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February 20, 2007


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Reed Hedges

Hi Bryan. Key topic. Especcially interested to those of us working on Third Life in our Garages [http://interreality.org] :)

I think we probably will need a common protocol, it's what made the Web explode: HTTP has changed little. The graphical abilities of HTML and what's possible with Javascript and plugins has exploded and changed very rapidly (and with a lot of troubles along the way), driven by browser competition, and that's what allows new web applications to be built today (along with an explosion of backend tools).

Reed Hedges

One problem is that interactive 3D worlds are just a lot more complicated than just downloading a page and displaying it.

This may make it really really really hard to come up with a common protocol that satisfies every need.

This is one reason that VRML is not as popular is at was hyped to be: it was sold as virtual reality, but at the time nobody had done the interactive multiuser part (and to this day there's no multiuser/interactive part within VRML per se), so it really was just like web pages: you download a file and display it.

Mike Sellers

Third Life could take the form of a collaborative, perhaps held together by a W3C-like umbrella organization, connected by interoperability and standards. In this form of Third Life we can move our created avatars and objects from one service provider to the next. ... Third Life is not a walled garden, but a series of linked spaces and tools. It's open to services, easy to get objects into and out of. Third Life, or part of the TL group, could sell us the tools to make things, but we can then take those things we've made to other worlds.

This right here is fundamental to the non-walled-garden view of "what's next." It's also the core of the problem, the heart of the beast: how can you create distributed worlds that many can create and host, as we do web pages, but without compromising their technological, informational, or personal security? The moment you open a locally created world to others, you either limit what they can do to the point of triviality where interest fades almost instantly, or you necessarily allow others to effect changes on your world and people there -- which means they can teleport them, delete them, copy them, etc (yes you can put limits on what can be done, but that's a losing battle of trying to plug the holes faster than others can exploit them). It's bad enough when people create self-replicating objects that bring down the SL grid; a similar attack on distributed virtual worlds would make this or current "virus" attacks on computers seem mild by comparison. And the capability to create and launch such attacks cannot be filtered out without also filtering out those capabilities that make the distributed worlds valuable in the first place.

This is fundamentally a social issue, not a technological problem and thus is not amenable to technological solutions. It's a social problem -- essentially, how can you make people behave as you'd like them to? This is an issue that we've been pretty unsuccessful in resolving as a species, at least without putting some strong restrictions on what people can do... which in this case takes us right back to the walled garden.

It may be that in some post-Web2.0 world we'll solve the issues that swirl around the black hole of linked inter-operative spaces, but it's worth noting that many bright people have tried and failed to make this work. It is a problem area that should in no way be underestimated.

I'll even go so far as to say that the true interactivity of virtual worlds is an essential difference that sets them apart from web pages and other W2.0 apps, and thus any distributed, open, 'inter-operable' thinking taken from a Web-centric POV is dangerously misplaced. In a virtual world your decisions change its state and the states of people and objects around you. Likewise, events in the world simulation and decisions made by other people changes your state. This is a difference of kind, not degree, from the "interactivity" seen in books, plays, movies, web pages, and single-player games and worlds. Virtual worlds are not merely a new toy, they are an entirely new type of thing, place, and experience. We may be able to break this new form of interaction out of the walled garden, but we may not much like what we find others do to it when we do.

Third Life stretches across the virtual world-MMOG continuum, because it is open to crossings between worlds. You might take your avatar from a superhero game into a Second Life-like social environment, then cross over into a fantasy game. Perhaps some translation of appearance is available (t-shirt becomes mail shirt, coffee mug becomes hollowed-out skull for holding wine)...

As just one example, it's worth noting that this often-cited aspect of future worlds is in the bulls-eye of a patent owned by Trip Hawkins, circa 1996. Maybe we'll get such games and make Trip rich(er). But there are more than a few stumbling blocks -- technological, social, legal, and cultural -- between here and any form of open, inter-operable "Third Life."

My personal thinking is that we're going to need to consolidate our conceptual gains in the creation of virtual worlds in a centralized, walled-garden sense before we can hope to resolve the distributed-world issues. Broadly used virtual worlds are barely ten years old -- and we don't even know yet if more-open-ish ones like Second Life are actually sustainable (Linden Labs is not, for example, actually profitable, despite its disproportionate hype and significant venture capital infusions). The evolution of the Web is, I think, a poor point of comparison to virtual worlds, or at least is no more applicable to the development of these worlds than is the history of books, movies, and other media.

