Town Hall Wishlist!

In a Hebrew building in the middle of an Islam regionAs promised, Philip Linden is holding his first Town Hall meeting after coming back as interim CEO. While I personally subscribe to the mainstream opinion that this is going to be mostly the announcement that Bob Komin (aka BK Linden) is going to replace Philip as the new CEO — if not this Friday, possibly in the near future.

In the mean time, while Philip is temporarily at the helm, he’s seen as the Miracle Man, a sort of Jesus Christ on His Second Coming, who will finally get everything right. There is a whole load of extreme expectations regarding what miracles Philip will perform. A few are worth reading about and have been posted on Philip’s former article two weeks ago. If you read them carefully, you’ll notice that many have actually opposing goals! This is not surprising. The end result, of course, will be that Philip will be unable to please everybody. Some will be incredibly disappointed as he picks an option that was not on our list — but that’s unavoidable.

Well, even as an optimist, I’m not expecting much, or rather, I’m really not expecting anything at all — I think that Philip will leave his post as interim CEO before he can actually do something. This phase is mostly focused on good PR, both externally and internally. We still get reports from Lindens on their office hours who admit they’re not sure on what they should be working on; but most report that at least for now they feel better about the whole situation. From the side of the residents, it’s clear that Philip is a very strong positive motivator. Although the number of simultaneously logged-in residents continues slowly to drop, the whole expectation seems to be working fine. For the past few weeks, I have heard about more people willing to remain around and see where LL is heading next before making the decision to simply go away and move to, say, the next OpenSim grid around the corner. Landowners might not be exactly buying up everything they can see in sight, but at least they’re willing to hold a bit longer before selling to see how the market evolves. Content creators might not be exactly engaging into a new boom of product releases, but they’re also postponing any major decision to cut costs, shut down shops, and limit their creative output. In a sense, the whole virtual world is collectively holding its breath and waiting to see what happens next.

Philip suggested that the Lab’s major issue to tackle is to “fight lag”. This is encouraging, but it is also very vague. Lag is 99% subjective and 1% objective metrics; ironically, the more you use SL, the less you’re annoyed about lag, because it simple becomes “part of the SL experience”, for better or for worse. The more familiar you’re with your SL viewer, the better you know how to tweak it. The longer you’ve been developing content for SL, the more tricks and tips you know about how to reduce lag in your sim, and so forth. Nevertheless, lag hasn’t disappeared just because we care a bit less about it. I might say that if there is n area where lag has certainly increased, no matter how much we tweak our viewer, it’s on avatar lag. But… that would make a whole new essay 🙂

I’ll restrict myself to the opinions vented on the comments on Philip’s other articles. It seems that issues related to the viewer are at the top of most residents’ mind. Comparisons with Emerald show that changing viewer will at least improve (personal) lag. On the other hand, the more people move over to Emerald, the less likely LL will be able to fix their own viewer… So, based on that assumption, and knowing fully well that LL will not do anything I suggest below, here goes my personal wishlist:

  1. Buy Modular Systems (the owners of Emerald). Put their employees to work for LL.
  2. Hire Katharine Berry as project manager for the viewer development. Before leaving Modular Systems she pretty much handled on her own the release of the latest Emerald Beta.
  3. Drop Snowglobe and rebrand Emerald as the new Snowglobe 1.5. Start working on Snowglobe 2.2 which will build on the Snowglobe 2.1 code base, but present a 1.23-like interface. Remember, what people hate about 2.X is its interface. The user doesn’t need to know what’s underneath it.
  4. This means accelerating the client-side plugin system (which is under discussion with the AWGroupies — well, “discussion” is a nice word to describe the usual LL monologue). The whole interface should just become a plugin, and residents would never notice the difference.
  5. Start doing the open source development like any other company does (e.g. WordPress from Automattic or FireFox from the Mozilla Foundation): this means a single repository where all developers submit code, instead of each having their own fork of the code. Once Emerald is “absorbed” under the Linden umbrella, it will facilitate the transition to a company-driven open source effort (the only approach, IMHO, that leads to results). This means forgetting about the eternity it takes to get a single line of code patched into the code! Keep the insane, NASA-style Quality Assurance for the stable viewers, and just let Snowglobe be user-contributed like crazy, with nightly downloads where all code is properly patched as soon as a patch is developed. Encourage experimentation and crazy ideas (who knows, bouncing boobies might not be that bad, and saving your own content to disk is not such a nightmare), while still offering the stable versions as a separate branch for education, research, and corporate use, as well as to all residents who prefer stability over insane features that might just crash your computer all the time.
  6. Buy Unity3D and/or DAZ3D. Lots of good people there! DAZ3D’s own CEO might even be a good candidate for becoming CEO of LL.
  7. Start working on a new viewer, Firestorm (gah, someone already picked up that good name for a 3D engine!). This will use Unity3D as rendering engine and libopenmetaverse to provide access to the SL Protocol. The goal: real competitors to LL (specially on academics, but not only there…) are all using Unity3D. It’s the “silent” competition. Unity3D has slowly persuaded, over the past two years, that most projects really don’t need the complexity of SL to work (see below why). By doing a Unity3D-based viewer to connect LL, the competition would simply be wiped away. Extra bonus: yes, it would get us SL on the iPhone/iPad, Android, Wii, and on the Web. All at the same time for no extra development costs.
  8. Another issue which is constantly being repeated on all those comments is the high cost of tier, and people threatening to move to OpenSim. Well, two can play that game. Launch your own OpenSim grid at a very low cost — say, US$15-25/month for a full sim with 45,000 prims. Use your old, obsoleted servers. But to remain competitive, allow avatars on this OpenSim grid to have full access to their SL inventories! At a stroke, this would wipe out all OpenSim wannabe grid operators. Most SL residents want whole empty sims to build with their limited group of friends and are not really worried if the sims can handle a high load; their sims will remain empty 20 out of 24 hours per day. OpenSim is perfect for them, and you can easily launch some hundred sims from an obsolete Class 3 or 4 server. For an extra US$10/month or so, allow Hypergrid teleports from other OpenSim grids to the LL one, but not the reverse. (Note: this will make the other OpenSim grid operators extremely annoyed! *cackles evilly*)
  9. Implement single sign-on using Janrain to get people to create their new accounts on SL far more quicklier. I’ve discussed why this is so important more fully on the Alphaville Herald.
  10. Hire Babbage and Pastrami back. We need Mono working, and meshes have to be usable before it’s too late. Think about what a nice world this would be if all 250-prim-hair (each prim with a script!) could be reduced to just a nice, flexible mesh, with several attachment points. And oh yes, this also means a revolution in the way the fashion industry will do future clothing — we need that to keep SL avatars at the forefront of beauty (while the rest of the industry — possibly with the exception of Blue Mars! — prefers to focus on cartoonish avatars instead) while not compromising lag.

