Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Virtual Worlds for Enterprise: Feature Wars in Forterra, Protosphere and Nebraska

Roughly in conjunction with the recent Engage Expo, Forterra and Proton Media announced new platform features that will be compelling to enterprise (businesses and other institutions) who are interested in virtual worlds for meeting, training and collaboration. I was particularly in love with what Proton Media did with Sharepoint integration: aside from the fact that any kind of integration with enterprise systems is a good thing because it demonstrates that virtual worlds can be part of a broader information architecture, the way they handled in-world documents was appealing.

With the launch of ‘Nebraska’ by Linden Lab a month away, the feature wars are about to heat up.

Now, I have a decided bias. First, we represent Immersive Workspaces(TM) which is a sort of plug-and-play application that combines social media and Web-side content management with a ready-to-go virtual environment. And because we have clients signed up for Nebraska, I tend to look at other platforms through the lens of competitive positioning. But we also try to be slightly agnostic when it comes to platforms, or at the very least we try to take a fair and balanced view of what might be best for our clients.

So when I was looking at the latest press around Forterra and Protosphere, I couldn’t help wondering how they would stack up against Second Life and the coming behind-the-firewall stand-alone solution. But before I get into that, I should add OpenSim to the list so I’m not accused of ignoring a significant player – the problem with OpenSim, however, is that it’s one technology with multiple players. Reaction Grid in particular is elevating the bar for the use of OpenSim for business, and their recent announcement that it will host Microsoft’s virtual world presence is a coup for their deep focus on enterprise-ready solutions.

But Forterra and Protosphere are, for now, the noisiest players on the block, with fairly solid client lists. By all accounts, Forterra is struggling, but their expertise in contracting with government can’t be discounted. However, wins by Icarus Studios and momentum (though not necessarily development funding) for Nexus, Forterra’s lock on the government sector is eroding.

All of that is by way of saying that this isn’t a client view of virtual world platforms. From what I understand, ThinkBalm is currently conducting a study which will compare virtual worlds, and I’m looking forward to their take – it will be far less biased than my own.

So the question is: how does Second Life, and the coming Nebraska, stack up against the features recently announced by Forterra and Proton Media? First, go have a look at the press release from Forterra on its OLIVE system (here), and the specs for Protosphere.

A few highlights:

Forterra’s OLIVE
- Flexible User Authentication that now enables OLIVE developers or IT staff to implement any authentication mechanism they desire. The new process enables independent client-side and server-side components for authentication, which allows for support of single sign-on (SSO) systems, as well as common account repository systems such as LDAP.
- Web-based Content Management System (CMS) integration that supports web processes for registration of new users, client download, user authentication, and joining OLIVE meetings.
- A Custom Installer Process that enables customers to bind their custom developed and/or supplier provided 3D content into a small download installer that simplifies how users can participate in OLIVE based meetings.
- User Interface Enhancements that allow users to quickly and easily verify that their headset and microphone is working and adjusted to the appropriate levels.
- Telephony Integration that expands access to virtual meetings by providing a way for users with standard telephones to call in and participate (using voice only) with in-world participants.
- Media Dashboards that enable mixing a variety of media like streaming videos, MS PowerPoint slides, desktop or web-based applications onto many 3D screens within an overall dashboard framework. A specific media source can be selected for display on larger screens.
- A Scenario Editor that collects all of the elements needed in OLIVE to practice a set of repeatable training procedures. The Scenario Editor assembles the 3D scenes, props, interactive objects, and camera positions for recordings needed to play out a scenario with the roles and outfits of supporting cast members.
- An Artificial Intelligence (AI) API for non-player character development. Now 3rd party AI middleware vendors can be integrated to OLIVE to create and control computer generated avatars inserted into training scenarios.

- Integrates a ’social media’ Web site that can, presumably, be integrated with internal systems and allows for LiveMatch searches (if I’m not mistaken, they discussed this in the context of Microsoft services, so it may integrate with Sharepoint and other systems).
- Media Carousel functionality for sharing and uploading files (support for video, audio, MS Office files)
- Full scriptable bot system allowing for programming of non-player characters for use in simulations, training exercises, and content distribution.
- Integrated Telepresence option.

Immersive Workspaces(TM) and Second Life
So, I’m going to get a self-plug in here. But I do so to point out that some of these features are already available in Second Life.

Immersive Workspaces(TM) isn’t the only application that provides Web-side content control, links to authentication databases, social media (including Twitter) integration, and VOIP options. As well, we’re using some of the tools and tricks we’ve learned on Metanomics to allow remote event participation, phone-in participation and other ways of participating in the environment. CMS integration, SCORM compliance, LMS tools – all those lovely acronyms are possible or already in use. This stuff is ‘enterprise-grade’ and can be deployed behind a firewall.

So what’s Second Life missing? Again, I’m just lifting off the above feature list, but a few “must haves” jump out at me:

- We MUST have deeply integrated telephony. This needs to be a platform feature rather than an add-on and it needs to be embedded into how Vivox works in SL (assuming the Lab continues to use Vivox, I suppose). Avatar phone numbers are, um…well, they’re fine. But you should be able to dial into a conference call number in my virtual offices and I should be able to put you on speaker phone.
- We must have the MediaAPI and soon. If you can’t easily upload, share and collaborate on Word documents, spread sheets, or browse the Web then Second Life and Nebraska will never ‘level up’ into wide enterprise use.
- Artificial Intelligence and bots need to be handled through something better than hacking the avatars. This needs to become a system feature that integrates with third-party APIs. There’s lots of great work already in this area, but it needs to be handled in a better way server-side rather than driving AI through what are essentially scripted user accounts.

Now, if I was to go out on a limb here, I’d add a few things to my wish list that aren’t really must-haves but that would go a long way to positioning SL for enterprise and would be benefits for simulation in particular:

- Better avatar creation and modification tools. The SL avatar should be customizable using third party creation tools, thus allowing, for example, automated creation of realistic faces, a lot like Icarus has done with Big Stage and PortableYou.
- Better avatar animation tools. There’s too much complexity in the animation creation process, and not enough subtlety in how avatars can be animated. Finer expression control, for example, would be top of the list.
- OPTIONAL shadows, normal maps, and realistic rendering.

The Nebraska Advantage
So, Linden Lab has a ways to go. There are plenty of things you can do in Second Life, and the current robust use of the platform by enterprises, schools, cause marketers, artists, residents, creators – there’s lots of proof that Second Life does just fine, even without the above.

But these are also the things that should make Second Life and Nebraska the hands-down winners: because there is a content creation talent pool and a content repository that blows everyone else out of the water.

If Linden Lab can launch Nebraska in a way that takes advantage of the content that’s already out there, and can give the tools (like they’ve done with the MediaAPI) to let folks develop plug-ins, systems, builds, animations, and applications and then sell that work to the folks who want to either buy a region on the main grid or put it all behind the firewall – why would you go anywhere else?

Add to that the ability to rez a prim – to let clients do some work in their own environments, to buy their OWN chair if they want instead of sending in a purchase order to some centralized development team – that’s a huge competitive advantage.

But to make all that happen, the Lab needs to have the kinds of developer relationships that a Sony has with game developers, say. Or that Apple has with the folks making iPhone widgets.

Because at the end of the day, this won’t be about features and bells and whistles – it will be about whether the Lab can manage its ecosystem of content creators and developers in a way that keeps them motivated, informed, and supplied with the tools and insights that will collectively have more power than the folks in the production departments elsewhere.


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