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Toward the open distributed Metaverse
Giulio Prisco   Jan 31, 2007   Transumanar  

Things are moving fast three weeks after the release of the Second Life client as open source code.

The UM3D Lab of University of Michigan has brought Second Life one step closer to real life by developing stereoscopic support for the Second Life viewer. This recent addition allows visitors wearing special glasses to see the objects of Second Life pop out of the screen similar to watching a 3D movie (press release).

Even more interesting, users in the libsecondlife community have created the first instance of an open Second Life server, also released as open source code. The server has been built by by examining the client code (and/or reverse-engineering it) along with the information that is passed between client and server in order to get an idea of what the server code would need to look like. The server sounds fairly crude at the moment, with a number of functions yet to be implemented. But it can already handle much of what the official server does, and the number of hackers working on it is growing (3pointD). 

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The libsecondlife project is an effort directed at understanding how Second Life works from a technical perspective, and extending and integrating the metaverse with the rest of the web. This includes understanding how the official Second Life client operates and how it communicates with the Second Life simulator servers, as well as development of independent third party clients and tools. With all the media buzz on Second Life I am sure the project will attract more and more talented software engineers who will quickly (perhaps in only a few months) produce a fully operational open source version of the Second Life server code.

The server code discussion thread on the libsecondlife forum has more information. To be sure, the software is still a demonstrator, not fully operational and with very limited functionality. But it points the way to a fully functional open source server - It is a step toward a virtual world, solar system, galaxy or universe free from centralized corporate control, one that looks more like the World Wide Web of individually controlled sites than it does a contiguous grid such as exists in Second Life (3pointD).

In view of these development and others that will certainly follow soon, I think the smartest move for Linden Lab would be taking the lead in the development of open source Second Life server code, or supporting the libsecondlife project as de-facto code development central. In a recent Reuters interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Linden Lab chairman Mitch Kapor stated that Second Life server technology will eventually become available to third parties wishing to run their own servers - this will be a gradual process, but will enable a distributed Metaverse powered by SL technology.

Some current virtual land owners and early amateur SL pioneers have expressed fears that their property will devalue or even disappear as Second Life moves toward a professional distributed ecology. Though I understand some of their concerns I think this industry should evolve toward professionalism like the 2D web industry has, and that in the long run a solid Metaverse a la Stephenson will permit everyone finding his place.

If the server code will be licensed as open source software (or at least licensed commercially under suitable conditions including the right to modify it), then I think serious operators will be much more willing to invest in Second Life: they will know that they will be able to run their own modified versions of the server if they need to do so. I think Linden Lab should make an open commitment to making Second Life servers available and, perhaps, announce a tentative release date. It is, of course, important for Linden Lab to develop an alternative business model that can permit making profits after their current monopoly on Second Life server technology ends. The simplest way may be to license the server software for a lot of money - some massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) engines sell for millions. But perhaps the open source Second Life movement has already built too much momentum to be stopped. Open source projects are slow to take off as they must attract a critical mass of volunteer developers first, but when they are running at full speed they often produce software faster and better than commercial firms. However - I wish the best luck to Linden Lab for their search for alternative business models. The company that gave us Second Life deserves remaining profitable for many, many years to come.

The availability of the Second Life server code will open a niche for independent SL hosting providers. Perhaps Linden Lab will remain the main hosting provider for end users who take their first steps in the Metaverse in the SL “Mainland”, and an entry-level hosting provider for small projects (SL “islands”), and other operators will build and run other interlinked Metaverse regions for more demanding clients. I do not think corporate users can accept the risk of a neighbor building a giant pink dancing penis next to their virtual headquarters. On the contrary, I think most corporate users wishing to use the Metaverse as a business tool will lease space in managed regions with stricter policies, zoning laws, centrally developed and managed infrastructure such as roads and subways with a uniform, corporate look&feel, and 24/7 business quality customer service. I look forward to developing one such “VR Business Park” as soon as the option is available. In the meantime, I am recommending our clients to purchase land in SL by Surreal BT and Brautigan & Tuck. Their sims are a growing complex of Second Life islands (continent) running on high performance servers. The Surreal BT sims offer all the advantages of a developed, zoned and managed top class neighborhood in brickspace.

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.



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