Thursday, 2 October 2008

Open Grids ... the birth of the 3D web?

What is an Open Grid?

Please bear with this lengthy explanation - part of the challenge for me will be how to explain this succinctly enough for the project.

First, there was Second Life® ... What's that, then?

(image: me and some friends in Second Life)
"Second Life® is a 3-D virtual world created by its Residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by millions of Residents from around the globe."

"it's not a game, it's a platform"
The first of these quotes is from the official website, the second is frequently quoted on the residents' forum (not publicly accessible). Second Life is not a game, in the sense that there are no pre-defined goals - you can do what you like there (until Linden Labs® tells you you can't). Within SL, people buy and sell virtual land, build, script, socialise, dress up, make art, run educational projects, role play ... the list is endless. It has its own economy, based on the L$, which has an exchange rate with the US$. People can, and do, make real-life incomes from their Second Life businesses, although not as commonly as popular myth would suggest.

It is not the only online virtual world, but until very recently, nothing could rival SL in terms of user-generated content or residents' freedom to pursue their own goals. In particular, SL was the only online virtual world where residents could create or upload any content they chose, without it having to go through a process of approval by the hosting company.

In January 2007, Linden Labs released the source code for the Second Life viewer, so that developers could make their own customised viewers for connecting to Second Life, with added features, or more often, pared down versions for low bandwidth usage.

The OpenSimulator project

(image: my newly landscaped standalone OpenSimulator region - stored on my own computer)

A virtual world like SL consists of two pieces of software: the server and the client, or viewer. For a long time, code developers in SL had dreamed of writing an alternative to rival and move beyond what SL could offer, but faced enormous difficulties trying to develop both pieces of software simultaneously. With the open-sourcing of the client, their job was made significantly easier and things began to move fast.

"The OpenSimulator Project is a BSD Licensed Virtual Worlds Server which can be used for creating and deploying 3D Virtual Environments. It has been developed by several developers. Out of the box, the OpenSimulator can be used to create a Second Life(tm) like environment, able to run in a standalone mode or connected to other OpenSimulator instances through built in grid technology. It can also easily be extended to produce more specialized 3D interactive applications."

Open Grids
(image: Planet Video's region on OSGrid)

The OpenSimulator project means that for the first time, people can build their own grids, or link up their independently hosted regions to other people's, to create new virtual worlds. Some, such as CentralGrid have chosen to follow Linden Lab's business model, hosting all regions on their own servers, and renting server space to their customers. These are commonly referred to as Closed Grids. Others, true Open Grids such as OSGrid, allow individuals and organisations to host regions on their own servers and connect them to a public grid.

Why is this exciting?

In the words of JustinCC, one of the core developers of the OpenSim technology,
"...there’s something wonderfully subversive and radical about running an open grid on a non-profit basis. I mean, these people want to build a rebel world with a ragtag fleet of servers spread around cyberspace. Sure, OpenSim is still flaky alpha level code (more so in grid mode than standalone). Sure, as OSGrid expands it meets scalability problems, both in terms of server related issues and in terms of more fundamental OpenSim architectural problems (making these plain is, of course, also a valuable function of OSGrid). Sure, as an open grid I wouldn’t yet call OpenSim secure in any significant way - please don’t upload your L$100000 Second Life object to it just yet. But in my opinion, despite all this, the community and long term possibilities engendered by OSGrid have the potential to be wonderful."

The OSGrid model promises two things that Linden Labs have tried, but failed (personal opinion) to provide: this really could be "our world, our imagination", now that we don't have to be bound by LL's frequently changing and erratically enforced ToS and Community Standards - it's up to us to write our own, and this really could be the 3D web, now that the monopoly has been broken, and work is underway on all the grids, including Second Life, to enable teleporting between worlds.

The future will be interesting ...

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