Sunday, June 7, 2009

Interview with Tessa Kinney-Johnson, Developer of the Virtual World SpotON3D

Through an associate, I was invited to a meeting conducted by Second Life® Resident Tessa Harrington (aka Tessa Kinney-Johnson), developer of the virtual world, SpotON3D™. Ms Kinney-Johnson, the CEO of UnReal Designs, LLC had recently begun holding a series of introductory meetings with interested Second Life residents to layout the scope, nature and plans for the venture. The evening of the meeting arrived and so did I at the headquarters of Unreal in Second Lifeļ½®. There were just over twenty avatar's present for the session, in which the attendee's and Ms Kinney-Johnson engaged in a lengthy text chat where they exchanged information and she responded to the questions posed. Residents were provided an opportunity to collect information on the proposed term of service agreement and an overview of SpotOn3D through note card givers at the site.

After the meeting, I contacted her and we arranged for a date and time to meet for an interview.
Nazz: "The goal of SpotON3D™ is to make the first intentionally designed 3D Web Application – an alternative to Second Life®" Intentional how? Why as an alternative to Second Life ®?

Tessa: We are really not trying to replicate anyone, but rather create a virtual network that is intentionally designed to be a three dimensional expression of what we now think of as the World Wide Web. Our focus is on business, providing content protection measures, and a clear separation of our general population area and mature population community so that corporations, individual businesses and virtual designers can all exist together and have their needs met as much as possible from a very business centric point of view. That's not to say we won't have recreational users, because where there is great content you'll find users.

Nazz: I read from a note card I received, "I opened the world's first 3D internet mall with paying renters and everything". Where at and was it successful?

Tessa: It was called Bizworld and was located in the Active virtual world network. We had four different areas offering shopping of real world product through web on a prim type click and go. We had real world vendors even in those early days, because there wasn't a mechanism or demand for virtual product to be sold there or even land, as there is today. This was primarily because the programmers of Active Worlds didn't integrate it into the system we see it is now. Was it successful? I'd say the fact that the owners of Active Worlds did their own virtual mall to illustrate the power of their offering at their IP opening in 1998 was a pretty good sign we'd hit on a idea of value and the fact that Second Life® is filled with them now is just one more example of their success.

Nazz: I'd also read in the note card, that there is the intention to address the challenges to content provider. What are the challenges and what will you do differently to protect their rights?

Tessa: Well, the biggest challenge is getting the programmers to put content protection on their TODO list. It seems they feel like if they can’t make things 100% protected than why should they try? Others seem to follow the idea that because it wasn't implemented in the 2D Web, then that standard, or the lack of it, should be followed in the 3D Web too. We disagree. We feel a functional level of protection can be created and are doing that now. On the software front we're creating security at three levels - at our entry point, educating the community on the grid to what rights they have and don't have over virtual content they purchase, and by forming an affordable and community driven legal option for the designers, so their concerns and disputes can be handled in a more professional and effective manner. With those options we think we have a very good chance of cutting out 80-90% of the risk of content abuse and/or theft, which is comparable to real life statistics.

We’d also like to contribute to the OpenSim core developer community to help steer the discussion on how content sharing is done through Hypergird. As content begins to cross grid lines we’ll see a growing concern with OpenSim grids, because your content is only as secure as the honesty of that grid owner and their team. Once you rez product on their grid, they have possession. The risks are, if a rogue group or company wanted to, they could lock out the owner of the content and retain product, leaving the creator with only the right to take them to court for a resolution ... a very costly endeavor. That's why there's so much talk about Trusted Grids and respecting content rights and permissions these days.

Nazz: Also from the note card, "Doing our utmost to make content theft a priority" In your talk and in response to previous questions, you'd discussed a "mediation panel", how well do you think that will work and how well do you think it'll be accepted by content creators?

