have not said anything to clarify what the intentions might be regarding the Desura acquisition and how it might affect Second Life. I mean, why would they change the TOS now right after acquiring Desura and give themselves total rights over the community's property for ever? Why did they feel the need to do that or was it just something the Lab planners did without any regard for the that troublesome community who really owns the content?

So who really owns Second Life anyway?

That is not easy to answer actually but anyway, Linden Lab owns the platform, the infrastructure and all web sites and applications software, and name undoubtedly. They own the company of course but the resident/customers made the bulk of the content, built the environment and gave it all the entertainment if offers. They own license, so we thought, to all the textures they uploaded, the mesh models and all the scripts they wrote to make things work. And the third party suppliers like CGTextures, Renderosity and a host of others all own copyrights on stuff being uploaded to Second Life so you could say the internal fabric itself is not owned by Linden Lab and the whole thing should be looked upon as a partnership between the resident community and the Linden Lab corporation and yet that is not the way the Lab or Mr Humble appears to see it. Granted, they have confirmed in one of their "no name" posts that the residents own their copyrights and are licensed to distribute their creations on the Second Life grid but they then changed the TOS without a by your leave and now we find Linden Lab has taken the right to use all that content in what ever way they choose for ever without having to pay the creators anything at all. And, presumably, they can sell all these rights with the company if they want to.

You, the creators of Second Life are not the owners. Get use to it! Morally, you might be but you agreed to the TOS when the Lab said they can change it any time they wish and in any way they wish so you see, you had to sell out just to get onto the platform. End of story.

Well, not quite the end of the story. There are always alternatives and the obvious one that is compatible with Second Life is Open Simulator or Opensim.

So who owns Opensim then?

The Opensim virtual worlds are almost clones of Second Life, the similarities are that close. Most of what works in Second Life works in Opensim grids and looks pretty much the same. But there are notable differences too like the fact Opensim grids are designed to connect with each other via the Hypergrid protocol which permits teleport's from one server instance to another thus forming a Metaverse of privately owned worlds all freely associating with one another in a global community unlike Second Life which is a monopoly owned by Linden Lab. Something else that is notably different and of special interest to us here is that the TOS - which the grid owners have to write for themselves. They are not subject to the Second Life TOS and the platform software is free to use under very liberal license terms granted by the Overte Foundation which is a non-profit organization that manages contribution agreements for the Open Simulator project. The Opensim license grants permission to use the platform code to create both private or commercial worlds and allows one to change the code without any obligation to contribute your code back. Thus, anyone can take the code and build their own simulator. Educators effectively had Opensim forced on them when, in another policy change, Linden Lab withdrew discounts to education and none-profits and what they discovered was that they can protect students better than trusting LL and the US army likes the security the platform offers too. And for Merchants the new export perm will allow them to control where their products end up as well. There are lots of reasons to use Opensim and the low price point is just the obvious one.

I think one can safely say that the free Metaverse is owned by its community right from the foundation code up. Individuals and companies might build on it but no one company can claim rights over everything as Linden Lab has done with Second Life. Yes, a company can keep code secret and build a community behind closed borders based on the Second Life model but no one grid in the Metaverse has managed to grow bigger than the connected grids as a whole. So, having said all that, I would finally say the community really dose own Opensim.

Friday 30 August 2013

Extreme Adult Virtual Reality, Oculus Rift & Opensim

It would appear that Oculus Rift has attracted the adult sex industry, which could be taken as a sign that this new technology is definitely going to become big. Sex sells and without it Second Life would probably not have done so well as it did. In fact, the adult section of SL still does appear to be the grid's main growth area while it steadily loses regions otherwise. On the other hand the free Metaverse is not attracting much in the way of adult grids yet but maybe Oculus Rift will help change all that in the near future as Opensim develops further and wily entrepreneurs realize the low cost and other advantages of Opensim to bring immersive virtual sex games to the adult market online.

