A Glimpse Of The Metaverse
As the room around me loaded into view, the rickety wooden stairs moaned under the weight of my descent. With each careful step, the musty air of the basement greeted me among the phosphorescent glow of retro nostalgia against the far wall. Unfinished structure enclosed the space, revealing the studs at a regular interval as if I had wandered into the skeleton of years gone by.
Aside from a few worn couches to my right, there was the obligatory shelf containing a plethora of Atari games accompanied by an old CRT television by which was connected to the artificial wood grain and black plastic containment of pixelated wizardry which defined my childhood.
This was no ordinary basement in Second Life, but rather it was the Basement from the book Ready Player One, lovingly recreated by the VSTE staff for their book club discussions.
Over the summer, they and a handful of students have been reading the novel which is currently in production for a feature length film by none other than Stephen Spielberg.
Pulling out my virtual reality copy of the book, I held it in my hand.
It was a personal creation of mine, a Universal Book Prop that I thought was relevant for the occasion – borne of my attention to detail in the existence of both the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Complete Sherlock Holmes I had conjured through digital spellcasting, otherwise known as the toolbox.
But it was the arcade replicas against the back wall which I felt most proud of for this Basement – Joust, Tempest, and a Pac-Man machine specifically created to have that iconic 1981 US Quarter on the marquee. In this moment, I felt like Halliday, the creator of OASIS and the very same mindset permeated throughout me as I surveyed the room.
On August 8th, 2016, I had been invited to attend the final discussion for VSTE for the book club, of which Ready Player One had been chosen, and it was here in this recreation of The Basement that we gathered together. Some wearing outfits inspired by the characters, while others appeared in casual clothes.
I was wearing my favorite long coat jacket, a type of Civil War era style (I would imagine) and a simple pair of blue jeans with white sneakers. Of course, I had on my obligatory glasses, which in a virtual world seems like a hipster accessory at best, but I’ve always strived to represent myself in avatar form as closely as possible to my real self.
As I greeted everyone in the room, I quietly took a seat at the end of the garishly colored sofa, admiring the decorations in the room and attention to minute details – just as Halliday would have wanted it.
And so it began, my foray into the realm of educational inspiration in a virtual world, partaking in an immersive experience straight out of a book that all in the room were familiar with. Participants from around the world, all gathered in this virtual world experience.
For a moment, my mind drifted to the OASIS system as I found parallels to Second Life as a sort of pre-cursor. Would something like the OASIS be the revolution we’re waiting for when it comes to a full scale Metaverse?
In a way, I believe that to be true. However it comes with a few caveats.
Into the OASIS
While not the highest fidelity attainable, the open sandbox type virtual world model in and of itself happens to be the best choice for underlying mechanic when it comes to the Metaverse. However, that is where things get more muddled in comparison.
See, in a construct such as OASIS in Ready Player One, it is explained that making a character is free, but any sort of substantial fast-travel is going to cost you. In effect, a tax on teleportation. There is (of course) the marketplace type system whereby the user generated content, plus system level artifacts (created by Gregarious Systems) and resources could be bought, sold and traded.
Sure you can teleport at will, but because it was tied to a scarce resource model (credits or energy) you would notice that other means of hierarchy arose. A long while back, I had proposed a similar type of system as a checklist of what a Metaverse would likely encompass, and while the OASIS in the fictional sense of Ready Player One comes very close, it isn’t spot on.
For instance, you would likely have to have a resource mining system in order to facilitate the raw materials needed to create items. This in and of itself helps regulate the prices and availability of items which we can sell, trade, etc. Especially if those items will degrade in some manner during usage or over time.
As it stands in Second Life, items simply do not degrade or effectively break. So when you buy something off of marketplace, that item is pretty much infinite and lasts forever (or until you trash it).
There is also the underlying idea that virtual worlds should be on spherical planets, with a full “outer space” to explore. Somewhere in the digital universe are other planets, or if you’ve made one (instead of exploring) it would be nestled at a coordinate somewhere in space.
This follows the OASIS line of thought. If you build a space faring vehicle, you should be able to launch into outer space and explore other planets.
In the same manner, you should be able to mine for resources to facilitate the creation of items using an in-world toolbox (user generated content and environment). There should also be a centralized Marketplace for the purchase and sale of those creations.
By way of comparison, Second Life isn’t really a Metaverse system. In my original definition, it would look a lot more like OASIS from the book Ready Player One, with the caveat that the planets themselves wouldn’t be a central company (OASIS) importing pre-existing virtual worlds under a single umbrella (World of Warcraft, etc) but instead, a company like OASIS would create the underlying toolkit, SDK and APIs to hook into OASIS and allow those third party systems to participate in a decentralized manner.
So maybe Blizzard Entertainment would merely add the APIs and such to the existing World of Warcraft, allowing it to exist in OASIS as a planet, but still housed primarily on Blizzard’s servers for their world.
As a result, we would see something like a combination of OSGrid, HighFidelity, and OASIS put together. Recently, I came across a video which highlighted these basic premises together under a single engine – While it is still in early technical alpha phase, I found it quite intriguing.
If I were to build a Metaverse system from the ground up, my first inclination would be to begin with Dual Universe as the underlying engine. In turn, Dual Universe uses CSSC (Continuous Single-Shard Cluster) technology that they have developed themselves, but is along the same lines as how Improbable works in order to facilitate the massive multi-user scalability which enables them to do a full universe like this on a single shard.
