Unity a road to un-united worlds

As the number of Unity-based virtual platforms proliferates, and a decent viewer for OpenSim and Second Life still remains a pipe dream, we’re getting close to the point where the center of gravity will shift over. And the future of the metaverse — or, at least, the first few years of it — will be very different from what I expected.

My vision – the hypergrid

What I expected to happen was that we’d get a decent viewer — easy to use, Web-based, hypergrid-friendly — and that the number of grids and users would explode, ushering in the next era of the Internet.

It would look a lot like Second Life — flat grids composed of many regions, like squares on a checkerboard. We’d have avatars and inventories, hypergates, prims and mesh, the Linden scripting language, a choice of virtual currencies, communities, shopping, clubs, and role playing games.

Basically, it would be today’s hypergrid, except embedded in a Web page, and easier to use.

A typical hypergate connecting one OpenSim grid to another.

The new vision – virtual scenes

But a metaverse based on Unity 3D will look different. Very different.

Unity 3D environments — in fact, all current Web-based environments — are not organized like squares on a checkerboard. They’re organized as individual scenes accessed via URLs.

A scene could be as small as a single room, or as large as an outdoor park. It’s mesh-based, so there’s not much in-world building. Avatars typically don’t have inventories, and the only clothing choices you get are what’s offered by the scene creator.

On the plus side, the colors are nice and sharp, movement is easy and responsible, voice is decent — usually, Flash — and the only download that’s required is the Unity plugin. And soon, with Flash exports of Unity environments, folks won’t even need that.

For a company looking for a virtual office, or a school looking for a virtual classroom, one of these environments is a quick and easy way to get their users in-world. No ports need to be opened. The IT department doesn’t have to get involved. It’s quick and it just works. And some even offer mobile access — there’s already an  Android app for ReactionGrid’s Jibe.

But there’s a catch.

Whether you’re using Unity 3D, or Unity exported to Flash, or the new WebGL and HTML 5 standards that are coming out, all you really have is the front end — the 3D scene itself. If you want more than a simple scene, you have to have some kind of back end system to keep track of things like moving objects around, uploading and storing business documents, creating relationships between avatars, off-line messages — all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes that turns a 3D picture into an actual virtual world.

So far, all these back ends are proprietary. You’ve got ReactionGrid’s Jibe. Second Places’ Unifier. VenueGen, Web.alive, 3DXplorer, and Assemblive also have proprietary Web-based platforms.

An avatar created in one can’t teleport to another. An interactive scene created in one can’t be moved to another — though individual mesh objects can usually be imported into any of these platforms. In fact, aside from raw mesh objects, there’s no ecosystem of third-party content with which to fill these environments since they’re all organized and scripted differently.

A move away from the ecosystem composed of Second Life and all the OpenSim grids, hosting companies and content providers to this other, Web-based metaverse is a step forward in usability — but a major step back in interoperability.

Yes, eventually, we might see third-party avatars, like those at Evolver, which can be used in multiple platforms. Or transportable avatar inventories, or cross-platform messages and friendships. And eventually we might see the development of open source back ends for these worlds. We might even see in-world content creation — after all, there’s no reason why mesh objects have to be difficult to create. Prims, after all, are just simple meshes. Or we could see the evolution of third-party programs that make mesh creation accessible to anybody.

The power balance

The end goal is the same for everybody, and we all know it’s inevitable — we’re going to be playing, working and learning in immersive 3D environments sooner or later. Okay, we’re already playing there — learning and working are coming along quickly.

The question is, who’s going to be wearing the pants in this relationship? Is it going to be the vendors of these platforms, the next generation Microsofts and Apples? Or is it going to be the customers, like on the Web, where the back-end software — Apache — is free, open source and all but invisible?

A metaverse of closed, proprietary platforms is great for vendors. They can be assured of price stability, for example. Microsoft still charges through the nose for Windows.

But it’s not so great for users. The money they spend on the platform will, in effect, be like a high tax or high oil prices — a drag on the industry. Money spent on the platform is money that won’t be going to content designers, community organizers, or other things which actually add value.

Sure, some of the money I’ve paid to Microsoft over the years is now going to cure AIDS in India and malaria in Africa, and I can’t really begrudge that, even if I might have preferred to spend that money at home. But the rest was wasted on things like Windows Vista and Zune — and on buying up potential competitors and shutting them down.

And at the end of the day it’s not even that good for most vendors. Proprietary platforms are zero-sum games. Eventually, customers will pick one vendor or another — and marginal players will go out of business, and the rest will either retreat to narrow niches or be bought up and consolidated. It’s good to be Microsoft — not so good to be anybody else.

Imagine what the World Wide Web would look like if all websites were hosted by Microsoft. We’d be paying a fee anytime we wanted to update a page, and if we wanted to find anything, we’d look it up on MSN Search.

That may sound extreme to us now — but remember what the corporate desktop still looks like. Windows. Office. Exchange.

Do I think this will happen to virtual worlds? Maybe.

For example, Linden Lab hasn’t given any indication of creating an easy, Web-based viewer for Second Life. Instead, rumors abound that they’re going to be working on a different, unrelated product. Will it be a separate, Web-based, Unity 3D-style environment? Will they start putting all energy into that, while Second Life stagnates? If so, that won’t be good for the Second Life-OpenSim-hypergrid future I was hoping for.

3Di has pretty much abandoned work on its Web viewer for OpenSim, and Tipodeans’s BuiltBuyMe viewer hasn’t seen any significant improvements since it first went into public beta in March. Instead, 3Di is now focusing on Flash-based virtual environments, and Tipodean is busy converting OpenSim regions to Unity 3D.

