Tuesday 25 September 2018

The Metaverse Coming to a Web Page Near you!

Just recently there was mention of a browser based virtual space on the Google plus Opensim Virtual community which piqued my interest because such things have been promised again and again over the past ten years but nothing ever really came of it. However, a topic was posted by Nara Malone of the Opensim Greyville Writer's Colony at Nara's Nook grid where she said a member of her community, Neo Cortex has been developing a Unity based client with the goal of merging Opensim and Unity to make a hybrid system designed with a focus on storytelling. I found it really interesting but there was a comment by Magnuz Binder who let us know he too was working on a virtual web world using ThreeJS and NodeJS as his preferred coding languages. This prompted me to take a closer look and, believe it or not, from what I learnt I had my own web based world online and working in just three days from scratch. I was pretty excited!

Talla's Virtual Space on a Web Page named after her grid, Farworldz
Use mouse to pan the screen and arrow keys to move avatar

Admittedly it is a very simple portal world but my final version had basic movement, a blobby avatar that responded to keyboard controls and a simple text window for chatting. Naturally, I wanted to find out if others could access it so I gave the address to friends and to my delight some of them found it and left messages on the chat window and said it loaded quickly and was easy to use. It is still online (see above) so feel free to check it out and leave a short message. I might do more with it as I learn but in its present form it still serves as good example of what can be done using open source code snippets and learning the basics of Node and Three javascript.

Not just satisfied with my own effort I wanted to know more about other recent developments and from Selby Evans I learned that a new platform based on that same code has been developed by Evie Marie (SingingGirl) who works with Bill Bright out of the Opensim Life grid. The platform is WebWorlds3D and Selby has his own web world based on this code called CyberLounge.

Opensim Life is dedicated to education and art. Bill Blight said he was not interested in selling content or offering freebies. He is content to handle the Opensim server and support Evie in her work. He said, "She is the brains behind the webworld part, it is her baby from the ground up , I just beat up the servers once in a while."

I pressed Bill a little more and he replied, "Well again, the Art and Education aspect is all SG, she is the one with the Masters. I'm a code monkey  who swings a big hammer. My grid is focused on people, not commerce, it is a passion project, something to keep me busy. So Art, Education , Entertainment, all things that bring people together is what I/we focus on here."

I liked what they have done but they still have a way to go. I visited the web world as a guest and looked around. I had no problems, the page loaded quickly and I could touch things and interact in a limited way but a whole lot more than I had managed with my version. The avatars are not that great though - a bit stiff and woody but easy enough to control and walk about. I understand there is a company behind all this which is the A2Z Smart Group LLC who are  offering to set up a platform for people with embedded code to place it on a web page. 

National Geographic offers an example of NodeJS for Mars, The Red Planet
Anyway, I also learned that Misterblue (Robert Adams), who is a core developer of Opensim focused on BulletSim which is a port of the Bullet physics engine, has also worked extensively on an infrastructure for a virtual world on the web. His projects include Convoar, an Opensim OAR file converter, Basil for displaying web worlds and Herbal3D, in which the various web world projects he is working on are pulled together.

I was interested to note from Robert Adams research that one of his aims was to build an architecture around creating a web viewer where a High Fidelity avatar can stand next to an Opensim avatar in the same space. And, from recent comments by Philip Rosedale he too spoke of the same design goals.
SpotOn3D steaming to a web page
Looking back though, there has been a number of notable attempts at building a web viewer and one of the first caused some controversy when SpotOn3D applied for a patent on the open source code that streamed an Open Simulator world to a web page. That, however, was never a true web viewer like Cloud Party which came later. Cloud Party was developed by some ex-Second Life developers and though it was relatively successful it was taken down when Yahoo bought it out and the developers went to work for them.

