Content, Piracy, and OpenSim-based Grids

We recently picked up a link sent to us of an image shot in an OpenSim-based grid, that showed a 3D model used in the region that looked suspiciously familiar. Upon visiting the region, I discovered that lo, the model was in fact very familiar: it was a model created for our old Shengri La islands (closed in Summer 2010) by a very talented artist who we have supported since his early days in Second Life®.

We approached the owner of the region and let him know that he was harboring pirated content. While he did remove that model, his response made it abundantly clear that a lot more consciousness-raising must occur not only with content creators, but also with consumers. He seemed to think that pirated content was somehow a single creator issue, not a community issue, and we take issue with this point of view for a number of well-informed reasons.

What we did not say, but should have said, to this gentleman is what mothers everywhere tell their children when the kids pick up (and put in their mouth) something they found in the street: ‘Don’t pick that up.  Don’t put that in your mouth. You don’t know where it has been.  Now wash your hands.’

It’s the same thing with so-called ‘freebie content’.  As a consumer, there’s no way to know where that content has been.  Most of the ‘freebie content’ in the OpenSim universe has no provenance to speak of, much of it has been pirated, and the way it is dispersed and distributed creates some massive legal and security issues.

Currently these security issues relate more to DRM and legal considerations, but we can also foresee the day when some hacker decides to create a Trojan horse attached to some particularly attractive bit of content and release it into the ‘freebie pool’.

While we do not yet know of any tech exploits attached to content in this way, we assume it is merely a matter of time before it happens, and when it does, we anticipate that such an exploit will spread quickly given the dispersion rate of content in the OpenSim-based grids.

We will repeat again: there are many good reasons not to pick up content of questionable provenance. Odds are good it is pirated, which has moral, ethical, and legal implications.

But even more specifically for the average consumer, and why they should care, is that there is a very real risk of danger to their personal hardware/software.  We wouldn’t know the exact details of how a Trojan horse security exploit would be built in a virtual world, but we do know that it is something that could be done.  We surmise the average consumer would not be able to detect such an attached exploit until too late.  We also understand how disease vectors spread epidemics. Unconstrained freebie content that can move freely through hypergrid-enabled worlds with no real technical controls is a ticking time bomb that will explode.  We think it is merely a matter of time before it does.

We see the possibility of trouble ahead, so we are speaking up now to warn the community of content consumers that free content may end up not being quite so ‘free’ if the freebie collector ends up having to pay to have their hard drive scrubbed because the content itself was nothing more than a Trojan horse. Whether or not it is better for a consumer to protect themselves by only buying content licenses from known entities is something only the consumer can decide.  After all, ultimately, they are the ones who assume the risks in picking something up out of the gutter and putting it in their mouths.

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The Psychology of Avatar Design & Customization

A blog post crossed our desk recently from Human Mosaic Systems talking about the importance of avatar design in order to increase immersion.

“As a result, organizations that use this environment need to begin to pay special attention to the psychology of design involved with the avatars used…The psychology of the avatar and our interactions with others in the space is what creates presence…This is an area that has not been focused on in the past in research, but one which is gaining importance and attention.”

Fashion Research Institute has been focusing attention in this area for quite a while now.  We conducted 18 months of research coupled with direct observation of thousands of avatars into how people use their avatars and how the quality (or lack thereof) of avatar customization content had an impact on people’s immersion into virtual worlds.  We then used this initial research to develop our orientation program, which we tested in Second Life as one of the Linden Lab-sanctioned Community Gateways in their formal Community Gateway program.

The Fashion Research Institute Gateway served about 65,000 new users who entered Second Life through our portal during a 12-month time span.  We continued to observe these new users and made continual changes to the orientation environment to best enhance the experience of these new users.  We consistently observed that the higher quality avatar customization content we provided, the stickier the experience became for the new user.  This in turn led to an increased likelihood of any given avatar user immersing.  We marked immersion as the point where users stopped referring to their avatars as it, or him, and began referring to their avatars as ‘me’.

Having completed more than 30 months of research into this area, as a necessary component for our organizational use of virtual worlds, the work we do with avatars and avatar development is based on data collected on over 65,000 subjects.

This research was used to develop our orientation portal for OpenSim.  The portal was completely developed using only content developed on the OpenSim platform.  This portal is active in ScienceSim (ScienceSim.com) as the entry point for the grid if you’d like to check it out.

Many organizations are already understanding the value. Preferred Family Healthcare, Inc. is a case in point. (see our previous post) Providing their users with additional choices in avatar customization was seen as a benefit to helping their youth project in delivering quality counseling services to an underserved population.

In the case of Science Sim, part of FRI’s research collaboration with Intel :abs was to provide premium content so that new users would immediately have options to not only customize their appearance but would also be able to build and create.  This further enhances the immersive buy-in, which enhances the likelihood of success of their project.

Dolls, Couture, Standards & OpenSim – How Are They Connected?

We were going to write about Maria Korolov’s recent OpenSim grid hosting survey, but then we got seriously sidetracked by this highly cool article about drug-running dolls of the American Civil War.  Dolls fascinate us for many reasons, not least of which is the fact we did a stint designing couture doll clothes.  Yes, you read that right, couture doll clothes. (We’ll get back to Maria’s survey in a moment.)

As it happens, vintage and antique dolls have a crying need for pretty frocks, or perhaps we should say that their owners have a crying need for their gorgeous oldies to have pretty frocks.  Now what we found curious is that fitting dolls was as much of a challenge as fitting women and the size standards were just as skewed.  Supposedly a 13” doll was a 13” doll was a 13” doll, but it turned out that depending on the manufacturer, the ‘age’ of the doll (lady doll, baby doll, toddler doll) the chest and waist measurements would be, just like for real people, very different.

Couturing up (we just made this phrase up so don’t go trying to Google it on Wiki) a frock for a lady doll was a wonderful and frustrating experience.  Wonderful because you could let your imagination off the leash and toss all sorts of fabulous couture techniques at this tiny little canvas without driving the prices too astronomically high; frustrating because you had to have the actual doll you were dressing to make sure the frock fit correctly.  Doll owners are very concerned that their dolls have properly fitted clothing.  We aren’t actually being tongue in cheek here; this is a demanding customer base and they wanted their rather pricey purchases to fit correctly on their nonstandard dolls.

Back to the OpenSim survey

So maybe we are back to talking about Maria’s OpenSim survey, since standards are at the heart of so much of the work we do.  Although we are dressing digital dolls these days – avatars and virtual models the same exact issues keep coming up which would be greatly alleviated by having standards.

Flipping through the comments and her blog post was particularly enlightening since so many of them are made from subjective personal experience, not based on any existing standards.

For example we read this comment: “This is an interesting survey– however unreliable. Why do I say unreliable? [sic] Because anyone who states that ANY grid currently out there (including SL) is “pretty stable”, “reliable” or “very stable” is obviously testing California’s new medical products. There is NO grid out there that is even “pretty stable”. Even Second Life® loses inventory, can’t get even simple chat to work, and has a society that is in upheaval. OpenSim? Does it even come CLOSE to stable. Simple reality would indicate that there are either people with agendas manipulating the survey… or folks unable to discern the line between reality and fond wishes. ; )” [an elf named Wayfinder]

We’re back to standards.  Now, by our (Fashion Research Institute’s) standards, OpenSim is far more stable than Second Life.  We maintain a private, corporate grid that is a walled garden; our workers are of course more fashionably dressed than on other grids, since we have about $1,000,000-1,250,000 worth of avatar customization content for them to choose from.  We have close to 100% up time.  We say close, because sometimes even our developers and creators go to bed, and from a pure user perspective, we don’t actually care if the grid isn’t up if we’re asleep when it isn’t.

We don’t have issues with missing objects from the asset database; we don’t get those o-so-annoying ‘cannot locate object in inventory’ notifications, and above all, the grid just plain works.

Now, we’re not in the business of providing hosting services.  We use our private grid for commercial work and as a platform for our applications which run on OpenSim.  We use ScienceSim for our research collaboration with Intel Labs – our area of research with them is content, so that grid takes a licking when we roll a development team in.  Our role is to provide content workloads for the Intel team to analyze and (often) write patches to address performance issues in the OpenSim codebase.

We recognize our ‘standards’ for performance may be a bit different than for the  average retail consumer of OpenSim grid experiences.  At the same time, we are incredibly intolerant of poor performance and we tend to squawk loudly if there is the slightest bit of an issue with any of our work spaces.  We are a lot like the ladies buying expensive doll clothes – we want the experience to fit. And, we are well able to distinguish between what is real and what is ephemeral.

