Why Open Sim is the Future Metaverse (and why it is not the present)

I have been following the Open Sim development for a couple of years now. Some of the latest developments have convinced me that if there is ever going to be a 3D internet, it will be based on Open Sim. I say this knowing that Open Sim currently has a rather low population of participants, low enough that one could question the sanity of such a statement.  Well here is a brief summary of this conclusion.

What is a 3D internet?
A 3D internet is one that is navigable in 3 dimensions rather than two. Instead of websites, you have explorable regions. Instead of 2D text chatting, you have 3D avatar chats.

Why is a 3D internet inevitable?
Sometimes things can be explained easier visually rather than textually, and 3D often gets visual points across better than 2D. For example if you are a photographer with a website, and you want people to see your photographs and find the ones they like best for purchase, the “slideshow” approach is a bad way to do it. After the 4th or 5th click, people start to wonder if it is worth it. Immerse the visitor into a 3D gallery of your photos and people will venture around, allowing them to find the pictures they most like fast.

Hyperlinks in 3D

The thing that got me interested in talking about the 3D web again is the recent development of  “hypergrid” teleporting.  Teleporting from region to region is easy if your start point and end point are on the same grid, but the 2D World Wide Web is built on the ability to move from page to page, where the pages are often on different sites and different hosts.  The development of a 3D web requires the ability to move from grid to grid, and from host to host.

While far from perfect, that obstacle has been resolved.  It is now possible to move from grid to grid without needing to create accounts on every grid or closing your browser.  The picture above is the OSGrid me meeting the Reaction Grid me after clicking on a “hypergrid” link.

It works similarly to the slurl’s in SL except if your destination is on a different grid, your avatar is uploaded to the new grid and your name changes to firstname.lastname @ gridyoucamefrom to prevent conflicting names. It is really cool when it works, but unfortunately a lot can go wrong.  Instructions can be found here, if you want to try it.

Not all hypergrid enabled regions can reach all other hypergrid regions.  Took me about a dozen tried to find a combo that worked.  To get from OSGrid to Reaction Grid, I found a region called Hypergrid Market Middle on OSGrid (a very boring place BTW), then clicked on this link: secondlife://hypergrid.reactiongrid.com:9009

Eventually all the bugs will get ironed out and an independent 3D web will really start to develop.

Why will the 3D Internet be based on Open Sim?
It wont be Second Life.  There are many reasons. First, a 3D internet cannot be controlled by one company.  Second, it is inappropriate for a 3D internet to be under a virtual economy if it is going to be universally adapted.  Thirdly, the designers of Open Sim are moving away from SL’s strict protocols.  Open Sim regions no longer have to be strictly 256m x 256m, they can be larger.  Researchers have managed to put 200 avatars on a single region, and have run up to 40 regions on a single server.  Open Sim offers a flexibility that SL cannot offer.

It wont Be Blue Mars, IMVU or any other current 3D Virtual World. These all do what they do well enough, but they are all designed to be proprietary.  IMVU is strictly a chat program in 3D, Blue Mars is a gaming platform.

The only real open flexible 3D platform that could be competitive is  OpenCobalt.  It interfaces with Google protocols allowing Sketchup KMZ files used in Google Earth, allowing import of the huge library of 3D objects in Google’s database, as well as in the OBJ format.  This is stuff OpenSim still can not do.  My knowledge of OpenCobalt is small, but there are three reasons why OpenSim will win: 1. it is already proven scalable technology, 2. More developers are working on Open Sim than OpenCobalt, 3. It is a lot easier to add KMZ and OBJ support to OpenSim than it is to add the OpenSim scalable multi-region stuff to OpenCobalt.

Of course, something designed from scratch could be better than OpenSim, but it would take years to develop, and OpenSim has a huge head start.  Network protocols could be designed to replace TCP/IP as well, but would never be implemented because TCP/IP is too well entrenched.  I believe we have reached a point where we are stuck with OpenSim.  Improving the platform is easier than rewriting it.

If OpenSim is the future, why is it not more popular now?
This is a very valid question.  SL has more than three times as many regions (32,000) as all of the OpenSim Grids combined (10,500).  The OpenSim grids are growing at a rate of 10% a month so far this year, while SL has only grown 1.4%.  That’s the best stat comparison.

SL has more than 500 times the number of accounts as OpenSim, and over 100 times the number of active players.  At any given time, about 60 to 70% of all regions in SL are uninhabited. In OpenSim, that percent is closer to 99%.  OpenSims one advantage is cost.  It costs 10 times as much to get a dedicated region in SL as it does to get one on OSGrid, but your SL region is 100 times more likely to get visitors than in OS, so if you want visitors, the premium is probably worth it.

