Revival of the “virtual world” concept through open source and blockchains?

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This blog post is the fourth part of an informal series of articles in the TIB Blog about the potential of blockchains in education and research. In the first part, we explained how P2P file systems and blockchains are set to influence the future of scientific publishing and the Big Data challenges facing digital libraries. The second part addressed the issue of how Mozilla’s “Open Badges” have digitised and decentralised certificates in the area of education, how blockchains can be used to advance this application more systematically, and how Open Badges and e-portfolios are already being integrated on blockchains. The third part was about “Smart Contracts”, which enable the use of decentralised applications on blockchains. The fourth part of the series now explores how blockchains and open source software are helping to revive the potential of virtual reality (VR) for education, research and cultural heritage, which sank into oblivion alongside “Second Life”.

From Snow Crash to Second Life – how the Metaverse developed and first became reality

The mega hype triggered around ten years ago by the virtual reality application “Second Life”, created by the Linden Lab company, popularised a term used in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash: the Metaverse (see also the informative article about this concept in Wikipedia). The Metaverse is the perceptible representation of a three-dimensional virtual space where humans, as self-created avatars, can operate and interact with each other. A key feature of the Metaverse is that space is persistent: time continues in this space even when I log off – other users’ avatars continue interacting and physical processes continue to take place following the laws of physics recreated in the virtual world.

Incidentally, rather than going into the differences between the terms “Metaverse” and the “virtual world” in any greater depth in this article, I use them interchangeably.

Such are the liberties of blogging!  🙂

The Metaverse – achievement of shared virtual space with no purpose

By rights, the Metaverse concept outlined above could also have been tested in the past, particularly in massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. However, the special thing about Metaverses such as Second Life is that users do not pursue a gaming purpose prescribed by the application. Metaverses have no specific purpose, they are “merely” huge shared stages for all actions that come into their users’ minds.

The essay by Chris M. Collins, which is still well worth reading five years on, makes it clear why the existence of such a Metaverse is a very much underestimated cultural achievement of mankind. In fact, “serious” applications of the Metaverse developed so far in education and research are enough to fill volumes. Architects and landscape planners use Metaverses to enable people to experience and manipulate objects like never before. Digital 3D models, which cannot be “visited” as Metaverses, had been a standard method in architecture for years – the step from such models to the Metaverse was hence a small one. The same applies to 3D models and augmented reality applications in medicine and industry. Today, the gradual transition from Augmented Reality (AR) to Virtual Reality (VR) is emphasised in the collective term “Mixed Reality”. In fact, it is easier to “enter”, understand and change many objects relevant to science and technology in a Metaverse than simply being able to view them as two-dimensional images, akin to looking through a glass pane.

The same applies for the three-dimensional digital reproduction of any kind of cultural assets. Nowadays, museum visitors think nothing of taking selfies of and with portrait paintings on museum walls. If the exhibition were virtually accessible, what other creative uses could be made of its exhibits? But this blog post is not about another way for people to deal with knowledge objects. With regard to teaching and learning, there is another crucial aspect: learning is significantly supported by interacting with other learners – not least via eye contact.

Second Life – the Metaverse as a commercial business product …

It is therefore hardly surprising that educational, research and cultural institutions were quick to conquer the commercial entertainment product Second Life as a platform. Snippets of information can be gleaned about this from the  Blog posts on Second Life at Netbib, a german library weblog that has been operating for years. Collin’s essay, linked above, clearly shows that nothing good can come of company-owned platforms whose unique value is generated by user activities and interaction. In any case, it is difficult to further develop such platforms in the interests of the user community.

Figure: Wyatt Wellman (avatar name), Cologne Cathedral in Second Life. CC BY SA 2.0

… and its open source counterpart OpenSimulator

The first reaction to waning interest in the commercial product Second Life was the creation of an open standard (see Wikipedia article mentioned above) and the development of the open source software program OpenSimulator (OpenSim) as early as 2007. This enabled users to create their own Metaverse entities à la Second Life, to share them with other users, and to further develop them as they wish. And yet OpenSim has a blind spot, which may be the reason why it was never nearly as popular as Second Life. OpenSim does not have a single persistent virtual space that is – and has to be – shared by all users, with all of the consequences that entails. Instead, there are many OpenSim entities, each with their “own” virtual space. A shared standard at least enables space to be entered by avatars from other entities – it is up to the operator to decide whether to allow this option and, if so, in what way. But this method does not create a binding connection between the “residents” of a virtual world and certain spaces and places within this world, where all residents are connected. Ultimately, each individual world can only be possessed by the administrator of the OpenSim entity concerned; it is up to him to decide whether and how another user lives in his world.