On the plus side, there’s a great deal of innovation happening in OpenSim. Mesh support. On-demand regions. Massive scalability, with thousands of avatars on a single region, infinite-sized regions, increased hypergrid security and functionality. Even SpotOn3D’s Web-based viewer plugin, though controversial, is an example of the kind of innovative thinking that could take OpenSim one step closer to mainstream.

And OpenSim grids are growing, and growing quickly, both in size and number, while land prices continue to fall. This makes running a virtual world easier and more affordable for everyone — and brings in new users, new use cases, and new opportunities for break-through developments.

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maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • ReactionGrid is on the IEEE board for interop with virtual worlds including SL, Active Worlds and more. Proprietary does not mean no interop just like HyperGrid does not mean everyone using OpenSim will participate. This Friday at 4PM we will attend another meeting where we are testing the concept of a virtual ball being bounced from SL to Jibe to Active Worlds as a baseline and foundation for further interop. Proprietary technology is not a zero sum game it is a way to produce software in as viable a way as open source is. Anyone is invited to join the discussion. http://metaversestandards.org/index.php?title=Mai

  • kripken

    This is definitely an important issue. I am not quite as pessimistic as you though, Maria.

    Second Life was the first real platform in this area. However, the approach and the implementation have lots of drawbacks. Some are being fixed, albeit slowly. Innovation in new platforms is necessary, I think.

    But more importantly, I do *not* think we were on the path to an open metaverse and that these proprietary platforms are going to stop that. We were far from the goal of an open platform like the Web. Yes, there is an open source viewer and an open source server (OpenSim), but only *one* of each.

    What is really important for an open platform is not just some open code, but also standards, a standards process that works, and multiple implementations, both open source and not. The Web has gotten there – we have WebKit and Gecko as open source browsers, and multiple closed source ones, and we have numerous servers, open and not – but virtual worlds were, i would argue, not even on the right path.

    Part of the reason is Second Life. The technology is not easy to create independent implementations for. If it were, there would be multiple closed source servers, competing on efficiency. But there aren't. All SL hosting providers but LL use OpenSim. When virtual worlds vendors write a new server, they don't write an SL compatible one – they create a new platform entirely. But if making a new server were straightforward and productive, they would.

    I think we need something simpler than Second Life to standardize on. Many of these new proprietary platforms are along those lines. That's a good thing. And there aren't just proprietary ones – there are some open source ones too (Sirikata, OpenWonderland, and some defunct ones). We need to find common ground among all those platforms and standardize things.

  • Opensim and Hypergrid will be the choice to make. It's easy to create things yourself, creating something in Unity3d is much more difficult than SL or Opensim. Jibe is nice but expensive if you want to run a whole school with 600 kids on it. And changing the environment in Jibe is not that easy for users as you should think. Educators want to play with the toy themselves, create what they have in their mind, and Opensim does that. HG is a huge advantage because now educators can visit and use other developments of educational institutes all over the world. With one simple log in.
    So… What other options are there then to create a web based viewer for Opensim as the next big step. Anyone?

  • Lawrence Pierce

    I think it is too early to be forecasting and second-guessing how 3D immersive/virtual worlds will best be delivered (who will be "wearing the pants"). The technology is still emerging and demand is hardly a blip on the radar of ubiquitous computer paradigms. Rather than a rush to standards, we need to better understand how the world works and thinks when it comes to 3D immersion. In my conversations with educators who, for example, do not use virtual world technologies, and there are many more who do not, than who do, I have found they feel strongly that for most purposes, current virtual world technologies are the Rube Goldberg way to explicit goals. I believe this will evolve over time because the world itself is changing, but we are a ways yet from a paradigm shift in such thinking. As for issues such as whether virtual worlds are to be widely-distributed or centralized, free or fee-based, there will need to be far more real demand for the benefits of virtual worlds, combined with improvements in the technology yet to come, before those questions can be answered in a long-term way.

  • At Tipodean we still do a lot of Second Life and OpenSim work Along with more and more Unity3d. We like Unity3d for deployments where you may want to get a larger group (school, classroom, company) into a virtual world at a lower financial and support cost. That is where Unity3d is perfect. E.g. I can host a unity3d web deployment on a google site = $0 hosting cost and a server that only goes down if google goes down.

    OpenSim is great as they can enjoy the benefits of the work that linden lab do in advancing the technology and then open up into the viewer as well as the power that is the concepts around second life. E.g. Linden do mesh, OpenSim can reverse engineer it, linden do media on a prim OpenSim reverse engineers it. Yet this does put me in a risk that I am relying heavily on linden doing major advancements with the tech. When I was there linden had 50+ full time engineers working on such advancements.

    Tipodean is all about standards, yet also believe standards can happen with increased demand. To get increased demand we need more users, which can only come from making it dead simple to deploy and run the kinds of immersive experiences we all now are super powerful.

  • Lawrence Pierce

    There is no question that simple, clear, concise deployment packages would attract additional users. But I'm continuing to expect that changes in the rate of adoption of immersive virtual worlds will be driven in large part by shifts in the experiences that users want and how those expectations are fulfilled. Amazon existed and operated at a loss for years, even though what they offered and how they offered it was similar in the beginning to what they do now. Besides the development of technology to offer online shopping, society has taken years to understand, feel comfortable with, and finally embrace online shopping. People learned, slowly, about the benefits of Amazon. And as it is, Amazon offers something people already know well: material consumption.

    Virtual worlds offer some traditional experiences but also some new ones. In all cases, the experience of using an avatar and existing in abstract created worlds is not familiar to people in a direct way, so won't that take time to make an impression on the masses? How do they know what they are missing? It seems to me this is as much a sociological / psychological question as it is a technological issue.

    Technology is the infrastructure, but people don't use bridges and go to places until there is something they know they want at the destination (pure explorers not withstanding!)