Auckland studio launches web-based virtual world

Browser-based 3d world requires no downloaded software

Auckland software-development studio Outsmart launches its virtual world SmallWorlds to the public next week.

SmallWorlds is a 3D virtual world that runs inside the web browser, which means users don’t have to download and install any applications on their computers.

Accessibility and ease-of-use were important to Outsmart’s developers when they set out to build their virtual world at the beginning of last year. Funded by US venture capital, the company, which has 19 staff, had been building rich internet applications for the US and international market for over three years. This exposed the team to new web trends, say company founders Mitch Olson and Darren Green.

This insight, combined with a company-wide passion for online gaming, led to the decision to build a next-generation virtual world, says Green.

The team, which according to Olson includes some of the top 3D people in the country, used Adobe Flex and Flash to build the system. SmallWorlds is deployed in the browser, on top of the Flash player, says Green. At the back-end it uses Java. It also uses Amazon’s web service Elastic Compute Cloud, also known as EC2. This virtual server cloud allows SmallWorlds scale to 1,000 servers within minutes, says Green. Amazon EC2 users can create, launch and terminate server instances on demand, hence the term “elastic”.

SmallWorlds differs from other virtual worlds, such as Second Life, in that it runs in the browser. Virtual worlds that target the upper teen and adult market tend to be download-based, says Green. But SmallWorlds, aimed at the 13-plus demographic, hopes to reach a bigger market by not requiring any downloads.

It is also easy to navigate in SmallWorlds, to find people and to interact with them, says Green. “[Many] other worlds are immensely complicated,” he says.

Users create their own avatar and their own living room in SmallWorlds. They can then play games with online friends. They can also watch synchronised YouTube videos or listen to music with their friends.

“People can join you in your own room,” says Olson.

Users can email the URL of their room to friends, and friends can then visit the living room even if they are not existing SmallWorlds members.

Social-networking sites and media-sharing sites can be incorporated into the user’s own space, and the SmallWorlds page can be embedded into other web pages — a user’s own website or blog, for example, says Olson.

Rooms can also represent communities or interest groups. Users can create their own clubs and virtual meeting rooms for gaming, classes or conferences. Virtual worlds are becoming the new living rooms for the youth audience, says Olson.

Television networks, struggling to keep the loyalty of their audience, as well as gaming companies are looking for ways to reach out and engage this important part of the market. Accordingly, Outsmart is engaged in conversations with television and movie networks in the US, and is also looking at partnering with big game companies, says Olson.

SmallWorlds will initially target the English-speaking market, but there are plans to develop versions for the Asian market.

Outsmart has just opened an office in Los Angeles.

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