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The democratization of virtuality September 26, 2008

Posted by justincc in opensim, opinion.
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Anybody reading this blog may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything much for the past few weeks, apart from weekly OpenSim development summaries.  The truth is that I’ve wanted to but just haven’t been able to get the time – as I’m sure everyone knows, travelling and starting a new job tends to leave very little room for anything else :).  Today I’m hoping to get back on my not-exactly-hectic two week cycle of writing.  Having said that, this is going to be one of those somewhat fluffy opinion oriented posts, though next fortnight I’m hoping to write something about the OpenSim region archive (OAR) work that’s been going on in the project recently.

OpenSim as a democratizing project

One of the reasons I originally got involved with OpenSim was a funny kind of idealism.  Part of this was the inescapable logic (well, inescapable for me. at least) of open source.  If one contributes to an open source project then the potentially immense amount of utility that other people can get out of using, inspecting and building on that contribution easily outweighs any personal short-term cost.  Of course, one still wants to eat, be sheltered and have nice things, which is one reason I still have to do some other work for a living :).

In OpenSim’s case this logic is augmented by the fact that one is helping to build virtual environment infrastructure with a potentially immense number of uses.  As I’ve blogged before, these range from embedded and standalone applications, such as IBM’s IM embedded 3D spaces or Black Dress Technology’s apparel design software (disclaimer: I’m lead developer for BDT) through to the creation of large socially oriented virtual worlds in which people can create and sell the 3D objects that they create.

Moreover, by making the base technology malleable and open source, the cost of experimentation and production comes down to very low levels, low enough to enable such actitivites for very small groups or even individuals.  I think that the potential for innovation and creativity is evenly dispersed throughout the entire population regardless of wealth or education – the thought that we may be able to help people express that and build great things for all us is a very exciting one.

This is what I mean by the democratization of virtuality – allowing individuals and small groups to run servers, create communities and build applications.  Is OpenSim there yet?  Not really – it’s still pretty complicated to set up and the code quaility and functionality is still at the alpha (not even beta) stage.  But progress is rapid and I think the project has very good potential for helping to bring the development and hosting of virtual worlds to everybody.

OpenSim as a mechanism provider rather than a policy setter

However, what I think that we will be keen to avoid is any notion that OpenSim will set policy for the people using it.  Dusan Writer has written extensively on this topic, and I don’t want to write anything too much myself until I’ve fully absorbed the arguments (I’m still catching up on blog reading as well as writing!).  However, I think there are many reasons why OpenSim itself will always avoid a notion of providing any kind of virtual worlds policy.  For starters, OpenSim isn’t meant to simulate just virtual worlds with mass avatar participation, but also other kinds of application oriented virtual environments as we disuccsed earlier.  For the latter type of application, policy enforcement may make very little sense.

Secondly, OpenSim is a broad church incorporating lots of developers with different interests.  The chances are that some people would have very different ideas of what virtual worlds policy should be, while others would have no interest in it whatsoever.

Thirdly, OpenSim has always had the intention of being a modular toolbox for creating virtual environments.  In so much as mechanisms for enforcing policy are provided (such as, prosaically, prim limits on land parcels or the ability to allow some users to kick off other users), their use will very probably always be optional in nature, leaving it up to the individual or organization running the virtual environment to enable or tweak as they see fit.

Having said this, I do accept that there may be some basic architectural decisions which do affect how virtual worlds develop.  A good proportion of these are in the hands of groups concerned with producing standards for running grids (such as the Linden sponsored Architecture Working Group).  In many cases OpenSim will be able to adapt to these different standards by adopting different communication modules without requiring any changes in the core parts of the platform.  However, there may be some decisions which are on such a fundamental level that they affect the very basis of the software itself (such as the choice between a server-client architecture and a more Croquet-like peer to peer approach).  To my mind, it’s not at all clear yet as to what these fundamental issues (if any) are – I suspect that they will only emerge over time, and then only with real world experimentation.

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Comments»

1. Sean FitzGerald - September 27, 2008

Hi Justin.

I’m going to post here a reworded question that I was going to post on Dusan’s post that you link to, but decided against when the the conversation seemed to come to a natural.

I was left wondering about the issue you raise about the importance of certain fundamental decisions about OpenSim architecture and protocols and how they will shape the coming metaverse.

When it comes to the AWG and the Open Grid Protocol how can we trust a process that is sponsored by a commercial entity that has an interest in directing the process in support of its own commercial interests, and is heavily supported by employees of IT companies with an equally strong invested interest in influence the direction of the coming metaverse?

Can someone convince me that the OGP isn’t biased towards virtual worlds based on a Second Life model. As you say, there is a huge difference between virtual worlds based on the server/client model and the peer-to-peer model. Convince me that if a group of the worlds smartest and experienced virtual world developers got together today, and built the best possible architecture and protocols from scratch without historical encumbrances that they would come up with exactly the same protocols. Convince me that the protocols being developed are open enough that it will mean any (open) virtual world platform that comes along in the near can future will be able to plug into it, irrespective of it’s architecture.

