A brief survey of emerging uses for OpenSim July 18, 2008Posted by justincc in opensim.
I thought I would write to write a post today about some of the ways I’ve seen in which people are starting to use OpenSim. Some of these, such as education, you can find on the Linden grid today. Others, however, make use of the unique features of the OpenSim platform in comparison to Linden Lab’s grid (for example, the freedom to extend it, run it standalone, and connect it to self hosted secure data repositiories).
I’ve divided uses of the OpenSim platform into three broad categories – education, grids and applications. Here, an application is a system which builds within or on top of OpenSim to achieve some specific single purpose (such as data center management, or fashion design).
These lists are by no means complete – so comments about different uses that I haven’t covered would be most welcome.
Educators always seem to be at the forefront in experimenting with virtual world technology, and OpenSim is no exception (those other great innovators, pornographers, have been somewhat absent). For instance, OpenHabitat is a collaborative project between 5 different universities (including Oxford university, which I currently attend part time) exploring the use of Multi User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) for creative online collaboration. Dave Cormier from the project has written a number of blog posts, such as this one, about his experiences with OpenSim, as has Ian Truelove. Overall they seem very positive about OpenSim even though the software is still at the alpha stage. Ian, for instance, talks about the very constructive experiences that students had in the system, and how it helped them get used to the environment before stepping into the Linden grid’s rather notorious orientation islands (an old post I know, but to my knowledge things haven’t got any better – it’s a long time since I last did orientation though :-).
As well as direct teaching and collaboration, OpenSim is also being used for museum oriented applications. The Living Archives project, for instance, is a very interesting Canadian project which uses OpenSim to help bring Prince Edward Island to life at the turn of the 20th century.
Much of this activity is similar to the way that educators already use Second Life on the Linden Lab’s grid. However, though the server software isn’t yet up to the same quality as Linden Lab’s servers, it has the advantage of allowing you to let teens, children and adults on to the same simulator (which I believe isn’t allowed in Linden Lab’s Terms Of Service). It also allows you more control the education experience (for instance, there’s a much lower chance of avatars wandering off elsewhere, or encountering unwelcome visitors). And, of course, you can have as much land as you like (give everybody their own region!), though you will either have to host it yourself or find someone to do it for you.
One of the obvious uses for OpenSim is in the creation of independent virtual world grids, using OpenSim’s grid mode. These grids vary depending on many different factors, such as whether they allow individuals to connect their own region servers and whether they charge for connection or accept donations. Examples include OSGrid, which I’ve written about before, OpenLife Grid, the New World Grid and Tribalnet. I expect we’ll see many other grids spring up in the next year.
To look at it from another angle, increasing numbers of people are deploying the region server on its own, with the asset, inventory and other grid services supplied by a third party (the grid). It will be interesting to see if large centralized grid services emerge (on the par with Linden’s centralized services). I haven’t thought about this area very deeply, but to me it seems quite likely – I think the economics of scale will favour a few large cloud services over a multitude of small providers. These will be used in common by many grids (or possibly directly by many consumers, especially in the case of inventory services). In this model, Amazon S3, to give one example, could be the base of a very effective asset hosting service.
One OpenSim use case that I haven’t written about explicitly are the social applications. With the possible exception of education (which is an inherently social activity), I don’t know of any primarily socially oriented programs. However, one could argue that an OpenSim grid is one big social application – it allows avatars to meet and go to events just as on the Linden grid. At the moment, the scale of OpenSim grids is probably too small for the network effects of people joining to really take hold. But as OpenSim grids continue to mature this is bound to fuel their growth (especially when we get to the stage where grids are interconnected). And, of course, grids are really OpenSim meta-applications, many of the other uses of OpenSim I’ve talked about elsewhere in this post can take place on a grid (although data security may be a concern), thus opening it up to the attention and collaboration of the many other individuals in the interconnected virtual world.
I also want to give a quick mention of people who are using OpenSim to design content offline before importing it into a grid (whether an OpenSim grid or the Linden Labs grid). As OpenSim improves this is becoming increasingly feasible, especially with the advent of tools such as the proprietary Second Inventory that allow one to import and export items owned by an avatar via a client side interface.
We’We’re starting to see some very interesting applications start to emerge for OpenSim. One is the IBM 3D Data Center created by Michael Osias (disclaimer, I work for IBM in my day job). The 3D Data Center aims to bring together data from both hardware and software systems within OpenSim using the metaphor of a data center. Here, the integrated system data can be easily visualized, avatars can collaborate over managment, and simulations can be run. The application largely uses LSL scripts to integrate with backend systems, and doesn’t require any special viewer functionality over that which comes as standard with the Linden viewer. This is an application that exists today and has already been sold to customers.
Shenlei Flasheart from the Fashion Research Institute (FRI) has ambitious future plans for building on top of OpenSim (another disclaimer, FRI have a development contract with IBM). As she writes in a blog post, the FRI plans to develop an application which can bring the design process of a very visual industry, the fashion industry, into the virtual world. Instead of performing each stage of fashion item design in a disconnected offline program, the virtual world will bring them altogether, from conception to blueprints and bill of materials, into one seamless 3D process. As well as allowing for considerable gains in production efficiency, she envisages that this will enhance collaboration and vastly increase the transparency of the design process for management oversight.
In the application arena, I also want to give a mention to Darb Dabney’s experiments using OpenSim for Geospatial Information Services (GIS). Very interesting stuff, especially the idea of doing 1:1 mapping in virtual worlds for applications such as municipal planning.
There’s quite a lot of activity around OpenSim already and I think things are going to significantly pick up over the coming year. As an open source project, OpenSim, in conjunction with a Second Life viewer, represents a significant stock of value which gives any company building a grid or application within or on top of it a significant development boost, especially as the base platform becomes more stable and modular.