An interesting recent article of the Times Online ( Welcome to a revolution with no end in sight) says: Virtual reality used to be a popular notion a decade or so ago, but now the phrase sounds so dated that the concept has become unfashionable long before it exists. Yet a version of the concept is taking off as people want to lose themselves in the complex virtual worlds of multiplayer computer games - and it heralds a revolution in media consumption that is unfolding at blistering speed.
Even if we don’t say Virtual reality anymore but Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), the concept is still Stephenson’s Metaverse: a high definition 3D digital virtual world where users can meet and interact just like they do in the physical world. This concept has been around and “sleeping” for quite some time, and led to the emergences of the Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) in the nineties.
Online virtual reality is now taking off in the complex virtual worlds of multiplayer computer games due to the widespread availability of powerful PCs with mature software and fast online connections. Advertisers have seen it: Gamasutra reports that Microsoft-owned in-game advertising firm Massive Incorporated has partnered with Korea-headquartered game publisher Webzen to include in-game advertising in two of the publisher’s upcoming multi-player online games (MMOGs). Games included in the deal are the upcoming PC versions of the massively multi-player online first-person shooter (MMOFPS) Huxley and the urban action MMOG All Points Bulletin. Both games are slated for worldwide release and will include in-game advertising in each territory. The agreement marks Massive’s entry in the Asian market, and Webzen’s first games to feature in-game advertising. Massive Incorporated has already a similar deal with Entropia Universe.
And it is not surprising that Stephenson’s Metaverse is emerging from the computer gaming world: Quoting Rudy Rucker: “Academia hasn’t quite caught on to the fact that computer games represent the convergence and the flowering of the most ambitious frontier efforts of the old twentieth-century computer science: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and artificial life.” (The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul).
Suddenly there is a lot of new interest in the Metaverse and a lot of money in next generation MMOG - and it heralds a revolution in media consumption that is unfolding at blistering speed. How will it unfold?
Actually predicting the far future is easy. Just take a new trend that is solidly established, and extrapolate it to its logical consequences to make a long term prediction. So based on the current progress in medical science, I can predict that by 2050 cancer will be a manageable chronic condition. Can we make that 2020? I hope so, but I would not bet too much money: even if the end result of the current trends in medicine is clear enough, I cannot say too much of the dynamics of the process with its speed-ups, slow-downs and roadblocks. Mid-term foresight is much more difficult than long-term foresight.
Every citizen on the planet can be on the net anytime, anywhere with very high speed wireless connections accessed via brain implants (direct brain to net interfaces). Instead of “reading a web page” users will enter a 3D, fully immersive VR Metaverse with total sensorial stimulation indistinguishable from physical reality. Most work and entertainment will take place in the Metaverse.
When? I think 2030 but let’s make it 2050 to have a solid long-term forecast.
Even longer term? Well, some will feel no permanent need for a physical body and migrate their consciousness to virtual reality. Someday we will wear physical bodies only occasionally, like today we wear a suit for a business meeting - and some of us don’t like wearing suits. When? Let’s make it 2100.
But the interesting question relevant for today’s business decisions is: if this science fiction scenario is the end-point, how will the MMOG evoultion dynamics unfold in the rest of this decade and the next? If you are thinking to make money by creating a new MMOG or investing in a VR company, you probably do not think beyond 2020, so you are more interested in what happens before 2020.
One important trend is towards videorealistic MMOGs, with graphic quality comparable to today’s best single player or moderately multiplayer games. MMOGs such as Entropia Universe and Dark and Light, though not yet as videorealistic as the best videogames, represent an important step in this direction.
Another important trend is towards the integration of voice communication in MMOGs. So far player teams have implemented voice chat add-ons with external systems such as Skype conferences, TeamSpeak and Ventrilo. Now companies like Vivox are integrating their VoIP software in MMOGs like Eve Online and Second Life. With integrated voice communications, it is possible to chat locally to nearby users, and to implement “spatial” sound, for example directional and fading away with distance.
I think it is worth noting that VoIP integration in virtual worlds is a relatively recent trend as the need for voice communications between users was not seen by MMOG operators at an early development stage. This was, I think, based on the assumption that users would not be interested in real-life-like interaction enabled by voice. This assumption was wrong.
This consideration brings me to another important trend: more and more users do not consider virtual worlds as a means to escape real life but, on the contrary, as useful means to complement and enhance real life and enabling technologies to support “real-world” social, educational and business activities. The growing use of Second Life as a social, educational and business platform is an important step in this direction. The picture below shows a voice-enabled educational event in Second Life.