Tessa: We've spoken to about 75 people on this and other topics concerning the SpotON3D™ grid in our presentations, and not one had expressed a negative comment on our processes. Of course, it's easy to like it now, but I think they appreciate the additional efforts that are being proposed to help make their concerns truly heard. I don't want to make the other grid owners out to be the bad guys. In all honesty, the pioneers in our industry had no idea where this quest would take them and could not have anticipated the many challenges we've seen about content theft and protection. They try to remain very neutral on these issues and offer the simple solution of the DMCA as a tool to combat it.

We've elected to be a bit more proactive, primarily because of my partnership with Stevan Lieberman, of Greenburg & Lieberman, his copyright and IP practice, and his experience in this field. The Mediation Panel is an extension of our vision for content and contract disputes for virtual grids. Its designed to be ran by the community for the community by calling out for voluntary participants to hear disputes, preferably from all sectors of the grid's population, i.e., designers, land barons, users, scripter's, builders, and even techy legal eagles. The idea is to allow the complainant and the alleged offender a means to present their sides of the dispute, with the Mediation Panel members asking questions as they see fit. In the end they are to make a joint proposal on a suggestion for resolution. This is step free. If it turns out one or both parties don’t agree with the Mediation Panel’s proposed solution, then one or both can ask for arbitration with a real world Judge. That decision would be legally recognized not only in the states but in most of the overseas courts as well, so it has real teeth. This also means that the only way either party can dispute the judges’ decision is to go through the typical civil court process in a non-jury case, which would cost thousands of dollars – a big incentive to settle amicably through our system.

The arbitration process we're offering should be priced between 100 -300 USD, depending upon the case and its complexity that's something most business people can readily afford. It's a solution tailor made for micro businesses, because let's be honest ... in reality, justice of this type in the real world is only available to those with money, either because the alleged offender has deep pockets, or the accusing party has deep pockets. We're hoping this makes it more accessible for everyone to participate in.

Nazz: In your comments at the meeting I attended you'd mentioned "Distribution rights as far as sending content through the grid systems" What does that mean?

Tessa: That is in relation to our TOS. If you read the other virtual grid TOS’ closely you'll see that they either take all rights to any content or require that you share IP rights with them. This is a problem for big corporate and even medium sized companies, because they will not spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to pay for the software development and content to use Virtual Environs if they can’ own the content and have some measure of control over its use into the future. It's not a cheap thing to set up a grid or to design content that acts as an interfacing application between the people, places, and the things. Companies want anything they invest in to be protected, so their competition can't just right click and walk off with it and set it up in their stores or worse yet, have their virtual stores spoofed and fool the public into thinking they are in the official 3d web site for their company.

Our direction on TOS and the rights and distribution issue recognized the need to distribute across our grid network, but does not ask for IP rights as well. We feel asking more is uncalled for and too far reaching. Now eventually, as we establish relationships with other trusted grids, distribution of content will exceed our server perimeters, but they will have to agree to these same standards and to have all disputes handled through our Mediation Panel system, basically honorinig the way we've set up our business model. They’ll also have to prove they are a legitimate and legally run corporation with a solid standing in the community and agree to pay for and use our grid software created to protect content. This allows for growth without opening up everyone to huge risks when Hypergrid becomes truly integrated.

Nazz: "There are many problems we've all recognized over the years with how avatar accounts are setup on virtual grids, and while we haven't found a way to solve all of them we feel we've made great strides in overcoming many of the big challenges and hope you agree." What strides have been made and what are the plans to address the remaining gaps?

Tessa: First you have to address the griefer risk. Many have lamented over the problem of griefing and pointed to the free accounts as a reason behind that problem. With anonymity, griefers feel comfortable playing havoc on virtual communities. SpotON3D™ combats this with a reasonable solution for that, with our Freebie 30-Day Trial Account. It will allow interested persons to explore, chat and shop as much as they want for 30-days. Their account abilities are limited, in that they can't rez, build, script or own land during this time period. This gives them plenty of opportunities to experience the social aspects of the 3D web, then rewards them with a fully interactive experience once they upgrade. Non-SpotON3D™ clients will be given limited access to a region called “The Lounge”, where they can hang and chat with others who go there, but we seriously hope they will want to become a member of the community and contribute to its success, rather than just hang out and look to the paying community to pay for the grid’s infrastructure. That kind of business model is not only unfair to the paying class, but could very well be one of the reasons why we’ve seen wild pricing fluctuations over in Second Life®. To their defense, these avatars we walk around in are hungry beasts and they want to be fed with lots of bandwidth and computer power and that doesn't come cheap.