Sinful Robot, which has become Wicked Paradise for Oculus Rift is one such game and is set in a world where all erotic fantasies are lived in the virtual at a much deeper physiological level due to the highly immersive nature of the technology. Opensim has features which, if properly exploited, could serve the adult trade in a variety of useful ways. Opensim has NPC (none-player characters) for example which are actually proving to be very effective with scripted AI giving them a life of their own. They are cloned from existing avatars so are indistinguishable from other avatars in the scene and, as sexual partners in an erotic fantasy,  NPC's could be adapted for erotic purposes with very little extra work. In deed, NPC avatars might actually be more appealing to guys who worry over the true gender of the online partner they just met in a virtual world. They know, at least, the NPC words and actions are just pre-coded responses to what the user is saying and doing.

Oculus Rift is funded by a very successful KickStarter campaign
to the tune of $2,437,429 when the original
goal was just $250,000.

Van den Bosch, the man behind Wicked Paradise has said Storyline is very important. he told Oculus-Rift blog "We want to generate erotic tension between the player and the virtual characters. You need a solid storyline in order to achieve that. It will be a modern day setting, I think the best way to describe is like an adult version of Heavy Rain but completely designed for virtual reality." Van den Bosch let it be known he has wanted to bring an adult game to the market for a long time "but in the past playing strip poker with Japanese robots was as good as it got." he said. He noticed that there is a lot of fantastically crafted shooters so why not a well-designed adult video game? he thought, and it was when he got to test a very early prototype of the Oculus Rift which, he told OculusRift blog, "blew me away. I immediately realized that Virtual Reality is the perfect medium for a highly immersive adult videogame."

Linden Lab let it be known earlier this year they want to support the Rift and enable the technology in their viewer which might happen later but CtrlAltStudio’s David Rowe, an independent virtual worlds developer, has already released a forked version of Firestorm viewer for owners of the per-release development Kits to experience Second Life and Opensim worlds. However, Rowe told Hypergrid Business blog there are presently some limitations to overcome. "because users are wearing a headset," he said, "they can’t see their keyboard. Asking them to use arrow keys to move around is simple enough, but if they need to type, or enter keyboard shortcuts, it can be hard to do blind." Touching objects is also an issue and, because the viewer uses arrow keys to move, this presents some slight difficulty with the Rift which uses mouselook to change the viewing direction.

Whether the adult use of Rift will find serious use in Opensim worlds is impossible to say at this stage but a lot also hangs on the quality of scripted objects in Opensim like sex beds and toys, and also personal wearables like slave collars, leashes and cuffs which form such a huge part of adult activity in Second Life. Up until recently scripted sex objects in Opensim were still troublesome and lacking the polish found on the Linden grid but there has been a lot or improvements in Opensim in the last year or so and the LSL functions are pretty much complete while Opensim also has it's own scripting functions in the form, OSSL scripting and more specialized functions for NPC's in the form OSSLNPC. In fact, Opensim NPC's are arguably more advanced than anything that Second Life has and users are making considerable headway with AI and ALICE bot to give the NPC'very life-like responses. I have bot's that dance on request and will hold a limited conversation and even recognize your avatar's gender provided you wear a simple HUD which the NPC can communicate with to obtain basic information. It will even remember you and your name if you tell it to the bot. It will also recognize some or your actions provided you use the "/me" function to describe them. I have one bot serving at a bar and another at a table who can actually activate a table function so a drink of choice - the drink you asked for -  will appear. When the drink appears it can be touched and a copy is delivered to your inventory so you can wear it on the hand to simulate drinking, thus completing the picture. It doesn't take a big leap of the imagination to envisage much more sexual activity or even something like a casino croupier dealing the cards and taking bets.

