Nov 3, 2011

It’s a Matter of Trust

Should the inmates actually be running the asylum? #SecondLife #OpenSim


When we think about virtual environments, often we’re in a perspective of one dimensionality; We can relate to a particular virtual environment that we’ve been involved with for a length of time but we find it much harder to expand that personal experience to reach into multitudes of other virtual environments or even the possibility that they are merely components of a larger system which we can describe as a complete Metaverse construct.








Take, for instance, Second Life. It is the product of a company that we know as Linden Lab in California, United States, but in and of itself it is a walled garden virtual environment with no real incentive to be part of something larger unless that something larger has itself as the central authority and gateway to the whole. This is not altogether uncommon in the virtual environment industry, and as we look to other systems that are similar, there is little (if any) interoperability among the many which exist today.


We can, of course, look at systems such as BlueMars, ActiveWorlds, VIE, and countless others (Kaneva, web.alive, Jibe, OpenSim) but the underlying concern is that despite the advancements being made individually, they are all essentially symptoms of technology lock-in.


In relation to Second Life and subsequently the OpenSim based Hypergrid, we see what is essentially a minor evolution in open thinking. OpenSim being the natural progression of Second Life into a larger and more decentralized grid of interconnected virtual environment spaces which do not necessarily reside under the authority of a single company or entity, yet connect together much like we see the structure of the World Wide Web.


Much of what I contemplate when dealing with Object Interoperability for IEEE Virtual World Standard Group is to really break all of this down into the base components and take a hard look at what we know should be happening (an end-goal) versus what we actually have today. Whether or not I’m a user of Second Life, ActiveWorlds, Kaneva, BlueMars, OpenSim, or any number of other virtual environments is inconsequential to me in much the same manner as whether or not I use any particular flavor of operating system or even what particular websites I frequent online using a web browser (Firefox, Chrome, etc).


I do happen to lean more toward SecondLife as my chosen flavor of virtual environment, not because I believe it is somehow the best choice, but merely because I believe it represents a fundamental and underlying truth to what an open and interconnected Metaverse should look like. This is, of course, despite the very glaring shortfalls of the company responsible for maintaining and progressing the software responsible for SecondLife, in that while the company (Linden Lab) is acting in a manner by which is self-interested and a walled garden, the underlying technology itself is agnostic and has much potential if applied correctly. I see a lot of this progression happening more on the side of OpenSim based systems, and while I am still not convinced that OpenSim has a stake in the overall future of interoperable Metaverse standards, I do give those dedicated developers quite a lot of credit for at least trying.


That is not to say that I have somehow written off OpenSim or the efforts that are being made in that community. One must realize that I’m looking at this ecosystem as a whole and not for the individual components which may or may not comprise it. Which brings me to a bit of a history lesson concerning virtual environments, and rules by which I base my overall understanding for interoperability on; The Lessons Learned From LucasFilm’s Habitat.




Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer

Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer: Creators of the first Graphical MMO – Habitat



I know I quote this document more than a preacher in a pulpit on Sunday, but I have every reason to do so. Essentially, for a document that was written and published between 1989 and 1991 by two men who more or less invented the massively multiuser graphical online environment, it outlines many of the fundamental things which we should have been focused on in the development of virtual environments but somehow seem to have been openly ignored. For instance, in relation to the punk-ass kids in virtual worlds (such as Linden Lab) today who seem to have no respect for the grandfathers of the technology or the wisdom they passed down, we can apply the following lesson:


The implementation platform is relatively unimportant.


