Canvas, the Unity-powered Second Life and OpenSim web-based viewer developed by ex-Linden Chris Collins (which I blogged Monday), is rolling out next week, but I recently got an early hands-on preview. This is what I look like after logging into Second Life via Canvas to meet Chris there:
As you can see, the graphics are rudimentary, because the conversion process from SL graphics to Canvas takes out Windlight and other shiny graphic baubles. However, Chris tells me that he’s not targeting an audience of power users who expect high-end visuals, but the education and real work market who may have slow computers or broadband. Through his start-up, Tipodean Technologies, Chris licensed the technology that runs Canvas from IBM, aiming to address "[The c]onstant challenge with more the casual usual [who] has low end machines, poor bandwidth, and [trouble] onboarding... there's a lot of work getting people to download or upgrade [Second Life]." With Canvas, he aims to go after the 95% who tried Second Life, had problems, and gave up.
That said, established Second Life users will probably find a lot that’s valuable in Canvas, as an option when they’re not able to launch the heavy 3D client. For example, all the thousands of Residents (including me) who groaned when Katharine Berry’s AjaxLife, a web-based SL chat client, was banned due to security concerns. At minimum, Canvas can work as a replacement to that. In future iterations, Chris tells me it should be possible to build with prims, and other features native to SL proper.
Still, Canvas is intended for the non-hardcore user. Controls are extremely basic: moving, flying, chat and IM, and that’s about it. Collins has added some UI functionality specifically for the casual user, such as an automatic click-zoom command, so you can look at an in-world display without the usual aggravations with the 3D camera control interface:
Canvas preloads terrain and body shapes, so your Second Life clothes will render but other avatar appearances will not. Which is why my avatar doesn’t look quite like it usually does. It’s all fairly rudimentary, and I found performance to be pretty choppy. (Though in fairness, I caught this demo while in Hawaii logging in via a very crappy broadband connection.)
With the recent demo of Second Life on a browser, I asked Chris why his Unity-powered solution was a better option. Cloud deployment is expensive, he countered, and connection speeds have to be high, which might not be feasible for a school or an organization on a network.
What about KataSpace, Henrik Bennetsen’s WebGL-powered virtual world? Isn’t that a better option?
“Love what Henrik is doing with WebGL and speak to him a lot,” Chris told me. “If you look on my website you see that we do WebGL for certain applications. Also check this presentation I gave back in May to the Department of Defense . WebGL is in the very early days and the potential is huge. My focus as a company is increasing adoption of virtual worlds and Canvas is the perfect solution for that as it supports a robust Virtual World server technology (Second Life and OpenSim) and is accepted on currently deployed computers and browsers.” In the future, if WebGL gains broader adoption, Chris says he may take his customers in that direction. In the meantime, “[I] want to be able to support and give hundreds of millions of people access to a virtual world on their currently deployed hardware and software now, and Opensim and Canvas using the Unity plugin could do that.“
One last thing: What the hell is a “Tipodean”, anyway? Chris Collins, an Aussie by birth, tells me he derived his startup name from “Antipodeans”, which is, he reminds me, "What the English referred to their colonies on the other side of the world", i.e. Australia and South Africa. Chris figures that’s a good name for 3D virtual world pioneers, navigating in territories still a bit off in the uncharted waters of the Internet’s main global map. But maybe not for much longer.