Monday 7 July 2014

Who will build the first billion user Virtual World?

Just recently we have learned from Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, that they has been quietly working on a new, more advanced Second Life. But the announcement comes not only after the much hyped High Fidelity already in development by former Lab CEO and SL inventor, Philip Rosedale, but also not so long after Facebook bought up Oculus Rift for 2 $billion as well. And so we now get the ground shattering news that Facebook's Oculus developers are part of FB's aim to build the first billion user virtual world!

Interesting that Ebbe has been saying something similar stating that Second Life Two (or SL2 for want of a name) will be aimed at a mass audience with the clear intention of breaking out of the niche corner it's been in for the past 11 years and try to get on the mainstream social network bandwagon. He is on record saying it's going to be "Multi-device from day one (including phones). "We're building the next-generation platform for hundreds of millions of people; not for millions of people." he said in an interview. So it probably is no coincidence either that Oculus CEO, Brendan Iribe mentioned the "Metaverse" specifically while speaking about Facebook's Oculus acquisition at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference. He said his team were very surprised to learn exactly what Facebook's aims were which amount to nothing less than a massive Facebook virtual world with its own cities, entertainment venues, businesses including a currency and full commerce - not unlike the current Second Life model basically but more advanced and fully supporting aspects of virtual reality such as the Oculus Rift goggles of course.

So it's clear the race is on and, arguably, Linden Lab has the experience and a good head start to launch the first of the next generation of virtual worlds where cartoonish avatars are replaced by life-like virtual representations of real people. The graphics will be stunning for sure and lag will be a thing of the past. The new avatars will work, play, shop and socialize online like never before. Imagine buying real world goods in a virtual Amazon store where you get to see demonstrations exactly what a product will do. Imagine too, dressing your avatar in beautifully crafted top brand clothes that are available for real by mail order. So long as you create an avatar that is an honest clone of your real self then you'll be able see how the latest fashions look on you as you strut your stuff in your Oculus goggles. Moreover, the next generation of virtual worlds will almost certainly be seen on a web page rather than downloading a viewer for, if you recall, Cloud Party, which made use of WebGL to render their world in a browser, was bought up by Yahoo very recently too. Firefox and Google Chrome are both planning to add special features in order to allow virtual reality support in their browsers which will advance this much further (see here). What we are seeing now is that all the right peices are coming together and the big players are gearing up to take advantage of a true virtual reality revolution in the making.

gears of war 2 ipad wallpaper via:

You can expect the learning curve to be much lower too and it is probable that new ways to interact with the world like using head sensors that detect brain wave paterns (see Emotiv Insight) so the user can literally think what they want to do or even use facial expressions to direct actions - no hands needed! Possibly there wont even be any building tools in the browser version either because it will be aimed at a mass consumer audience and the creative people and those who want to make money will be offered separate developer software at a high price no doubt thus ensuring the big players with the money to invest enjoy something like an exclusive developers club. In any event you can bet your bottom dollar all the big online stores will want a very prominent and focused presence and that will mean huge sums of money being invested in desgin and presentation not to mention the fees to the VW platform owners.
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of virtual world and MMO fashion
cutesy of New World Notes
Identity and privacy are big issues for the current VW users and Facebook's refusal to allow pseudonyms could turn out to be its Achilles heal when it comes to trying to rule the Metaverse. Linden Lab policy is firmly rooted in respecting their residents use of pseudonyms and it's hard to see how that can change while, for Facebook users, they have been conditioned (some would say brain washed) to reveal all to the world so FB can exploit it for the benefit of the advertisers. It could happen though that if SL2 is to go mainstream as Ebbe hopes then the Lab policy might change on identity too. However, the Facebook virtual world even with it's real names policy is going to be a lot different from the current experience of checking FB 15-20 times a day to see what real world friends and relatives are doing but I doubt anyone really knows just how much of a difference it will be. People prance around in front of their Wii now to get fit and do sports so will they prance about wearing Oculus goggles doing similar things with their friends and relatives in a virtual space in stead? Will people be floating along in the new FB/Yahoo/Linden Metaverse while actually on some kind of tread mill? Mores the point will everyone want to look like super models because they can? And you can bet your life the Adult industry will wade in with every which way to enjoy virtual sex. I mean, think of Haptic technology that provides physical sensations where "acoustic radiation" stimulates a sense of touch on the skin without the need for cumbersome gloves and body suits. There are so many questions one could ask about a Facebook virtual world but it's coming and I don't think Linden investors want to miss out this time round.