The presentation level and the conceptual level cannot (and should not) be totally isolated from each other. However, defining a virtual environment in terms of the configuration and behavior of objects, rather than their presentation, enables us to span a vast range of computational and display capabilities among the participants in a system. This range extends both upward and downward. As an extreme example, a typical scenic object, such as a tree, can be represented by a handful of parameter values. At the lowest conceivable end of things might be an ancient Altair 8800 with a 300 baud ASCII dumb terminal, where the interface is reduced to fragments of text and the user sees the humble string so familiar to the players of text adventure games, "There is a tree here." At the high end, you might have a powerful processor that generates the image of the tree by growing a fractal model and rendering it three dimensions at high resolution, the finest details ray-traced in real time, complete with branches waving in the breeze and the sound of wind in the leaves coming through your headphones in high-fidelity digital stereo. And these two users might be looking at the same tree in same the place in the same world and talking to each other as they do so. Both of these scenarios are implausible at the moment, the first because nobody would suffer with such a crude interface when better ones are so readily available, the second because the computational hardware does not yet exist.


The point, however, is that this approach covers the ground between systems already obsolete and ones that are as yet gleams in their designers' eyes. Two consequences of this are significant. The first is that we can build effective cyberspace systems today. Habitat exists as ample proof of this principle. The second is that it is conceivable that with a modicum of cleverness and foresight you could start building a system with today's technology that could evolve smoothly as the tomorrow's technology develops. The availability of pathways for growth is important in the real world, especially if cyberspace is to become a significant communications medium (as we obviously think it should).


Given that we see cyberspace as fundamentally a communications medium rather than simply a user interface model, and given the style of object-oriented approach that we advocate, another point becomes clear:


 Taken directly from the document, we see that the mode of implementation seems to have turned out quite different than what was rightly proposed. We see in this walled garden ecosystem that there is much more effort put into the platform (but strangely not in actually finishing any particular feature or part of the platform: Windlight, Mesh, Marketplace…) than the content agnostics. Taken together, by any measure, this should be regarded as a fallacy up front. Indeed it has become somewhat of a misstep in that we’re faced today with content that is locked away in proprietary methods, servers, and ultimately out of reach to all but the most determined content creators who jump through countless hoops to export and re-import their content from one environment to another manually. With the introduction of mesh based content into SecondLife, one would believe that a step has been taken to alleviate this issue, but if anything it has only exasperated the issue further by offloading the content creation outside of the walled garden and still leaving the onus of responsibility upon the content creator to systematically import that content from system to system manually. Of course, this lesson also applies to interoperability in a manner by which the actual assets and media are dynamic and standardized as well, allowing greater flexibility on the end-user for a myriad of access types.


The platform should be inconsequential, while the focus on content and facilitating the propagation of that content in a controllable manner automatically, should be the focus.


zaphodWhen I was a guest on CrossWorlds with Mal Burns (shown on left) recently I made it a point to hammer this point home, even if it was subconsciously on my part. Like anything regarding interoperability, we’re faced with a cascading domino effect whenever we try to look at any particular aspect or make changes to it. It isn’t as simple as changing a single thing and having the whole ecosystem work out,  but instead we look at how those small changes affect the rest of the system down the line. When we shed this light on Linden Lab, we see how the seemingly inconsequential side projects and diversion of attention to vaguely related things has shown time and again that even the smallest infraction of these rules can result in a snowball effect later on with all of the related systems – sociologically and technologically.


For instance, in order to enact a universal and decentralized asset system for a greater Metaverse, we must also look further down the line of influence and ask what else must be taken into consideration for that to happen. In regards to this, we can see we need the equivalent of a trusted identity standard as well as a certificate of authenticity for the servers themselves in order to facilitate the asset server and exchange even across SecondLife and OpenSim based systems.


This isn’t too far fetched, however, because there already exists the underlying basis for this even if it isn’t entirely being utilized. Whether this trusted identity comes from an internal methodology or whether the virtual environments which are increasingly connecting to your social media will offer the solution is up for debate. I can see the trusted identity aspect going in either direction, or even a combination of the two as simple as logging into SecondLife with the ease of a Facebook Connect, Google Account, Twitter OAuth or other method already in widespread use. My bet at this time is placed squarely on OpenSim in being the likely candidate for implementing this before Linden Lab, and thus pushing the overall Metaverse closer to reality.