Wicked Paradise will be heavily influenced
by the erotic nature of the
Mass Effect videogame series.
Van den Bosch is developing an adult video game which has predefined aims and goals to arrive at some form of sexual gratification for the user and undoubtedly Opensim NPC bot's could do all that and look good too with mesh skins and clothes but Opensim, like Second Life, is much closer to social media than a video game. Generally, there are no predefined goals in virtual worlds and most things happen on the fly. People meet, socialize, possibly role play, then might engage in cyber sexual activity for which the Rift can add a deeper, more immersive experience. Presumably, some individuals can get close to a pretty NPC bot too. However, to date, attempts to get adult grids going in the Opensim worlds has not been greatly successful. Some have come and gone and most recently at least one Gay community opened Virtual Gay Kingdom and a femdom community, Avalonia Estate Grid where strong women dominate willing male slaves. There is also the moderately successful, Littlefield Grid  which started out in OSgrid and the owner, Walter Balazic still has portal regions there. Littlefield is a BDSM community and stands as an example of development by getting involved with the wider Metaverse community. This is how you get more traffic and, while Second Life can and does provide a steady trickle of the curious which helps to swell the numbers, it would probably help a new adult grid to spend money on serious advertising on the net with targeted Google adds and advertising on the forums and social media that virtual worlds users tend to frequent.

Opensim is open source and so it is completely free to use but traffic will not come to your grid without you expend considerable effort in promotion and expense in advertising. But there are clear advantages in using Opensim and not just it's low cost. It is free from Linden Lab's Terms & Conditions which rule Second Life and has become increasingly restrictive. You set your own Terms or TOS and if you enable Hypergrid access the latest Opensim server code ensures avatars can travel from one grid to another with their full appearance. You will gain visitors and you don't even need to force everyone to registers. In fact, controlling registration while having open borders has special advantages in helping stop griefers.Sex sells! That is well known and it probably drives about 60% of Internet traffic. Oculus Rift looks like adding an exciting new dimension to virtual worlds and video game companies are getting seriously interested. Virtual worlds are well placed to take advantage too and the cost is not that great. It is still early days and the final production model is scheduled to go on sale in the spring of 2014 so plenty of time to set up a grid and adapt features suited to the use of the Rift, especially in the area of adult entertainment.

Into The Free Metaverse...

If you are planning or contemplating setting up your own small world or full grid then look in on the Google Plus community, Opensim Virtual. There you can learn more about the free Metaverse and promote your grid free of charge. Opensim Virtual is a large community of Opensim users from across many grids and  standalone worlds. They are a friendly bunch and very helpful to new comers. I set up Opensim Virtual at the end of 2012 in order to learn more about the Metaverse community and discover it's true extent. I must say, to my delight, Opensim Virtual has been very successful and presently the largest Opensim community on Google plus. Many grid owners promote their grids and tell us about events and role play they support. There is plenty of News to keep up on Merchants too tell us about their virtual wares. Some grid owners have their own G+ communities as well so we are developing across many grids which is in keeping with the whole idea of Hypergrid and a free Metaverse. Come join us. You'll be welcomed!

See my top links for more pages of free textures, resources and vendors with both free and sale items on offer. Check out the Metaverse link to and search for grids and worlds of interest.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Second Life Region Count Falls But Not the Price!

As predicted by Metaverse pundits Second Life, the beleaguered virtual world operated by Linden Lab lost another 9 regions in the past week according to Tyche Shepherd's GridSurvey which took it below the magic 20,000 mark to 19.997. This mark has become a kind of psychological barrier no one really thought would be approached let alone crossed. This portion of the grid is where Linden Lab earns the bulk of it's income from hosting the region simulators but Second Life has actually been in slow decline for several years and is down 4,797 regions since its peak in June, 2010. Regions cost up to $295 a month but just getting a region up is expensive too with an initial charge of $1000 so it's clear the Lab is loosing a lot of their cash flow.

Surprisingly, Linden Lab doesn't appear particularly disturbed by this trend and are even rather upbeat about releasing totally unrelated products to their flagship money spinner and what advances they have made in the platform seem largely ignored, faltering or simply not understood by a lot of the resident population. Certainly, it is doubtful if it would make much difference to the average resident if Linden Lab had never bothered to implement a lot of the updates at all because it should be noted over 80,000 residents had either not bothered or had left it to the very last minute to get the viewer updates we are told are mandatory with the roll out of server side baking. In fact, there has only ever been two basic complaints that mean a whole lot to the majority. Fix the many existing bugs and lag, and reduce the excessive tier pricing for virtual land within the grid.

