Prospects for the Metaverse

As a voluntary exile from the Game industry, I do spend time thinking about how the skills I have can be applied to other kinds or products. If you spend any time at all doing that I keep coming back to the idea of making the web more 3d. That’s possibly because I spend about 20% of the time that I am awake on the web (yes I’m keeping track). This inevitably ends up leading to the general purpose persistent 3D virtual environment with user created content or Metaverse. The idea has been around a long time, and certainly predates Snow Crash or even Neuromancer. So far it hasn’t made people much money other than book authors. The topic comes up in WIRED once or twice a year. And its back now.

The first big push for something like this outside of the Defense Department that I can remember is the VRML craze circa 93 or so. It was going to be the new web. 3D content for all. Didn’t quite happen, but like all such things it never really dies. It just got a bigger 2.0 specification, some lip service support from major vendors, and then faded into the background. Google Mark+pesce+vrml for more on that.

As an aside Mr. Pesce is also associated with some kind of new-paganism or techno-paganism as well. Which of course makes him an even better subject for WIRED magazine. Someday, I am going to ride a wifi-equipped land windsurfer across the US, while writing an open source video game about the civil rights movement. I am pretty sure that will get me on the cover.

Back to real-reality, As every SGI investor knows, realtime 3d technology today is driven by the videogame industry. This is primarily because up until recently image quality hasn’t been good enough for it to be driven by the Porn industry like most other visual technologies. But that is coming very soon I suspect, just look at the demos from Nvidia if you don’t believe me.

I think we will continue to see this stuff advance on 4 major fronts.

  • Academia/Research
  • MainStream Computer Companies
  • Dedicated Startups
  • Game Companies

The stuff in the WIRED article is mostly Academia/Research. Croquet has a list of big names but some of the most disappointing screen shots I have ever seen. More webpages on 3d rectangles at an angle…ugh. Its like someone was forced to do 3d against their will. Also anytime I read quotes on like “The limits of this system are the limits of the imagination.”, I start feeling nauseous. It does use squeak which is cool (Alan Kay is one of the founders of Croquet) but then so does Randy Pausch’s Alice which is also interesting and looks like it has a new version out.

There are dozens of these, and I suspect you could spend all of your time downloading free open source virtual environments. Playing with them, writing little scripts, etc. Its an interesting Hobby but its not mine. I honestly don’t expect any of these to become the next big thing, most will die when the problems get hard. The few remaining will be consumed by their ideologies or purchased if they actually look to be onto something.

Mainstream Companies
Mainstream Company’s tend to avoid this area. No one has really come up with a business model for this. Adobe has a product called Atmosphere that addresses this space but it hasn’t exactly taken off like wildfire. Microsoft has the research arm to do this and is putting alot of 3d into longhorn so they are always an outside threat. However, they have not typically been very successful as the first mover.

Dedicated Startups
Recently there has been some fresh effort in this area. and their 30 odd million of VC money produced a wonderfully executed Metaverse. However it turned out that, their physics model was much better than their business model and they ended up deciding to take the Defense Department’s money instead of ours. This leaves Linden Lab’s Second Life as the leader in this space. Last time I investigated it, it was full of what you would expect with so much user created content. You get some gems and alot more broken glass. Still its going to be an interesting one to watch and you know everyone wants to be that Vampire dude in the screenshot.

We might see some competitors to Second Life but I think the business will be better for people going with the (now Forterra) model. Virtual Warizistan anyone? What we need is another round of tech bubble billionaires to put up the VC money. Maybe someone from google.

Game Companies
The game industry has contributed more to creating the Metaverse than anyone else. I once heard Raph Koster remark at GDC how for some reason the world has left it up to game developers to create this next form of human society. He said he didn’t know why but they were going to run with it. The thought of a new civilization founded by people’s who’s principle social interaction during their formative years was Dungeons and Dragons does not inspire me with confidence.

The game industry has made alot of progress towards building the Metaverse but the accomplishments have been fully combined into one product. There are successful examples of 3d persistent worlds (everquest etc) and impressive results with user created content for games as Diverse as the Sims and Half-Life. But to date the the two have not been combined very successfully. Sims Online disappointed and most of the heavily modifiable games are on small scale servers.

So I think we have a few more years yet to wait. In the meantime, I’m sticking with Bloglines.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *