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.

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.