Linden Lab have a reputation for ignoring the SL resident complaints anyway and their customer service has never been that good but they do seem to think up ways to antagonize their customers on a regular basis
like closing the bug reporting Jira system while imposing what, apparently, the majority don't appear to want or care about. Moreover, it has meant disruptive server updates every week which has been going on for several years and has left all kinds of breakage from scripting faults to inventory losses and periods of unexplained and excessive lag. Most annoying for residents is that all this disruption has been going on while the Lab still expected high tier payments.

Unsurprisingly, since 2009 Second Life has seen a steady decline. In that time a full third of the work force has also been sacked, the former CEO, Mark Kingdom resigned, education and none-profit discounts have been scrapped and the Teen grid closed while allowing children onto the, essentially, adult grid. More recently, with a new CEO at the helm, the focus of the company has gone from virtual worlds to investment in the development of video games. Unfortunately, the resident population of Second Life are a rather conservative bunch. They accept change if it clearly benefits them but the kind of change Linden Lab tries to impose dose often actually challenge people who are very set in their ways. But, all of the general complaints aside, the one thing that nearly everyone agrees is an abuse is the excessive charges for land.

When Linden Lab were on a roll around 2006 and the media couldn't get enough stories about Second Life the executives of the company decided to hike prices, increasing the tier on a full (15k prim's) region by a third to $295 and the setup fee to $1000. Later they scraped the significantly cheaper Openspace product and introduced Homesteads with 3750 prim's at around 60% increase in tier making them much more expensive. A lot of people that could not afford the full region pricing had taken an Openspace so they could build their dream home or set up a small store, club or RPG only to see the rent raised by almost two thirds. What happened next was the beginning of the end for Linden Lab's reputation amongst it's long term customers but it would be a long road with many more blunders yet before the grid fell to the magic number of 20,000 paid for regions.

To all intents and purposes Second Life is a social-economic soap opera. There are no end goals like video games have. SL is not a game, pure and simple. It's an adult playground if anything where grown-up's play out all kinds of fantasies and express themselves in many ways. It's a virtual world of endless possibilities that grow out of the collective imagination of the residents. It appears doubtful if Linden Lab executives understands this or if they do at all it might only find expression in contemptuous statements like, "broken people living a rural life". The fact that virtual worlds like Second Life lend themselves to so much creative expression and education seems lost on the company. No, for the bosses it's all about money and how much they can make out of it. They own the product of course and can do what they please but the product is nothing without the residents who spend money. In fact, the residents who interactive with each other breathe life into the product and become an essential part of it. That is the part the company dose not own. That is where the partnership comes in and Linden Labs have never looked upon their residents as partners - just paying customers.

Courtesy of Tyche Shepherd's Grid Survey

To be fair to Linden Lab bosses one can sympathize with the difficulties they face over Land charges. It is not as easy as it sounds to just drop prices given that the whole economic model could be irreversibly damaged by a wrong move. Last Year the Lab held a Weekend give away Special on buying land when they offered a free setup. It worked to some extent and the Lab made sales but the buyers almost certainly had been renting from Land Barons and this, in turn, had a negative effect on the Baron's thinking. The Barons own a huge amount of the land and find themselves swallowing increasing losses on empty sims they can't find tenants for. Offering discounts that appear to damage the Barons is not something to do lightly because its like this; Linden Lab is rather like the Overlord or King who owns all the land and makes grants to his most loyal subjects, the Barons. Privileges in the form of discounts on tier is what they get granted to them. The rest of the population are basically citizens and shop keepers that always pay the top rates albeit in relatively small sums compared to what the Barons are committed to. So the shop keepers make stuff to help off-set tier costs and because those costs are quite high they have to make and try to sell a lot of stuff. The citizens, or consumers, want free places to hangout and perhaps role play but they will buy what the shop keepers sell - some will actually spend quite a lot! The shop keepers and those running venues as clubs, RPGs, sailing and other arts & entertainments generally will more often than not be renting from Barons and so they have to keep working to off-set those costs and try to turn a profit too. They rent from Barons to avoid setup fees and know they are no more committed than the next rent day. So the money moves round the economy.