Reed Hedges

In a lot of ways the web has turned into lots of walled gardens that you need to log in to to use (and jump through hoops like captchas). Generally, it takes a lot of energy to change web pages, and the web pages have to be specially set up to allow it (it takes energy for the web site publisher to allow it).

[Plus, presumably there are gardeners to weed them. If I start spamming this blog then Bryan will have to delete it, and try to ban my address or something.]

I guess a key difference then between the web and online VEs is that VEs are real time, and by nature you have to have editing/modification permissions of some kind. The means to annoy people are always there to some degree and the effects of griefing or other disruptive acts are felt immediately.

One problem in SL is that permissions are not that granular-- simply, for each cube of land, you either are allowed or not allowed to create objects; and for each object you either are or are not allowed to edit it. I expect them to start creating more complicated permissions system, we'll see how that works out.


At least you outlined a bold vision without resorting to decimal place versioning notation. I for one would be excited to even have portions of this come to be in the hear term.

A number of my initial thoughts are already commented above... A barrier will continue to be the conundrum of what is/will be a more technologically complex environment (both under the hood and for its users) will run up against ease of use for the newbie. From e-mail to a visual hypertext environment was a step reached easily now after 14 years, but the step up to a 3D navigable space is a much larger one. And much of the drive for the 2d web was that it offered things, resources, services not available directly by other means. Does a 3D world do that?

And the issues of audience comes up... how would a 3D world be the destination for Big Numbers of Ordinary People? I think Clay Shirkey's recent rounds provided some thoughtful meat for the differences between game-driven 3D spaces versus social driven ones like SL, that they cannot be easily put into the same bin. I'm not a gamer and have little desire to spend my time raiding and killing warthogs.

The standardization of protocols seems a necessary, the "common protocol" a worthy goal yet much more complex than HTTP. And Third Life is taking a divergent path from the web, it will take some reeling in form the privates to a shared foundation. The features you describe would need a massive amount of common platform, yet not so much that it makes them lose their unique appeals.

As is now, the connections from web space content to and from SL is very inconvenient. Oh we can slap a video on a prim, attach an audio stream to a place, and others have advanced ways to bring RSS content in, to conduct blog posts out via XMLRPC... but it is a rather large amount of tech savvy to get these to work, and getting over some small straws of amounts of HTTP communication one can do. The content flows need to be much broader, easier in both directions.

So I am excited by this vision, and am one who dabbles there, but remain skeptical yet on it occupying as much of the public space as the web. I don't see that same thrill of quick creation, connection using something as simple as a tex editor as I did in 1993. Things are closer now to this than ever before, but the leap seems far.

And as a colleague mentioned today to my canine avatar in SL, in comparison to the old wag about no one knowing you are a dog on the internet, "in Second Life, everyone can think you are a dog".

Trevor F. Smith

This is an excellent survey of the questions we face, though I would urge you to consider these questions in a future in which online 3spaces are as much a part of our first lives as today's 2D web maps and social networks. One of the most interesting parts about the realization of web based 3space platforms is that they are permeable and can erase the magic circle to merge with our first lives.

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Thanks, Bryan! Excellent summary!

I very much agree with Trevor's comment. I sincerely think we will treat this as a first life medium/social network in the future. Some of us are already doing that to a large extent.

At the same time, just as there are "pockets of virtuality" on the Internet today (which is seen as a first life medium by most people nowadays), or in older first life media such as litterature, movies or theatre for that matter, there will no doubt still be role-playing going on in an environment such as Second or Third Life.

I believe it will happen in a slightly different way though. We already see how the SL role-playing community sets up rules/contracts for game-play in order to "protect" the illusory "world" they've created from the outsiders, who don't play their kind of Second Life or perhaps treat SL as an extension of their first life. I think this will increase. The more or less homogeneous Second Life of perhaps a year ago has already given way to a more diverse online environment, and I think the Third Life features Bryan is sketching would take us even further in this direction.

Mike Sellers

"We already see how the SL role-playing community sets up rules/contracts for game-play in order to "protect" the illusory "world" they've created from the outsiders, who don't play their kind of Second Life or perhaps treat SL as an extension of their first life. "

Except that there are no "rules" in Second Life. There are a few pockets with consensual role-playing conventions, but these are entirely voluntary. As long as someone can come and kick over your lovingly crafted sand castle -- or pelt you with a rain of giant genitalia during a press interview, or overrun and bring down the server with self-replicating objects -- such "rules" will be all but worthless.

