Virtual Worlds | Feature

Next Stop: OpenSim!

An emerging virtual world platform is the destination of droves of emigrant avatars, as a price hike and the shutdown of the teen-only grid have prompted an educator exodus away from Second Life.

Don't tell Kyle Gomboy about any depression in the real estate market. That may be the case in the terrestrial world, but out in the cloud Gomboy is moving virtual property like never before.

The CEO of virtual world hosting service ReactionGrid, Gomboy and his team currently operate more than 100 private regions for educators in the ascendant virtual environment platform OpenSimulator, and, Gomboy says, are renting out space to three to five new schools each week.

Why all the new settlers converging on OpenSim?

They're part of a wave of K-12 educators packing up their 3D content and moving away from Second Life, long the dominant virtual world. The mass migration was prompted by parent company Linden Lab's announcement in August that it would be closing the Teen Grid, an area within Second Life reserved for 13- to 17-year-olds and home to hundreds of learning projects belonging to teachers intent on engaging their students through the 3D environment. A second blow came in the fall--the ending of the half-off educator discount, meaning property rates in Second Life would be doubling for K-12 institutions, from $150 a month per region to $300 a month.

The two actions, both effective in January, sent educators scrambling for an alternative, and many of them have found one in OpenSim, an open source virtual world platform that schools can run for free on their own servers or can get cheaply and quickly--the space can be up and running within a day--from any number of hosting vendors like ReactionGrid.

"And they need absolutely zero technical skills," Gomboy says. "If you're used to Second Life, it's easy."

There you have a large part of the reason for OpenSim's appeal. Launched three years ago by a loose coalition of Second Life dwellers--programmers, academics, and Intel and IBM employees--whose goal was to make virtual worlds accessible to a wider group of people, it is the only platform designed to mimic Second Life. In fact, it uses the same viewers and browsers that Second Life does. Educators looking to leave Second Life can readily transfer their skills and experience, as well as much of their existing content, to OpenSim. That compatibility sets it apart from other open source virtual world platforms available to educators. For example, Open Wonderland, which has gained traction as a tool for teaching virtual world programming (see "Alice in Open Wonderland," below), uses a different interface from the one employed by Second Life, and its content is mismatched as well. Building in Open Wonderland isn't done with the blocks and spheres common to Second Life and OpenSim, so objects can't simply be moved from Second Life to Open Wonderland. They have to be rebuilt using third-party 3D design software, and then imported.

The Promise of Hypergridding

One powerful edge OpenSimulator has over Second Life, and every other virtual environment, is that it is the first and only platform that allows for hypergridding--which is to say that OpenSim users can seamlessly teleport from one world to another. In practice, what this means for K-12 interests is that students can take field trips from their home base to any of hundreds of other virtual environments already running on the platform, including scientific simulations, museums, and, of course, other schools. For example, students can teleport from their school's grid to attend a lecture or visit an exhibit on another grid, or hop over to grids based in Italy or France, where business is done in the native language. Hypergrid connectivity can be turned on and off at will, or limited to just certain regions of a school's virtual world to maintain privacy and security.

For many educators, the hypergrid is the big promise of the OpenSim platform--hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions of virtual worlds, all connected into a virtual universe. That attraction is pulling people toward having their own private worlds in OpenSim instead of renting land from a hosting provider.

"As more people get familiar with hypergrid and having their own mini-world, they are beginning to migrate to that concept," says Kyle Gomboy, CEO of OpenSim host ReactionGrid. "I would say that 80 [percent] to 90 percent, right out of the gate, are asking about hypergridding to other areas."

Of all the alternative open source virtual world platforms, which along with Open Wonderland include Open Cobalt, Sirikata, and VastPark, OpenSim has welcomed the largest portion of disgruntled former Second Lifers. It's not merely the only option fully compliant with Second Life; it also has the biggest ecosystem behind it--dozens of big public grids offering a wide variety of free educational content and opportunities to attend networking events.

There are no definitive statistics that indicate how fast OpenSim is growing, since no formal tally registers each time the software is downloaded and a grid is created. Trying to count up all the grids would be like trying to count up all the Web sites. But a representative trend can be seen in the growth of OSgrid, the largest world on the OpenSim platform. In November 2009, OSgrid had 3,113 regions, or a total land area of nearly 50,000 virtual acres. Now, hardly a year later, it has two and a half times as many regions, or more than 125,000 acres.

By comparison, Second Life has grown 7 percent in the same period of time. And that growth has been tapering off; since the end of June, Second Life has actually lost more than 300 regions.