If we were to look at the SecondLife Premium Memberships, the question immediately becomes what such a service offers in added value to the customer that isn’t already available to the overall community without that level of premium access. To this point, Linden Lab is still seemingly scratching their heads with the addition of Linden Homes, Premium Gifts (furniture, etc) and even adding customer service into the mix as an incentive. None of these things are a proper match for why anyone should pay for a premium membership, and it is no surprise that none of these things has really increased the uptake of premium membership purchases.




Making Premium Better

Sandboxes, homes, furniture, and customer service aren’t added value. 



After all, we’re focusing on the platform but not the reality of the content agnostics. Without a premium membership there is a fairly healthy land rental ecosystem by which anyone can merely rent land and set up their own house which they can readily purchase on the marketplace. Premium gifts aren’t much of an incentive either if countless items which are similar are also available to non-premium members for purchase and use. The question becomes, then, what exactly are the real added value things which a premium membership actually offers that are not available without it?


We can evaluate this from a truly agnostic viewpoint and consider that the ability to actually purchase land as opposed to renting it is a viable added value for having a premium membership, as well as the ability to increase your L$ purchase and selling limits. This is a beginning to understanding what a premium membership is actually good for, while premium gifts, Linden Homes, and other inconsequential things should be discarded (at least metaphorically).


While it does play into the mentality of new users who wouldn’t otherwise know where to look for those same things, I must stress that this isn’t necessarily a good thing, mainly because it is essentially preying on a new user’s inability to know there are alternatives, not to mention deliberately undermining the existing systems and community which are already in place (ie: Committing the cardinal sin by going out of their way to violate the most important rule of virtual worlds: Work Within The System). To me, this seems like a very shaky revenue stream (P.T. Barnum mentality) to pursue in that it relies entirely on the ignorance of new users to sustain. This in and of itself explains a lot of the business focus of Linden Lab in looking for avenues by which they can increase total concurrent users through outside means – maybe internal projects which somehow utilize the Skylight in-browser viewer in a Facebook page.





Why exactly does anyone actually need a Linden Home? It undermines the existing community.



Now that we’ve identified the base added value for Premium Memberships, we can also assume that customer service itself should never be a premium service. A customer is a customer whether they are paying you outright for a premium membership or whether they are readily subsidizing a revenue stream through the in-world marketplace and transactions. After all, a system such as SecondLife is literally built on the premise of user generated content and in-world currency transactions, and the marketplace itself should be earning a healthy revenue stream through transaction fees to Linden Lab for the countless transactions which occur daily.


When we sort these things out concerning Premium Memberships, one pile which says Added Value and the other essentially being a Discard Pile, we’re left with the truest form of a premium membership and the associations which actually have added value and incentive by which a person should want to pay for it. What we’re also left with is an uncluttered view of what a Premium Membership should be offering as further added value without delving into gimmicks and shady practices.


A Premium Membership in SecondLife/OpenSim offers what should be recognized as a fundamental interoperability component.


When you sign up for a premium membership, you are divulging personally identifiable information for that account in order to allow both accountability and secure payment. This, in and of itself, is the holy grail for interoperability if it were ever utilized effectively. The idea of a premium membership which is tied to a trusted authority of identification, trusted enough to allow higher purchasing limits and the purchase of actual server space and regions, should also be considered the added value of a Trusted Identity in terms of assets and an avatar passport in the virtual world.


Going back to the content aspect, trusted authorities, and the ability to have access to agnostic digital content which you are legally able to access, we can see that a trusted identity is a major added value for a Premium Membership in SecondLife in that if you have that trusted identity, you should pair that with trusted certificates on the server side of operations in order to allow trusted simulators to participate in the greater Metaverse in conjunction with Direct Delivery built into the viewer.