Fig.: A Habib, OpenSim GUI 1.1. CC BY SA 3-0
File:Cobalt portals pre alpha.jpg
Fig.: 3D hyperlinks linking five different Open Cobalt virtual spaces. CC BY SA 3.0

A shared virtual world based on the management model of Wikipedia or on the Linux kernel? – food for thought

Basically, this problem could be resolved by establishing an association that is responsible for operating one single shared OpenSim entity based on transparent principles. Wikipedia, the Linux kernel and other open source projects demonstrate the basic possibility of such a procedure – you might think. And yet associations exist to pursue a specific purpose. Those who believe there ought to be an open source online encyclopaedia use Wikipedia. (Those who believe that the idea is generally good, but that Wikipedia is far from the mark could copy Wikipedia in it entirety, or parts of it, and launch their own new open source encyclopaedia.) As explained above, however, a crucial feature of a Metaverse is the lack of a shared purpose that users must pursue. As such, a Metaverse ought to be compared with the internet, for example. All those who use the internet – actively or passively, as the case may be – must use certain protocols that define this shared information space. Although the (further) development of such protocols must be collaboratively agreed by organisations such as W3C and IETF, there are no entities that could decide who follows these protocols and how – in theory, at least. It was only within the internet, as an information space ideally defined only by protocols, that groups such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Wikipedia (and, of course, countless less well known organisations) were able to develop.

The distribution and exchange of virtual space can generally be regulated by a protocol – which can be used without anyone’s permission, and which people cannot be prevented from using

Transferring the concept of an information space ideally regulated only by protocols to a Metaverse raises the question of how to stipulate who owns places within the single virtual world, which is generally open to all. Essentially, this kind of problem can be resolved using blockchains as distributed databases. Virtual space can be distributed and exchanged thanks to blockchains using a protocol that anyone can use without having to gain permission and that people cannot be prevented from using. (How this works was outlined in the first part of my series of articles on the potential of blockchains in education and research.)

Decentraland – open source software and a blockchain for a virtual world that is not centrally managed

Decentraland is an open source software project that uses web-based technology to establish a virtual world. Within this world, all kinds of objects and algorithms can be placed in the long term. A blockchain is established in parallel, used to collaboratively manage land. By making available computer time on their devices, users can claim, use and transfer virtual land as they see fit.

Since Decentraland is an open source licensed software program, anyone can set up their own virtual world – which is important in some contexts, as was the case with OpenSimulator. The crucial factor: since land ownership is managed on a decentralised basis, end users have a more binding relationship to the inventory of this virtual world, and therefore also directly to this world and its users as a whole. It remains to be seen whether the first big Decentraland entity will develop into a diverse, dynamic virtual public domain.

Outlook: David in the battle of the Goliaths for tomorrow’s VR marketplace …

It goes without saying that Decentraland plays a mini role compared to the commercial VR platform provider Oculus, following its multibillion acquisition by Facebook in 2014. Facebook and major competitors such as Google and Microsoft are on the cusp of offering sophisticated VR hardware and customised service platforms. It is essential in this competition to create a commercially lucrative marketplace for a wide range of virtual worlds and to manage them from company headquarters. It remains to be seen how much room such a scenario leaves for a decentralised virtual world.

File:Oculus CV1 Back.jpg
Fig.: Oculus Rift CV1 from the back. CC BY SA 4.0

… or an innovative marketplace for all?

Comparing a decentralised, blockchain-based virtual world with the internet (see above) shows, however, that the ownerless regulation of an information space by protocols alone is by no means noncommercial. Quite the contrary. Dencentraland itself could become a place where commercial services grow and thrive – regardless of whether the services offered in the virtual world are free of charge, or payable in blockchain-based currencies or old-fashioned cash.

Before this happens, however, researchers, educationalists and cultural heritage institutions could once again assume the role of pioneers, tapping the potential of this new virtual world. The prospects for Decentraland are pretty good because the project relies on up-to-date web technology and easy access in the browser (as long as it supports WebGL). It also seeks to support the production of virtual objects in the development environment Unity established for this purpose. As such, everything I create in Decentraland belongs to me and is built on open standards – unlike in Second Life and, presumably, the future virtual world platforms of Facebook and Google.

Openness and true possession: low-loss exit strategies are an essential feature of virtual worlds in education, research and cultural heritage

If Decentraland were to fail, it would leave behind virtual migrants who can move on to the next virtual world with all their possessions. Certainly not the worst argument in education and research, an area where we cannot afford to make bad investments. Thanks to projects such as Decentraland, it could soon be worthwhile taking the risk of populating a new virtual world.

Continuation of bilingual series of articles on blockchains in the TIB Blog

The series will be continued at irregular intervals, featuring shorter articles involving the observation and assessment of

  • progress in the development of basic technical concepts (blockchain, smart contracts, DAO, etc.),
  • exemplary applications and elements from industry (Hyperledger, MaidSafe, etc.),
  • exemplary applications of innovative P2P concepts in the area of education, research and cultural heritage – created by individuals, open source software projects and research institutions and, last but not least,
  • the implementation of P2P approaches in the strategies and policies of established players (higher education institutions, publishers, libraries, funding agencies, etc.).