Dec 1, 2018

The Future of Engagement

Why I Don’t Believe In Virtual Worlds…

Virtual Worlds Header

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

Back in the mid 1990s, there was this new thing called virtual reality that was taking the world by storm. The term itself became so saturated and misappropriated that it no longer held any real meaning. By the end of the 1990s, it had jumped the shark.

It was specifically because virtual reality had no proper definition of what is and is not, that marketing and companies latched onto it like a bunch of hungry vultures looking to peddle whatever it was that they were making. During this time we saw the lowest common denominator spring up under the guise of legitiate offerings – Nintendo Virtual Boy, VZone, PowerGlove and more.


In the early 1990s, there was of course things like Worlds Inc, which was a virtual world where you had to pre-design the spaces and download them up front before you could enter. Their claim to fame at the time was that Aerosmith themselves had a world there that you could explore. The interactivity of it all was sparse at best and Worlds Inc soon faded out in favor of it’s in-house successor ActiveWorlds in which the end-users could create the environment in real time. This in and of itself was a major breakthrough in the days of dial-up connections.


What is most interesting about the Worlds Inc model was that rooms, or spaces were compartmentalized and each had to be downloaded in entirety up front before entering. It was a failed model at the time, and later on others tried to adopt the same model with similar results. There was no sense of continuity with these spaces nor contiguous spatial presence. Each space existed on its own.

The irony of that tidbit of knowledge is that Alpha Tech, or AlphaWorld as it was known early on, actually was an in-house system competing against the “Gamma” Tech of Worlds Inc that they already used.

Worlds Inc didn’t see the merit of the AlphaWorld model and so discarded it in favor of their existing Gamma tech model.

The artists and designers at Worlds Inc raised the capital themselves to buy the rights to AlphaWorld and soon launched their own system independently and became ActiveWorlds.


The interesting thing about ActiveWorlds was that it immediately ditched the self-contained room model and download up front aspect for spaces, instead implementing dynamic asset downloads in a sprawling world. The main world, AlphaWorld, was a public building space where anyone could claim land and build. More importantly, this land mass was roughly the contiguous size of the state of California.

There were no border crossings like in Second Life – so you really could drive a vehicle for hundreds of miles uninterrupted. While I can hear the numerous outcries of RP enthusiasts from Second Life waiting to respond with “Umm, Actually…” – I’ll point out that while you can drive vehicles in Second Life the experience is lackluster by comparison to literally everything.

Yes, you can race a car on a track with others, but the audience to watch the race is limited and most tracks during actual races pretty much require you to remove everything including your shoes just to sit and watch.You can fly a plane in Second Life but you and I both know full well that every 1024 meters you fly you’re going to hit that sim border crossing, and it’s not very smooth. We both know full well that you can sail a boat around some waters in Second Life but the experience isn’t actually that good.

That’s the self delusion kicking in. Telling yourself the experience is top notch when it isn’t even close. As a matter of fact, to the mainstream world that experience is completely unacceptable. I’ve had responses to that implying that I somehow don’t know about all these options and shouldn’t making comments on them…


And yet, there I am in my own UNO Mark II super-car in Second Life. Let me tell you about that experience:

The car itself is fantastic and a feat of virtual engineering. It has dials and guages, color options, tons of tuning options, etc. This car can tear up a track in no time flat. It has fifteen gears, and under the best circumstances my friends and I have only ever managed to get it up to tenth gear before the car is moving too quickly for the sim to keep up.

Needly to say, we’ve launched this car over embankments into the water, over the railings, and managed to cross a finish line at high speed launched upside down.

I love this car to death… but I’d enjoy driving it more in Forza Motorsport.

Assuming it’s real life counterpart, the Mono were available as an option:


Which it actually is:


And when you’re comparing you flight/sailing/driving experience from Second Life to anything mainstream, you’re flatly outclassed at literally every conceivable turn. The assertion that the experience in Second Life for those things is somehow on par with anything at all is downright laughable.

You among your fellow RP’ers will agree that it’s a great experience, but that sentiment doesn’t hold up to outside facts.

In ActiveWorlds however… we could very well drive on a track uninterrupted and quickly, we could have 50 or so spectators without incident. Nobody was ever asked to take off their shoes. Of course, our vehicles never reached a level of fidelity like the UNO/Mono.

Of course, I digress… so let’s get back on topic.

