Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Interoperability in Virtual Worlds: Experts Discuss Possible Futures

Linden Labs, makers of Second Life, announced a partnership with IBM and nearly 30 other companies today to work on creating a layer of interoperability across all online virtual worlds. This layer, the plans for which are being discussed publicly for the first time at today's Virtual Worlds Expo in San Jose, would allow users to port identities and other assets from one virtual world to another.

It's a logical next step for the medium of virtual worlds and one that could cause their number and size to grow substantially. It could also lead to bitter, if sometimes humorous, conflict between users identified primarily with different sites. Nick Carr warned this morning that the move will likely lead attacks on peaceful Second Life residents by ogres from World of Warcraft.

Is the move towards interoperability a meaningful announcement and what kind of future could it lead to? I asked three industry experts for their opinion this morning.

A Musical Tour of Select SecondLife Locations

Increasing User Numbers

Wagner James Au is the founder of New World Notes, a blog focused on Second Life. He was an embedded reporter on staff with Linden Labs in the games early years and is now working on a forthcoming book about SL. Au told me that he sees the interoperability announcement as very related to today's release of the Electric Sheep Company's simplified Second Life browser; both are events that could be key in turning Second Life into "a truly mass market phenomenon." That seems plausible to me; other virtual worlds are far more populated than Second Life and its official client is notoriously difficult for beginners to use.

Making mass access to virtual worlds more viable could lead to any number of events. IBM dealt with a relevant situation just last month when it was the target of what's believed to be the first labor strike in Second Life. Nearly 2000 people from around the world stormed the company's SL business center is solidarity with striking Italian IBM workers on the 27th of September.

Innovation in Identity

Barb Dybwad, Producer of the gaming Joystiq and Engadget networks at Weblogs, Inc, says the interoperability announcement raises the possibility of a standards based environment of incredible fecundity - the kind of thing the web at large should embrace more than it does.

"It's basically mashing up Second Life with concepts like OpenID and web standards and turning a once proprietary walled garden model into open architecture," she said, "and that's a good thing for users and businesses alike."

Professional virtual world gadfly Eric Rice told me this morning that it would not be easy to translate identities from one platform to another. He's known as the character Spin Martin in most of the worlds he visits, including Second Life where he's the owner of one of the premier event spaces in the world. That's not the case in the warfighting world of Halo, however, where Rice feels the need to operate under a more battle-ready identity.

Likewise, graphics standards are wildly different from world to world and Rice said that residents of some of the more visually high-end worlds would likely take on a "Not in My Backyard" attitude about ugly avatars from less visually compelling worlds if interoperability presumes a direct translation of avatars. Rice also predicted that some worlds would only respect standards in theory while in practice building non-compliant but technically superior avatars and functionality for their users.

Innovation Through Open Architecture

"I think digital identity/avatars is one component of it," Barb Dybwad told me in response to Rice's concerns, "but they go beyond that and are talking about opening the architecture in the platform itself - including transactions and integration with existing web services using web standards. That could be big."

I asked Barb if she thought the move could make Linden Labs more relevant to the virtual world market in general than it currently is. "What this work could do is open the market completely so almost everyone could add virtual world functionality on top of their existing services; so there would be a million second lifes. It distributes the virtual world market instead of hoarding it under linden lab and i think that's a smart move for them."

Dybwad believes this type of platform could become nearly ubiquitous online someday soon. "I'm playing a few other MMOs and I definitely see a future where gamers and even people who don't identify as gamers are spending much more time inside virtual worlds," she told me. "It's an incredibly compelling experience. It's experiential in a way that things like Facebook and Myspace don't quite get ... until they make their own 3D platform on top of themselves."

Standards are never an easy thing to agree upon but it's exciting to thing that these questions could be close to seeing some working answers developed. One thing's for sure - when the time comes I'd appreciate if you'll have pity on my poor, under-dressed avatar.

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