Monday, 2 November 2009

Unity now for Free & FriendsHangout

Early in 2009 I mentioned the recent trend in Virtual World design that required little or no downloads, and where all content was streamed directly to your browser (basically, if you can watch streamed movies on your PC you can use streamed games and virtual worlds). As we approach the end of 2009 one company stands out as the leader of this trend, Unity Technologies.

The Unity software allows anyone, with no programming experience whatsoever, to quickly develop games and virtual worlds, that can be run in a browser, using simple drag and drop tools. A player can start a game or visit a world on their home PC, then continue on the move via their mobile phone!

Up until recently, the Unity software came in two main flavours: Unity Pro, at US$1,499 and a cut-down version, Unity Indie, at US$200. That has now changed. Unity Indie has now been renamed to simply 'Unity' and is now available at zero cost, while still allowing the user to create commercial applications. The main restriction between Unity and Unity Pro is that Unity is limited to a maximum of 20 avatars per 'world', which is ample for most applications. Unity is available in both Windows and Mac versions, and versions are also available for creating applications for both the iPhone and the Wii.

The Unity download comes complete with a simple but powerful Editor, and a sample project, Tropical Paradise, which is available to browse, along with other projects in Live Demo format on the Unity website.

Models and objects for your world can be created in almost all current 3d applications. A list of 3d formats, image formats, video and audio formats supported is available on the Unity Asset Importing page.

Of course, once you have created a virtual world you will need to host it so your customers/friends can access it through their browsers. Hosting can be on a dedicated server, a Virtual Private Server, or even on your home PC if your upload speed is fast enough. So, what do you do if your ISP does not quote your upload speed? The answer is - you measure it. Use one of the internet connection speed measurement services. The one I like best is SpeedTest.NET Just select the recommended server to test with (click on the yellow pyramid), and it will measure first your download speed, then your upload speed. My upload speed is 1Mb/sec and it handled myself and a visiting friend with no problem at all. I did not check how many avatars 1Mb/sec could handle (but hey, you have to have something to check yourself, right?).

Many Games, 3d Chat Rooms and Virtual Worlds have been built now using Unity, and  one such company that provides over 4000 chatrooms, virtual worlds, and custom 3D worlds, using Unity, is FriendsHangout (terrible, unimaginative name, I know). You select the World you wish to visit from a rotating set of destinations boards (think Blue Mars Destination Island here, but rotating).

 There are no facilities for creating objects in FriendsHangout (that privilege is reserved for the creator of the world), but if you are looking to update your avatar, you will find clothing and animations to bring your character to life in your own custom style.

You can also create your own custom chat room and virtual world and buy furniture and various props to add your own design to each and every item in their catalogue.

Give it a try.