Second, we had to balance that with a need to make the membership fees we do charge more reasonable and serve a purpose as well. SpotON3D™ has addressed this in a unique way. Access to our grid requires registration for what we call a Web Account. This is the main account that stores all the data for the avatars made and are kept via a web page interface. Each Web Account is responsible for membership fees and funding of up to five avatars through the Web Account's Master Wallet that is funded via a verified PayPal account. This means there will be no anonymous accounts, even for our Freebie 30-Day Trial account, greatly reducing the risk of the SpotON3D™ grid being attacked by griefers and minors coming in without their parent’s consent. This also means a user will only pay one monthly membership fee for those five accounts, allowing businesses to create a unique avatar for each of their employees, or a family to create avatars for each family member under parental guidance and moderation. This also provides far more reliable accounting for our registration numbers than the usual way accounts are made, which should appeal to investors. They can be sure the SpotON3D™ user numbers are valid and have a reliable means to chart growth.

Thirdly, we needed to address the issue of how to separate mature content users from the general public to allow for a family friendly atmosphere for business and communities to dwell in together. What we saw in Second Life® was PG property positioned right next to Mature. To avoid all that confusion and chaos, SpotON3D™ took the high road and designed our grid from the start, with separate area for each, thereby establishing a responsible tolerance stance. It works like this. There are two sections to the SpotON3D™ grid - General and Mature Population. Each has their own membership fees of $1.99 a month, an introductory price and is just enough to cover any accounting and processing fees. All members are required to have a General Population membership and can add on the Mature Population access if they wish for another $1.99 a month. All payments again are processed through an established PayPal account, which isn’t impossible for a child to get, but far less likely than just using mom or dad’s credit card or driver’s license to verify their accounts. They’d have to have access to banking statements, which would require minors to take far more invasive measure to get in through our doors without a parent’s consent and approval. It also limits the ability of griefers to access the grid anonymously.

The rule of thumb as to what is acceptable behavior on the General Population is this- If you'd not do it in front of your Mother, Grandmother or an eight year old, then it's probably not a good idea to do it on our General Population areas. This is a simple concept that most people can understand and appreciate. Those who would argue they’d have no problems with performing adult behaviors in front of children and family members are probably not the type of audience for our grid. Eventually we may open an 8 to 15 year old grid, when a sponsor willing to moderate it can be partnered with.

The Mature Population is dedicated to individuals 21 years of age and over who desire to have adult conversation and interactions without the distractions and/or worries of the company of minors. Because SpotON3D™ is committed to a zero tolerance stance on child abuse behavior, be it virtual or real world, no minors, age play or even adolescent looking avies will be tolerated on the Mature Population grid. Anyone found doing so will run the risk of having all their SpotON3D™ avatar accounts immediately banned and eventually deleted.

And lastly, we had to find a means to fund these avatar's activities, respecting real USD currency and a virtual currency for those who use it in game play. Each Web Account has what we call a Master Wallet. This is funded directly from the user's Paypal account. The owner of the Web Account and Master Wallet can choose a monthly monetary value or budget for their SpotON3D™ grid activities, and then distribute those funds to each individual Avatar Wallet, again up to five. The avatar accounts can be controlled from the Web Account, determining what grids they will have access to, what products they can buy, and what inworld images they can view. It will also determine how much money their wallets get funded by.

The remaining gaps aren't really recognizable yet, but we're sure to find reasons to improve upon even these innovative ways to solve user account problems.

Nazz: "We hope to participate in an identification system that allows us to truly ID a person without them exposing their ID's online." Who is developing the system and how reliable is it?

