These past few months have brought about a rather exciting surge of announcements and renewed energy around the OpenSIM project, the open source virtual world platform. Though it is still alpha level code, the future potential is obvious, especially for those of us anxiously awaiting the ability to import 3D models created, textured and rendered in external applications like 3D studio, Blender, etc. This ability brings with it the promise of several game-changing opportunities, not the least of which is establishing a dynamic link between Building Information Models (BIM) and virtual environments.

Some of the most visible and promising new features cooperating with OpenSIM are coming from a Finnish group called realxtend. The actual look and feel of OpenSIM is very similar to the Second Life environment, but the realxtend client/server combo includes several enticing new items. For one thing, the File menu now contains an ‘Import 3D model’ option – and it works!  Also, under the prim-editing menu, you’ll find the ‘cast shadows’ option. Yeah, seriously… ‘cast shadows’… can you imagine?

What’s more, even a technical newbie such as myself can download their server code, and open your very own sim running on your own home computer. Better still, you can invite others into your sim to see what you’ve been up to. If you want to go beyond basic exploration, you can host the environment on a more powerful server for less lag and a smoother experience. Visitors to your personal sim can even teleport to and from the Second Life grid, and to other OpenSIM grids as well.

Within just a few hours, I had my own little world running on my computer. Shortly thereafter, I had imported my first 3D models created in 3DStudio. I suddenly had that same sense of urgency and excitement I experienced when I first started working in Second Life. My imagination ran wild!

You might think this experience would lead me away form Second Life itself, but I actually feel quite the opposite. I’ve never felt so confident and comfortable with the time and energy I’ve spent learning and promoting Second Life. It isn’t just OpenSIM either, but none of the new emerging platforms I’ve tried so far show anywhere near the same promise, in my humble opinion, as the combination of Second Life and OpenSIM.

Speaking purely in terms of professional/business applications, or as a platform for architectural practice and collaboration, I’m not convinced that Linden Lab shares the same vectors of interest as the more ‘platformist’ professionals who often think of it as a tool instead of a place, nor should they. The community, and the economy are vital, yet incredibly fragile components of Second Life – a combination that doesn’t lend itself well to liberal new-feature testing. Just like Philip Rosedale emphasized at SLCC last year, Linden Lab can only operate like a ‘lab’ for so long before they have to pull back a bit on experimentation and turn more attention to the ongoing challenges of performance and stability.

But when you combine the vital core elements of community and commerce with the features possible in OpenSIM-based grids, it seems a win-win combination. Despite the never-ending flow of criticism and complaints, I think Linden Lab is doing an outstanding job with Second Life, and I think they’ll be very hard to catch. But I’m excited and glad that the more specialized interests can now have their freedom, their privacy, their security, and any new feature they have the wherewithal to invent. I think Giff Constable said it best, “if something needs to be fixed, you can roll up your sleeves and fix it rather than crossing your fingers and waiting for someone else.”

Cory Ondrejka suggested in a great post today that “Attempts to strongly separate “play” and “work” virtual worlds will stunt the growth of both. Communities that play together work together better. And vice versa.” I think that statement reinforces the notion that the combined effort of SL and specialized OpenSIM places is a healthy mix. I might “work” in my Crescendo Design OpenSIM island, meeting with clients and bask in the greatness of prims that can ‘cast shadows,’ but it will surely get lonely in there. I’d be constantly checking my mini-map for green dots, and missing out on all the great stuff Second Life has to offer as a place, and not just a tool. When its time for a break, I can teleport back to SL, and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The combination of features I think are requisite for a virtual world explosion in professional practice are a tricky, yet inseparable kit of parts. For this reason, I don’t have a lot of faith in the other platforms aimed at surpassing Second Life. Just importing 3D models, or better graphics alone are nothing without a rich and diverse community.

Even if you include model-imports and community, what about object permissions? For 3D collaboration to work, you need a fairly robust permissions strategy, and a lot of the new platforms currently overlook this feature completely. I think most of us completely underestimate the genius and power of the prim system and in-world building tools. In fact, by the time you carefully prepare a 3D model with enough detail to look passable up-close in a virtual environment, you end up spending a comparable amount of time on it as you would if you had built it with prims in the first place. Furthermore, once you import it – its essentially frozen, since you can’t modify any part of it without re-rendering it and re-importing it. It would be a disaster for virtual collaboration if we lost that ability.

The community is equally critical. Even if, for example, Autodesk were to introduce avatars into Revit, they couldn’t possibly deliver as diverse of a community of non-architects. If you aren’t convinced that a public, global and diverse community is important in the future of architectural practice, keep an eye on Studio Wikitecture. That’s just the beginning.

I could be wrong, but when I add it all up, I still haven’t seen another emerging platform that includes both in-world building tools (with permissions system) as well as 3D importing, alongside an incredibly robust community and economy. Even if there were a potential competitor, they are nowhere near as far along as Second Life at solving the plethora of challenges and nuances of successfully running a virtual world (which happens to be yet another area I think many of us totally misunderstand and underestimate). By the time a competitor catches up with where SL is now, SL will be that much farther ahead.

In conclusion, I’m confident that Second Life is still a very safe and smart investment of time and money. I’ll admit to knowing very little about the back-end underlying this technology, which is why this post could be all full of baloney. But from what I can tell, the combined trajectories of Second Life and OpenSIM are a winning combination, and hold the underpinnings of what I think will be the next major technological evolution in the design and creation of the real-life built-environment.

Keep an eye on Ugotrade for further reviews of OpenSIM (including this post), and be sure to check out realxtend’s site for a description of their upcoming event in Second Life where you can learn more about the current technology, and their plans for the future.

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