The path to a VR metaverse

Metaverse map

I got into writing about OpenSim back in 2009 because it seemed to be, at the time, the best path to an open-source, peer-to-peer metaverse.

I want to see a future where anyone could put up a virtual environment, and have people teleport in and out from other people’s environments. A future where the virtual worlds are fully decentralized, with no one company controlling everything, similar to the way the World Wide Web works today. If you put up a website, it has no effect on the performance of any other website. You can allow anyone from anywhere in the world to visit your site — or you can keep it private, just for yourself or your students and employees. And you can run it at home on a PC, or on your company servers, or in a hosted environment somewhere in the cloud. I want to see all these same options available for our virtual reality metaverse.

For the past few years, I thought that OpenSim was the best possible path forward, and this is why I have invested so much time, and some money, into Hypergrid Business and Hyperica.

I don’t want to live in a virtual metaverse completely owned by Facebook or Microsoft, or or even Apple. Though I’ve got to say, an Apple one would be nice.

But it’s starting to look like OpenSim might not be the most likely path forward after all.

Google on path to metaverse future

Google launched its Cardboard platform right from the start with a free, open source development platform that worked on all modern smartphones, both Android and iPhones. Plus, it released the specs for its headset that were also open source, so anyone could make one — and over a hundred different manufacturers are already doing that.

The next generation, Daydream VR, promises better performance and more immersive environments and better interfaces.

Of course, it’s not the metaverse. These are all individual, separate virtual reality experiences. If, say, you do have an avatar in a VR game, you cannot use that avatar to travel to another VR game. You have to close out the first game and open the other one.

There are some social apps, like VRTime, where you can interact with other avatars in virtual reality. But if you make friends in VRTime, that friendship does not extend to other environments. You can’t exchange messages or send teleport requests.

It’s more like Second  Life than like the OpenSim hypergrid.

There are no inventories. If a character in one VR game does collect stuff in that world, they can’t take it another world.

However, Google is really good at managing identities for people and for hosting their content. You can use your Google identity not only for Gmail and other Google products, but in many third-party websites and applications as well. And you can keep your data on Google Drive and, again, the company allows third party services to access it if you give them permission.

The other major component to a virtual reality metaverse is payments, and Google already has a payment mechanism for the Android ecosystem with in-app purchases.

As far as I know, common identities, inventories and payments aren’t a part of the Daydream platform, for now at least.

But it’s entirely feasible that Google will add these features to a future version of the platform.

Google also has a relatively decent history of playing well with others. Its Chrome browsers can be used to visit websites run on a wide variety of servers. And, unlike Windows Explorer in its early days, it doesn’t try to push any particular web server on you. And it doesn’t stop you from using Yahoo Mail or Bing or other competing products.

Metaverse path

I would still prefer to see the OpenSim software updated so that it can deliver a frame rate compatible with virtual reality. And I would like to see a lightweight viewer for OpenSim that can run in a browser and on mobile devices.

Unfortunately, I’m not seeing any efforts currently under way to update the servers software or build a new client.

Meanwhile, Google has a large development staff, almost unlimited financial resources, and a very large community of third-party developers, manufacturers and content creators. Plus, there are tens of millions of Cardboard-compatible headsets already on the market, dwarfing the numbers of any other platform.

Coexistence

There is currently no open-source world server software for virtual reality. High Fidelity is on its way, though it currently only supports the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive headsets. Other platforms are either proprietary, or require programming skills.

I can certainly see the potential of an Android client for OpenSim, where OpenSim server software is used on the back end. We won’t be able to have home-based virtual worlds, of course, until broadband upload speeds get a lot faster, but there are already several companies offering OpenSim hosting, in addition to many grids that rent virtual land.

Plus, if that client leverages Google’s in-app payment system, and, if there is one, Google’s avatar and inventory services, there will be a lot less work for the OpenSim server to do.

But whether it’s a WebVR-based client that runs across all VR platforms, or a dedicated Android client, some dramatic surgery of OpenSim will be required, in addition to the development of the client itself.

But what about the other players?

