Bright canopy and all that

I’m a bit late to the business of streaming the metaverse.  I recognised SLGo as a significant thing, but it was a significant thing with a monthly price tag and I rather suspect I’m already spending too much money on Second Life for the time I spend in it.  In any case, it wasn’t all that much time before SLGo became SLGone.  Sony’s purchase of OnLive in April stopped the growing service dead in its tracks.  People, of course, were outraged.

What’s the big deal with a streamed service?  The number one selling point is probably that you can run SL at the highest level of quality on hardware which might normally struggle to keep up with ‘Low’ graphics mode.  Like my six year old laptop.  Capable PC though it is for just about any other task, if I should run SL on it for more than a few minutes – even in low graphics mode; even with the draw distance reduced all the way to 32 metres – then I’m putting my thighs at serious risk of third degree burns.  I could run a streamed service on the exact same model, however, and in ‘Ultra’ graphics mode it wouldn’t even break a sweat.

How is this possible?  It’s all to do with where the work gets done.  When you’re running SL on your usual PC using, let’s say, Firestorm as your viewer, your computer has to do all the rendering.  It has to work out everything in your immediate environment, turn all those models into things, apply all the textures, note the movements of other people, calculate exactly what you would see from this point in the 3D landscape and looking in this direction (and keep on doing that several times a second), and so on.  It’s complicated work and it takes up a lot of resources.  Streamed services, on the other hand, do all that work for you on their own servers – using extremely high end equipment that you could probably never afford – and send the output display to you over the internet.  In terms of demand on your device, it isn’t a great deal different from receiving a video stream from YouTube and even ten year old computers can still manage that.

A few months ago, I made the decision to ditch my laptop and buy an Asus Chromebook.  It cost me about £200, for which I got an amazingly thin and lightweight computer with a battery life that astonishes me.  It’s the best machine I’ve ever had for writing. I absolutely love it.  Of course, there’s no way to run Second Life on it since it doesn’t run Windows software.  I resigned myself to that without too much difficulty; it wasn’t as though I was in the habit of spending that much time in SL on my laptop anyway.

Another key selling point of streaming the metaverse, however, is that it can be done from a regular browser window – no special software required.  When the new SL streaming service, Bright Canopy, launched on Saturday, therefore, running SL on my Chromebook was suddenly a possibility.  Having missed out on the whole SLGo thing, I decided to give it a go.

Whilst it does cost ($17 per month, which is about £11 in my money), there is, of course, a free trial period (of two weeks).  What I really like about the trial period of Bright Canopy as it stands right now is that you don’t have to enter your credit card details in order to activate it.  I loathe those deals, principally because where I’ve tried some of them in the past I’ve had to ring someone to cancel the account when the trial was over and then had to go through all the sales talk trying to persuade me otherwise.  Probably many services today offering free trial periods don’t do this, but that’s my association and it just makes me think, “nah” whenever I see this sort of offer.  With Bright Canopy, you do have to set up an account, but all you’re asked for is the usual email address and password, and then you’re in.  Nice one.

What you then get is a virtual Windows desktop with the official SL viewer and Firestorm pre-installed, which you operate exactly as though you were on your regular PC.  Double-click on the viewer of your choice (Firestorm, in my case), enter your ID and password, and away you go.  It’s that simple.

Screenshot 2015-08-31 at 21.56.48

In terms of graphics and performance, Bright Canopy does exactly what it promises.  Its default setting when I logged in the first time was actually one notch below Ultra, but it happily accepted my click on the far right of the graphics quality slider and pushing the draw distance up to 500 metres or so appeared to cause it no difficulty either.  What came as a surprise to me was just how quickly everything rendered.  The servers you connect to still have to fetch everything from the Linden Servers, so it’s never going to be instant, but it was pretty damn quick, just the same.

Operating the metaverse from my Chromebook was extremely straightforward with one exception: my Asus trackpad doesn’t handle dragging and dropping very well at all, so moving things like my inventory window around on screen was extremely hard work.  For the same reason, camming was near impossible.  This isn’t at all the fault of Bright Canopy, however, and I could of course resolve it by buying a mouse.