During those years, ActiveWorlds saw a rise in popularity but never did become mainstream. Though it is to note that they were the predescessor of something you may know today – Second Life.

It was during those mid to late 1990s that another key figure from left field happened to notice this virtual world trend and who worked in another quintessentially 90s company – Real (who did early streaming video via realPlayer etc).

When he departed from Real, he went on to form Linden Lab and start his own virtual world system which borrowed heavily from ActriveWorlds in the process while innovating in some areas to modernize the approach. It is because I saw these similarities in approach that I chose Second Life to migrate to from ActiveWorlds in 2007.

The interesting thing to understand here is that while you know this person as Philip Rosedale, what you likely didn’t know was that when asked why he didn’t make Second Life sooner, he was quoted as saying that the technology wasn’t possible at the time.

But this is a fabrication at best, as ActiveWorlds existed from 1994 onward and shares many of the key structural elements with the successor of Second Life – even if the predescessor is a much less refined example, it still doesn’t negate that it served a similar premise and shared many key architectural developments in how a virtual world was deployed and for what purpose to the end user. The key interaction paradigm itself was what Rosedale took away from the 90s through prior example.

That last part isn’t what bothers me, but instead it’s the deliberate and selective amnesia about that inspiration and process which grates on my nerves. It isn’t something that is unique to him, but across an entire industry as a whole. We continue to conveniently forget that our “new” ideas are actually unoriginal at best and have been done before. So long as it serves our own narrative and product, we’re willing to have selective amnesia.

That is something that bothers me enough to where I believe there is a certain level of futility when making honest assessments for the current and future of virtual worlds as a whole (including augmented reality). It does no good to forecast to a group of people whose best interest lays in deliberately not acknowledging contradictory information to their own offerings.

The bigger problem is that, much like the 1990s, the entire industry has their head in the sand and any form of constructive criticism or forecast that contradicts their marketing narrative is ignored. There’s simply too much riding on those systems and products to admit anything contrary to that self-agrandization.

During the mid to late 1990s, we also saw a myriad of companies proclaiming that the future of virtual reality was in fact online web worlds. To this end we ended up with plugins for web browsers to play WRL and VRML content, and more specialized systems like Blaxxun Contact to manage multi-user social aspects in those worlds.

Blaxxun Cybertown

Somewhere in all of that, Virtual Reality hit mainstream for awhile and we saw movies and expensive VR Arcades popping up with headsets and $5.00 to play Wolfenstein 3D for five minutes…


What is most important to note in this editorial is not the history itself but that today you can quite easily see the modern day versions of all of this replaying out like a bad franchise reboot.

Second Life? It’s an iteration of ActiveWorlds.

SANSAR? Iteration of BlueMars, which is an iteration of the Worlds Inc model.

VR Headsets? VFX1

VR Arcades? Been there and done that twenty years ago.

OpenSim? Iteration of the countless third party ActiveWorlds systems that sprung up independently.

Web Worlds? They didn’t take off in the 1990s, so why on Earth would anyone think they would take off today?

We have reboot-itis in the industry. Take an old idea, add some more polish to it, and hope the average consumer doesn’t know we’re repackaging the old stuff to sell again.

There has been, and continues to be, a lack or real innovation in the industry – at least where that innovation counts in the bigger picture.

It’s no wonder the mainstream audience doesn’t take to these current offerings and in fact openly mock them.

They aren’t as willing to have selective amnesia as the companies that are trying to sell the products are.


Just as we patterned our original conceptions of The Metaverse on Cyberpunk novels of the 80s, so too the narrative must evolve. When I was part of (and technically still am) IEEE Virtual Worlds Standard group, and prior to that asked to submit a definition of The Metaverse that fit modern times to the Solipsis Decentralized Metaverse project, I thought long and hard about the future of virtual worlds as well as the history that helped us define virtual worlds up until that point.

I extrapolated that information among many cyberpunk descriptions and distilled it into a common thread for an all inclusive criteria for what The Metaverse would look like, how the architecture would support it, the experience overall.

What I ended up coming to as an answer was well ahead of its time, and for many years thought to be impossible. Even today, many in the industry still insist it’s not possible or that their particular methodologies are really the future.

What Is The Metaverse

I was asked to define this in 2007, and above you can see my answer. It was just the synopsis of the full answer, which was given in the ACM Paper a few years later, and then reiterated in IEEE Virtual Worlds Standard group, and now the running definition worldwide.