Now, if the Lab drops tier and maybe makes it possible to buy just one sim then this might upset the balance of the economy for dropping prices too much and too quickly will greatly reduce financial pressure on the shop keepers and venue organizers. Thus, if they don't have to off-set tier costs to the same extent that they were doing this could lead to a drop in the economy and possibly lead to less people bothering to make and sell stuff. In deed, more stuff might be given away free which would create downward pressure on the economy too. Some would take the opportunity to profit of course but if prices are falling eventually the incentive is lost anyway.

Now consider what might happen if more people can buy and own land in Second Life. In Opensim grids land is cheap and people often own vast estates which ends up pretty much empty land since there is not enough traffic to fill it. Second Life is not exactly bursting with traffic these days but if land became very much cheaper it would result in a lot more empty regions and, like Opensim grids, the Lab would find that this becomes a criticism of the platform - lack of users!. Not just that but game organizers and venues all want a slice of the traffic and lowering the entry costs and making it easier for people to set up games and venues just adds to the glut of entertainment for a limited population. Some of the best would probably give up. By contrast, we don't see the same problem in Opensim grids. There is not enough traffic anyway to make many businesses viable yet. What we do see, however, is new grids starting up where selling and renting land is the primary business product. They want content makers and businesses to join them too but, generally, these start-up's focus on an activity like role playing in a particular theme while Second Life plays host to hundreds of themes which all want a slice of the traffic. Opensim traffic is almost invisible, not because there is none, but because it is spread across the Metaverse on so many grids. Apart from the apparent invisibility, there is not a lot of difference between people teleporting  about on the Linden grid or people teleporting between the many Opensim grids that enable Hypergrid travel. The difference is that in Second Life it is easier to setup business but more expensive while a small Opensim grid is cheaper to set up but technically more challenging and not for everyone. But we do see great effort and advances grids like Inworldz, Avination, Kitely and Aurora Sim, developers working away to improve their worlds. Often the developers are in partnership with each other and residents too in ways you wont see between Linden Lab and their residents. And, of course, many grid owners are developers and contribute to the Opensim core. Yes, there are rivalries and competition between Opensim grids. There are shifting loyalties too but still there is a strong spirit of shared destiny and partnership often comes out of that. In fact there is a lot of partnership in Opensim worlds but you wont find a great deal of partnership in Second Life between the Lab and it's residents. The residents are first and foremost merely consumers in Linden thinking. Where the Lab might consider partnership it usually is a one way street where LL gains from the ideas and talents of it's residents but hardly ever puts much money into projects that can truly be called a partnership.

I might be wrong, probably am, but Linden Labs must be struggling with the land pricing decision. They may already be feeling like they are in a Catch 22 situation too for, if they don't drop prices no one is going to buy more land and if they do drop prices then the balance of the economy might be irreversibly damaged so perhaps the answer is to lower tier gradually in steps by maybe 10% percent every six months until it is approximately a third lower than it is today. This should start now and continue into 2014 and perhaps a final drop by the summer. It should drop across the board too and not just for one section of the community so there is no disparity or it will just drive more people away and throw the economy into more confusion and uncertainty.

Another thing the Lab could do is get rid of Linden Homes. In fact, I never did understand why they ever set out to take business away from the land Barons in the first place. It didn't strike me as a smart move making free homes available - most of which are hardly used I might add. I think most residents would have been more interested in an increase in stipend if anything and if it fell to me to decide I would increase the stipend by at least 100 L$ as both an incentive to attract more premium accounts and a way to help stimulate the economy. Yes, the increase would be hard to maintain but it would feed a lot of new money into the economy at a time when budgets are tight in the real world. Hell, the bank rates are the lowest they have ever been so why isn't Linden Lab lowering the costs this way if not on Land pricing?

Saturday 5 January 2013

Second Life's Embarrassing Start to 2013 And More Predictions...