You seem non-partisan enough to be trusted (I’m sorry – and I don’t mean offense to those involved – but I can’t trust employees of said organisations), so if you or Adam Frisby say that my concerns are unfounded I’ll shut up.

Regards. Sean

2. Sean FitzGerald - September 27, 2008

They should read “to a natural end”. Ironically!

3. Virtual - September 27, 2008

You are right Sean, to much talk about protocols with Linden.

Opensim isn’t between IBM and Linden, Opensim was made by regular people who liked SL but wanted to get free and create their own virtual world platform which is what is happening at the moment. The involvement with Linden isn’t needed to create protocols, if you want to create protocols do it between you, the programmers, don’t get involved with Linden as they really aren’t relevant for Opensim.

I noticed Sakai is turning away from Opensim to work closer together with RealXtend to get more advanced technology to his grid, who can blaim him, that is why so many people are interested in Opensim, to explore new technology, new options, going further than what is possible in SL. Why spend time with Linden on protocols if you don’t want to make a Second Life clone software or extentions to SL with all the intertop attention that you are giving to this.
The importance of an independant opensource platform is crucial.

4. Sean FitzGerald - September 27, 2008

Justin – I should have mentioned I’m not a programmer, just a concerned Netizen, so my interest is in the open future of the metaverse, but I’m not able to be involved in making it happen.

I’m glad to hear that protocols can be (and are being?) developed independent of Linden Lab. That’s not how it’s being reported though. I was under the impression that OpenSim developers were completely on board with the AWG and the OGP.

And isn’t it possible that LL might use their first mover advantage to dictate the protocols anyway?

5. justincc - September 27, 2008

@Sean – I think that the OGP will inevitably have some bias towards the Linden Lab architectural approach. Even if one discounts any conscious influence, the very fact that at the moment only Linden Lab employees and developers with a Second Life connection are taking part in the process will lead to decisions whch are informed by the existing Second Life system.

I feel these decisions fall into two categories. First come those which are important but not truly fundamental to interoperation, such as avatar attachment points and inventory formats. Secondly, there are decisions which really limit the types of platform (such as client-server based or peer to peer) which can participate in the protocol.

The first type of decisions could be worked out if other platforms were represented and had significant influence over the OGP process. The fact is, though, that Linden Lab (and to some extent OpenSim developers) are the only real platforms around at the moment who are prepared or able to engage in the OGP. I would love to see other companies or open source efforts (such as Sun’s Darkstar) represent their platforms in order to improve the applicability of the protocol. However, I believe these can happen later on in subsequent revisions of the protocol.

The second type of decisions are ones that can’t be easily reversed. However, I believe that in some of these cases meaningful interoperability is very difficult anyway. For instance, I find it difficult to see how a Croquet system (which relies on replication and synchronization of the environment on each participating peer could ever interoperate with a client-server based system (where authoritative state is only kept on a single server) except at a very basic level. Having different companies or individual participating in the protocol process would not help very much.

I would also say that it’s a mistake to think that OpenSim developers are really ‘on board’ with the AWG and OGP as such. OpenSim aims to be a general virtual environment platform, and if someone (such as the OGP) comes along with a grid protocol then I think that we’re happy to accomodate modules which allow interoperation using that protocol. Equally, we’d be very happy if some completely different software group came along with their own protocol and wanted to produce modules that could be bolted on to the core OpenSim kernel. In fact, that would be a great thing since it would be a push for us to genericise our core internals to take us beyond our Second Life roots.

Of course, the difficulty will come if there does come a point where the OGP somehow requires platforms to adopt a certain way of doing things, where that way reduces the number of alternative protocols that could be adopted. However, I believe that we will always try our utmost to avoid going down that path. I also think that such a scenario is actually pretty unlikely.

6. justincc - September 27, 2008

@Virtual – I’m happy to say that we want to be independent of any single commercial company, though I do admire Linden Lab for what they’ve achieved. We also have to acknowledge the fact that the only environment on OpenSim right now is the Second Life one, largely because of Linden Lab’s open sourcing of their client, a piece of software that would take a very significant effort to recreate.

7. Sean FitzGerald - September 28, 2008

@Justin: Oops! I wasn’t paying attention and thought it was you who had replied, not Virtual. Still, you seem to share the same concerns and I’m pleased to hear that. It’s good to know that people involved in OpenSim are giving these issues a lot of thought.

As I’m not a developer I don’t have the time – and am not inclined anyway – to get involved with the AWG. My impression that OpenSim developers are really ‘on board’ with the AWG and OGP came from what I’ve read, both in the mainstream press and the blogosphere.

These reports often talk about Linden Lab’s attempts at interoperability in glowing terms, without critiquing whether or not this is a good thing. Whilst I really do admire how Philip Rosedale’s vision and creativity have made an incredible contribution to the development of the metaverse, I am also wary of his stated intention to make Second Life, or at least Second Life architecture, the 3D Internet. I was concerned that OpenSim’s involvement in the AWG was tacitly endorsing this approach.

You are the first person involved in OpenSim I’ve seen address these issues, and I feel re-assured with your response, so thanks. 🙂


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