CONTINUOUS SINGLE-SHARD CLUSTER
To handle potentially millions of players simultaneously in the same universe at the same time, NovaQuark have developed their own technology, that they call a Continuous Single-shard Cluster. The challenge is to handle situations when thousands of players will gather in tight spaces, like in a city, or a space battle and to do this without interrupting the gameplay. This involves what they call "Dynamic Space Splitting", server nodes are assigned to regions that are more densely populated, and these change the frequency of updates of remote entities to maintain a fluid experience for nearby entities.
Upon reading their definition of CSSC, I’m quite excited because they are essentially putting into practice the very idea that I said would be able to break the concurrency limit for a single shard full universe. When I originally suggested it in the research paper, and later to Linden Lab (who effectively patted me on the head and ignored it), the idea was simply this:
If you have many servers running and each server handles a region – why not take the compute power of the entire datacenter and intelligently increase or decrease the processing where it is needed?
In effect, all the areas that see low traffic would have tons of compute cycles going to waste, while the high traffic areas are crumbling under the weight of crowds. Why not just assign the extra workload to the unused computer power in the entirety of the datacenter throwing effectively a distributed supercomputer at the areas that required it, taking from the areas that didn’t?
As Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Dionisio and I had written in 3D Virtual Worlds and the Metaverse: Current Status and Future Possibilities in 2013:
“From the surveyed work, an overall architectural strategy based on DSG (with a high-performance “world state” system like Red Dwarf at its core), peer-to-peer openness as seen in Open Cobalt and Solipsis for broad distribution of load (not an exclusively technological challenge), and reduction/optimization techniques like action-based protocols appears to hold the most promise for massive scaling of an integrated virtual world system.”
ACM Computing Surveys, Vol. 45, No. 3, Article 34, Page 31
In the same train of thought, I also suggested that everyone’s cache be part of a redundant, distributed peer-to-peer file storage cluster (much like how Ownerless File Format works). Then you add in the peer-to-peer architecture of something like Solipsis in how your avatar updates in relation to others (cascading information) and you have a very powerful system capable of millions of concurrent users in real time for a persistent contiguous virtual universe. While there is still the underlying centralized computer clusters from the main company (like Linden Lab) a lot of the power ends up being offloaded in high-concurrency areas through the Solipsis methodologies.
In contrast, Second Life technology, whether it is represented by Linden Lab or a derivative of OSGrid (OpenSim) uses many shards with a fraction of the concurrency per region. It’s not very efficient as a baseline architecture, but it’s good for what it is considering how long ago it was created.
Something that bothers me, though, is how the instances of published spaces are still the normality in new projects (like SANSAR). I wouldn’t expect SANSAR or even hifidelity.io to have a full universe contiguous and single shard like Dual Universe does.
So I would be borrowing the mentality of decentralized planets, each maybe owned by a different person or entity and running independently, but all hooked into an OASIS style universe represented accordingly.
Of course, the planets are spherical and able to have user-generated content on them, as well as editing the terrain and so forth. This takes care of the age old question: Where will I sail my boat? With this underlying setup, there is no such thing as “region crossing” because it is all entirely contiguous and fluid transition – whether you are moving around a planet or leaving the atmosphere into space.
If anything, by structuring a Metaverse like this, we not only allow but create a need for these standard methods of travel. By introducing the resource scarcity and need into the simulation, we organically watch civilizations grow out of necessity. The towns, cities, highways, space ports, airports, and so on. Trade routes arise organically as a result.
The thing here is – Dual Universe likely isn’t going to take these latter routes for a Metaverse, but stay a walled garden only.
Nonetheless, the potential is already there if it ever wanted to be something bigger like the OASIS system.
The Paradox of Movement
Another unanswered question concerning the recreation of the OASIS would simply be “How do we allow people to move freely in this virtual universe?”
This is a major question to ask, because as of yet we haven’t really answered it. With Oculus Rift, HTC VIVE and other head mounted displays for virtual reality, the best practices manuals all directly state that allowing free movement of the avatar/character should be avoided or else you’ll cause motion sickness (cybersickness).
The solution, as of this moment, isn’t really a solution so much as nerfing the virtual world altogether.
Teleport Movement mechanic is the chosen strategy… and I’d like to say that while it does work, I think we can do much better than that. For most of these games and experiences, we’ve taken a highly complex simulation of a 3D world in lush detail and nuance, and then turned it into a point and click adventure.
There is only A + B point to point, but nothing in between. With systems like Dual Universe (and Second Life) you need to be able to move around freely and not via point to point teleport. You need to be able to simply walk from one location to another without getting sick.
Sadly, the HMD alone can never solve this (no matter what Oculus or HTC tell you). Because at the end of the day, the visual systems might be fixed to reduce or eliminate sickness, but movement hasn’t been fixed. The problem is now down to the visuals telling your brain that you are running or moving, while your inner ear tells your brain that’s a lie.
Scenes in Ready Player One where Wade is sitting in the van with the headset on wouldn’t likely be possible for using OASIS because he’d get very sick from doing so.
More plausible is when he is later attached to the full haptics rig for OASIS, in which case I’d absolutely agree it was possible. At the very least you need a good omnidirectional treadmill to let your physical body know when you are actually moving around.
But I digress (as usual). The point is: The Metaverse is arising out of unrelated parts and projects, and it is now possible to actually build it properly.
Until then, I guess we’ll just have to use out imagination, read a book, and watch the movie next year when it’s released.