Stay or Go?
Seeing the growing exodus of onetime customers, Linden Lab backpedaled quickly. First, educators will be able to lock in their Second Life discounts for as long as two years if they can pay ahead of time (which isn't something every school has the ability to do). Second, while the Teen Grid will shut down, all regions formerly located there will migrate over to the Second Life main grid, and students ages 13 to 15 will be allowed on their own school's territory. Previously, anyone under 18 was barred from the main grid.

That isn't necessarily going to appease educators who are put off by Second Life's abundance of mature content--virtual strip clubs, adultery, S&M, for starters--and aren't eager to have their students commingle with adult users on the main grid. With the closing of the Teen Grid, that's what they'll be forced to do. Young teens will be segregated on school-owned, restricted-access islands, but students ages 16 and 17 will be able to roam anywhere on the main grid except X-rated regions.

"Second Life has a bad reputation," says Charles Wood, executive director of the Center for Educational Technologies at West Virginia's Wheeling Jesuit University. "It doesn't mix with K-12 education." Wood is the lead on NASA's virtual Moon World project, which he chose to export from Second Life to OpenSim in part because of the "unsavory stories everyone has heard. We have to protect kids from any unscrupulous adult advances."

Yet, there are still advantages to staying in Second Life. The volume of its educational content trumps what is available elsewhere, even if some of it has moved over to or been duplicated in OpenSim. And Second Life's lively virtual economy means that almost anything can be found in its stores and malls, including materials and supplies an educator may need to, say, construct a mock-up of a laboratory, or build a set for drama students to use to reenact a play. OpenSim, by comparison, is still early in its development.

It's also worth considering that staying put keeps teachers from having to deal with the pain of exporting content from Second Life. Second Life does not currently allow the backup of full regions. Instead, educators have to save their virtual clothing, furniture, school buildings, and educational sets one at a time. And there are legalities to deal with when users are ready to move their stuff.

"They must have all the necessary intellectual property rights to do so," explains Peter Gray, Linden Lab's public relations manager, adding as well that it must be verified that the user requesting the export is the creator of the content. This means that objects built by teams of people or by students who have since graduated will be very difficult or impossible to export. All that work will have to be either abandoned or redone from scratch if alternate versions aren't available on the OpenSim platform.

James Fullerton, an eighth-grade science teacher in Pennsylvania's Southern Lehigh School District, is in the midst of dealing with the hassles of transferring content from Second Life, much of which was produced by a former student who has since aged out of the Teen Grid. "He has to go back on the island and give me permission to copy everything," says Fullerton, whose school has regions on an OpenSim grid called New Worlds, built by the state of Pennsylvania for use by K-12 students and teachers.

To do that, the student has to be cleared to enter the island, and that means a waiting period, plus a mandatory background check, which comes with a fee. "I'm in the process of finagling that deal," Fullerton says.

But educators will put up with the trouble of picking up stakes and migrating from Second Life to get the benefits awaiting them on the outside, which start with the money to be saved. Schools can operate their own worlds for free, or they can avoid the work of managing servers and installing and maintaining the OpenSim software by opting for a hosting provider. ReactionGrid rents out a four-region mini-grid to educators for $75 a month, with a $220 setup fee. Other companies offer full regions for as little as $10 a month, so schools can roll out vast tracts of virtual land for their students to experiment on.

Alice in Open Wonderland

Among the open source virtual platforms of use to educators, Open Wonderland has one distinct edge over OpenSimulator: Outside applications can be embedded inside the online world. For example, a teacher explaining a word processing program to students can set up a giant computer screen inside the virtual environment, and student avatars can gather around it and interact with the application in real time, as if they were all standing around the same computer. OpenSim has the ability to have live Web pages inside a world and run Web-based applications, but not stand-alone software packages.

One project using Open Wonderland's embedded application capability is the WonderSchool, located in the Dutch city of Groningen. The app allows students to log in to a virtual world in which they can collaboratively work with the Alice animation software package, a stand-alone program used by schools around the world to teach programming. Once an animation is complete in Alice, it can then be pulled into the virtual world. Or it can be combined with a Java application written for Open Wonderland to create even more complex behaviors, according to Roland Sassen, president of the German-based virtual worlds consulting firm Thinsia Research.

Sassen says the project went live at the start of this year and is available to schools anywhere in the world at an annual per-student fee of 75 euros.

By combining Alice with Open Wonderland, schools need not worry about installing and running Alice themselves, plus the students gain an extra level of interactivity. For example, students can animate a three-dimensional horse so that it gallops, or create a virtual beating heart, or model the inner life of a cell. "Then you can scale it up," Sassen says, "and walk with your students inside the beating heart.