In the same manner, paying for a Premium Membership, and being granted the level of Trusted Identity (an Avatar Passport), you should then be able to use the same login credentials across all trusted simulators and grids, and subsequently have access to all inventory content you have purchased automatically on any of those trusted simulators. In the end, it’s a matter of adding the trusted identity and trusted grid authentication into the mix which immediately solves a greater interoperability dilemma while also solving a big question for Linden Lab (and even OpenSim grids) as to what truly is added value as an incentive for offering Premium Memberships.


This approach doesn’t undermine existing OpenSim efforts for similar practices, either, and if anything should strengthen it. For instance, if we were to look at SpotOn3D and their Double Dutch Delivery system, would it not make more sense for them to instead be on board with a trusted identity and trusted grid interoperability, participating in the overall structure by becoming a trusted grid with their own certificate, and then switching their focus over to offering their own Premium Memberships which then allow their own users to have Trusted Identities which are available everywhere? The difference between this and what they are currently trying to establish is that with trusted certificates for grids, there isn’t a biased commercial entity controlling them for their own singular benefit.


Where one proprietary solution is closed off, another revenue stream opens up with much wider appeal and benefit. The idea of a trusted identity and trusted grid certificate isn’t necessarily centralized in the hands of Linden Lab to control, in that it would apply to asset servers and other grids as well in practice. For instance, a trusted identity from SpotOn3D (somebody paying for premium membership in SpotOn3D) would be able to link their account to other grids under the trusted authority; In this instance let us say InWorldz, SpotOn3D, ReactionGrid, Avination, etc all would have a certificate of trust for their grids, and my single premium membership would act as my passport across the interoperable Metaverse. I should only be paying one instance for a Premium Membership, which then becomes agnostic across the entire Hypergrid and even SecondLife.


Let’s say I am paying Linden Lab for a Premium Membership, which then grants me a Trusted Identity in the greater Metaverse. I go to log into SpotOn3D, InWorldz, Avination, or ReactionGrid and find that my Trusted Identity which I am paying Premium Membership for in SecondLife is now an acceptable set of login credentials for the entire Hypergrid.


Any number of trusted certificate grids would query the other trusted Grids to check my “Passport” for verification – a one time authentication, by which that information is then associated to me on that particular grid for immediate use going forward. After that authentication, my inventory then becomes agnostic across the entire trusted Hypergrid as a result, with purchases from places like Marketplace delivering to my inventory across the trusted hypergrid as well. This is much more preferable than to have a dozen competing marketplace systems, proprietary methodologies that only work within the confines of proprietary systems, and a slew of walled gardens competing against each other.


It is better to facilitate the ability to offer platform agnostic content which propagates across countless virtual environment spaces than to delude yourself into thinking it is both profitable and sustainable to remain a walled garden indefinitely.


This brings me to yet another point in the discussion for interoperability, as well as a fine example of the previously mentioned domino effect of changing one aspect and how it cascades into greater or lesser things down the line.


Work Within The System


Wherever possible, things that can be done within the framework of the experiential level should be. The result will be smoother operation and greater harmony among the user community. This admonition applies to both the technical and the sociological aspects of the system.


 The existing system which is defined by SecondLife actually constitutes a wealth of revenue streams if only the rule above were to be acknowledged and respected. As it stands today, Linden Lab seems to be doing quite a lot to buck the hard learned lesson and run in the opposite direction.


Of course, I am talking about the potential for focusing on Marketplace and the user-generated content and in-world transactions. This is what open ended virtual environments such as SecondLife were built for, yet time and again I see these walled garden mentalities sabotaging a perfectly good source of wildly successful revenue models.


Let’s look back at the prior lesson for a moment, with the inclusion of the Trusted Identity tied to Premium Membership, trusted grid certificates, and a universal inventory access.


