The democratization of virtuality September 26, 2008Posted by justincc in opensim, opinion.
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.