Saturday, March 21, 2009

OpenSim and INTEL's ScienceSim

A group from INTEL has been busy setting up a virtual world called ScienceSim using OpenSim and so over the last few days I took a little look. First about OpenSim: OpenSim can use a scripting language based on lsl and indeed you can use the standard SL viewer for OpenSim sites. However OpenSim is not centralized as is most of SL but is run on servers owned by different people and groups.

According to the OpenSim wiki, OpenSim:

  • Supports creating multiple 'worlds' in a single application instance.
  • Supports multiple clients and protocols - access the same world at the same time via multiple protocols.
  • Extensive ability to customize your avatar, both with custom clothing, skins, and attached objects.
  • Realtime Physics Simulation, with multiple engine options including ODE, PhysX, Bullet and more.
  • The ability to create content real time in the environment using in world building tools. What you see is what you get.
  • In world application development using a number of different languages, including LSL/OSSL, C#, JScript and VB.NET

You can have your own virtual world offline on your own computer or link a server so that people from the outside can visit. Plus its free and you don't have to pay $L to anyone. So let's see, I am at the $40/month tier so that means I pay $480 + $88 or $568/year so maybe it would pay to use my tier money and get my own server and load OpenSim. Also OpenSim has some really cool extensions to LSL. Check these out.

Of course the flip side is I have never run my own server and OpenSim is buggy at least when using the current SL client so it would be very difficult to bring freshmen or sophomore students into an OpenSim region. For example I had great difficulty teleporting and my avatar sometimes would not be easily controllable. How much of that is due to problems with the software vs the servers and connections is not clear to me. As an alternative to the SL viewer you can use a viewer called Hippo.

First getting there- You need to set up an account via the ScienceSim adminstration page. But read these instructions and follow them carefully. You will need to make another copy of your Second Life shortcut, rename it and change the target. Remember that OpenSim is not Second Life so that you need to register a new avatar. ScienceSim prefers that you use your real life name for your avatar; I chose to register Simone again since I am not working in ScienceSim's grid but did register with my carbon based world name.

When you open the log in page, the left hand side has a list of regions run on private servers linked to the ScienceSim grid but I recommend just logging in. It may look at first like you are going to Second Life but you are not!

When you first launch your viewer to enter ScienceSim, you get a default female avatar which you can customize just as in Second Life. But while visiting ScienceSim decided to keep things simple. So here I am rezzing at ScienceSim's orientation site which serves as your default home.

There are four regions in the main ScienceSim grid Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein, the world map is shows just those four regions. However there are currently 46 regions in total as shown here, which is a bit confusing. But it makes sense when you consider that these other regions are not really set up for the most part for public display but used for visualizing scientific data.

Here are some various screen shots I took on my first visit:

Einstein Region

Kepler Region

Newton Region. This shows part of the amphitheater. There also an observatory build in ScienceSim from where you can teleport to some of the other regions connected to the grid.

There is kind of a fun marble launcher and several other goodies like that in the main grid but right now there is not a whole lot to see.

Since I am a biologist I was particularly hot to see some of the biology being done there and sent an inquiry to the site master and got a nice response inviting me to the user's meeting on Friday. Unfortunately people got really confused as to what time the meeting was so it really didn't happen as scheduled.

However I did find a friendly group of users and they invited me to join their discussion and then later on met some other users at the amphitheater. They use Skype for much of their conferencing so I had to download and set up skype on my machine but that was pretty painless and the sound quality was excellent, much better than SL's voice.

One of the people I met is Aaron Duffy who a grad student using OpenSim to simulate the population genetics of ferns and since some of my training is in population genetics, was interested to see that. So today I went back and he graciously gave me a tour and demo of his work which is just starting. His project superficially resembles the ecosystem working group effort in Second Life, in fact Aaron got onto his project from exposure to that group.

This is Aaron and in the back ground are shown the 3 basic stages of the fern life cycle. The tall structure that is not entirely in the frame represents a sporophyte. The upside down "hat" to the left of sporophyte stem is a gametophyte and the brown ball partially hidden by Aaron is the spore which of course is produced by the sporophyte. Guess what gametophytes produce. Hmmm.

His simulation tracks the details of the genetics of the population as the population evolves over time. So for me this was really neat to see. Right now he is working on interpretative slides to make his project more understandable to non population genetics geeks.

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