Speaking of what is real, “In the meantime… a little applause and approval for Inworldz for actually accomplishing what OpenSim has been trying to accomplish for years… might not hurt. They are after all, trying to achieve the same thing you’re trying to achieve– a stable, low-cost alternative to the iron-curtain mentality of Second Life.” [the elf again]  OpenSim will be four at the end of January.  During this time, we have been honored to work on a live, changing platform where a very small, dedicated team of developers have moved what was a mere glimmer of an idea in the minds of Adam Frisby and Darren Guard into something stable enough to develop our industrial applications.  We remain impressed at the speed with which the developers out there attack and knock down the challenges in the path of the platform.  It is even more impressive when one understands that for many of the Core, this is their passion, not their day job.  The developers are accomplishing what they set out to do.

We applaud what the commercial grid operators out there are doing, but we do think it is important to point out that their accomplishments with their forks of OpenSim are built ‘on the shoulders of giants’ who have gone before and knocked down the trees in the way.  What these commercial grid operators are doing is ‘couturing up’ a grid that meets (one hopes) the exacting standards of their user base.  That is important, but the supporters of their work should not impugn the very real and hard work that the Core has done to date, nor should these grids be regarded as setting the standard for the industrial strength grids that will be needed in the future.  The research for those sorts of standards is ongoing, and the commercial grid operators should definitely weigh in.  But their unique brand of couture is not likely to be ‘the standard’ for everyone running OpenSim. We need mass market standards, not couture standards, for industrial strength grids.

Content & Licensing in Virtual Worlds

We are seeing an increase of something that we find disturbing on many levels: self-created licenses for content.

The reasons we find these licenses is disturbing are many: in general, content creators are not lawyers, nor do they seek legal counsel in developing their license agreements.  These agreements are often poorly framed or worded. The agreements do not indicate what legal jurisdiction and what laws of what country govern them.  And, scariest of all, some of these licenses attempt to ‘reverse engineer’ previous licensing agreements.

Any software developer will understand why licenses cannot be changed after something has been issued.  Others will have used that original bit of code issued under one license, which has its own unique set of requirements and restrictions.  These users may have even created a product that incorporates the original bit of code.  If coders were allowed to change their original license terms, that means that anything created with that original bit of code would also be subject to these new terms, which might be more restrictive than the initial license agreement. Trouble, heartache and grief and legal strife lies that way, and so once something has been released under one license, that is the license that governs its use for all time.

Likewise, content creators can’t change their license terms after the fact.  We see this increasingly with content creators who have been developing for Second Life®, where they are suddenly changing their terms of agreement for previous purchasers.  Unfortunately, licensing doesn’t work that way. If you license content under one agreement, you cannot legally to make a unilateral change in the licensing agreement unless you have included language to this effect in the original license.

It’s just like the coders with their software licenses: if they were allowed to change the license type, that change would create a legal and administrative nightmare and no one would use their code as a result.   Users would be afraid to, since they wouldn’t know if they had to try to track everywhere that code was used, in what products, and how the licensing might change the usefulness and applicability.

Since most of these licenses are not developed by actual lawyers, but by the content creators themselves, those agreements are missing certain critical and important terms…such as a clause enabling the content creator to make changes to the licensing agreement at will with appropriate notification to purchasers of that content going forward.

We have been working with a team of American Bar Association lawyers for the past 18 months, developing legal templates that content creators will be able to use as a ‘jumping off’ point for their own agreements.  These agreements are only suitable for organizations or individuals who are based in the United States, and of course, legal counsel should be sought to help further develop them. Towards the end of October, we will be publishing these legal templates for content creators to use in developing their own legal agreements for licensing.

We will also be publishing our legal primer for content creators, which is intended to help content creators navigate the murky waters of content creation and licensing for OpenSim-based worlds.

Content Creation and OpenSim

We have been working in and developing content on OpenSim since September 2007, when we first logged into what would become the OSGrid.  Fashion Research Institute is the oldest professional content creator on OpenSim.  Our current research collaboration with Intel Lab® is focused on content management and movement using the OpenSim-based ScienceSim as our test platform. With Linden Lab’s recent announcements about price changes and the closure of Teen Second Life grid, we are seeing increased interest from educators and other consumers of content, many of whom are confused about what they can and cannot do with content they ‘purchased’  in Second Life®, and where to go for content which they have a legal right to use in their pending OpenSim-based educational grids.

In the hope of helping to alleviate some of the confusion, we offer here some of the insight we have acquired over the years of working in OpenSim and the best practices we ourselves use in developing our content in OpenSim.