Why the horrible stats?  I like to think of the 2D internet as it existed 20 years ago.  SL is AOL, and the WWW is a couple of years away.  The people who were on the web at that time were students, researchers, hobbyists, some businesses and governments.  So who are the few people on OpenSim?  students, researchers, hobbyists, some businesses and governments.

When it became obvious that the open WWW was superior to AOL, everyone flocked to WWW.  I’m hopeful that history will repeat again with OS and SL.  On the other hand, maybe it is more accurate to think of SL as “Windows” and OS as “Linux”, and OS will be forever stuck as a niche platform despite its parity.


  • Ariane —

    Great overview, thanks for doing this!

    You missed one other potential alternative to OpenSim: Open Wonderland — http://openwonderland.org/

    But you are right. Only OpenSim has any kind of user base.

    I agree that the 10,000 regions number is low, and so are the total user numbers.

    I think one reason could be that OpenSim only became stable — and hypergrid invented — last year. Second Life has been around since 2003.

    I agree with you about AOL. On the early days of the Internet, individual websites saw hardly any visitors, compared to all the people who were using AOL. If an advertiser wanted to reach customers, they had to buy an AOL keyword. There were lots of articles about how the Internet was a vast wasteland. Newsweek’s “Internet, Bah!” came out in 1995 — http://www.newsweek.com/id/106554

    And that was the same year that Yahoo was funded, and the Internet was clearly already taking off. It’s funny how many of the reasons in that article for why the Internet will fail are the same as could be applied to the 3D Web.

    My personal feeling is that the 3D Web will take off for the same reason that 3D Immersive games have taken off. We are wired to think and navigate in three dimensions, and to use tools rather than menus.

    People used to buy text-adventure games. When video games came out, it pretty much killed the market (though there are still fans out there playing them). But text is more efficient than video — and using DOS was more efficient than using Windows. People switched, anyway.

    Now the big money is in 3D immersive games. Few games like “PacMan” are even made anymore. This is true even though the 3D games — like World of Warcraft — take longer to play than a quick game of Tetris. Similarly 3D interfaces will — especially at the beginning — will be slower and less convenient than the menus and buttons we’re used to. But I believe the transition is inevitable.

    — Maria

  • I was about to point out your omission of http://openwonderland.org, but I see Maria got in ahead of me. I think OWL has a lot of the good features of Cobalt, and not many of the bad ones.

    As for “not having any kind of user base”, let’s remember that at one time OpenSim didn’t have “any kind of user base” either. And going back a bit, even SecondLife was only used by a few, also. All it takes to make a SecondLife or OpenSim user into an OWL user is loading a web page and clicking a button, along with possibly installing Java if for some reason you don’t have it already. So it’s not like there’s a lot of friction in moving users back and forth between SL-based VWs and OWL.

    There are few barriers to some types of content portability into OWL (beyond COLLADA mesh models, which work pretty well in 0.5). We’re watching developments in the VW interop arena closely, and the modular nature of OWL makes adding new content types to an OWL instance (OWL doesn’t have regions; there are no “sim-crossings”) a fairly simple affair once the module supporting it is written (that’s the somewhat tricky part, of course).

    And OWL is 100% open-source; no secret proprietary or reverse-engineered protocols or onerous licencing or terms-of-service hassles.

    OWL is about to release their 0.5 pre 4 release, so we are still in early days. But OWL already does a very good job of hitting the sweet spots for the biggest growth use cases for Virtual Worlds: educational applications and collaborative work environments.

    Follow OWL on Twitter at @openwonderland

    or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/openwonderland

  • I’ll have to look into OWL further. My understanding is that the project lost its primary corporate sponsor (Sun Microsystems) and that has slowed development. Nice to hear there are still people working on it.

    I’m going to have to do further research on these alternate systems. Maybe eventually these various programs can be either combined into one system, or (more likely) a common protocol can be used between them. The IEEE VWRAP group is working on just such a common protocol.

  • As “Project Wonderland”, Sun was paying a small full-time staff. It’s now an open-source community project under the umbrella of the independent OpenWonderland foundation, and a lot of the key players are still very much engaged.

    Fair minds could differ on “slowed development”; the community is every bit as lively, and moving to a Google Code/Google Groups hosting has removed a lot of friction from community interactions compared to when that was happening at java.net.

    We’re very much aware of VWRAP and in pretty close contact with some of the group members. We’ll be looking for the low-hanging-fruit opportunities to enable interop using VWRAP protocols as they evolve.

