Important note: The SL Go service is to be shut down on April 30th, 2015. For more information, please read this report.
On Wednesday March 5th, Linden Lab and OnLive, the streaming / cloud gaming company announced the launch of the SL Go by OnLive (SL Go) public beta (available to UK, US and Canadian residents at the moment).
SL Go is a service which streams the SL viewer and SL content directly to the user’s computer or tablet device (during the beta period, only Android is supported for tablets). As a streamed service, it allows, subject to network connectivity, the full richness and depth of Second Life to be displayed and used on tablets and low-end computer systems and laptops. The public beta is intended to broaden the use of the service, and to obtain further feedback in order to further enhance and refine it.
As a part of the preparations for the launch, I was one of a number of journalists and bloggers given preview access to the new service in order to try it out and provide initial reviews for readers. However, if you’re rather just skip ahead to the review part of this article, you can follow this link – but if you do, be warned, you’ll be missing out! :) .
News that Linden Lab were involved in developing a mobile means of accessing Second Life first surfaced in October 2013, when selected users received an e-mail inviting them to sign-up for a closed beta for a new mobile service. Shortly after that, rumours began circulating that the work was linked with OnLive. Given the viewer’s complexity and the dynamic nature of SL content, using a streaming service is perhaps the only way in which to bring the full richness and depth of the SL experience provided by the viewer to devices such as tablets. Interestingly, however, the idea for using OnLive didn’t actually come from the Lab.
Instead, it actually came from Gary Lauder, OnLive’s Chairman and owner. His company, Lauder Partners, invested in the original OnLive Inc in 2009, and when that entity got into difficulties in 2012, then stepped-in and acquired OnLive in August 2012 and formed the current company using the name. Lauder has a working relationship with the Lab’s former CEO, Rod Humble, and being aware of Second Life, he approached Humble in early 2013 with the idea of forming a synergy between the two companies.
Lauder made his approach because third-person adventure games have been particularly successful for OnLive. As such, Second Life was seen as a logical choice for extending OnLive’s reach into more immersive environments while at the same time potentially offering Linden Lab with a solution for providing SL to tablet devices and to low-end desktop and laptop systems.
The task of initially investigating whether SL could be successfully run through OnLive servers was passed to Nick Barsetti, the Senior Manager of Customer Relations at OnLive. “One of my staff members and I were able to get it up and running on the service … and my jaw just absolutely dropped,” he says while discussing the service with Draxtor Despres ahead of the launch. “I said, ‘I’ve never seen it run this fast!’ It was prior to the server-side rending release [server-side appearance, July / August 2013]. And as we know, that has speeded-up local viewers quite a bit … even with that, it was running 150+ fps, and we’ve even seen it run as high as 200 fps on a private island.”
With the proof-of-concept a success, OnLive started into the core development work, with Barsetti playing a key role, being both a former Linden Lab employee (Scout Linden) and a long-time Second Life resident who has been actively engaged in the platform for seven years, notably as a community leader in a Star Wars role-play group. As such, he is intimately aware of how the viewer and platform can be used and very familiar with users’ expectations and requirements when running Second Life, and this is very apparent in his conversation with Drax, which you’ll be able to hear in The Drax Files Radio Hour on Friday March 7th.
SL Go is a service provided entirely by OnLive, which sits between the Lab’s servers and the user (and is, most likely, one of the contributing factors behind the August 2013 ToS changes). As such, it requires those wishing to use the service (including users with an existing OnLive account) to register at the SL Go website. Those who don’t have an account with OnLive will obtain one as a part of their SL Go registration. People with existing OnLive accounts will need to register with the SL Go website prior to being able to see SL Go through their OnLive client (computer or tablet).
Once registered, users can then purchase time credits for the service, download the SL Go app for Android via Google Play or the OnLive client for PCs or Macs in order to access SL Go.
New SL Go accounts receive a free trial period of
20 minutes 7 days (see the update at the top of this article, so that they can try the service to see if it suits their needs and assess how well it runs on their home or mobile network. Once this initial 20-minute period has been used, additional time credits can be purchased at the following rates: $3.00 for one hour $8.00 for three hours (representing a 10% saving on the base cost) $25.00 for ten hours (representing a 15% saving on the base cost).
As noted at the top of this article in the updates, OnLive now charge a flat monthly subscription of US 9.95 (UK £6.95) per month for unlimited access to Second Life.
It is possible that some may balk at having to additionally pay for accessing Second Life. However, as Nate Barsetti explains, there is an underlying reason for charging for the service. “OnLive is another layer placed between you and the Linden Lab network. So in order to fund this and keep it going, there is a payment model associated with SL Go.” He also believes that the potential benefits in using SL Go will sufficiently offset reservations people have about paying for the service. Time will tell on this.
