December 31, 2006

Virtual Universe : The Need for Open Standards

2006 is the year when the idea of Virtual Universes went mainstream. Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) like Everquest has been around for about three years and three dimensional virtual reality, whether with physical devices or with technology like VRML, has been around even longer, but it had always been a niche market -- at best adopted in the gaming community. However with the advent of Linden Labs and the release of their SecondLife platform, the concept of a virtual universe has now become the defacto platform of the future. What the World Wide Web was in 1996 is what Second Life is in 2006 ... and this time, the rate of penetration and adoption is even faster.

Describing SecondLife is an exercise of (a) redundancy and (b) futility. It is redundant because almost every magazine and journal has now described it in great detail and Reuters has a full time bureau chief reporting regularly from SecondLife. It is also futile because Second Life is an experience .. that one has to go through to understand and appreciate the concept. Trying to explain Second Life to someone who has not been there is like to trying to describe the beauty of a sunset to a person who has been born blind. I will not even try that ... and assume that whoever is reading this has the wherewithal to go out and find out more about this technology on his own.

While SecondLife may be the most successful implementation of a virtual universe, it suffers from the inherent drawback of being a proprietory product. SecondLife is to virtual universe what America Online was to the world wide web. Conceptually similar but fundamentally different. AOL ( and to an extent the old MSN) were closed worlds -- of proprietory servers and proprietory clients, that were initially quite exciting but were quickly swept away by the flood of open source. Once the HTTP protocol became public domain, anyone could make an HTTP server or an HTTP client and this paved the way for what became the universal client ( or web browser ) that allowed total interoperability across the digital community.

The sheer "open"ness of the internet / web as a platform led to its proliferation and ultimate dominance over all other competing technologies.

Compared to this openness, the MMORPG / Virtual Universe community is still operating in the erstwhile Soviet Gulags or behind the Great Chinese Firewall. There are many very nice MMORPG platforms but each operates with its own proprietory client that connects to its own server. While this may be percieved as a good tool for client retention it certainly restricts choice. The sheer pain of downloading a heavy client for each MMORPG is a strong enough disincentive for many users to check out and join various MMORPG games. Personally, I have participated only in Planeshift and of course now I am a resident of SecondLife.

Had it been possibly for me to use either the browser or any one MMORPG client to access the other MMORPG servers, I am sure I would have tried out many more platforms and might have decided to focus somewhere else.

SecondLife is of course different because it allows the actual creation of objects and artefacts by residents (or players, if you wish) and then allows them to retain the intellectual property. This free market approach has injected a huge amount of commercial dynamism and has made it the cynosure of all eyes. But from an underlying technology perspective, both MMORGs in general and SecondLife in particular are an implementation of the same concept of Virtual Universe or the as some people prefer to say, the 3D-Internet. ... and this is where the proprietory nature of both is acting as significant handicap in the growth and proliferation of the Virtual Universe.

So what is that needs to happen ?

First we need open definition of what is a Virtual Universe. This is where organisations like The Internet Engineering Task Force or the World Wide Web Consortium can (or should ) take a lead to define a set of open standards that will allow any VU-browser to connect to a VU-server. Should the IETF or the W3C be too slow to act, an industry body like the Intenational Game Developers Association should take up the initiative to develop these standards. Like the HTTP protocol, we should develop and standardise on a VUTTP protocol.

Second, all future MMORPG builders should actively seek to port their products to a platform that is compliant with VUTTP. There is no doubt that there will be severe politics, lobbying and one-upmanship here as each organisation will seek to ensure that their own protocols and standards be accepted. Big organisations will try to ignore the emerging consensus and stick to their own standards .. but eventually everyone will fall in line. The final protocol may not be the best and most efficient, but will have the benefit of being universal.

In parallel, we will see the growth of (a) VUTTP servers and (b) VUTTP clients. Some of these clients and servers will be commercial software and some will be opensource. If we draw a parallel from the normal internet, the open source versions might eventually win out or they may not. Apache is the dominant HTTP server but Firefox has still not overtaken IE ... but that is a different story and they way that story pans out will depend on a host of factors.

What is important will be the public availability of VUTTP servers and VUTTP clients ... and using these two products, developers will have the freedom to develop diverse and interoperable virtual universes.

Interoperability is important. If we had to use a different web browser for each website that you visit -- one for Yahoo, one for Amazon, one for (my) HSBC bank, one for Indiatimes, one for the JetAirways e-Ticketing service, one for the BBC and one for my favourite Slashdot ... would I have had the energy and enthusiasm to visit anyone of these websites ? But since I can use Firefox to visit and operate EACH of these and thousand other websites, I -- and countless others -- have adopted the web as an integral part of my Real Life.

For Second Life / Virtual Universes to become as integral a part of our existence, we need a genuine open VUTTP client. Who will create this ?

Will it be Linden Labs ? or will it be a (not so) dark horse called Google ?

Google has the Google Earth product where they are creating a virtual version of the Real World and they have free 3D modelling tools that allow individuals to create their own structures. In parallel, Google Earth data has been freed from the confines of their proprietory client and is now available through a browser and the wikimapia.org website. If you take these two initiatives together, we have the potential of 3D Models being built and being made available through an open client.

Is this the first step of what we are looking for ? The answer lies in the womb of futurity.

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