#16. My Second Life: From the grid to a universe

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As a reminder, this blog entry contains my personal opinions and does not necessarily represent the ideas of my employer IBM regarding virtual worlds in general or Second Life in particular.

The rise in popularity of online multiplayer games and 3D interaction environments like Second Life naturally brings into question what other services may follow. In open sourcing its client and eventually its server side application, Linden Labs may end up owning the primary body of code used by many such environments with revenue coming from hosting and inworld services.

These services include providing the application and database servers that carry and manipulate the game assets, player interaction, the financial exchanges, and land sales. In addition monthly subscriptions, player land tier fees, and charges for private �islands� provide stream revenue. This is balanced by their cost for servers, location services, and network connectivity, as well as normal business expenses such as work force, marketing, buildings, et cetera.

The attractiveness of the Second Life experience has led to a tremendous amount of creation of buildings, activities, and businesses within the world. This has generated a network effect of friends getting other friends to join. Additionally, there is a lot of volunteerism within Second Life as people help new residents come up to speed on how to move around without crashing into walls, find interesting places to visit, buy land, build houses, and otherwise create some sort of virtual existence for themselves.

If the server code becomes open source, I believe this will lead to multiple game grids hosted by independent parties, some on the open Internet and others behind firewalls. (I plan to have one in my house.) Players may live simultaneously in these grids, but there will be those who will want or need to live uniquely in one of them at a time.

A reasonable working assumption is that a real life human will be represented in a connected way in multiple grids at the same time, something I will refer to as the �single identity multiple instantiation� case (SIMI). Of course, a single human might have multiple identities and these might further have multiple instantations.

It is the SIMI case which interests me here and this may, of course, reduce to a single instantiation at a time. Note that there may not be a human behind this at all. As is the case in Second Life today, that avatar to whom you are speaking or with whom you are conducting business might just be a bit of artificial intelligence, or a �bot.�

In the SIMI situation, how will assets and money be shared across grids? If I build a house on one grid and I own it, how do I transport it to another grid? More basically, how can I leave one grid and arrive in another (an extended form of the teleportation that exists in Second Life today) and get there wearing the clothes I had on my back? Is this, in fact, what I want to do, or would I rather assume a different avatar representation in the various grids through which I pass?

What about money? As different grids are created and mature in independent ways, the economic basis of the currencies will change and we will need to deal with foreign exchanges just as we do in the real world today. Talking about divergence, what happens if the open source code for different grids changes in incompatible ways? Movement and exchanges between grids will become trickier. We will need interoperability here and therefore we will need open standards.

Grids may be distinguished by the quality of service and experience they provide, but we will need total clarity and openness in how they are stitched together. We will need to transparently understand the process by which identities, assets, and currency move from an instantiation in one grid to that in another. Access control will also have to be more sophisticated than what is provided within a single grid today.

In the current web, we have millions of websites and these are hosted by thousands of servers and service providers. It is standards and the way in which our various servers and client browsers implement them that makes it all work. Therefore it is completely reasonable to imagine that there will be hundreds or thousands of 3D virtual grids and standards will play a big part.

Just as you may browse tens of websites on the Internet and in intranets each day right now, I predict that you will also move among tens of 3D virtual grids a decade from now. We need to make this easy to do while being appropriately secure and safe. We’ll understand and do a better job of keeping things separate that should be separate (think confidential behind-firewall business dealings or perhaps more salacious interactions).

For all I know, the natural environment might be that we will live online in a 3D virtual universe and the different grids will appear to us as planets, solar systems, and galaxies. The new �browser� will be our tool for traversing this universe. Just as we have the Googles of today for searching and advertising, so too will we have similar things in the 3D universe. The business opportunities will be there, but remember that the intellectual property and patents that are existence right now may and very likely will apply to the new universe.

In this 3D universe of grids, all sorts of combinations will be possible, just as I talked about the SIMI case above. There will be grids that will be sometimes there and sometimes not. I might choose to have a grid in my home office and do all my building locally, and then open it up selectively at certain times for friends or clients.

I will likely store my assets (think clothes, buildings, furniture, vehicles, avatars, and personal attachments) locally but will want the security of keeping them safe somewhere else as well. The companies that provide on-web storage of photographs today may be the virtual world asset banks of tomorrow.

Just as people have LAN parties to play games in private networks today, we will have peer-to-peer connections among virtual worlds tomorrow. These will intermittently be connected to master servers as we need to do barter, commerce, visit our friends, and have fun.

Take what you know and think about the web today including the technology, standards, infrastructure, e-commerce, driving forces, and social interaction and then imagine what these mean in a virtual 3D environment.