Now, we know that there is a lot of disquiet amongst Second Life residents on whether the Second Life they know and love will close after the new platform is launched and also whether or not the residents can take their names and inventory with them. Ebbe gave some
Picture Credit: Emotiv Insight
rather mixed messages on this saying on the one hand you will probably be able to take your stuff but on the other hand he says they are not interested in backward compatibility. Linden Lab is a business after all so it’s not really surprising that the Lindens are saying they have no plans to close SL1 because it would be financial suicide to say otherwise. Ebbe Altberg just hasn't been choosing his words very well but there is enough in what he has said to suspect they are keeping the "antique" SL1 afloat while its high pricing model continues to finance the development of SL2 and their other products.

Picture Credit: Sinful Robot
So, the Lindens are saying they wont close SL1 but they are not saying too much about SL2 other than it will be a lot better but really a lot of this is all corporate double speak and the Lindens have a pretty poor record when it comes to dealing with their residents. The directors seem to care nothing for the fact Second Life is a social entity and huge passions are stirred up when changes are made. To the directors it's a business in which business decisions are made with all regard to what will maintain and improve the profitability of the company. Don't be surprised to be told SL1 is closing once SL2 is firmly on the road. It will just be a business decision that has probably already been taken but, for now, they have to keep the golden goose alive. Linden executives have their price like any other business the world over so don't be too surprised either if SL2 ends up another Facebook acquisition in its drive to become the ruler of the Metaverse.

Monday 23 June 2014

Linden Lab CEO Promises a Brave New Second Life - Don't Panic!

So, Linden Lab CEO, Ebbe confirms the Lab is working on a new virtual world platform that may eventually replace Second Life but he proceeded to avoid giving detailed answers to questions about it on SLU. Well, I guess it's good PR if nothing else for a reigning Linden Overlord to even take the time to brave the SLU hoards to answer anything at all but, in the Lab's time honored capacity for doublespeak, he managed the Q&A rather well I thought even in the face of off-topic TOS questions thrown at him by Karl Karl Stiefvater, the former Lab employee known as Qarl Linden. Of course, Ebbe was just avoiding answering him and barely acknowledged his posts. In fact Ebbe's answers to most questions about the new platform were remarkably brief. The essence of what he had for answers was; it's too early to say what it will be or, in an actual answer to another question on SLU; "What can you tell us about the graphic engine? Home made, third party or mix?" Ebbe replied bluntly, "Secret for now..."

The Sorcerer tricks Aladdin and offers "new lamps for old lamps".
Robida Aladin (1848-1926) illustration from page4

One SLU member was moved to post, "I've seen chatbots that are better at engaging in conversations than Ebbe has been in this thread." So I think this Q&A is not going to tell us much but from what I gather, and going by what the last CEO, Rod Humble said in the past the Lab has been working on their new creative spaces - as Humble liked to call virtual worlds after he reckons to have finally got the idea of what Second Life is - which included Patterns and all the other video games released under his tenure. So, while Ebbe admitted the project has been in development for some time the best he can say is that it will be better than Second Life. Presumably that means it is going to be very similar to SL but built on a new server engine and platform code base that was confirmed in a roundabout way when Ebbe said, in answer to another question, that it was too difficult to upgrade the current SL platform saying "Too difficult and too time consuming." So it will be completely new and yet probably little different in business model and that is how I understood his reply to another question; "but we're thinking of it to be similar to SL in that way...but better."

One wonders how much is this about changing the business model and how much about innovation. Too early to tell but Ebbe does seem to be more forthcoming on the business plan for SL2 and not a lot said otherwise about the platform.

He did say, however, that, "We're early in our discussions about business models but I'm thinking lower land tax and higher sales tax and ultimately aim to make things up with volume...(charge less to many rather than a lot to a few). This is possible with better tech and making something more people want to be part of." So now I'm getting the platform will be better coded, new engine, and a new business model as well. The new revenue model Ebbe says he would like is probably what they are planning anyway and given that Rod Humble already bought up the video gaming site, Desura I kind of have an idea what might be on the cards. Well, it all goes back to the TOS issue really for the Lab has already given themselves the rights to take all that content the residents created and use it in anyway they want. Now think of how Steam profits from user content and my guess is something similar is going to happen with SL2. No, I don't think the Lab will sell our stuff but in the new system they will control the market much more than they can do now in SL1 and I suspect it will cost the traders a lot more to do business. Moreover, I doubt prim objects will have a place in the new system and the avatars will be a totally new model as well. Therefore the system will, I'm sure, only be compatible for Mesh uploads and probably voxels rather than prim's. Bottom line is the residents will need a new wardrobe and houses and furniture. Well, Ebbe said it would cost more for the many and less for the few. I can't see anyway that can happen if those who currently enjoy free entertainments and lots of freebies and low cost quality products aren't forced out or made to pay something towards the upkeep of the platform.

