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.