As well as using SL Go on either an Android tablet or a computer system, it is also possible to use SL Go with the OnLive Games System (OGS) to connect to a television and play games using a suitable USB or wireless keyboard and mouse and / or the included games controller (which can also be purchased separately).
As part of the preview, reviewers were supplied with a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 with the SL Go app pre-installed, together with the OGS and a wireless keyboard for trying SL Go on a television, and a pre-assigned OnLive account. Unfortunately, I have been unable to test using SL Go with a television as a result of not being able to connect the OGS with my home network. As such, what follows is an overview of SL Go running on a tablet and on a low-end computer system (in this case, a 2010 PC EEE 1201N with 4 GB RAM and windows 7 home Edition, 32-bit).
SL Go on a Tablet
Once installed on a tablet, the SL Go app can be started by tapping its associated icon. This will initially display a OnLive sign-in screen requesting the user’s OnLive account credentials. Tapping Sign-in after entering these will connect the app to the OnLive servers and commence streaming the viewer to the tablet, displaying the viewer log-in screen.
Note that for convenience, the log-in fields are displayed at the top of the viewer’s splash screen. Tapping the Username field will display the tablet’s on-screen keyboard (note you can also use a suitable bluetooth keyboard as well), allowing you to enter your avatar name. Tap the Password field to enter your avatar’s account password, then tap Log In to log-in to SL.
The Tablet overlay provides a means of carrying out routine interactions with the viewer – walking, turning, flying, jumping, camera movement and zoom, closing floaters, and so on. The options initially displayed are described below.
According to the supplied reviewer notes, double-tapping the avatar icon in the middle of the movement keys is supposed to enter flight mode; however, this consistently didn’t work for me, and I found flight could be enabled much as when using the viewer on a computer – tap and hold the Jump icon.
Movement can be achieved either by using just the movement controls in the overlay (think arrow keys / WASD on a keyboard), or through a combination of using the “up” key to walk forward and the joystick control to adjust your direction of travel. This takes a little getting used to, but isn’t that hard to grasp.
Tapping the camera icon shifts the overlay to the camera options, shown below.
All of the menus and toolbar buttons are accessible via tapping the tablet’s screen, although keyboard shortcuts are not enabled (even when using a separate keyboard). To assist with using the buttons and menus, pinch-zoom motions are fully supported, as is the ability to “drag” the viewer across the tablet’s screen using a two finger gesture when zoomed-in. To help prevent the overlay getting in the way of things, you can tap the “Power” icon to collapse the overlay into a single icon; a second tap will expand it again.
Pinch-zoom and the ability to “drag” the focal point across a zoom-in view with a two-finger gesture also makes for much easier in-world interaction with objects such as vendor boards, chairs, and so on. Similarly, the touch screen allows for full drag-and-drop capabilities familiar to us all when using the viewer on a computer – so users can, for example, drag and drop items in-world from their inventory.
One element that SL Go doesn’t fully address is that of the right-click context menu. This can be a little awkward in some instances. However, it is possible (with practice) to get around this by touching the object until the info hover text appears, and then tapping that for the context menu. Just be aware this may not always work; I couldn’t for example, get it to work with a chair which required right-click to sit and which also had a pose menu associated with it – although the reason for my problems could have admittedly been this side of the tablet screen…
SL Go on a Notebook
Running SL Go from a computer requires users install the OnLive client (those who already have an account with OnLive and the client installed will still need to register via the SL Go website).
Once the client is installed, SL Go is access by signing-in to the OnLive service and then navigating to My Games > Hourly Play (or via the Quick Launch list, once played).
Once selected, the SL Go viewer will be streamed and the log-in splash screen displayed, but without overlay used when accessing the viewer via a tablet.
I did encounter issues at this point – SL Go did not like trying to run over a wireless connection to my Asus at all, not even when I had the Asus in the same room as my router and all other wireless devices in the house disabled. Thus, I resorted to wired connection. Another problem I encountered was that SL Go didn’t like being run in full screen mode (ALT-Enter) and became prone to disconnection. Whether this speaks to an issue with full screen or with my Internet service, I don’t know.
Once that was sorted out, however, I have to say the results were impressive. While the Asus can run SL, it can only do so with ease if Graphics are set fairly well down. It certainly does not like shadows to be enabled all the time, and even on the lower end of the slider, fps rates tend to be in the low teens. With SL Go, I was abl to ramp all the graphics setting up to Ultra, enjoy ALM, shadows, windlight and so on at a frame rate averaging in the mid-50s in a well-developed, well-textured region, and with minimal bandwidth.
There is actually not too much more to be said when using SL Go in this way, other than it works and it gives you almost all the benefits / functions of using the viewer locally, but with few of the inherent problems when trying to do so with quality graphics on a low-end machine.
General Notes and Feedback
There are a few things missing from the viewer when using the SL Go service. This is partially for security reasons and partly because the service is still a work-in-progress.
