OpenSim evolves from packets to stargates

Charles Krinke joined the OpenSim core development team a year and eight months ago.

In that time, he saw the project go from being a collection of 600 messages – packets – used by Second Life browsers to communicate with their servers – to a fully-fledged platform for building hyperlinked virtual worlds.

Many people think that OpenSim reverse-engineered the platform by taking apart the Second Life browser. That’s not right, Krinke said.

“We didn’t reverse engineer the browser, but the communication that goes between the browser and Second Life,” he said. “By staying away from the browser, there is little possibility of arguing in a court of law that OpenSim is derived from Second Life. It is an arms-length kind of deal. A clean room notion.”

But they aren’t enemies, he added.

“We don’t dislike the SL folks,” he said. “A number of the Second LIfe folks are friends of mine. Its just that we went our of our way to stay one step way.”

The library of 600 Second Life messages, now called LibOpenMetaverse, became a guidepost for OpenSim, a concrete target to aim for. Today, ten people are still involved in LibOpenMetaverse, keeping the library up-to-date.

This keeps OpenSim true to its roots – and fully compatible with Second Life. That’s important, because it means that all of Second Life’s millions of users can easily access and navigate worlds built on the OpenSim platform.

This is necessary because there aren’t yet any standard-setting bodies for the 3D hypergrid. There is no equivalent of the World Wide Web consortium. No ICAAN to register domain names. No working groups checking that all the sites are compatible.

Instead, with the sole exception of OpenSim, all other virtual worlds in use today are proprietary. Each requires a separate browser or plug-in download. Each is built on a proprietary server system only available from that particular company. It’s as if every web page on the Internet required a separate, incompatible browser. Who would bother surfing?

OpenSim is also unique in that it allows people to travel between worlds owned by different companies. Say, I’m ABC Co. I build a world using OpenSim – a virtual showroom for my car dealership, for example. And next door, XYZ Corp. builds a virtual showroom for its cars.

If both showrooms are built on OpenSim, then visitors can use hyperlinks to go from one showroom to another. They can even bring their friends with them, and the clothes they are wearing – after all, when going shopping with friends, it’s important to look good.  Visitors can compare the different products, and maybe take a virtual car home with them, to the grids where they have their virtual residences, to test drive for a while longer. After all, if you get used to driving a beautiful shiny new car in your virtual life, getting into your dingy real car might start to seem a major downer.

Sure, other people might walk – or teleport – when they go out clubbing in virtual clubs. But what price is convenience, when you could be driving up in your new Mazerati?

But back to Charles Krinke.

According to Krinke, there is one organization that may evolve into a standards-setting body, so that both car dealerships can be sure that their particular showrooms are accessible to the maximum number of people. That organization is the Internet Engineering Taskforce, which recently launched the Massively Multiplayer Online Extensions working group. The MMOX working group currently includes representatives from Open Sim, Second Life, MIT’s Open Croquet, and Fortrera Systems Inc.

Fortrera and Second Life both sell proprietary server software on which companies can build  virtual worlds. Neither system currently allows hyperlinked jumps between worlds.

MIT’s Croquet project is an open source virtual world platform but, unlike OpenSim – where the world exists on a server and people visit it – Croquet is peer-to-peer, and the world exist on people’s desktops.

Today, the Second Life and OpenSim worlds can both be accessed by compatible browsers – including the Second Life browser, the Hippo browser, and realXtend.

But travel between any of these four different platforms is not currently possible – even if you can use the same browser, if you have an account on one of the OpenSim grids and want to visit Second Life, you will have to log out of OpenSim, and login again into your Second Life account.

“The MMOX group is currently having discussions on how to make virtual worlds more compatible,” Krinke said.

This group only formed four months ago, he added, and discussions haven’t yet progressed far. Krinke is a contributing member of this group, which is co-chaired by IBM engineer David Levine.

Virtual worlds have been heavily hyped lately. To some, the hype is too early — but not necessarily unwarranted.

But Charles Krinke, one of the core developers of the platform, is much more down-to-earth.

“What I find works best for me is straight down-the-middle, objective truth,” he said. “No “Oh, look how wonderful OpenSim is – you can slice bread with it!”

It helps that his livelihood doesn’t depend on the commercial success or failure of OpenSim, he added.

“Our income is not based on selling copies of the software on a weekly basis,” he said. “We can step back a little bit and take a slightly more intellectual position.”

But despite all these caveats, “Our hearts are in it,” he said. “We’d love to see OpenSim become more well-known and well-used.”

[Update: You can browse all hypergrid-enabled public OpenSim grids with Hyperica, the directory of hypergrid destinations. Directory indexes more than 100 shopping and freebie store locations. Updated hypergrid travel directions here.]

Maria Korolov