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!