Towards a Metaverse

In Wired recently Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, commented on the need for a metaverse (a term apparently coined by Neal Stephenson — though I cannot imagine it never being uttered until 1992), a unified platform in which all our avatars can roam freely between the various virtual worlds. He argues:

Within a decade, then, the notion of separate game worlds will probably seem like a quaint artifact of the frontier days of virtual reality. You’ll still be able to engage in radically different experiences – from slaying orcs to cybersex – but they’ll occur within a common architecture. The question is whether the underpinnings of this unified metaverse will be a proprietary product, like Windows, or an inclusive, open standard, like email and the Web.

He cites The OpenSource Metaverse Project, who are championing the open standard approach:

The Metaverse project was created because there is a strong demand, and large developer following, for virtual worlds that allow customization by the player and creation of one’s own worlds. ClosedSource virtual worlds exist already – SecondLife, There and ActiveWorlds – but we needed a metaverse engine that is flexible, scalable and that we can customize to an extent not possible within individual proprietary worlds.

And there are other attempts at shared open source worlds, like Solipsis and the Croquet Project:

Users and groups of users can author and publish their individual resources within a persistent 3D knowledge architecture. They may build any number of private or shared “worlds” instantaneously, making them immediately accessible for others to explore by providing spatial portals.  These portals function much like hyperlinks do within the World Wide Web. But unlike the Web, Croquet enables the user to find and get to other individual worlds through the larger context of Croquet’s persistent common spaces.

the Interreality Project: Virtual Object System:

Our original motivation was to start building “The Metaverse”: a shared 3D virtual environment over the Internet inspired by works including Neil Stephenson’s modern science fiction classic Snow Crash, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Idoru, and the Otherland series by Tad Williams. The Virtual Object System (VOS) is the software infrastructure we have developed to make this vision real. Over time it has evolved and proven to be a useful tool for a broad range of applications, while achieving our original goal of supporting multiuser collaborative environments as the primary driver and test of the system.

On similiar lines is the Australian i3d Platform:

i3d is a platform that allows multiple 3D environments to join together seamlessly and allow players to move smoothly between them. Many such environments can potentially be joined to create larger game and virtual chat environments that can be owned and run seperately, thus forming a sort of peer to peer 3D internet.

And there are of course the closed source virtual worlds that nevertheless permit player creation of communities and objects etc like Second Life, There and ActiveWorlds.

Steven Johnson’s argument, that virtual worlds will need to become universal like email, makes complete sense. It also makes sense that the fictions of each of the worlds mix. We’ve been brought up with cross-over comics and television shows, why shouldn’t the same merging of storyworlds apply to virtual worlds? Indeed, this is one aspect of the cross-media phenomenon: worlds merging.