Cloud Party on the web
There were others too. Chris Collins, CEO of Tipodean Technologies developed a Canvas web-based viewer and, around the same time, others including Rezzable produced a Unity-based web viewer for Opensim and Katalabs demonstrated an HTML-5/webGL web viewer. Much later there was high expectation from German-based PixiTec who demonstrated the Pixie Viewer which functioned very well and even featured building, mesh with mirrors and 3D printing as an option. Even Kitely, at one time, said they were interested in working with other developers to build a web-based viewer but nothing ever came of any of it.

I recall also that the US Army under the MOSES group were working on a web viewer for Halcyon (the InWorldz fork of Opensim) so I asked Balpian Hammerer, a developer at Discovery Grid that had worked on Halcyon while at InWorldz and he gave a less than enthusiastic reply "They were in the design phase, and the idea was the leveraging of WEB objects to render a scene instead of using a viewer app. I am not enthusiastic that this approach will lead to anything better let alone more efficient. There is much to be said to writing performance critical code as close to the OS native graphics layers especially in limited performance devices like tablets and phones. Too many layers burn cycles which drives up the system requirements. Generic code tends to run much worse when in resource constrained environments like, for example, the 5+ year old computers typical of OpenSim users."

That said recent work by Robert Adams, Evie Marie and others like Neo Cortex and Magnuz Binder and Dahlia Trimble raise the prospect once again that a useful web viewer might be on the way where the Opensim user community can benefit and see their cherished platform's life improved and extended well into the future.

Imaging it, teleporting from an Opensim world to High Fidelity or SineSpace and all done on a web page. Now that would be my idea of what defines a true Metaverse and I think it would do justice to Neal Stephenson's definition in his 1992 Sci-fi novel "Snow Crash" where, to quote Wikipedia, humans, as avatars, interact with other avatars and software agents in a three-dimentional space that uses the metaphor of the real world to describe a virtual-reality successor to the Internet. 

Web Game: HERACLOS and the quest he never asked for

Play Fillory, a fully interactive fantasy game on a web page
FOOTNOTE: I have to confess I knew Dahlia Trimble had been working on a web viewer too and I should have asked for an update. My mistake because, while I was unaware Dahlia's work in this area was was continuing I never the less should have checked. Fact is Dahlia has a very advanced demo and posted it to Youtube very recently and, to quote, "Stress testing a WebGL/emscripten build of one of my viewers with lots and lots of prims. This is a live OpenSimulator 512x512 megaregion on my test..."

Watch the video on YouTube


Saturday 8 September 2018

Crossing Virtual Worlds: The Elf Clan from InWorldz to OSgrid

When InWorldz grid collapsed it left a lot of residents homeless. In fact, they had just four days notice the grid would close so very little time to pack up and take what they could. Fortunately, they found plenty of welcoming Opensim grids only too pleased to take them in. Few returned to Second Life so it was of great interest to me to find out how some of them were settling in.

I had heard of the Elf Clan fantasy group before and I was aware they had been a strong supporter of InWorldz almost from its very early days. I contacted Wayfinder, an Eldar of the clan, and he told me the founders of Inworldz were friends of his and he could have joined them as a founder himself originally but he chose not to. However, Second Life was proving just too expensive for them and Inworldz would turn out to cost a lot less. He told me "While it was virtually unknown at the time, we saw potential in the grid and decided to move there."

I asked if they had considered returning to Second Life after Inworldz closed and the response was an emphatic no and he continued, "We never really considered returning to Second Life. Well, we did:  the answer was a unanimous, resounding no.  The prohibitive costs and one-sided TOS makes that platform what we consider to be a 'bad investment' for non-profit, themed groups.  Understandably Elf Clan has had enough of bad investments."

I wanted to know why they decided to move to an Opensim grid but I though it would be better to find out more of the history of the clan first and Wayfinder enlightened me, "We started out on Second Life in November 2004. At that time SL was still relatively small.  I originally intended Elf Clan to be a friendly 'small family' of Elves.  We started out with 12 people in the group.  Within a couple of weeks we hit 50.  Within a couple months we reached 500 (this was at a time when the largest fantasy group had 100 members).  We were the first fantasy group to reach 1,000 members. Elf Clan's unexpected growth was unprecedented (it surely surprised me).  It was pretty much a snowball that just kept rolling.  Before long I was the unintentional founder of the largest themed group on the grid, and I was still pretty much a newb."