  • Can you create more games such as the Ariane sim game?

  • You can import Collada into opensim. There are multiple ways to do this. You can do a low res version using sculptured prims and blender, you can use AC3D to convert to triangles (remember no prim limits in opensim) or you can convert to ogre format and use modrex in opensim for hires mesh based graphics.

    Most of the content in google warehouse is hardly worth the effort of importing though.

  • Open Wonderland does COLLADA too. I agree there’s a lot of trash in the GOOG 3D warehouse, but there’s some truly beautiful stuff as well.

    The *big* drawback to most 3D warehouse models is the same as a lot of existing 3D content, especially buildings: they were designed to looked at from the outside, not walked though. Most of them have no interiors.

  • Hi Ariane,

    As always on your blog, a very good read.

    While I totally agree on the 3D-web yielding tremendous potential, I really can’t conjecture about which software-environment will prevail (if any will, which I doubt).

    In the times of early web-servers, Apache sure had a strong head start, not because of the technology it provided, but rather because of the stability, security and scalability of its model, which was part of the core Apache software. The only other widely available web server was IIS. (!)

    In the meantime, OpenSource developement has gone a long way, and I don’t believe that a head-start matters that much anymore (except maybe concerning the user-base), all the more as the software is opensourced.
    Take the example of Nosql Databases. Some very powerful solutions have emerged in the last 4 years : CouchDB, MongoDB, Cassandra,… Which prevails ?

    I love Opensim, but I reckon it also has limitations.
    One is it really runs well natively, on windows OSes. I use OpenSim on linux systems on a regular basis, and the mono layer, more often than not, is problematic. And resource intensive to say the least.

    Also, OpenSim has adopted the geographic concepts underlying the Second Life model (for obvious reasons) : parcels on a 2D map, grids, even hypergrided… This might very well turn out to be a limitation/burden more than an asset in the future, due to the object model it has forced into the system.

    For (also obvious reasons), compatibility with Second Life has been a feature of opensim. And of the different brands of viewers developed and maintained by the open-source community. Who will care about SL compat in 5 years time ?

    some elements are (almost) always required by new users of Virtual-Spaces :
    1) what about the DATA : where is it located. What route does it take when traveling on it’s way from my computer/hosted-server to the end-user’s computer.
    2) is my DATA secure ? How are permissions handled ?
    3) is there a way to offer different view of the same region according to the rights granted to a specific user, or am i forced to isolate the whole grid/region for corporate use ?
    4) can I access my inventory as a file system ? Why does it have to reside on the grid servers ? (SIMIAN-grid, for ex., has begun to address some of these questions)

    As for the sheer need for grids. I quite agree with Diva (http://www.metaverseink.com/blog/?p=21) when she writes that the 3D web might very well be a myriad of “standalone” worlds rather than gridded regions.

    All this to say that I’m clueless as to what the 3Dweb will look like 🙂

  • bodzette Coignet

    What will the 3D web look like?
    If it’s opensim it’s already here.
    Try this on:
    A “grid” is a website.
    Multiple independent websites on the internet = multiple independent grids which are accessible from anywhere on the internet.

    Who is google in this scenario?

    And who is verisign? (i.e. who verifies identity)

    Interesting questions.

    Any case, if Linden really does it and allows mesh uploads, it’s a game changer.

  • I’m sorry. I don’t want to come rain on anyone’s parade. But I need to sway some minds. I’ve been working with virtual worlds since 2004, and I have colleagues I speak to regularly who’ve been working with them for another decade before that. Hear me out.

    Agree: Your thoughts on more than one company needing to run “the metaverse”.

    And, largely, I used to think your way, back in 2004 and into 2005. I’ve come to change my thoughts on certain central ideas, and I hope you’ll consider them as well.

    The Metaverse is not one singular place. This is an oversimplification of a bad Internet metaphor: The information superhighway. Metaverse sci-fi, like Snow Crash, took a view that somehow the backbone of the 3-D Internet would be one large space. This view influenced many, many people in the way they think about the Metaverse, and unfortunately it’s not matching with how technology and emergent behavior has evolved.

    Look at the net, as you point out, 20 years ago – how has the net fundamentally changed? Does it look different? Really? It’s got text and pictures and some video. It’s fundamentally the same – a 2-D medium, a set of animated, interactive magazine pages. However, something magical happened last decade, which some call web 2.0, others social media. This is about how people use the Internet fundamentally changing and having more direct, networking interactions, rather than relying through central content providers. There is no central “place” to the Internet, there never was, and the revolution that happened had little to do with how web pages looked.