The Metaverse is a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space,[1] including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The word metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix "meta" (meaning "beyond") and "universe" and is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

I want to note that the definition above was written by me verbatim and stands as the most comprehensive definition of The Metaverse that exists unless you count the 38 pages of the ACM paper that goes into heavy detail or the expansion of that for IEEE in the P1828 overview.

The entire point of the definition was to outline that Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse consisted of a single large planet that was persistent and traversable. That being said, Neal Stephenson wasn’t the only author to portray cyberpunk and virtual reality space during the time, and so I took into account a much larger Metaverse, a Universe structure, in which The Street was merely a gateway location in the bigger system.

Ergo, why the Solipsis Decentralized Metaverse definition I provided split things up into a hierarchy the way it did.

Whenever I hear anyone proclaim confidently that they are building a true Metaverse or already have one, my first reaction (as should anyone who hears such a claim) is uncontrollable laughter. If you aren’t checking off any of those boxes, sit your delusional ass down.

From the mouth of the guy who wrote the modern hierarchy and definition of Metaverse – allow me to tell you with absolute authority what The Metaverse will look like and act like:

OASIS from Ready Player One.

Full stop. No bullshit. No room for half-assed or sub-par.

If your virtual world system is not on par with a fully scalable virtual universe that is persistent and single shard, if it does not contain a full ecosystem and methods by which to support the building of entire virtual civilizations, if it is simply a rehash of the things that were done in the 1990s, then it’s not The Metaverse.

Not in your wildest dreams.

We live in a time where the current industry is crowing about their 100,000 userbase and how a couple of hundred people showing up is proof that they’ll be the next big thing.

But in contrast – Minecraft puts you all to shame.

They have on average 91 million players. Of that demographic split up, ages 30+ make up 21% which comes out to about 19 million players.

There are nearly a hundred million people that prefer Minecraft over anything this virtual world industry is offering.

Your numbers are at best laughable by comparison. We don’t like to compare those numbers but instead just compare other big fish in the small pond to each other. High Fidelity, SineWave, SANSAR, SecondLife, VRChat, etc.

When I see charts from Wagner James Au asking who is most likely among those to become “The Metaverse”? I have to pin a post-it note to that chart and say “None of them”.

On that post it note reads: Minecraft and Dual Universe make this a moot point.

When I said in OSCC last year that what the virtual world really needs is to add purpose – resources, gathering, etc. Nerf teleports, add scarcity…

Universally I was asked “Who would possibly want that? The market doesn’t want that…”

Except for those 91 million players of Minecraft that enjoy just that and probably Dual Universe where 30,000+ players have paid about 100 bucks just to get an account when they are in pre-alpha.

How many people are knocking down the doors of High Fidelity like that? Nobody. Hows the response to SANSAR lately? Not so good. I’d go down this list but you get my point.

They (High Fidelity) are giving out gift cards to entice people to show up for their stress tests, giving away VR headsets at conferences for PR… effectively they have to bribe people to show up. Now back to that prior situation where tens of thousands of people are paying a hundred dollars to get into a pre-alpha of Dual Universe.

And yet, Mr Rosedale asserts he’s building a true Metaverse?

I don’t think so.

The other issue here is – we’re talking about somebody who told you this before, and spectacularly misjudged what the market wanted, and slammed Second Life into a brick wall.

Lest you forget… Mr Rosedale is heading High Fidelity because he was ousted as CEO of Linden Lab. You’ve heard that song and dance from him before, bought into it, and took the ride into the brick wall with him at the wheel before. His inability to anticipate market wants/needs, deliberate misunderstanding of organic trends and fostering a Metaverse type structure, and his penchant for over-hyping his product is why he’s no longer CEO of Linden Lab.

If it’s all the same to you – I’ll take that assertion of his with a monumental salt lick.

Just as I took it with a massive grain of salt when everyone was jumping on the VR Headset bandwagon again. Linden Lab bet an entire project (SANSAR) on the mass adoption of VR Headsets… while I flatly said it won’t pan out.

That isn’t news now, but in hindsight I might as well have been predicting the Titanic would sink while people were boarding. Again, the people most invested both monetarily and emotionally in their chosen virtual world platform or devices do so at the complete disregard for the reality of the situation.