When Elf Clan joined Inworldz it consisted of 14 regions, 13 of which were company-owned. Special arrangements were made with the founders to obtain "early-adopter" region discounts, for which they would help promote the grid (a common practice in the computer field). "Elf Clan came to Inworldz in May 2010 and brought their friends and those friends brought their friends.  Within 30 days Inworldz grew to 200 regions. Within 60 days 500 regions. They hit 1,000 regions by the end of the year. The snowball effect all over again." Wayfinder said.

"We hadn't really considered leaving Inworldz prior to its collapse." he went on, "While there were some significant problems, all grids have problems.  Inworldz itself was visibly declining, but Elf Clan was in the process of a membership / land push and had grown 33% in just 90 days.   We were thriving as  group when the sudden news came that Inworldz was going offline-- somewhat crushing news to all of its members (to put it mildly)."

Elven Forest
Returning to the matter of why the Clan decided to move to Opensim I asked if they knew much about it and if they were familiar with Hypergrid and he answered, "I thought we did... but we really didn't.  In a way the closing of Inworldz has been a blessing for our group in that area.  While we were doing reasonably well on Inworldz, things felt somewhat "stagnant" due to the declining population, exiting merchants and lessening active participation.   We were not well-acquainted with Hypergrid and considered it a huge security risk.   That is what I now consider 'closed wall mentality'".

"Once people open themselves up to the concept of creating and giving things to others for the joy of it (or selling, whatever one wishes)... the Hypergrid opens up a vast world of adventure." he told me, "There are still a lot of things that need to be ironed out (I am personally not a big fan of the "suitcase" concept). Both OpenSim and the Hypergrid are growing.  It is far from perfect... but then after all these years group chat on Second Life still doesn't work properly.  So in all things, one accepts the negatives along with the perks.  I am absolutely thrilled with the idea of VARs, OARs and IARs.  Moving beyond that limiting 256m postage-stamp land limit is wonderful.  (256m is fine for a personal home land, but one does like to stretch out a bit.)"

I understood Elf Clan is a group of associates rather than a particular RPG in itself so I asked about the set up and the various associated groups that do organize role play and he explained, "Elf Clan started from the beginning as a themed group rather than role-playing.   That was out of desire to provide people a more relaxed environment in which they could "dress up" but not necessarily portray a part.  We eliminated the requirement to be "in or out of character"... and just let people be who or what they chose.   This created an atmosphere where people felt more like a friendly community and have lots of fun "shape shifting"-- being whatever character they feel like at the moment.  Myself for example:  I play the part both of High Elven and a tiny dragon... depending on my mood that day.  Both parts are very different in personality and I am told I significantly "role play" both parts... but to me it's more like pretend and just having fun.  I naturally  tend to take on the personality of the avatar I am wearing, so enjoy the concept of "theme" rather than specific role play.  Many of our members feel the same-- which is part of what attracted them to Elf Clan."


...Elf Clan decided on a G-rated, family-friendly mode from the start... which surprisingly attracted a lot of people.  To this day people comment on that being one of the reasons they stay with our group:  they like that kind of environment.  We started out as a Tolkien-style fantasy theme (with a bit thrown in) but over time have expanded that theme to include other areas of fantasy, science fiction and Steampunk.   Considering the nature of those genres, that gives people a lot to choose from in setting up their lands and avatars.

...We have had affiliate groups join us in the past.  Most notably is the WAAUGH!... a group of Orks (note: Orks not Orcs!!!) lead by Big Boss Schlitzie Martini.   They latched on to Elf Clan almost the moment we set up our first sim, were (by their own claim) the first inhabitant of Elf Clan lands-- made it their home land and over the years proved to be our greatest allies (Elves and Orks, who would have imagined?).   We have to date enjoyed three great wars with the Orks, during which great fun was had by all.  Of course the Orks won all three wars.  Just ask them.

