Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The BIG and the small struggle

As part of my very first post I said that Virtual Worlds are now entering that part of the business process where performance is required.

When you require performance you require more efficiency. And more efficiency on the market.

I remember my first Real World/Virtual World conference in some rank club in London. We were setup besides Forterra and their platform Olive. Very nice guys and at this time they were the only major players in the forum. The rest of us were SL Developers or Flash worlds sort of thing.

I was very impressed with their software, thought the graphics were less than SL however what looked possible looked great. Then we started talking about money.

  • The license was X
  • The build was Y
  • The support was Z
I was shocked.. the old scots in me came out ... "HOW MUCH?" but then I seen their client list. I was just as shocked, Governments, Local Authorities, Training and Simulation. All markets I wanted to get Second Places into. However we were stuck then with just Second Life and no SLA's hence no real competition for Forterra.

But things have changed in the past 3 years. There are a lot of Virtual Worlds out there that will allow companies like Second Places to develop and market on the backs of their Virtual World.

Systems like OpenSim, Unity 3-D to name a few and more coming out every day. Allowing us, as developers, the ability to host, build and supply to the market.

But it is sad news never the less that there are twitters and blogs that Forterra are reducing in size with the possibilities of lay offs and possible sale.

Forterra were the behind firewall solution providers when Second Life was still in nappies. Olive and There never got the publicity SL got from the media but they did have the clients that Second Life could only dream about.

So its not confirmed but it looks like the Forterra I was so jealous of 3 years ago is going another direction.

But as the market develops and grows the market changes as well.

We will see quite a lot of this as the market starts to look for return rather than just doing.

Its all about me!

So why should you read this blog?

Some background on myself, professionally of course....

I started in IT after completing a B.Sc. Honors Degree in Computer Science. The difference between the theory and my first job just proved that uni is a place to prove you can learn.

My first employment was with the local council (I'll leave them nameless for now). And it showed me its not the number of people working in IT its how the IT works. I learned more from this mess than I did in 4 years at uni.

I then moved into IT in the Oil and Gas sector. Living in Aberdeen there is not much else. But it was great. Well rewarded and tolerated no slacking, so I was happy to work every hour I could as the results were always positive. Spending money was not a problem if you could show the return. Which has translated into my motto

Show the return and companies will show you the money.

5 Years ago I became IT Administrator for CAD in a very large engineering company. My role was to look after the 200+ CAD designers, all of which used different CAD software packages.

So I started by trying to get people to use the same package. The return was that people then could move from project to project without the need for retraining. It went great.

Next was a document management system. As we now had 200+ CAD designers using the same package we had to make sure we didn't have people using the same drawing. Again this 1/4 million project was approved and saved the company millions.

It was at this time people were starting to ask for 3-d CAD drawings. P&ID were already using semi 3-d but for those big players they wanted the shiny toys. So we looked at the £24k a seat packages and I was blown away with how RUBBISH they were.

I started researching 3-D and came across Linden Labs Second Life. An internet based 3-D virtual world. I wrote a presentation and paper for the director. However it was shot down in flames, for reasons at the time I thought were poor.

A year later after making quite a bit of money for myself in Second Life I resigned my full time job and setup a private limited company. Our first big break was Jimmy Carr Live in Second Life.

It was great! This was at the height of the Second Life media love in. I loved SL and what was possible. I was involved in some of the largest builds in SL. I even created a RP game over 10 islands. I was getting cheques from LL every month for hundreds of pounds and we had signed up some nice companies.

However at this time there were other "companies" who grabbed the larger names in the world of marketing. And got them into SL. It was the "you just have to do this" line. Companies came in and looked happy. But after 3 months someone pointed out to them that there was no return. It was just money out the door. They got no marketing material, no personal information, all they got told was that x amount of people came.

Other large companies were employing "wee joe" working out of his bedroom, and some massive disasters were caused.

In 2007 80% of our business came from companies who had used XYZ and they had let them down or their event had been a failure due to bad security, bad management, bad marketing.. or just BAD

We always had our businesses create communities throw a minimum of weekly events, we would supply security (your inviting the public into your brand). This was before twitter but we had 30 people turn up to talk to a marketing director of a small advertising agency in Scotland just because they could. Twitter now shows us that everyone is important to other people.

So the SL Bubble burst and the companies walked away. We still had ours and most of them are still there doing events keeping people involved.

Education is a market that I see Virtual Worlds as being the answer to a lot of problems. I have an 8 year old who comes home and wants to play Club Pengiun. TV to him is a punishment, something we do as a family.

He comes home from School hyper the 1 day in a blue moon they get to use the computer. This generation no longer wants to sit and be lectured to, they want to touch it, see it.. BREAK it. And there is no reason they can't.

However SL is not a place for children to play. The teen grid was just silly. And with all the benefits of SL I was not going to let my kid play in SL without me over their shoulder. Anyone could be anyone!

People have said that is why SL is great. I don't argue that point. My point is that Parents and Companies WANT TO KNOW exactly who people are.

The birth of OpenSim was just wonderful. It gave us as a company exactly what we needed. Schools, businesses etc could ask the questions they wanted before people could enter their world. It is based on SL so people don't have to reinvent the wheel. It could be hosted by us so we could supply the client with SLA's.

OpenSim has opened a market for the public outside of SL, cheaper and imho better.

But I am not here to celebrate public grids, I am happy to celebrate public grids that use OpenSim as proof what OpenSim can do. Or any other virtual world out there.

I am here to push the developers, the dreamers, the brains that although the public are important you have to prove to companies the educators that there is a secure, private, stable virtual world platform and company out there that has 5 years experience of Virtual Worlds in all shapes and forms. Have seen the right thing to do and more importantly THE WRONG THING.