Microsoft, Sony, or Facebook and Oculus are all proprietary platforms for VR, and there are few indications that they’ll lead us to a metaverse. Sony’s Playstation VR, for example, is a very limited, gaming-focused closed platform. It’s looking that it will be pretty successful, but only within that one use case, not for general-purpose environments.

Microsoft is very much late to the game, and its Holographic platform is based on Windows. It sounds like Microsoft is making the same mistake that it made in the mobile space, where it has a market share of less than 1 percent. In mobile, it tried to go into the mobile space while still trying to protect its Windows cash cow. That didn’t work out well.

Facebook and Oculus are getting all the hype for VR, but they have a closed ecosystem. The Gear VR headset only works with one brand of smartphones, Samsung. And the Oculus Rift works only on expensive, high-end computers, and the headset itself costs several hundred dollars. So initially, they’re going to see some traction, but I think over time, lower-cost, more open ecosystems will win out.

HTC Vive is an even higher-end headset, and is seeing some adoption with VR developers and video arcade operators because of the quality of the experience it offers. But, again, I don’t think it’s a significant long-term threat unless they significantly change their business model.

And Apple, well, we’re still waiting for them to do anything at all.

 

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.

  • Dirk Krause

    Hi Maria,

    you should take a look at A-Frame:
    https://web3dblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/a-frame-is-here/

    Best,
    Dirk

  • Carlos Loff

    They can have all the fun they want with their phones and gadgets up their heads, I will be each day more happy with OS at Home on a big screen and with my eyes free for the Keyboard and for the cup of coffee Im drinking wile Im at it – OS is what it is and many people are happy about it – If it is not the way to the Metaverse, well, let those phones make the path, OS wont die, specially when SLrs start flocking for real when LL messes up SL to hype Samsar

    • Talla Adam

      I agree Carlos. I’ve had a go with VR and it’s fun but I would not want to spend the amount of time I spend in SL or my own grid with a headset on. People always need to be doing stuff and fully aware of their surroundings so I think it impractical and even a bit dangerous to be so deeply immersed. There must be a myriad of reasons it’s impractical for long periods of use quite apart from health issues so I can’t see the laptop and PC dying out just yet.

      • Dirk Krause

        That’s exactly why I promote A-Frame. It goes from Desktop over Cardboard up to Vive/Rift.
        And all the way back.

    • Da Hayward

      yup you hit the nail on the head. But I don’t believe LL will abandon SL in favour of sansar in the near future, really SL is still their flagship product.
      In Saying this Open Sim does have a real opportunity and I can see it being obtained by grids working together.
      Personally the VR head sets don’t spin my wheels I still, like a lot of users, prefer the screen and keyboard.
      Asking various and acquaintances in SL and now here in open sim I think the PC and lap top will be the main stay for years to come.
      Well thought out Carlos.

    • Carlos, Talla —

      Your comments illustrate the classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” problem. Current users of the platform are reasonably happy with the platform (otherwise they wouldn’t be using it) and while they would like to see some basic improvements in cost or performance or usability, they typically don’t want to see a total overhaul that turns it into something entirely different. If they wanted something entirely different, they would already be off using something entirely different.

      And, in open source projects, developers typically come from the user community. Why would anyone volunteer on an open source project for a technology they don’t use? So while there’s plenty of development support for incremental improvements, there is typically little support for expensive, dramatic changes, especially ones that affect one of the core aspects of the software.

      In our last grid resident survey, more than 92 percent of respondents said that they would “absolutely” recommend their current OpenSim grids, and in our hosting survey, only 29 percent said they wanted a web-based viewer (I didn’t ask about VR — I’ll do that this week!).

      The killer app for VR headsets is watching videos, and most readers of Hypergrid Business own good monitors with decent graphics cards, and probably have large-screen TVs, as well, so watching videos on a VR headset probably makes no sense.

      And I agree that the headsets are bulky and uncomfortable, and they’re either way too expensive or have bad performance, there aren’t any decent interfaces, you can’t see the keyboard or the world around you, and the technology is too difficult to use. These are all true points, but they will change quickly.