If it wasn't for the fact Linden Lab is headed by a game's industry heavy weight like Robvik Humble I think they could be forgiven for marketing Second Life as a game package on Amazon recently when everyone that knows the beleaguered virtual world and has experienced it would, in the majority, be inclined to say it is not a video game. The general consensus around the blog sphere seems to be that the Lab has embarrassed themselves once again with this move. And yet there are those bloggers that want to forgive Linden Lab for this action on the premise it could work to bring in more people at least. Pretty much all bloggers, however,  have expressed a loud sigh of general disbelief regardless.

Second Life offered free on Amazon. It turned up un-announced and has since been pulled off probably because existing residents noticed the free 1000 Linden dollar. Perhaps the Lab will try it on eBay next.

As we start the year 2013 I will be making a few predictions further on but, given that I had something to say about Second Life last year and the Lab continues to make blunders I ought to look back on it see if I got anything right which I will come to. But I can't let go of the present gaff I noted above without taking a closer look. It does seem a bit incredible that, despite having Rod as CEO, the brass at the Lab didn't consider that marketing SL on Amazon as a video game might be an embarrassing mistake that bloggers were sure to pick up on. On the other hand one might consider it was all thought out and quite deliberate given that Rod Humble has already released a bunch of video games under the Linden Label in the past year and announced Second Life will be marketed on the Steam video gaming site. It does seem Rod makes little or no distinction between his concept of "Shared Creative Spaces" and a video game so why would they not market SL as a game? This appears to be squarely what the Lab is focused on these days.

When Rod joined Linden Lab he told us he was trying to get to know Second Life and now he has got to know it he has decided it is, as mentioned above, a shared creative space which, unsurprisingly, it is a another way of calling it a video game! The users or Residents of Second Life I think view their virtual world differently though. I would say, as a long time resident myself that Second Life is, to all intents and purposes, an endless social-economic soap opera where people can get creative. It has no end goal like a video game has and yet there can be goals set by the residents themselves with either commercial or none-profit motives in mind. It can be viewed as an adult playground if anything where grown-up's play out all kinds of fantasies and express themselves in many ways. The residents or users make their virtual world. It's a labour of endless possibilities that grow out of the collective imagination of the residents. It appears doubtful if Linden Lab executives understands this or if they do they certainly don't treat the residents as partners and yet, in my view and by everything they do, I think residents do demonstrate they are partners by being serious contributors. Linden Lab owns Second Life of course and can do what they please but the product is nothing without the residents who spend money, build the sims and make the content. In fact, the residents who interact with each other breathe life into the product and become an essential part of it. That is the part the company dose NOT own. That is where the partnership comes in and Linden Labs have never looked upon their residents as partners - just paying customers. And paying customers buy video games, right?


Last year I said I wouldn't get carried away with my predictions but I'm rather pleased with myself that the first one actually turned out sort of on the mark. I said Linden Lab would pull out all the stops to try and get Second Life growing again and I could say they did by releasing four new video games. Well, those games were not exactly Second Life applications but clearly the Lab is working on trying to save their shirts. Trouble is Second Life itself is not seeing much of the effort unless you consider Linden realms and Pathfinding tools are a big deal. It appears that the residents are not exactly falling over themselves with excitement though. In any event, if the measure of success is region count then it's been a disastrous year with the net loss of regions rising to 2863 which represents a 12% loss. Even more telling is that user login's have declined too and there are a large number of sims for sale nobody wants as well as rentals with no takers. People are not buying and even the strongest fashion stores are struggling to keep afloat.

Turning now to the open Metaverse the situation is not all a bed of roses there either. OSgrid has seen a sharp decline in recent months after sustained growth through the summer months. Avination too has continued to decline while InWorldz is holding out but not growing. On the other hand new grids are still popping up so, while region counts may be down the number of grids is up - double the number since last year in fact! So, for every new grid that means at the very least a few more people are contributing to the growth of the free Metaverse. I some cases the new comers may even represent a sizable little community even. 

Finding the growing number of grids to choose from as the free Metaverse expands is going to require better support with search and other features suited to the growing market. Above I am showing my test version of a search page that can link grids to the main viewer for login which makes it easy for new users to find grids to visit.