So I hope you read and watch what we are doing as a company, what the market is changing into, how you can use virtual worlds, how others are using it and remember

2011 is the year of the avatar.

Monday, 21 December 2009

The Slope of Enlightenment to the Plateau of Productivity

So Virtual Worlds has had its Peak of Inflated Expectations,is now well past its Trough of Disillusionment and we are finally able to show business and educators the return on their investment. The "hype" cycle of Virtual Worlds has now become the steady completion of projects that may not get the media interested but does show the REAL uses of Virtual Worlds.

When Second Life hit the media spotlight everyone ran in talking about its wonders and uses. This led large multi national companies to join Second Life and start setting up. However, this inflated expectations. People expected that virtual worlds would take over from the information overloaded internet and attract communication with people from all over the world. And it did!

The problem was that Second Life gave people from all over the world anonymity. And when you give people anonymity real world social etiquette goes out of the door. We have all heard of the stories of "internet bravado" where normal mild mannered people, who can hide behind their computer, become the biggest idiots the world has ever seen. Companies were setting up shop and being told hundreds of people were visiting their island, however they had no way of getting the information they cared about. They also had to watch that people were not “picketing” their island sprouting uncouth language and down talking their products, everything that is possible in the real world. However our own manners wouldn’t let us do it for fear of embarrassment, personal reactions or any other number of reasons why we just write a complaint and never "picket" the local shop when something goes wrong.

With an internet page you are able to record (roughly) how many people have visited, how long they stayed and where they were from. The businesses could use that information for marketing and seeing what people were searching for. However with Second Life the anonymity meant that businesses had no traceability and as such could not see a return on investment. They quickly folded up their islands and went back to web 1.0.

Second Places knew that Virtual Worlds was still the future, but it was never a replacement to the Internet. It was to be more specialised towards certain markets. There are two major markets that Second Places has concentrated upon. Education and Simulation.

Second Life was not an ideal solution to these markets. With one of our clients (BP) they wanted to talk to people using their real names and every meeting started with 10 minutes of everyone saying who they were in real life and the confusion when someone would address them as their avatar’s name rather than real name. With education, secondary schools could not get 17 year olds to mix with 18 year olds even if they were in the same class due to the "teengrid"

We waited for Linden Lab to produce the behind fire wall solution "Nebraska". However, when it came out, it was far too restrictive and far too costly.

We went on to use Active Worlds, THERE and a few others. However we then started researching OpenSim. As I say during my sales speech, "it looks like Second Life, it acts like Second Life, in fact it even smells like Second Life but we can control it!"

This was an awesome product, sure it was still in alpha mode, but open source software like this will never be anything but "use at your own risk". We have spent time testing what is and what is not possible. We have our technology officer now an active member of the community. And we have nothing but 100% trust in this product.

So we have gone to all our clients to speak of the virtue of OpenSim. And most have been happy to move to this platform. It gives everything that educators want.

  • Branding
  • Security
  • The Ability to do everything they could do in SL
  • Allow the use of real names
  • No age restrictions (we had a sixth form college whose ages are 16-19, no use for either teen or main SL grid).
  • The ability to setup word filters, location filters, allow parents in at certain times while banning public so there is never any kid – adult interaction (even child parent) unless it's a teacher.

However we still had one problem. Content! We had schools interested but the content they wanted to see was always expensive to recreate for each school. Experiments we did for some schools would cost up to £10,000 and that was very much cost restrictive. They may only use these experiments 4 or 5 times in a school year.

Although many people dream of virtual worlds where you can leave one and enter another the practicality of this for secure and safe browsing, especially for children will put educators off. So we have to figure out a way to bring the content to the schools own grid, easily and automatically when the school, class, teacher or even student wants it.

So that leads us to where we are now.

The Content Grid

On the 4th of December 2009 Second Places will open live beta testing of "The Content Grid". Based upon the OpenSim platform where schools can sign up automatically to gain their own private island and then gain access to a web based marketplace, where they can rent or purchase other islands that can be automatically added on to their own island creating a grid of islands with content specific to what that school wants. All within the secure schools environment where they will have even more security options.

We will allow schools and other developers the ability to create more content islands and enter them on to the content grids marketplace. Setting up price to allow other schools to purchase or rent islands. All transactions will be real world transactions. When an island is purchased or rented it will automatically appear on the school’s grid and if an island is rented for a period of time at the end of the time the island will just vanish from that school's grid.

Developers will be able to upgrade their islands so schools can gain access to more and more content from more and more developers as more schools request it. To create new content you will require a SDK (software development kit) that will allow your island to fit into the content grid marketplace and the school’s own grid. There is no restriction on the price developers wish to charge schools.

We have been working with a few educators to come up with this product. Schools are very interested in paying developers to create content that won't be as expensive, as the developer now has the ability to sell the content to more than one school.

The Content Grid Module

"The Content Grid" is not just for primary and secondary educators. The ability for companies to have their own grid and allow developers to develop content to sell to these companies opens up a massive opportunity to small developers who do not have the infrastructure or resources to market their wares in OpenSim.

Each grid will be private to the client, so access to it will be secure and use their login principles they use currently (CANVAS is the first island that will be able to use the content grid and it currently has 350,000 users who do not require a new password or user names as it integrates with the LTS GLOW learning portal).

We are looking for beta testing developers who would be willing to transfer their content from Second Life to the SDK or create brand new content. We already have plenty of schools signed up for the beta. If you think you have content that you would like to showcase as part of the beta (real money transactions will not be switched on for beta) then please contact Mark Duffy (info@secondplaces.net).