This is exactly the kind of problem I was describing above, where in a non-walled-garden it's unknown if it's possible to maintain both the ability for people to alter the world as they please without keeping the door open for anyone else who wants to come in and change things whether you like it or not. This is a fundamental issue with which any "third life" space concept must successfully wrestle.

Owen Kelly

Sadly I think SL will not be the locus of what you are describing because of some absurd contradictions built into it for unknowable reasons.

Second Life does not seem to know what it wants to be. It certainly isn't "My World. My Imagination" because it has been deliberately set up by Linden Labs so that Owen Kelly cannot become a resident. Surnames must be drawn from a given list. So Owen Kelly cannot meet Bryan Alexander, as we can do using Skype or any instant messenger.

There is a very uneasy confusion built into the system from the moment you first join it. Is it a role playing game or not?

Linden Labs argue that it is whatever you make of it but this is sophistry. What people make of it is entirely dependent on the tools and abilities that they are given.

Some people use it as a chat room (Habbo Hotel). Some people use it to live out fantasies (furries, Gorans). Some people use it as an educational tool (Info Island). Some people use it as a virtual construction set.

And all of these people get in each other's way. Those who are in there to have fun throw fireworks at the in-world class, and those who want to meet people for intelligent discussion are forced to sit round a table with Argent Stonecutter, Veda PrettyOne, and so on.

In other words the way Second Life is currently set up guarantees that every signal will carry an unnecessary burden of noise with it.

I suspect that the only way to get round this problem is to begin Third Life with the creation of a generalised platform (which, as you note, Multiverse, Croquet and others are currently doing) which can be used to create large and small worlds, and which allows these worlds to be linked or networked - and (as you suggest) to have avatars transferable across worlds.

The "world" would, in this scenario, be the entire network of linked worlds, and entrance to a specific world would require the owner's consent. The trick will be to make this scalable.

Bryan Alexander

I'm very impressed by the level of conversation, here, and grateful to see discussions moving forward.

Thank you for the link, Reed. Where do you see such a protocol being worked on now in all complexity, perhaps your project?

Mike, let me take a couple of whacks at your broodings.
First, it might be that Third Life develops as a series of worlds built to different levels of exclusion and openness, scale and access. For example, when I hear the Linden argument for Second Life as communicative "emotional bandwidth", I'm reminded of projects like IMVU, which use avatars just for conversation (not for virtual worlds). Think about the relative success of IM for avoiding spam, and that might be a partial model. Alongside that we can see virtual worlds accessible by invitation only or owner permission, like private LiveJournal or Flickr. Then, alongside *those*, more open spaces, where people can meet random strangers. But those would have a different meaning than SL now has, once the other two types of worlds have been promulgated.
(SL is, in short, caught between two fires, as it sets up some level of walled garden-ness, but still wants to be open to all.)
Which brings me to your second point, about Web 2.0. You write: "the true interactivity of virtual worlds is an essential difference that sets them apart from web pages and other W2.0 apps..." Yet we've developed pretty interactive web pages in the wikiverse. Not that there aren't problems, but there are many solutions, social and technical, with more developing. Web 2.0 actually looks a lot better in terms of open vs closed gardens. Think about Flickr, for example, which has managed a fine balance between a huge public sphere and many small private ones.

Ninmah (Rachel Smith)

I started to comment on this amazing conversation, but the comment grew to scary proportions, so I made a blog post out of it. Bryan said it'd be okay to post a note here to that effect.


Incredible review! Found it occasionally and couldn't stop reading, though I'm not a big fan of virtual worlds. My bf spend so much time at the computer, he loves games, and it drives me crazy. But I think that I would be more tolerant to this game :-)


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In many ways, the network has become a large number of wall garden, you need to log in to use (and jump through hoops like captchas so). Generally speaking, it needs a lot of energy to change web page, web page must be specially set up to allow it to (it needs energy website publishers allow it).
(in addition, about the gardener weeding them. If I start spamming this blog and Bryan must delete it, and try to keep my address or some.
I want to a key difference between network and online type and between, the second is real-time, natural you must edit/modify some authority. Way to harassment people always have a certain extent effect and malicious damage or other destructive behavior is immediate.

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