Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Can Second Life Content Keep Up? Server-Side Rendering and a Web-Based World

I’m feeling in a predictive mood. I suppose I’m still gasping at the luck I had in predicting a ‘merger’ of the Teen and Main Grids a few hours before it was launched. It was a total fluke of course, but the prediction was based on, well, some facts I suppose: namely, Philip’s “what if” scenarios presented in the hallways and workshops at the Second Life Community Convention (SLCC).

So I was thinking about this, and realizing he presented a few other speculative sorts of asides, which I’m now starting to think were his equivalent of either trial balloons or softening the market for coming attractions. I’m going to guess the latter, because Philip doesn’t strike me as the type to test the waters too much: if something makes sense technically and he feels it’s a good thing to do, he’ll do it, but in such a way that you come away with the idea that he had floated it past you and let you provide input into the process.

At SLCC Philip brought up the idea of server-side rendering and different ways to experience Second Life outside of a client download. So I’m going to take this as not being a trial balloon, but rather a little wink at the direction he was headed in (I’ll need to think a little more about controller-less access and whether 3D cameras will have us accessing SL through our Wiis).

So with that in mind, I’m going to guess that Second Life will soon be available in a browser, using server-side rendering such as Otoy. Server-side rendering allows two things:

- You don’t need a high-powered machine to access 3D immersive content. OnLive, for example, allows you to play console games such as Assasin’s Creed without a download, and without the need for a high-end graphics card.
- There is no client to download.

The heavy-lifting of ‘rezzing’ the world, in other words, is done in the ‘cloud’ and you can still navigate through the environment as if you were accessing it through a client.

The probability is that this would be both a revenue generator for the Lab (access via the cloud might include free time, say a few hours, plus a charge for additional time to cover the server costs, and you’re on your own with your ISP, what with bandwidth metered or throttled in some parts of the world) and that server-side rendering would not include all of the features of being “in-world” – build tools, for example, might be excluded or, at the very least, expensive to use because your time is being metered.

Can the Content Keep Up?
With this week’s announcement that the Mesh Beta is coming in mid-October, content developers have new ways to create content.

But with server-side rendering being used for things like games and for the “worlds” of Blue Mars, can Second Life also deliver on the expectations of new users who are looking for the kinds of content experiences they’re starting to access through other means?

When Linden Lab shut down the community gateway program and announced that they would be sending new users directly to destinations (rather than an orientation island) you start to wonder whether server-side rendering was on their minds. Maybe they thought that the next wave of new users would arrive because they experience Second Life through a browser and that what matters is rich content – stuff to look at, events, concerts, etc.

Philip had also idly speculated what it would be like to radically increase the number of avatars on a sim, and this seemed to be partly connected to the question of whether you actually need an avatar to participate in an event – in other words, could there be a sort of variable immersion, in which you could log in to watch an event (but not be represented by an avatar), or you could use a browser-based experience in which everything is rendered server-side, or you could participate via a client-based experience in which you’d have additional tools?

Based on this, the strategy for Second Life would be to connect new users with experiences – some time and event-based, some based on exploration, and that the follow on is land rental, the Marketplace and the rest of it.

All of this would lead to a fundamental change in strategy: not just making money on “land” (server space) and the Marketplace, but also on ‘access time’ via cloud-based rendering.

This would also open up an entirely new way of looking at how Second Life is marketed – and could explain the role of the new Marketing VP, who must surely be looking at something beyond what AdWords to run.

Time will tell whether I can get more than one prediction right, but I’m going to take a wild guess here and expect an announcement by, hmmm, let’s say by Halloween, that server-side rendering is entering its test phase.


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