Is there a connection?
Desura From Wikipedia: Linden Lab, the makers of shared creative spaces including Second Life, Patterns, Creatorverse, on July 10, 2013 announced that Linden Lab acquired Desura. The service would continue uninterrupted for current customers and the team and technology become a part of Linden Lab. After acquiring Desura, Linden Lab changed their Terms of Service to include the wording that they have future rights to use and adapt content from their virtual citizens. Speculation exists as to whether the acquisition of Desura is tied to this change in TOS.

Some might see it as a good thing but, personally, I reserve judgement until learn more about SL2. Right now it's all pretty vague but I'm pretty sure some panic will set in especially among the Land Barons. I mean, if it will cost the few less then the people that have been paying the most in SL1 the land owners and renters are looking at lower tier and with low tier and possibly a lower setup fee will almost certainly mean more of the renters will become land owners. The Land Barons might still get a deal but are they likely to get favorable enough reductions in setup fees in SL2? Considering they still hold expensive land in SL1 so what will become of that investment? Maybe the Lab will try to encourage take up with special deals from the start until the thing gains critical mass and then, yeah, you bet they will hike the tier anyway as they did in SL1 so, ultimately, the few will probably pay not much less and the content creators will pay a whole lot more. All the rest will still likely get a free lunch but they might have to pay a membership fee next time round. I really think the Lab should be wary of the Land Barons though. They could start sending powerful shots across their bows by dropping a lot of their most expensive none-grandfathered sims as they did after the Lab offered low cost setup's to residents one weekend a couple of years ago. The land model as it stands benefits the Barons and any threat to that could have damaging consequences.

One SLU comment said, "I am glad the cat is out of the bag, we would have invested in a bunch of new sims soon. Of course all new projects have been cancelled now." To which a reply came, saying, "Or, you might want to milk the current land model for all you can while it's there. Ebbe mentioned earlier that he'd like to see the new thing's fee structure less dependent on land. It's quite possible that land barons will find themselves in a drastically different business, if there is a place for them at all."

How will this affect Opensim?

Actually, I rather think Opensim grids will do alright out of it because if SL1 doesn't get much more development or new features because it is now left with just a caretaker team then this will give Opensim chance to overtake SL1 in terms of quality and innovation. In fact I think there is scope here to advance Opensim in new ways like adding new building tools and even voxels perhaps - especially if only to replace
terrain hightmap  since voxels have the  ability to represent overhangs, caves, arches, and other 3D terrain features. I think the avatar might be improved too while the Lab has decided that SL1 is too much of a problem to change. There may not be an open source viewer for SL2 either so all the more reason for the TPV developers and Opensim developers to work closer together to bring on new features that benefit Opensim while not available to SL1. We have seen in the latest releases of Opensim substantial improvements and now with new physics and variable size regions it is already ploughing ahead anyway. And, as I already said, I seriously doubt it will be possible to upload old prim content to SL2 either. Ebbe said they didn't want to be constrained by backwards compatibility although Siana Gearz, commenting on Hypergrid Business insisted Ebbe said at the meeting that he's quite certain porting content over from Second Life into new platform by original creators will be possible, even though we know that the technical architecture of the content will be different. She then stated, "I was there for the whole duration of his visit, I know what he was asked and what he said. The content porting question came up multiple times and he finally said "I think it should be possible." However, given the vagueness of the Ebbe's answers to most questions I really think you have to take what he is saying at best with a large pinch of salt.

I seriously doubt SL2, which is still a long way off, poses any near term threat to Opensim anyway and, if anything does, I rather suspect it will be High Fidelity since Philip Rosedale has stated it will be open source and embrace the Hypergrid concept as well as private ownership of the servers. But, of course, High Fidelity is a way off too and yet I see Kitely Virtual is already a contributor to the code base which indicates to me they are hedging their bets and that gives me reason to believe High Fidelity is the one to watch, not SL2. However, I still think Opensim has a lot going for it and the uncertainties and house moving pains the SL residents will have to go through in the next few years will just add to the appeal of the free Metaverse.


Saturday 21 June 2014

Introducing Replex Viewer for Opensim & Second Life

Maintained and packaged by Latif Khalifa, the viewer developer also responsible for the Radegast lightweight text client, the viewer is based on Singularity code with many new features including object Import/Export enhancements supporting Materials (specular and normal maps), Object Physics and Light Image. There is code merged from CtrlAltStudio Viewer to support the Xbox 360 controller as well as added support for Controller Keys, A = Alt, B = Shift, X = Ctrl, Y = Escape,   Back = Toggle Flycam mode (fun!), Start = Toggle Cursor mode, Right Stick Click = Toggle Mouselook, Left Stick Click = Jump/Fly - all of which gives this V1 viewer added support for Oculus Rift and virtual reality. There is a lot more including options to change the buttons on the UI and a handy option to enable an emergency teleport when you are AFK during a region restart.

Image courtesy of Replex

There is no formal release date yet but you can download the dev versions to test drive from the Replex site.