This will have a *very* big impact. Those who have participated in voice-enabled events in a modern virtual world know that the feeling of being there, meeting other people and talking to them, is much more pronounced than with IRC chat, phone or video meetings. So users of a modern MMOG where the sensation of being there is above a certain treshold can form real virtual communities, much tighter than today’s social networks and virtual communities. I am persuaded that the establishment of tight global, transnational virtual communities, held together by a common worldview rather than by geography, will do a lot of good to the world, and believe the formation of global companies, institutes and even political organizations with main headquarters in the Metaverse is not that far. I believe VR is an enabling technology for the emergence of planetary (and beyond), global, trans-national communities of reasonable persons for a better world. For this I cannot think of a better slogan than “Avatars of the World, Unite!”.
Today’s MMOG industry is similar to the pre-Internet online services industry of the late eighties and early nineties, when early adopters of online services subscribed to services like Compuserve and America Online. Such services were not interoperable and each came with its own access software and user interface. What happened later (early and mid nineties) with the deployment of the Web was that online services migrated to an interoperable platform with a common access software and user interface. Today, we do not use a Yahoo browser for Yahoo and a Google browser for Google, but we use out favorite browser to access both. Actually we can use the same browser for all sites, with appropriate plugins (e.g. Flash) required for some specific sites.
And I think the Metaverse will evolve toward towards the same model, simply because it would not be practical otherwise. Instead of separate clients for World of Warcraft, Second Life, Entropia Universe, Dark and Light and other *thousands* of MMOGs, we will be able to use just one client for all virtual worlds. Of course, on top of our favorite Metaverse client we will have to install plugins, geometry and texture packs for our favorite worlds.
“AOL, CompuServe, and the few other online services were built on proprietary technology, and completely isolated from each other, just like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and the rest of today’s MMOGs. The exponential growth in consumer adoption then and now is the same, as are the consumer costs and market size. Netscape changed everything by creating a scalable platform accessible by a single universal client. It blew that market wide open. That’s what Multiverse will do for virtual worlds, in this next stage of the information revolution… Enabling this worldwide network of interactive entertainment is our long-term goal.”
Multiverse, currently in closed beta, will be a complete MMOG develpment platform with client, server, content creation tools, content importers from leading 3D tools via the COLLADA interoperability format, and user management (login, billing). The platform will be free for non-commercial use and available under a revenue sharing agreement for commercial use. Developers and operators of MMOGs based on Multiverse will be able to host their own independent servers, but user login and billing (subscriptions, in-game micropayments etc.) will go through the Multiverse network.
In passing: the meaning of the term “Multiverse” in physics is explained by David Deutsch in the excellent book “The Fabric of Reality” on Everett‘s Relative State formulation of quantum mechanics and its popular interpretation as “Many Worlds” (MWI). According to Deutsch we live in “Many Worlds”, but all the worlds can be seen as branches of a single “Multiverse” whose evolution is governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. Here, we have a single Multiverse platform to access Many (VR) Worlds. An interesting linguistic coincidence.
Never forget Google. Google Earth started as a visualization tool for maps and satellite images and is evolving to “A 3D interface to the planet”. It now has tools for textured 3D annotations, a “native” 3D modeling tool (Sketchup) and the capability in import models from other 3D modelling tools via the COLLADA exchange format. There are speculations that Google Earth may evolve as (among other things) a MMOG platform based on real geography. What does this mean? It means that Google Earth may someday include, or permit accessing, geographically referenced VR scenes such as buildings and meeting places where avatars can congregate and talk.
The promising new open source, P2P virtual reality technology Croquet is emerging from research laboratories as a “Metaverse Operating System” and a candidate open standard technology platform for future implementations of virtual worlds. The beta version of the Croquet Software Development Kit (SDK) 1.0 was released on April 21, 2006. As soon as it reaches full operational stability and performance, the Croquet system may well take the 3D web by storm as one of the best development platforms for computer videogames, architectural simulation, multiuser persistent virtual worlds,distance education, and even security and military applications.
Is the Metaverse vision of the late lamented VRML community dead? I don’t think so. It was proposed at a time (mid nineties) when very few users, if any, had computer systems and network links powerful enough to permit accessing a realistic VR world. Things are quite different today - the average PC and bandwidth available to users in the developed world are sufficient for, say, Second Life or Entropia Universe. This will, I think, give a new life to the old (!) vision of an open standard, universal and powerful 3D file format that all developers can use to build servers, clients and content creation and management tools. This vision is now taken forward by developers working on X3D, the new version of the VRML standard (See 3D format wars for links on X3D vs. COLLADA). Technology platforms such as Blaxxun, Bitmanagement and the recent Flux (recently released as open source software) permit serving VRML and X3D content on the web and are suitable for 3D “worldlets” (say, the 3D equivalent of a simple web page). These platforms are not yet powerful enough for the detailed and videorealistic MMOGs that today’s gamers expect, but it will be interesting to watch their evolution.