Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Second Loot And Virtual Grids

I've been a player in Second Life, the wildly remunerative virtual world.  Remunerative, that is, if you're Linden Research, the company which developed it and now operates it.  I have to say it was a very immersive experience but ultimately it's priced itself out of my desire.  It's a work in beta, or even trailing edge alpha at times, yet Linden Research has the balls to charge for it, and continuously raise prices.  I say good on them, but it's not exactly the way the web was won...  And it has fuelled a lot of protest and controversy in-world, which is not to their advantage.

Because the truth is, that there are other VR projects out there, such as OSGrid and OpenLife, which operate in the same way as SL, and are substantially cheaper or free, and some of them allow you to run your own simulator server.

See, the dirty secret Linden Labs are holding close to their chest is that grids (which is the infrastructure on which simulator servers run) are not, by nature, closed.  And they are not difficult to run.  A brief history of the World Wide Web might be in order...

When the Internet first wobbled into public view, there were servers for a variety of functions, generally it wasn't simple to get these online and running, and the WWW developed out of a desire to simplify the end user experience for everyone.  First Web servers were also a slightly difficult beast to run, most people did not have the bandwidth to run one from home even if they could, and the idea of websites was still rudimentary.

Then larger organisations came onto the scene and allowed anyone to build a few web pages (think Angelfire, GeoCities) and other organisations began hosting more complex websites in return for money.  But it was and is still possible to run a web server on your PC at home or pay for a server in some hosting installation and host other people's websites.

That's the point that Virtual Reality is at right now.  Linden Labs allows you to host your "virtual website" - in other words, what they refer to as a "simulator" - and build your site there.  OpenLife does something similar but with less cost, and OSGrid provides you with a framework in which to connect your server to a bunch of others so that there is connectivity between them all.

And with some of the older generation not being able to find their way off AOL, virtual reality could actually become a new paradigm that will hopefully soon take over the web - instead of a website, how about owning a block of virtual land?  Then it's just a matter of walking from site to site.  This is much easier than remembering a URL.

And, of course, one of the primary problems Second Life is experiencing is allayed if not eliminated by opening a grid to multiple privately operated servers.  SL has many many problems because it is trying to juggle terabytes of data around between their machines.  This process often ends with databases scrambled - and then the "residents" of SL complain about losing virtual items, not being able to move between virtual locations, not being able to login, etc.

Part of the reason Linden Labs do it this way is technical, the rest is purely commercial.  The technical reason is simply that they can preserve your "assets" as you go from one simulation to the next.  It's not required.

Think about when you shop online: You log into a shopping site, fill your "virtual shopping basket" with what you want, proceed to the "checkout," pay for your items, and leave the website.  Your "assets" on the site were what you had in your basket, the details you provided to pay for those items, and the receipt, which has been emailed to you so it's a permanent record.

When you leave that site, do those "assets" travel with you?  No no a thousand times no!  Web workers put in a lot of hours to prevent precisely that kind of thing.  The "permanent" things you have are held on another server - your Paypal account, for example, or your credit card connection to your bank's network.  And the rest is either in cookies which your browser stores for you, or abandoned when you leave the website.

Similarly, LL argue that by closing their grid and keeping all data together, it means that you will see all the public assets (buildings, scenery, objects, etc) when you travel from one simulation to the next.  It's a lovely argument but totally crap.  Because, when you open a website in your web browser, do you need to refer to some central repository before you can view images, for example?  No - these "assets" are served up by the web server as you connect.  Similarly, by keeping local assets local in a virtual reality simulator, you remove the need for a HUGE database juggling terabytes and spread that load among the individual servers.

Hence, I'm thinking that VR will become more and more commonplace as people realise how much easier it is to present information in such environments, how much easier it is for the users to find that information, in a properly designed simulation, and how much easier it is for a user to find their way between VR sites if they become a bit more website-like in their ubiquity.

And I'm a huge supporter of open sourcing things - if you let a team of developers loose on a project, they will end up like Second Life - more and more new features coming out, more and more justification for price rises, and none of the scutwork, such as fixing potentially show-stopping bugs, getting done.  If you let open-sourcers loose on this kind of project, there will be a similar rush of new features, but the bugs, being extremely irritating, will get cleaned up along the way, leading to a much nicer user experience in the end.

Look at Linux - started out as an open source replacement for a machine operating system that only alpha geeks used, and is now as simple to operate as the competition's systems.  Look at Apache webservers - started out as an open source web server that was complex and unforgiving, and now installs regularly and easily on a huge range of machines at a mouse click.

So start flocking to the alternatives, and show your support by donating to them, assisting them, and maybe even contributing something to the development.  Before you know it, Linden Labs won't be the only game in town...

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