Tessa: PowerSynch is the company that is spearheading the customization of SpotON3D™ software and will eventually create the ID verification system. The ID verifying system will be very reliable and voluntary for the most part, but may result in being excluded from premium services as a motivation to verify.

PowerSynch, LLC will also be creating most of the software implemented to enhance services to our business market, such as module plug-in-play business suite of tools that integrate the 2D & 3D Web to existing real world office tools. This will be implemented using open source products such as Open Office and other well known and increasingly recognizable software to build upon.

Nazz: How many designers have signed up or are willing to locate on SpotON3D™? Any recognizable names?

Tessa: We had several designers who have expressed interest and are waiting for us to finish the code needed to illustrate how sales are going to be handled. We'll be creating a dummy sales demo in our entry area in one of the four tutorial alcoves. Designers such as Fallingwater Cellardoor of Shiny Things, Phil Cinquetti of M&P Animations, Michi Lumin of Luskwood Creations, Javier Puff with Xcite products, and King Pascale of Prestige Prefabs.

We have a few who have publicly committed to SpotON3D™, such as DeeTaleZ, formerly known as Free Soul Designs, run by Dark Hennesy and his real life girl, who closed their old shop in Second Life® today and opened their new one, DeeTaleZ immediately after. They offer a bit of everything, so we are honored they have chosen our grid to be their home away from home, if you will. We don't expect to see them in till midsummer, because they are opening a kids section in their new store. Eladon Galsworthy of Pond Life Landscaping and Gardens has reserved a SIM in both the Mature and General Population areas and Language Labs has expressed a serious interest once we get voice working. We're shooting to actually have that available at or shortly after our opening. We’re still waiting on the OpenSim core development team to finish up a few things to tidy up the voice code.

We've also had quite a number of universities and non-profits requesting pricing into and details. And last by certainly not least, we're expecting a percentage of residents from Second Life® to come over the next six month as users prepare for the last price hike on the OpenSpace/Homestead regions to take effect. They'll be needing lots of merchandise and we’ll be offering lots of freebies to them from our extensive catalogue that’s never been up for sale before. But we really have no desire to compete with the designers, so we hope to get them in shortly after our first soft opening in June to set up their stores.

Overall, from what the interest we've seen and the response we've gotten from the few presentations we've given on our grid, we're relatively sure we'll be sold out within the first 60-90 days of opening. There are only about 21 islands open to rent and around 100 residential parcels in varying sizes for the first server setup, then we'll order another to host more islands as the demand dictates.

Nazz: Will the platform support live music?

Tessa: Media feeds were one of the first things implemented on the OpenSim platform, so yes! We're looking forward to some stellar live musical events on our Rent-A-Cloud Region Servers™ after they get rolled out.

Nazz: What about nonprofits, will there be consideration given similar to what Second Life® has done? Will they be able to operate fund raisers?

Tessa: Sure nonprofits will not just be able to operate from our grid, but we hope to be able to help sponsor some of the more notable ones such as the Run for Life Breast Cancer Foundation. We've had universities and other organizations that have ongoing concerns ask us about discounts and what we ask them to consider is how much lower our pricing is compared to the other professionally run grids. It is dramatically below market value for the services we are offering, in most cases a full 50% less than Second Life®, our closest competitor. We had our university and academic clients in mind when we committed to our pricing, so it's not that we've ignored their budgetary needs or feel they don't deserve special treatment. It's simply that we wanted to offer the same low pricing to everyone. To make it appear we had a discount for organizations like this we'd have to increase the prices for everyone else, and we feel that's the wrong message to send out in these tough economic times.

Nazz: There has been a substantial body of immersive art created in Second Life®, do you see SpotON3D™ providing the same opportunities for the arts?

Tessa: Being that our big push is to create a safe haven for artists and their content, yes we very much want to welcome artisans from all forms of media, and once we get open and making revenue I'm sure we'll find a way to reach out to them and have events, contests and virtual conference that will benefit all the community, including our creative community.

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