The obvious incentive to move forward with this course of action is the interoperability foundation aspect, however, from a purely commercial standpoint there exists countless revenue generation potential for doing so as well. Within the framework of the experiential level we see a wholly unfulfilled need for branded content within the virtual environment, despite the foundation for such to exist quite profitably for all involved. There is a disturbing lack of real world brand crossover into the virtual environment spectrum which has persisted since as far back as I can remember, and this isn’t a focus of merely SecondLife, but most walled gardens in the open content creation sandbox environments over the course of the entire industry.


On one hand, we have a perfectly capable content delivery platform in Marketplace as well as in-world, yet it is boggling to see that even today there are no real-world brands working within that system, nor is there any real protocol enabled from the company end (Linden Lab) in order to focus on and facilitate such to happen. Would it not make perfect sense to enable your own content delivery platform to allow an easy and legitimate channel for real world brands to participate under the guise of marketing in a verified manner?




[hoorenbeek] Pegasus

How can Linden Lab marketing look at this picture and not see a million dollar revenue stream?



There is a wealth of opportunity here being squandered, and it is very disconcerting to see this continue the way it has since the mid-1990s. I’m sure there have been real world brands participating in virtual environments in one way or another, but the focus is officially supporting this channel within the system itself instead of putting the onus of responsibility on outside companies as middle-men to make those connections independently. The other point to be made here involves working within the system itself in that there is still a lack of meaningful acknowledgement or inclusion for the prosumers which open ended content creation environments have given rise to.


Instead, what we see are countless “third party” knock-off and counterfeit brand look-a-likes available in these virtual environments. This alone tells me that there is a fundamental need by the community to have these brands available, and that few if any are being met. If anything, this demand is being met with hostility and possible legal action which in and of itself is a sure sign of a broken approach to handling what could be a very profitable revenue stream for all.


In terms of trusted identities, trusted grid certificates and universal inventories, when we add to that the idea that there now becomes a widespread appeal for real world brands to participate appropriately within the work within the system rule (Marketplace), we see content agnostic approaches which can not only proliferate known brands within the confines of SecondLife but also across the greater Metaverse as a whole.


These few fundamental changes quickly show how both a level of interoperability can be achieved, while exploding the opportunity for revenue generation across the board. The idea of trusted identity, grid certificates, universal inventory, and branded merchandise channels on Marketplace have collectively solved a lion’s share of current issues, at least in theory, showing how it can be wildly beneficial to focus on them versus the current situation of segmentation and walled gardens whereby we see nothing but frustration and countless tedious hours of manual export and import of content which in turn stifles and suppresses what an interoperable Metaverse construct could offer.


Trying to convince content creators to adopt a new OpenSim platform and set up shop there is tedious, time consuming, and costly. Offering proprietary delivery systems which only a handful of grids can benefit from doesn’t do much in the way of solving the root of the problem, either. Instead we’re only masking the underlying problem and benefiting only a few who control those proprietary delivery channels.


There is a definite need for interoperability and sociological understanding of the platforms when it comes to virtual environments. Sadly, after more than twenty years since the first graphical MMO (Habitat) and even despite blatant documentation of the lessons learned from that system to pass on to future generations, neither mainstream interoperability nor sociological understanding of the Metaverse exist. Only a handful of professionals seem to actually “get it”, and clearly those aren’t the people in charge.


Make SecondLife into a Facebook game, stripped down and only vaguely resembling the actual experience. Build it for attention deficit mentality and to make a quick buck off of people who don’t know any better. Ignore the long term components or blatantly obvious revenue streams to chase whatever buzzword is on the Internet at this moment. It’s not that hard to really sum up what they’re doing over at Linden Lab, and it’s very obvious they still don’t get it. I don’t even think they want to get it, either.  


Admit it… you expected a company which is amassing high profile gaming names and marketing to have some flipping idea what they’re working with. Don’t feel bad, I’ve perpetually had that feeling since 1994.


For what it’s worth, you’re not alone.









1 comment:

  1. I just watched the CrossWorlds episode you mentioned last night. Ironic that I should now read your detailed post today. I especially like the reference you make between low end and high end interoperability. Good stuff.