Following the Virtual Worlds fall conference last week, there’s some interesting fallout. First, a big WTF? to Microsoft, whom I’d given ample credit for having their heads on straight with respect to virtual worlds. Afterwards, I’ll cover the Linden/IBM "synergy."
I’d previously written that the Virtual Worlds conference would be a bad place to announce a Microsoft PC/XBox cross-over 3D world because of the lack of gaming press on hand with which to massage the message. Well, they did even worse than announce such a thing. They soft-announced that they’re still working on such a thing but that it’s a) not ready and b) might suck. That’s how I interpret the phrase "if a year from now we don’t have anything, then we probably won’t have anything."
So not only do they still look like they’re copying Sony’s Home (which was itself an evolution of existing ideas — apologies to a friend of mine to who helped influence the design), but Microsoft now looks like they’re afraid of this market. Brilliant!
In not completely unrelated news, following the big IBM/Linden announcement from last week about working on inter-world interoperability, it turns out both companies have created some controversy by inviting 30 companies to a summit to discuss this great news, while issuing a press release listing Linden and IBM as the forces involved. Hint: if you’re trying to create a voluntary consortium, you might need to give some credit to the other players. Compared to the MMO gaming space, Linden and IBM are bit players.
More than that, people are grumbling about Linden being the wrong company to spearhead this initiative. It seems there’s some animosity towards the old prim-based walled-garden out there. And it’s understandable. Second Life is only capable of supporting about 50 avatars on a single simulator. And the theoretically great "stream objects only where you look" approach is currently more like "where the hell did the world go?"
Why should everyone else limit themselves when there are better technologies out there?
It’s a perfectly valid question. Even for "primitives" (which I originally wrote for them as a consultant) the key thing to understand is that the procedural geometry they’re currently using is extremely limited compared to what’s theoretically possible. That’s all they wanted at the time, spheres, cubes, and cones. And that’s as far as my work for them went on that front, despite many hours spent trying to convince them of the value of things like scenegraphs, spatial scoping, and dynamic 3D impostors.
And though I’ve pitched the potential of a real procedural geometry system for them, capable of expressing very sophisticated shapes (more along the lines of Spore’s amazing work), and perhaps even capable of importing/exporting 3D shapes from outside, those discussions never panned out, and perhaps never will.
It makes me sad. Because when it comes down to it, procedural geometry is the future and Linden has it at least partly right. Polygons are still useful for optimized rendering at the hardware level, at least until triangles grow so small and plentiful that storing them makes no sense (more on that some other time). But if there really was a "standard format" for conveying assets between worlds, it would need to live at such a high semantic level that polygons wouldn’t make much sense anyway.
But Linden seems to have perturbed enough of the other VW developers with their recent press vs. performance that, right now, pushing for a shared semantic standard for interchanging object and avatar definitions is probably unrealistic.
A long time ago, I speculated that after Linden opens its grid and formats and there are many suppliers of sims and clients, that the most likely role for them is as the arbiter of trust and action in virtual worlds — the company we trust to validate identity and spatial/temporal/monetary transactions.
But trust is hard to come by. And though people in the industry (myself as well) have the highest possible respect for all of the individuals in Linden, the company as a whole is, at least right now, not going to win on the technical merits or good will.
If they succeed in raising a lot of capital next year with their rumored "liquidity event," they may indeed become the VeriSign of Virtual Worlds, but perhaps not in the positive ways I was hoping for.