      Smartphones are evolving very quickly, due to the short replacement cycle (much shorter than PCs or consoles). Every major manufacturer is working on VR or AR support, so expect to see evolution come in the direction of much better graphics performance and 3D processing. We’re getting close to the point where we can have our AR and VR in the form of a sunglasses-style viewer that can transform from VR to AR as needed. (The technology is already there, and is in the process of being commercialized.) Your meetings with business colleagues will probably be in AR, while immersive games and videos will be in VR.

      it will take a significant amount of effort, and some time as well, to get OpenSim usable in VR. So we should be aiming for VR as it’s going to look a couple of years from now, not VR as it looks today.

      • Carlos Loff

        It is not about performance o better ways – I just do not use virtual worlds or virtual reality on my phone or tablet, and even if they were smooth and HTML I would use them at home, on my big computer and big screen, wile I drink my coffee, pet my cats once in a wile and exchange some words with my girlfriend that is sitting on the sofa watching TV – Virtual Reality for me is hours and hours, desk stuff – not phones or tablets and surely not when Im out of home or office – On the other hand, a long time from now, I envision myself using the full opposite, a kind of Google Glasses reborn that allow me to look at the real worlds mixed with virtual reality, now that yes, but we are a long way from that – Building worlds, running events and caring for a growing community involves much more than a phone or tablet

  • Graham Mills

    You talk about “Android app” as though none existed? Let’s not forget the remarkable (and recently updated) Lumiya…

    Even as something of an HMD enthusiast, I tend to agree with Carlos that we are a long way from a metaverse where the majority of folk are prepared to don one for extended periods. We don’t know what Daydream can deliver but Google doesn’t always win — remember Lively and, for that matter, the soft-pedalling now with the previously core G+?

    I also agree with Dirk that A-Frame is a very interesting avenue for those of an indie persuasion, not least with its support for AR. Finding points of intersection between the strengths of A-Frame and OpenSim might prove fruitful.

  • John Simmons

    Opensim is the only open source solution that several businesses have built upon. The state of the code may be sad and outdated, but that can be handled with the right investments, some of which may be happening.

    * Several commercial grids do customized code improvements that only open source allows. If such grids would contribute their improvements (and some do), it would advance the state of the code.

    *Project MOSES appears to be spearheading improvements in several areas, including a browser-based viewer.

    * Opensim viewers have benefited by staying in sync with Second Life, but are now being held back. The sooner that opensim server and viewer can break away from SL sync requirements, the better. MOAP will greatly improve by dumping webkit and getting chromium in either case.

    * Mozilla as a company has been funded purely by Google, just to put their search engine at the top of the list. Somebody needs to make the case to Google that Virtual World search is the next big thing, and that they need to fund server and viewer development in a big way in exchange for top access to search. A lot of the best opensource software benefits by companies throwing money and developers at it.

    * There are several platforms that have better graphics, framerates and HMD support, but NOBODY has the social capital of hypergrid communities. THAT is made possible by opensource that runs on anything from a cloud to a laptop, easy end-user building, choices of grids, currencies and markets, and the hypergrid. I will soon be DJing at AvatarFest in September, where people from a range of grids will hypergrid over and socialize over builds and performances. Something like THAT is not happening on any other platform anytime soon.

  • Sunbeam Magic

    The other day I was cleaning up my email archives and ran across a few emails we had shared from 2009 when AAcme and I were working on Alpha Towne builds lol … so glad you’ve started and kept Hypergrid Business going all these years… its indeed one of the prime information sources for all things OpenSim! Congratulations!!!

  • TribeGadgets

    Have to disagree about SL users not being aware (most part or not) of the fact that one day it will be gone. All things go. As a (possibly need to be) committed oldbie I will be there to watch the lights go out too. And the events of the last week or so do rather point to the fact that, oh my, grids go off rapidly.
    The comment on ‘blocking the natural growth’ because SL soaks up the user base? Possibly, then again lowest measured online I have for the last day is about 27k (on a tuesday morning my time) in late August. Compared to a total of max users from Magnus Binders excellent resource is a shade under 1500. For the last week. Total. Including the biggest commercial one.
    Now if that is the user base….. Why not invent the next pokemon franchise instead? As you point out, perhaps this VR world stuff as we know and love it ain’t that easy after all.