The latest trend amongst grid operators seems to be the offering of free plots on commercial grids to get users in rather than making the low cost sims they offer as the main the sales pitch. However, as usual there is plenty of rivalry between grids with flame wars breaking out from time to time. Generally, though, the Opensim platform code continues to improve although Hypergrid 2 has not materialized yet but, that aside, it is looking likely we will see both the core and forks rolling out better physics engines in the new year which is the good news.

I predicted we would get a viewer with grid search in 2012 and that V1 viewers might be disabled in Second Life. Well, we did get some experiments with new grid management but nothing serious yet. On the other hand Linden Lab did pull the plug on V1 and instructed the TPV developers to drop support for Opensim if they wanted to include the client-side Havoc physics. This led to some dropping V1 viewer support and others like Firestorm saying they would release two versions, one for Second Life and one for Opensim. According to the developers it has become increasingly difficult to include the code changes LL are making to the viewer which includes Pathfinding and server-side rebaking to work all this code into the older V1 model. And yet, there are developers that insist it can be done so some of the viewers with a V1 UI are likely to still get support. These include Singularity and a forked development of Phoenix while the Firestorm team have stated they, themselves, will lay Phoenix to rest.


First up I would predict that InWorldz will become the must see grid of 2013 once they get PhysiX fully working. I say this because the team have already rebuilt the scripting engine making it faster and more efficient. One of the key drawbacks to Opensim has been physics, incomplete scripting functions and problems with border crossings. The InWorldz team look like they have solved all the main issues and are on track to launch seriously improved services in the new year. This I would expect will help get the grid growing again.

Demo of PhysX at InWorldz race track

Not to be out done my second predictions is that Kitely will become the top grid in 2013 and will even knock OSgrid from it's present position as HUB of the Hypergrid if HG 2.0 or 2.5 actually , finally, gets the export perm and Kitely actually adopts it and becomes HG enabled. If they don't then I don't expect them to grow that much. I do expect them to grow considerably, regardless simply because they have built a great product that gives value and they have a pretty good track record of contributing to core. They have a good reputation and a very competitive pricing structure.

My third prediction is that competition will hot up between Opensim grids in 2013 and we are already seeing this in the form a Free Land offers which will encourage users to login more often and spend time on the host grids and start to build community. This, in turn, will encourage content sellers to open stores and make sales provided the web front doesn't take customers away like has happened in Second Life with the web Market Place. But, anyway, I do expect more commercial grids to come online during the year and I think free land offers could even be tied to paid premium accounts as an alternative to charging tier. However, I think Kitely already has the edge on this approach and smaller commercial grids will find it extremely difficult to compete unless they have a really dedicated core team to make visitors welcome and, of course, provide some form of regular entertainment, gambling, adult stuff, gaming or get a bunch of role players to bring their theme to the grid.

Demo of Bulletsim supports large numbers of objects seen here

My number four prediction is that Opensim core will get a decent version of Bullet physics working but I don't think it will be ready that soon from what I have seen and tried. I am absolutely sure it is going to happen but there is still work to do yet.

In previous years I predicted that a web application to stream Opensim to a web page was likely to happen soon but, apart from the patented version, that SpotON 3D brought out so only they can use it all we have seen is the webGL Cloud Party and something similar that I haven't fully checked out yet called Meshmoon. All the others are basically Unity3D web viewers which, of course, are not likely to ever be able to connect with Opensim girds. In deed, it remains a fact that only Opensim has the technology to build independent but interconnected worlds via Hypergrid at the moment.

Finally, I predict Second Life will continue to slide during 2013. The region loss will continue and with education grants coming up for review and the stagnant state of the real world economy I would not be surprised to see some quite heavy losses in the early year but, like I said last year, the summer months should see a leveling out both for Second Life and Opensim before further heavy losses again for SL at least in the Fall.

Here's wishing all my readers and fellow travelers a Happy New Year.

P.S. If you are looking for textures you can use on Opensim grids then check my top links or click here to visit my Textures page for a list of vendors that allow their textures to be used in both Second Life and Opensim.