"They love it. They are amazed at how easy it is to make an animation. They always thought that programming is something boring."

When Wood migrated NASA's Moon World project to OpenSim last year, he chose to run it on his own. He says the cost for one high-end quad-core server was $5,000. In Second Life, that amount of money would have paid merely for the setup of four regions, with enough left over to pay for three weeks of hosting costs. With OpenSim, Wood says, he can run several more regions, incur no monthly land rental costs, and scale up by adding new servers whenever needed.

Moon World seeks to help high school students understand the geography of the moon through observation and data collection. Most of the $250,000 NASA provided the project was spent on developing the environment, including a moon base with a plant growth facility and a virtual version of the moon's surface. The simulation was originally developed inside what was then Second Life's adults-only main grid, but was limited to teacher training. The Teen Grid wasn't a workable alternative, Wood says, because of the restrictions Second Life put on contact between adults and teenagers. Adults weren't able to enter the Teen Grid without a background check, and were limited in their interactions with teenagers even after they were cleared. Wood says the constraints finally proved too burdensome to continue the project in Second Life.

"So six months ago we decided to port it to OpenSim," he says.

To move its content from one virtual habitat to the other, NASA enlisted Avatrian, which provides support for online worlds, including migration services. A standard region can take a week or two to export, says Avatrian CEO Dennis Bacsafra. "It's one of the more tedious aspects of the work, but it's totally doable," he says, adding that his company charges from $1,500 to $2,500 for the service, depending on the amount of content to be moved.

Wood says a test run of the project showed the benefits of residing in OpenSim, noting the faster speeds. "[Second Life] has 50,000 to 60,000 people on at one time--that's a huge problem. If there's a huge party somewhere, the whole platform slows down. Everything [in OpenSim] is much more controllable, much more stable."

Control Issues
The same terms of service that Wood says inhibited the Moon World project hold sway over all the activity in Second Life, and give its operators the right to educator content and to take down regions at any time if customer behavior is out of bounds. In OpenSim, control belongs to the users.

That autonomy led Erik Nauman to install OpenSim at New York City's The Hewitt School a year and a half ago. "I looked at Second Life, but I was more interested in OpenSim because it's all yours," says Nauman, technology coordinator at the K-12 girls' school. "You control everything."

Making History: A ninth-grade class at The Hewitt School in New York is constructing a virtual simulation of the ancient Greek temple the Parthenon, a piece of which is shown here..

However, there was a steep learning curve, Nauman says. OpenSim is still considered "alpha" software, meaning schools use it at their own risk. A year and a half ago, that risk was significant, with regions often crashing and objects being lost. Since then, the environment has stabilized. "As the [OpenSim] software has developed and gotten better, my school has started finding more things to do with it," Nauman says.

Today there are four teachers at the school using OpenSim, with more than 100 students participating. For one of the projects, a ninth-grade class is building a virtual replica of the famed Greek temple the Parthenon. For another, a fifth-grade science teacher is conducting a simulated research mission to the planet Mars, for which Nauman built a space station in which the student astronauts work together.

"You have to suit up, go outside, collect meteorites in the crater, and bring them back to the station," he says, noting that the Mars mission has become a staple of the fifth-grade science curriculum.

The largest example of the educational uses of OpenSim is the Boston-based Immersive Education Initiative. About three-quarters of its worldwide members use virtual worlds on the initiative's Education Grid, the majority of which are OpenSim-based worlds hosted on the initiative's 500 servers for free.

The initiative is running several thousand regions, says its founding director, Aaron Walsh, but will help schools set up their own worlds, on their own servers. In October, the organization announced free training for educators, along with free help migrating projects from Second Life to OpenSim. Walsh himself will fly out to schools to help them get their projects going and instruct them on how to operate their virtual land.

"I think it's important and worth the time and effort so that they know how to use the technologies properly," he says.

One of the house calls Walsh made was to South Park Elementary School in Pueblo, CO, where an old friend, Cary Palumbo, is the principal. As an early adopter, the school needs the help, having to develop much of its immersive curriculum from scratch, which involves finding or creating virtual content and figuring out how to make use of it within the platform.

"We're mavericks right now," Palumbo says. "We're making it up as we go along. We are building the bus while we're driving it."

The end result is worth it, she says, with students much more engaged during the OpenSim-based lessons. "They can't get enough of it. There's no time off task when they're working in-world."

Palumbo said she believes more content will become available as OpenSim continues to grow. "This is going to explode. There are things that are going to be shared around the country, and around the world."