How does all this work?  The virtual desktop environment that you see on login is actually powered by the Frame cloud computing platform, a service which essentially lets you set up your very own Windows PC in the cloud and streams the output from it to your browser.  In fact, as Bright Canopy themselves point out (rather sportingly, I thought), there’s nothing stopping you from simply setting up a personal Frame account and installing your preferred SL viewer right there.  Frame offer accounts starting at $9.99 per month and I had a go at setting one up (using its free trial period) and installing Firestorm on it.  I didn’t get very far because the graphics capabilities of my virtual machine weren’t up to the job of rendering Second Life.  For that, it turned out, I needed the ‘Standard’ rather than ‘Starter’ account, costing $16.99, which is more or less exactly what Bright Canopy charge.  I’m not even certain that that would do it, however, since there are extra options at that stage for additional graphics processors at so many ‘credits’ per hour.  All very fiddly, though certainly doable if you have the patience, and then you would have a virtual SL and a virtual PC to play with.

Additionally, running SL directly from Frame rather than through Bright Canopy would mean there was one less organisation seeing your details.  When you type in your ID and password using Bright Canopy, they plus Frame are getting to see it, so that’s two organisations you’re having to put your faith in to keep your data secure.  There’s also all your text communication to think about, which is now going via an extra set of computers than the direct route it takes between you and Linden when logged on via your normal viewer.  Bright Canopy claims to take all this very seriously, but then what organisation these days would say any otherwise?  I’m sure Ashley Madison didn’t.

Actually, it’s three organisations.  Companies like Frame don’t actually operate their own servers.  These days, few companies own physical hardware; everything is outsourced to server farms.  Thus, the Bright Canopy website cautions us, “your data will be hosted on Amazon or Azure infrastructure”.  So Bright Canopy works using Frame and Frame works using the likes of Amazon Web Services (incidentally, it might even be possible to cut out all the middle people and set up a streamed Firestorm direct on AWS, though that’s well beyond my own personal skill set).  It’s all openly stated, but it’s a lot of trust to be placing in other people for what could be highly personal data.  Actually, Bright Canopy’s transparency is extremely refreshing.  You can find out a lot more about the development of their product in their blog, where they also mention that, precisely because they are the third layer in a hierarchy of companies, that $17 per month might need to rise in the future if the lower layers increase their pricing.

Anyway, it works.  It works extremely well.  It works so well, in fact, that I now get very clearly why many people are claiming streamed cloud platforms as a ‘game changer’ in personal computing.  Yes, I think it probably is.  Will I use Bright Canopy once my trial period is over?  The problem is I just don’t spend as much time inworld these days as I used to.  I did notice on the Bright Canopy website when I signed up that there is a pay-per-minute option available (as opposed to the monthly fee) once you’ve entered your credit card details.  I can’t seem to find this information any more, but the cost per minute quoted seemed very reasonable and – for me – would come in significantly less than $17 per month based on my current usage.  Now that I might well be tempted by.

UPDATE – 1 September

I should have known that missing price per minute information meant something was up: not twenty-fours after I published the post above (and not yet three days since the launch of the service), Canary Beck broke the story that Bright Canopy have changed their pricing plan.  It will still cost you $17 per month, but this will now only cover your first 20 hours; after that, you have to pay just over a cent per minute.  As Becky points out, a 40 hour per week user like her would end up paying close to $130 per month under this plan.  Read more here.  At the time of writing, the service is currently down and all accounts created over the weekend have been deleted.

I want to be generous to Bright Canopy and point out that they did identify prices might rise (although they never mentioned this happening within so short a time).  This increase, however, is apparently due to the huge take-up of the service over the weekend, a demand they claim they never anticipated; and yet I recall reading on their FAQ (which is now no longer displaying) that – yes – they could meet increasing demand because their model would scale with size.  Is it now the common practice, then, to make promises you have no way of keeping and just hope everything will work out?  In which case, perhaps it’s time also to re-examine those assurances made about data security.

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