In speaking to Draxtor Despres, Nate Barsetti indicates that security, rather than developing the means to stream and present both viewer and dynamic content in a manner which is user-acceptable, has been the hardest part of the project. This is perhaps understandable given the need to protect the integrity of user SL account credentials. However, security issues also extend into protecting OnLive’s servers, particularly given the viewer is actually running server-side. So to minimise potential risks, both the Advanced and Develop menus have been removed from within the viewer.
In terms of “missing pieces” from the viewer, SL voice is currently unsupported, although with is on the roadmap to be added in due course. Also, as the viewer is running server-side, there is no ability to save snapshots locally or upload items. While the button is available in the snapshot floater, it is disabled. OnLive hope to add the ability in the future, once they resolved how to get a snapshot across the gap between their servers and a local storage medium, be it a hard drive, internal memory or SD card. You can, however, still save snapshots to inventory, e-mail them or send them to your Profile feed.
When the “mobile beta” was first linked to the use of a streaming service, concerns were raised about issues with latency and lag. Given they are already in the market of streaming games to users, these are issues OnLive are aware of, and have worked to mitigate as far as possible through the use of multiple data centres (5 across the USA and one in Luxembourg with a further hub in London) and through what Barsetti refers to as intelligent routing, with the service attempting to find the fastest route between servers and client. Even so, as he admits, “The hard-core gamer will notice a little bit of latency, they’re just so attuned to it,” before adding, “But for the great populace, it’s an enjoyable experience, it absolutely is playable, and you tend to adjust for it in your game playing.”
Which is actually true – although I was surprised that, after some initial teething troubles (potentially the result of have 6 other devices in the house vying for wi-fi use), I have to say that any latency I did encounter was largely countered with a very small measure of patience and a gentle touch on the overlay controls.
Over the week in which I’ve been using SL Go, I have to admit that I’ve found it entirely usable. While Nate Barsetti makes light of the issues of presenting the viewer to a touch device and using that native capabilities of that device (pinch-zoom, double-taps, finger scrolling / sliding, etc.), and the overlay controls, the result are actually very impressive and make the viewer extremely useable.
Similarly, streaming to a relatively low-end system does offer a real alternative to suffering through low fps rates, high client-side lag and an inability to turn-on all the “pretties” and see SL at its best.
There were a few minor niggles I had; I would, for example, like to see OnLive adjust the default camera position so that it is a little closer to the avatar, and potentially modelled along ideas which have long been promoted by Penny Patton, and which I’ve reproduced in these pages. While it may have (again) been the result of the hardware I was using, I did find that having a bluetooth keyboard paired with the tablet did not prevent the on-screen keyboard from being displayed whenever I focused the cursor to type. While the constant need to clear the on-screen keyboard was a tad irritating, it wasn’t enough to stop me using the app.
Even so – I do wonder as to the potential impact SL Go will have on established users. From Nate Barsetti’s comments, the service appears to be aimed towards a niche set of uses (thus helping justify the cost). Frankly, for many users, there are alternatives when presented with most of those niche uses. Lumiya, for example, while only available for Android, offers an in-world view and the ability to carry out most forms of interaction (other than more complex activities such as building). While it’s in-world rendering is obviously not up to the depth offered by the viewer, it is still more than sufficient to allow those who can use it with the means to perform the functions Barsetti points to being ideal for SL Go use. Of course, Lumiya is only for Android – and SL Go will be available to the iPad in the future, which may boost its use.
It also has to be said that Lumiya’s approach to certain aspects of using SL on a smaller screen are, because Alina has had the freedom to work outside of the viewer’s constraints, superior. This is particularly noticeable with reference to chat and IMs.
The payment mechanism may perhaps be the biggest hang-up in terms of SL Go gaining strong use – however, if it is kept to the use cases Barsetti suggests in his chat with Draxtor, then the fact is $8.00 and $25.00 could both actually go a long way. How willing users on low-end systems might be to pay for their SL experience is liable to come down to matters of how much time they spend in-world, what other SL expenses they already have, and whether they would prefer to have all the visual richness offered by the viewer running full tilt.
There’s going to be a lot on SL Go from blogs and on video. The Drax Files Radio Hour will be featuring an extended interview with Nate Barsetti, some of which has been quoted here – with thanks to Drax for making the interview available to me – and with one of the OnLive engineers.
If you want to learn more, Designing Worlds are running a special show on Wednesday 14:00 SLT, featuring Don Laabs (Danger Linden), Head of Product at LL, and Nate Barsetti of OnLive. The show will be followed by an open discussion which will be streamed live on Aview.TV.
My thanks to the following: Draxtor Despres; Peter Grey, Director of Global Communications, Linden Lab; Jane Anderson, OnLive PR, California; Bruce Grove, General Manager, OnLive Ltd