Archive for September, 2009
Although my work recently has been in Second Life, I knew that it is not the only virtual world around; just perhaps the largest and better known. Many other worlds use similar technology, such as OpenSim to create the world, and will look like Second Life when logged in. This reduces the differences in user experience between worlds; users create their avatar in the same way, and use the same tools for content creation, including LSL (Linden Scripting Language) for coding. I had already come across ReactionGrid, and made an avatar there, before discovering Microsoft’s plans to move their Virtual World Presence from Second Life to ReactionGrid.
ReactionGrid is more focussed on education than Second Life, allowing users to learn and collaborate in a family friendly environment, in a way that Second Life cannot provide. As Second Life is an adult world, for users over the age of 18, it is not possible for educators to work alongside students who are under 18. The separate TeenGrid, run by Linden Labs, is for teenagers aged 13 to 17; while it is possible for educators to gain access, this is not easy. For users of Second Life who would still prefer a family friendly environment, maturity ratings are not often enforced, as there is no requirement too, so they may still experience content they do not wish to see. Another issue stems from Second Life being run by Linden Labs, who maintain overall control of the world, including of sims, units of virtual land, that users may purchase. If Linden Labs decides to perform maintenance on their servers, this may leave users unable to access their land. It was frustrating experiences such as this when trying to hold business meetings that ReactionGrid was born out of in mid-2008.
It began as a single server running open-source software, including OpenSim and SQLite, to get it started quickly and offer more control than is possible in Second Life. This was only capable of hosting a small world with no more than 6 avatars logged in at once, so a solution was needed to let ReactionGrid grow. It was Microsoft technology that provided this, with Team ReactionGrid developing a way to enable Microsoft SQL Server 2005 to work with OpenSim, as before this was not possible, and increasing the number of servers used. They even offered the developed code to the OpenSim community, to allow others to make use of Microsoft SQL Server, so that larger worlds can be created.
ReactionGrid continued to grow, thanks once more to developments from Microsoft, Windows Server 2008 with Hyper-V technology and SQL Server 2008. This virtualisation technology has allowed multiple virtual machines to be run on a single physical server, each with it’s own SQL database, reducing costs considerably. ReactionGrid now has over 1000 customers occupying 120 sims, each supporting 15 concurrent users, and saw a 200% jump in sales of sim packages since moving to Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008.
Perhaps the biggest indication of this success is Microsoft’s announcement earlier this month that it plans to shut down Microsoft Island on Second Life on October 31st, 2009, and move to Reaction Grid. This move will mean that Microsoft’s virtual world resence will exist in a virtual world that runs entirely on a Microsoft platform, and most likely give Microsoft more freedom within the world than they had in Second Life. I’m sure with how limited Second Life can be, even a company such as Microsoft would have found Second Life too restrictive, or simply too expensive, for any gains received. On October 31st, Microsoft are holding a farewell/welcome party on both Microsoft Island in Second Life, and on ReactionGrid, to celebrate the move, with the chance to win freebies during the event, including a full copy of Visual Studio 2008 Professional!
More details of ReactionGrid can be found here and on their website, including instructions on accessing the world. For those who use Second Life, it is possible to use your existing Second Life client, modifying the shortcut to connect to ReactionGrid (Instructions here). If you use an alternative viewer, such as the Hippo Client or Cool Viewer then you will be able to connect to ReactionGrid by adding it to the grid list, or selecting it if the entry already exists. I definitely recommend you check out ReactionGrid, especially if you are looking at virtual worlds from an educational perspective, as for this purpose, it looks to be less restrictive than Second Life, and have far more potential, as it continues to grow!
As recently I’d been devoting more time to revising for my final two exams, I’d had less involvement with the MUVEnation project. Once my exams were over, just about signalling the end of my undergraduate degree, it was time to jump back in and continue with the work. Fortunately this coincided with an in-world meeting with the other participants at Reading, to discuss progress. As I would discover, while I’d been away from the project, much progress had been made.
During an earlier ‘real world’ meeting, it was decided that not only should we review existing tools, but we should also be thinking of ideas for tools we could design and build ourselves. Many of these revolved around organising meetings and discussions, so that the conversations could be logged and to give all participants the chance to speak fairly without interruption. To that end, there were two tools being demonstrated here, each of which aimed at solving part, or all, of this problem.
The first tool was something along the lines of a HUD that used a separate chat channel. I believe this would allow a speaker to send messages out on a specific channel, so that all users wearing the HUD would receive them. Global chat would then be left free for other conversations, without disrupting the flow of the speaker. Unfortunately this demo didn’t go as smoothly, perhaps because its creator is relatively new to Second Life. It looked promising though and we look forward to a second demonstration in the near future.
The second tool, well, right from the start, clearly was made by someone who knows Second Life inside out, perhaps indicated by the fact they were giving this demonstration, not in humanoid form, but in canine form. What’s more is their comment about it, how when looking through the existing tools they saw a possible gap, and thought they’d put something together that would do the job. We didn’t know they had made anything until this point, and to think that they just made it because they felt like it, as if it was a simple thing to do, definitely shows me I have a lot lot more to learn about Second Life.
The tool itself was a discussion moderation/organisation system, which not only included a means of giving all participants a fair chance to speak, but also a complete and customisable seating arena. Each can operate separately, or be used together, depending on what is needed. The arena I thought was very novel, consisting of multiple curved rectangular prims of various sizes. First various parameters are specified, to a base prim, such as the number of rows and how much of the circle to build. Once entered, you just stand back and watch as the right number of prims are automatically created and put in the correct position to form the arena. These then act as seats, so all participants are sitting facing a central spot.
The discussion moderation came from a simple box shaped object that was placed on the floor in the centre of the seating arena. A person who wanted to speak would click on the green box to add their name to the list. When it was their turn to speak, their name would be displayed above the box. Once they had finished speaking, they would click the red box to remove themselves from the list. If they were in the queue but did not want to speak, they could also click the red box to remove themselves early. It was pointed out that this required certain social rules to be followed, as the boxes did not prevent anyone from talking and interrupting someone. But it did make it clear who was meant to be speaking, so there would not be confusion with many people trying to talk at once, and would make it clear if someone was speaking out of turn.
These tools, along with any more that are developed, will then form part of the University of Reading’s contribution to the MUVEnation/LLL3D project. I’m looking forward to see what else is developed, and the working demonstration of the HUD tool. For the time being that leaves me continuing to review the existing educational tools, as unfortunately, while I was away, that was not completed as I thought it might be.