    There is an obvious flaw with the one metaphor reasoning – why are we assuming one structure, one gravity, one up and down, one set of physics, one sun, one sky? One way of navigation? Creativity already shows countless ways to market, interact with friends, educate, and entertain people on the Internet. There is no standard look and feel format for 2-D, and so there can’t be for 3-D. You talk about how Second Life is inflexible because a sim is limited to a 256x256m square. Expand your horizons! Both Second Life and OpenSim offer limitations based on physics, avatars, identity, profiles, graphics, etc.

    Therefore, the Metaverse isn’t a single world, or even a single *type* of world. It’s not even a set of *worlds* per se – it’s a set of spaces that may or may not be world-like. Do we really need Mastercard world to pay our bills in 3-D? Even your choice of medium – a blog – shows a clear example that less-resolution is sometimes a superior format for communicating different types of information.

    So we need to redefine what we colloquially call the “Metaverse”. We need it to mean a collection of everything – of interconnected, linked mediums that all can embed and work together. This includes 2-D web, mobile, chat applications, your phone, and physical devices that are connected to a network. This is hardly a singular 3-D world.

    I want to reiterate that the idea of interconnected 3-D worlds is still sound, and still valuable, and still will move forward.

    Lastly, I think your statements that OpenSim is superior to Second Life (the “people will flock to WWW from AOL” statement) is ignoring the fact that, by and large, OpenSim is far less reliable and far buggier than Second Life.

    Ciao, and happy blogging. 🙂

    • I understand and mostly agree with what you are saying. The “metaverse” is mostly a definition debate. One person that would agree with your definition (the “metaverse” is the whole internet both 2D and 3D) is IMVU founder Will Harvey. On this website I have largely followed the convention that “metaverse” = 3D Internet. I agree that a 3D internet cannot replace the internet, and that if a 3D internet has any chance of success, it has to heavily integrate with the 2D internet.

      Two more statements you say: “Expand your horizons! Both Second Life and OpenSim offer limitations based on physics, avatars, identity, profiles, graphics, etc.” and “Lastly, I think your statements that OpenSim is superior to Second Life (the “people will flock to WWW from AOL” statement) is ignoring the fact that, by and large, OpenSim is far less reliable and far buggier than Second Life.” I also agree. In fact I would lump both objections under the subtitle of the thread “and why it is not the present”.

      Open Sim is still buggy, it is getting better with every version update, but still has yet to really go beyond what SL can do. At some point it needs to; if Open Sim is going to grow beyond SL’s shadow, a technology must come about that bypasses anything that Second Life can do. A number of possibilities are in the works at RealXtend, Rezzable, and 3di Japan including meshes, replacement avatars, embeddable regions, adjustable physics, etc. Bottom line is that there needs to be a reason to use Open Sim instead of Second Life.

      The other thing that is needed to get the 3D Internet off the ground is the elusive “killer app”. Bottom line is that there needs to be a reason to use Open Sim instead of the 2D internet.

  • Wouldn’t be a proper Operating UI designed around a 3D interaction paradigm such a ‘killer app’?
    Think about having such a 3D GUI instead the rather clumpsy and limited windowed approach to handle system configuration and management….

  • Good stuff guys. I was just looking at collaborative software and also separately have an interest in virtual worlds and mmogs. I think key issues have been identified here throughout the conversation. To me it comes down to a few things that will determine if or when 3D will make it on the net beyond single title multi-player games.

    1. It has to do something better than a 2d site.
    2. It has to have ease of use for endusers and administrators.
    3. It has to have tiers of capability and flexibility to retain users and get them emmersed.

    EX: you can use excel to do simple things like making table, formatting reports, and basic math. It has to be easy for users who just want it for that, or they will find something else. At the same time, excel has an ocean of capabilities. Those who choose to explore further will begin to access its real power.

    The closest one
    I’ve seen to that so far is openwonderland. It could be better than a 2d environment to collaborating and that’s what it appears to focus on.

    I’m going to download it and check it out.
    Emmersive 3d environments are fun, but they are just for fun. If they stay focused on making a software core or primary plugin that increases productivity over 2d collaboration, it will attract companies. I think if they could take all of the 3d activity and translate it to 2d reports, they could be on to something.

    Love the idea of being able to just run a site though. OpenCobolt is onto something there.

  • Open Cobalt = Croquet = squeak. I was an early supporter before they turned into suits, close-sourced the improvement, and shoved us under the bus. They royally pissed off a bunch of us. I found Open Wonderland and OpenSim and never looked back.

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