It’s not such a leap of faith to imagine this will come to pass. The web itself seemed pretty radical in its day way back in ancient history. You do remember the mid-90s, don’t you?

Also see: “Yoicks! It’s another virtual world” in Australia’s The Age.

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  1. Apologies for repeating myself making this point on your blog, but the “3D universe of grids” you describe could be a direct extension of the web.

    “Transport assets to another part of the grid”

    This could mean moving an X3D file from one 3D web server to another.

    “Leave one grid and arrive in another”

    Essentially this is a simple hyperlink.

    “…and get there wearing the clothes I had on my back”

    The is a concept that isn’t widepsread on the current web, the idea that all the current visitors to a resource are consistently represented as part of the representation of the resource itself. When you see a web page, you don’t (usually) get a list of all the other people currently looking at it, and users are certainly not represented with a consistent appearance.

    This might require the concept of an “avatar server” where a person’s identity and appearance is hosted somewhere and their avatar (along with other visitors) is included in every 3D “web site” they visit.

    “Movement and exchanges between grids will become trickier. We will need interoperability here and therefore we will need open standards”

    Why not build on the standardisation efforts of organisations like the Web3D Consortium (http://www.web3d.org)?

    “It is standards and the way in which our various servers and client browsers implement them that makes it all work.”

    This will require a web browser which is capable of rendering a 3d representaiton of resources, something like the browser plugins which are already available for VRML and X3D.

    Although an ordinary web server and a web browser with a 3D plugin are capable of the basics of creating a 3D world, clearly there are not existing standards for every element of the Second Life experience. What new formats and protocols do we need to open and standardise that don’t already exist, to create a distributed 3D online world with a user experience like Second Life? We already have HTTP, X3D, ECMAScript, XMMP, CSS… what’s next?

    I’d also like to put forward the idea that the 3D web should be just one mode of the multimodal web, to the extent that someone can choose to browse the same web in either 2D graphics, 3D graphics, plain text, voice etc. Why shouldn’t someone browsing amazon.com be able to hit the 3D button and suddenly be walking around a bookshop and taking books off shelves, before taking them to the counter to purchase them?

    Ben Francis


  2. All good thoughts, Ben. Tell me, if we didn’t have web browsers as we do today and started today to do everything that you imagine, what would you create to do all that?

  3. I would probably create something very much like Second Life and open source the server source code.

    Anything anyone ever creates is based somehow on someone else’s ideas (standing on the shoulders of giants and all that). If we didn’t have the web but we had video games, I would start with an existing gaming engine. Then in the absence of a worldwide network of linked information resources, I would take the next best thing to existing technology, science fiction. I’d buy Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and start writing network protocols and file formats!

    I’d start by separating the storage of content, logic and presentation into different formats and come up with some kind of distributed TCP/IP streaming protocol with heavy compression.

    I suspect that you’re asking whether the web is really a suitable platform for all this, whether if we weren’t stuck in the mind set of the existing world wide web we might come up with a better solution. Perhaps.

    But if I was creating the web from scratch (but happened to benefit from the hindsight of all the great minds that came after me), I wouldn’t use XML-like syntax for web pages, I would use something more efficient. I would try to make the DNS system more decentralised and URIs would be of the form http:uk.co.companyname.department/resource instead of http://department.companyname.co.uk/resource. I might make HTTP requests asynchronous, build comment spam protection and Denial of Service protection into the protocols of the web. However, I wouldn’t necessarily attempt to make those changes now.

    What’s amazing about the web for me isn’t that it’s perfect technology that could not have been done better, it’s that it’s openness and adoption has made it almost ubiquitous in the world. Creating new protocols suited to new applications is definitely a good idea, but if the online 3D virtual world is to become as ubiquitous as the World Wide Web, we should learn from the lessons of how web technology was created and build on an already ubiquitous platform. Adoption of a well defined standard is more important than a perfect technology.

    Another motivation behind making Stephenson’s “Metaverse” a direct extension of the web is device independence. It’s all very well creating a 3D virtual world which requires a large amount of processing to render, but what if I want to access the information on a small information appliance with little processing power? What if I live in a developing country and want to be able to access some information but only have a text based browser? What if I’m blind and can’t see the virtual world and want to hear it instead? We need not carry over all the limitations of First Life into Second Life. I don’t know about you, but I hate having to pay for physical objects and I love flying!

    What are your thoughts?

  4. I think we have very similar thoughts. I find it frustrating that I can’t do anything at all in the virtual world when I’m not connected, so I would definitely shift how things are distributed, shared, and synched between client and server. The new environment being done in Australia (see the new link at the end of this blog entry) that will use P2P is intriguing to me as it sounds like something closer to what I was imagining.

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