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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