It may be tempting to assume that growth in virtual worlds has ground to a halt. After all, There.com has shut down, and Second Life is losing land area and has stopped publishing most usage statistics. Attention has shifted to social networking platforms and mobile devices.
But the action hasn’t died off. Instead, it has shifted to proprietary, enterprise-class platforms like Teleplace, ProtoSphere, and VenueGen — and to the open-source platform, OpenSim.
Based on reports from educational institutions, non-profit groups, and hosting and consulting firms, I estimate that OpenSim currently has between 500,000 and 1 million users. These users are scattered across hundreds, or thousands, of private virtual worlds running on the OpenSim platform.
OpenSim is free software that anyone can install and run. It is compact enough to run on a USB stick and scalable enough to run a world with 10,000 regions — or 160,000 virtual acres.
Over the past year, OpenSim has come to rival Second Life in terms of stability and features. In fact, in some respects, such as backups and content limits, OpenSim is far in advance of Second Life. Its two main weaknesses are its complex vehicle physics and its lack of a large, concentrated user base. As a result, it’s not the best platform for large-scale marketing campaigns or complex, vehicle-based role-playing games.
However, OpenSim worlds can be accessed using the same browsers as Second Life, and content can be moved between the two platforms, making it the destination of choice for schools and companies fleeing the high costs of Second Life.
OpenSim also has a hypergrid: A user registered on one world can teleport to another without having to log in again. This means that users can visit multiple worlds to attend events, socialize, and even go shopping. Goods bought in one world can be brought to another via the hypergrid teleport system.
There is currently no way to track the total number of OpenSim-based worlds, since anyone can download and run the software — and the main distribution point doesn’t track the number of downloads. But for over a year, I’ve been tracking the growth of the largest public grids running OpenSim. Currently, more than half of them are hypergrid-enabled, allowing teleports in and out.
Over the past 12 months, the number of regions on the top 40 public OpenSim grids has doubled, from 7,947 in the middle of January 2010 to 15,623 in the middle of January 2011. I’ve only been tracking total users since September, and not all grids report this number. But of the grids that do, total users have grown from around 118,000 to more than 153,000 — an increase of 30 percent over the course of four months.
OpenSim region counts (Source: Hypergrid Business survey data)
To access Second Life or an OpenSim world, users need to download viewer software, just as they would have to get Firefox or Internet Explorer in order to surf the World Wide Web.
So OpenSim growth is particularly interesting because OpenSim viewers — who are also Second Life viewers — not only require a download, but are also difficult to learn to use. There are a couple of OpenSim viewers that run in a Web browser, but they are still in the testing stages.