It’s much the same for why I politely bowed out of the Metaverse Alliance, though I’m sure my name is still up there as an advisor (which I’m happy to be). The reason here is that OpenSim is not the future… no more than Second Life is. Trying to retrofit OpenSim and strap stuff onto it just isn’t helpful in the bigger picture. It serves a niche purpose at best and for that it does well enough, but mainstream it will never be. It is (at best) a stop gap.

The Future of Engagement

Coming up on the 8th of December, I’ll be participating in OSCC as a panelist for The Future of Engagement discussion. I’ve opted not to do my own presentation this year, and if you’ve read this far, you’ll understand why.

When I asserted that the main problem with virtual worlds and adoption is the Bored God Syndrome – illustrated by an episode of Twilight Zone (entitled: A Nice Place to Visit), and asked what Minecraft has that draws 91+ million players that SL, and others do not offer – I was met with the stock answer “Ease of Use”.

This illustrates my point entirely. Ease of use is but a small part of the equation, while the underlying premise and narrative itself – that scarcity model and hero’s call to adventure brings purpose to the otherwise purposeless virtual life.

Minecraft adds overarching meaning and the tools to achieve those ends. It adds scarcity model – and that is far more successful than anything the virtual worlds industry has come up with to date.

Nobody can seriously say that their virtual world system even comes close to those numbers.

Of course, that premise is one of the overarching criteria for The Metaverse. You saw it in OASIS. Which brings us to the other point at hand -

The reason your systems aren’t mainstream and likely will never be is because in order to be mainstream it has to appeal to the mainstream ideal of what the majority of people associate with as The Metaverse.

As of right now, hundreds of millions, if not billions of people on Earth think OASIS is The Metaverse. If you aren’t bringing that to the table, you’re going to get laughed at.

I have to agree with the notion of OASIS as Metaverse model because that’s exactly what I defined it as in 2007. Since 2007, I’ve had people constantly tell me I was wrong, or that The Metaverse is whatever they want it to be… I’ve had people tell me that the definition I came up with wasn’t even possible.

And yet here we are today.

Dual Universe exists. Nearly exact to my definition of The Metaverse. Single shard, persistent, full scale universe.

It’s still in alpha at this point, but even their alpha puts everything else to shame right now. I’m not even worried about Dual Universe as a game being The Metaverse… that’s irrelevant. What is relevant in this discussion is that the underlying structure and execution of that architecture is the basis for a full scale Metaverse on par with OASIS.

Dual Universe is the canary in the coal mine. It’s telling everyone to wake up and pay attention to the future, to real innovation… If for no other reason – it deserves to be in the discussion along side all the other so-called virtual world players, even if it makes everyone else look bad by comparison.


Things like XAYA deserve to be in the discussion, especially if you combine it with Dual Universe. Minecraft also should be thrown into that discussion, because they are doing something right with the emergent behavior aspect we so desperately need (and could implement in Second Life) to a larger degree. It’s also something that Dual Universe took a keen interest in when developing their system.

That doesn’t mean I think Second Life could evolve into that Metaverse, but I will say that they can evolve further to be something similar in the meantime. Linden Lab isn’t entirely out of the running yet – they’re just betting on the wrong horse in this race at the moment.

The only thing that ultimately matters now is this:

Who is going to implement all this and when?

Answer those two questions, and you’ll know who is really ahead of the industry, and who to keep an eye on. You’ll also know who is selling a line of bullshit.

What I said in 2007 was and remains true. When Novaquark bills itself as “The Metaverse Company”, as the person who defined the modern Metaverse, I have to agree with them so far. They’re the only place that checks off the boxes I originally came up with.

Maybe not The Metaverse, but by god that technology will likely be the basis for it in the long run. If your system isn’t following suit, you’re pretty much relegated to a niche audience in the long run.

I don’t believe in virtual worlds, because I believe in The Metaverse. Nothing short of OASIS level virtual Universe. I’ve always held this belief, I’ve written the definition of Metaverse with this overarching structure in mind. Anything less is just a virtual world – however compelling… it’s still just a nice place to visit.

Virtual worlds are the equivalent to the participation trophy. They are constantly rehashing the past with a new coat of paint and trying to sell it like it’s the future. I don’t believe in virtual worlds… and now you know why.

If we all want better, it’s time to stop believing in virtual worlds and start believing in The Metaverse instead. Hold it to the highest criteria, don’t accept anything less.

Peace and Happy Holidays :)