We started moving our content out of Second Life® a year or so ago, and closed our final avatar apparel line last Spring, after Linden Lab® made some ToS announcements.  Our area of expertise, as one may expect from the Fashion Research Institute, is avatar customization content. We needed a substantial catalog of content to outfit our avatar models on our Virtual Runway™  product.  We have also developed content libraries of PG-rated avatars and a well-tested orientation region for OpenSim for various organizations to use on their OpenSim-based grids such as ScienceSim. We now have a huge body of content available for licensing by those who need an orientation program or avatar customization content.

Although we finished backing up our content from Second Life®  six months ago, what follows is our ‘best practices’ from that process.

We had an extensive collection of avatar content we had developed over the years.  We found that the best tool to move this content was Stored Inventory. (aka Second Inventory)  It will move the contents of prim containers, including scripts, textures and other objects. Although the process itself is slow, it is also relatively mindless and can be performed in the background while other tasks are being accomplished, or given to an intern for completion.  All content brought in using Second Inventory should be checked for completeness, as it is prone to not completely backing up containers of content.

Please note that Stored Inventory will only allow the actual content creator to move his or her own content.  If a user licensed content within Second Life®, but they are not the content creator, they will not be allowed to move that content.

Something a content user should be concerned about is knowing the provenance of the content they are acquiring: who made it and is it original content.  Professional content developers will do business either under a business name, which should be registered and have a employer identification number of some sort, or as a real life individual who will also have some sort of  taxpayer identification number.  If a content creator refuses to provide such information you may wish to reconsider conducting business with them. There is no way for you to track them down if there proves to be a legal or other issue with content you may have licensed from them.

Of course, licensing or purchasing content that uses trademarks owned by real world organizations is also rife with issues. Most of the owners of these marks didn’t license them for use by Second life® or OpenSim developers, so you run the risk of legal liability.  Can your nonprofit, for profit, or school afford the legal fees to defend itself?  If not, be very careful about allowing licensed trade or service marks into your content.

A final bit of advice, when a content consumer decides to move their content from Second Life® into OpenSim, or decides to license new content from a creator, make sure you document all of your content, including any licensing information, and back up that up in a commonly accessible document management system so that everyone in your organization that handles content has access to it. Create a special OS region where all you do is bring your content in and curate that region. Have your admin make OAR files early and often: nothing is worse than losing hours of backup because the region failed to save to the server properly. When you are all done with the region, make sure you have some sort of record of what is contained within the region, and then link that record to your OAR file for back ups.

NOTE:  Due to the announcement today from Linden Lab regarding yet another change in the ToS, the Professional Virtua Designer Society will be holding a special session to discuss how these new terms can affect content creators.  For more information about the PVDS, visit http://bit.ly/bQydjR.

Virtua Society Kicks Off Weekly Speakers Series

We’re thrilled to kick-off our weekly speakers series at the Professional Virtua Designer Society this Friday, September 10th, 2010 at Noon PDT.

Join us as we welcome Callipygian Christensen, who will be addressing the  challenges and advantages of creating 2D art in a virtual world.

http://slurl.com/secondlife/21C%20Interactive/74/29/22/

Shooting a variety of subjects, Callipygian Christensen uses SL snapshots  to document her view of the Second Life® we lead. Calli displays some unretouched images, but also uses post-processing to create photographic art – removing ugly angles and texture blurs caused by SL animation and movement, and to enrich the depth and tone of SL colors.

Calli presents images in many different styles, from portraits to landscapes, from the mundane to the erotic, and  has won Best in Show awards in numerous juried SL arts contests and Fan Favorite ballots.

Professional Virtua Designers’ Society

The purpose of the Professional Virtua Designers’ Society is to promote and protect the social, economic and professional interests of its members.

The Society is committed to improving conditions for all digital artists designing and developing virtual goods and products intended to be used in virtual worlds.  It is also committed to raising standards for the entire emerging industry. The Society embraces digital artists at all skill levels and provides professional development to lift these special content creators to new levels of professionalism and skill.

Professional Virtua Designers Society Announced

An integral part of the Fashion Research Institute is the Fashion Research Foundation, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization located in New York.  FRF is engaged in educational research using virtual worlds for education. Today, we are pleased to announce two upcoming sessions introducing the Professional Virtua Designers Society.

The purpose of the Professional Virtua Designers Society is to promote and protect the social, economic and professional interests of its members.Professional Virtual Designer Society

The Society is committed to improving conditions for all digital artists designing and developing virtual goods and products intended to be used in virtual worlds. It is also committed to raising standards for the entire emerging industry. The Society embraces digital artists at all skill levels and provides professional development to lift these special content creators to new levels of professionalism and skill.