And that’s it. I think I covered pretty much everything, from the first-hour experience (SSO, SL-on-the-Web), to avatars (meshes), to a better open source strategy, to fighting the Emerald menace, to fashion and innovative content creation, to lag (meshes again), and to lower overall tier costs for eager residents who don’t want to spend much. Can you do that all in a year? Yes, you can: just hire the right CEO for the job 🙂

Of course I’m aware that since none of the above items will be on LL’s priorities… what about a much shorter list instead?

  1. Listen to your residents. Start accepting that they know far better what SL is all about than what you do. It’s not shameful to be ignorant; but it’s stupid to refuse to learn!
  2. Don’t assume things are “too complicated” to refuse to communicate them to your residents. Remember, these are the people who have successfully reverse-engineered your proprietary communication protocol and launched a competing open source product that can be used with your own viewer. We’re not stupid, we just might have limited information, but we still have a rather thorough understanding of the underlying complexities of SL. We’re all rocket scientists here, and while we might not have the blueprints for the Space Shuttle, we can still figure out how it works from external observation.

That, at least, should be doable 🙂

Let’s all enjoy the Town Hall meeting next Friday 🙂

A small note on why Unity3D is currently LL’s second largest competitor (the largest is OpenSim). For many corporations and educational projects, being immersed in a virtual world is hardly a requirement. Often a stand-alone solution for simulation and training is more than adequate. In SL, there is a lot of content available — even free content — but Google Warehouse, among other similar sites, has far more interesting content from the perspective of a researcher, who is usually underfunded and doesn’t have a budget to develop expensive content, even in SL, where content creation is cheap.

This is a change from the 2006/7 days, where organisations were willing to invest “millions” in creating their presence in SL, while knowing that doing the same thing on a different platform would cost them “tens (or hundreds!) of millions”. These days, at least in my personal experience, projects are once again very small, and fall in the range of Web-based projects, which for years have been in the “thousands” range. A researcher in an university or a consultant in a corporation will thus have to deal with fitting all the requirements of their project into the very tight budget they’ve got.

In SL, besides having to hire people to build for you, you’ll have to pay tier — a lot of tier, which is also expensive, and is something you have to pay every month no matter how much you actually use the project. Since you cannot backup and restore your content in SL, this means that solutions like pay-per-use are pretty much impossible using SL. Also, for most corporate/academic projects, the necessity of dealing with the rest of the virtual world — like having a permanent staff to answer questions from potential SL visitors — is too expensive. And finally, of course, due to firewall restrictions, restrictions on software you can install on your office computer, or simply dealing with the advent of the immensely popular low-cost, under-US$400 laptops, who rarely can run SL, this also means that a SL-based solution might not work at all, even with a larger budget.

By contrast, Unity3D works as a stand-alone solution, and doesn’t require tier payments. It can import models from everywhere — specially open-source, low-quality models which can quickly be used to deploy on a virtual world, and which are quickly located and downloaded from Google Warehouse. Its license is rather cheap. It works across almost all platforms natively — Windows, Mac, iPhone/iPad, Android, Wii, to name a few — but also thanks to a Web plugin, it can work on pretty much anything which has a browser. All this saves a tremendous amount of costs and simplifies the deployment. Unity3D also works on multi-player mode if that’s required; theoretically, whole virtual worlds could be developed around Unity3D, but usually that’s rarely a requirement — or, at least, based on the projects I’ve seen, they rarely worry about that.

So, no, corporations and educational organisations are not moving to Blue Mars at all, nor to other more popularly imagined competitors. The real choice is between OpenSim and Unity3D. When the project demands a stand-alone version, or has inadequate funding to pay for complex buildings, Unity3D will beat OpenSim all the time, since you can easily use meshes from Google Warehouse if needed, and Unity3D works much better as a stand-alone configuration than OpenSim (which also supports it, but it’s a nightmare to configure).

By creating a new viewer based on the Unity3D renderer, LL would effectively recover the loss of clients who just go to Unity3D because of its extra features (and not necessarily because it has a “better” renderer). By launching its own OpenSim grid, LL would continue to compete on the low-cost alternatives of running one’s own OpenSim grid. By providing both services at the same time, there would be no more excuses to abandon LL at all in search of cheaper alternatives.

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