...Other role playing groups have been Chanwood (medieval fantasy based to my understanding), and while not currently part of Elf Clan itself: Star Trek Experience... who have been good friends for quite some time now.   Now that Elf Clan is expanding to the Hypergrid there is the possibility of more individual groups becoming official affiliates of Elf Clan.  All that is required is to abide by the Elf Clan Charter (present on our website), and hang a banner at the landing point.  Beyond that, each land owner is sovereign over their land, as has been the way since the beginning of these virtual worlds.  They are free to choose whatever theme, role play or genre they prefer within the published family-friendly guidelines.  We even encourage special requests if a new theme is desired.

Have you started to establish a network across Hypergrid with other Elf Clan role players, I asked and he replied, "Inworldz has been offline for a bit over five weeks... so we're still just trying to set up the foundation of things.  It took us some time to research other grids and learn about OpenSim, the Hypergrid, VARs, OARs, IARs etc... which was fairly new to us in detailed concept.  Bit of a learning curve, but not bad.   However we have set up an affiliate program presented on our website (http://elfclan.spruz.com) and people are starting to join that program."

I understand you had help from Digiworldz and Kitely but what made you decide to set up in OSgrid, I asked and again I got a detailed reply, "The folks at Kitely, DigiWorldz and 3rd Rock all three have been very friendly and welcoming.  We could not have asked for warmer welcome, better assistance, or people who answered our questions with spot-on tech... not to mention just basic friendship.   We hope to have our members set up affiliate regions on all of these grids."

...Regarding OSgrid... the most unexpected thing can press the right button at the right time.   Long-time Elf Clan member Koni Lanzius had been only partially-active on Inworldz Elf Clan for quite some time.  I knew she had set up home lands on OSgrid and was spending most of her time on that project.  I had visited them from time to time, but it was in earlier days, the lands were laggy, very buggy, and I was still Inworldz-closed-grid mentality.  I honestly never paid it much attention-- although in reality she was accomplishing some amazing things there.

...After Inworldz self-destructed Koni mentioned, "You know, you could set up your own region server on OSgrid and have total control over your lands... and own a VAR as well."   That's all it took. The light went on, the bell rang, and for the first time (now that we were looking for an alternative to Inworldz)  I decided to check in to it.   I asked her to give me a tour of her lands once again (ElvenWorld).  When I saw what she had accomplished there I knew that OSgrid would work for our needs:  that of setting up Elf Clan's home lands with total control over our historic group assets.  We had a meeting of the Eldar and it was unanimously agreed.   In addition the Eldar then discussed the needs of the rest of our group.  We realized our members all had different requirements, different desires, and that we were no longer locked into one grid.  That is when we realized we could set up the Elf Clan group on multiple grids and expand everywhere.  For the first time in our history, Elf Clan is no longer "land-locked".   Our group is a concept that can exist on any grid and our members travel by means of the Hypergrid.   That has been a most liberating experience.

I was pleased to learn the Clan had settled in OSgrid which I think suits them given it is a community share and share-alike grid with plenty of Hypergrid traffic. I set out from my own personal mini grid at Farworldz to visit the new Elf Clan regions and took some great pictures as you see. Some are of Elven Forest were particularly good and I learned from Wayfinder that Elven Forest is a part of the ElvenWorld VAR owned by Koni Lanzius. "I am pleased to announce she has registered those lands as the first of our affiliates-- with the Elf Clan Welcome Banner at her landing point." he said.

I am personally thrilled that Wayfinder and the Elf Clan have settled in an Opensim grid that is open to Hypergrid and I have to pay tribute to them for their ability to keep going despite the let down's and huge expense they have had to suffered. Perhaps now they are free to control their own destiny in the open Metaverse they will flourish and go on to greater things. I'm sure they will and they certainly deserve it.