The Society & Its Members
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The Society supports its members in numerous ways:

·  Benefits which provide a complete, comprehensive benefits package ranging from major medical to a 401k retirement plan.

·  Discounts on goods and services

·  Professional development seminars, workshops and courses

·  An annual conference – in a virtual world – to ensure that all designers can attend

·  Two tiers of membership, with Journeymen and Professional designations which reflect skill level and competence in the field

We Are the Society
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The power of the organization is the power of community and affiliation. The Society exists to enable designers to achieve their dreams and to foster a productive, profitable and pleasant work life with the same protections that employees of large companies enjoy. The Society defines a valid standard of practical competency for professional virtua designers, and to effectively represent these designers and the profession of virtua design.

The Society is affiliated with the Fashion Research Foundation, which serves as the sheltering organization.  The Foundation is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization that does not endorse or in any way support any particular immersive space, computer game, or virtual world.  Society registration is a voluntary program with two tiers of membership.  The Journeyman designation is freely available to all designers working in the area, without need to substantiate their ability or length of tenure as a designer.

The Professional designation offers a path through which qualified designers may obtain a formal credential indicating that they meet a meaningful standard of professional competence as determined by technical knowledge and practical skills examinations, length of design practice experience, and other factors.  The minimum qualification for entering the Society’s professional registry is the Registered  Professional Designer TM (RPD) credential.  All Society Professional members are professional designers meeting the RPD TM or Registered Master Designer TM (RMD TM) standards.

Why is a formal standard for professional virtua  designers needed?
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The terms “profession” and “professional”  are often used in design marketing material, because professionals are, by definition, more highly valued than hobbyists.   But as any professional knows, it takes more than simply calling yourself a professional to actually be one.  Qualifying to practice as in a true profession can involve years of training and study, as well as meeting a formal standard of competence.   While some professions require governmental licensing, the profession of virtua design is better served by a valid professional credential system, administered by a globally-oriented professional organization.

Designers often express the idea that their individual reputations are sufficient to establish themselves as professionals. And although the value of a well-earned reputation cannot be overstated, of course, reputations, particularly in the design field, are based on comparison and often on popularity, not on any particular standard.  In the real life apparel industry, designers of apparel are compared to other professionals, who have real standards of production and development that they must meet in order to remain employed.  Unlike the real life apparel industry, designers of virtua, however, need only satisfy a small core of diehard fans in order to call themselves ‘professional’.  By defining the term ‘professional virtua designer’ and aligning it with standards that must be met for the credential, we raise the overall quality of designers and create a substantive foundation against which designers and their reputations can be compared, thereby making it easier for the owners of commercial products such as grids, games, and other consumers of virtua to evaluate the quality of a given designer’s work, and its suitability for purchase or licensing.

The function of a professional credential in any field is to establish a minimum standard of quality for persons who are qualified to work as independent practitioners.  Therefore, the lowest credential issued by a professional credential program must designate a fully qualified professional capable of consistently producing work to a sufficiently high standard.  Credentials that do not establish a standard of excellence serve only to confuse those outside the industry, undermine the program’s credibility with other organizations and individuals, and to otherwise degrade the profession to a level of hobbyist. Professional credentials must take into account not only the time required to become truly proficient at design, but also the knowledge, skills, and additional training which likewise are integrated to evaluate the professional avatar apparel designer. Examinations for such a credential are naturally demanding, requiring the designer to demonstrate the kinds of abilities needed to work as a professional practitioner.  The credential is a valuable asset to working designers who wish to identify themselves and their work as meeting the high standards set by the Society.

An organization that issues professional credentials for avatar apparel designers needs to be made up of individuals who are qualified to assess design and who are actively working in the field.  This is the only way to ensure that the needs of the professional, working avatar apparel designer are met.  All designers who wish to join the Professional Virtua Designer Society are required to meet at minimum the standards set forth for Registered Designers, which is the minimum credential offered by the Professional Virtua Designer Society.  The Professional Virtua Designer Society openly promotes this standard, which is based on knowledge, skills, and experience, to all interested parties to the world of virtua as applied to virtual goods.

Meeting July 22nd, 2010
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On July 22nd, we will be hosting an information meeting in Second Life® to connect with those interested in learning more about the Professional Virtua Designers’ Society. There are two sessions scheduled, one at 11 AM Pacific and one at 6 PM Pacific. These sessions will take place on Shengri La http://slurl.com/secondlife/Shengri%20La/197/110/40