Metaverse – A Brief Overview, Reference, and Memoir

Cyberspace, The Metaverse, The Matrix, Virtual Reality, and various other terms have been coined to describe the overarching concept of inhabiting a virtual space.  The concepts that eventually coalesced to form the archetypical view has it’s source in science fiction – but those works are fundamentally influenced by mythology going back before the first written word, mixed with the evolution of scientific thought on cybernetics that has origins in the 19th century before the advent of computers.

‘Cyberspace’ and ‘Matrix’ are terms that were coined by author William Gibson:

“In Neuromancer, Gibson first used the term “matrix” to refer to the visualised Internet, two years after the nascent Internet was formed in the early 1980s from the computer networks of the 1970s… At the time he wrote “Burning Chrome“, Gibson “had a hunch that [the Internet] would change things, in the same way that the ubiquity of the automobile changed things.” Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his short story “Burning Chrome” (1982) and later popularized the concept in his debut novel, Neuromancer (1984). In envisaging cyberspace, Gibson created an iconography for the information age before the ubiquity of the Internet in the 1990s.[17] He is also credited with predicting the rise of reality television and with establishing the conceptual foundations for the rapid growth of virtual environments such as video games and the World Wide Web.” –

His view of these terms today is that they are essentially unnecessary buzzwords.  The internet, matrix, cyberspace – whatever you want to name ‘it’ has become so ingrained in the daily lives of most people that there is no need to differentiate it from reality.  I tend to agree with Mr. Gibson on that.  When the majority of commerce, communication and communion takes place in the digital hallways of websites and 3D worlds, there is little need to reflect on it any differently than other places we live our lives – work, home, school, or road in the ‘real’ world.  Reality for us is an amalgam of these places – electronic and physical that impress upon our senses.  But what of our avatar that bares witness?

The term Avatar has origins in Hindu religion dating from 500 BC.  Hindu gods would come to earth as beings with lesser powers to interact with humans – and they took many shapes.  This is very similar to current concept of metaverse avatars in their many forms.  Most people have more than one avatar – multiple accounts in a single world and in many different worlds (e.g. WOW, SL, RIFT, SWTOR etc) – and avatars by their very nature never rise to the level of human capacity (only two of the five senses are available to the avatar, their visual quality is currently inferior to that which they model etc), although in some genres such as fantasy MMORPGs, they transcend the basic human capabilities into the magical.  To paraphrase Arthur C. Clark, one person’s magic is simply another person’s technology, sufficiently advanced.

The use of the term avatar for the on-screen representation of the user was coined in 1985 by Chip Morningstar and Joseph Romero in designing LucasFilm‘s online role-playing game Habitat.[6] The computer game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was released in 1985, but does not use the word in this sense, only in its original religious sense; the player’s in-game final objective is to become an “Avatar”. Later games in the Ultima series use the term in the same sense as Habitat and introduce Habitat-style customization of avatars. –

The terms ‘Metaverse’ and ‘Avatar’ featured prominently in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992).  Stephenson wrote in the “Acknowledgments” to Snow Crash:

The idea of a “virtual reality” such as the Metaverse is by now widespread in the computer-graphics community and is being used in a number of different ways. The particular vision of the Metaverse as expressed in this novel originated from idle discussion between me and Jaime (Captain Bandwidth) Taffe…The words avatar (in the sense used here) and Metaverse are my inventions, which I came up with when I decided that existing words (such as virtual reality) were simply too awkward to use…after the first publication of Snow Crash, I learned that the term avatar has actually been in use for a number of years as part of a virtual reality system called Habitat…in addition to avatars, Habitat includes many of the basic features of the Metaverse as described in this book.  – Neal Stephenson

Since the publication of Snow Crash, many 3D virtual worlds have been created, both in the ‘pure’ form as envisioned in novels of that decade (living in the virtual reality for the sake of living in it), and in other forms that can loosely be broken down into two basic genres: chat systems, and game systems – with the worlds in these games primarily serving as an unchangeable backdrop to the game play.  None of the worlds envisioned by their creators came close to unifying the 3D space as a consistent all-encompassing ‘metaverse’ world.  They emerged and remain fractured into many shards; catering to distinctive populations and cultures and remaining isolated from other worlds by technological choices of their builders, with little desire or thought given to construct one unified client/viewer implementation.  None of the worlds as of yet have the level of immersion that equates to that described in these works of fiction (i.e. 5 senses so effectively simulated as to present the user with the question of what is and is not real; the key theme of the movie ‘The Matrix’).  There are various standards for data interchange – VRML/X3D being the most notable ones – but as yet, really complex, high performance 3D worlds have yet to be implemented inside the HTTP client due to the limitations of the communications and execution thread models – usually gotten around by the loading of a purpose built graphics plugin.  HTML5 may make the web browser  competitive with other purpose built offerings – and perhaps a better way to view the competing options is as complimentary where developers leverage more than one approach in their project – ideally using communications standards on the back end to foster interoperability.

Building, Scripting, Chatting – Living In the Virtual World

Snow Crash-like worlds in existence include: Active Worlds 1995 (beta) 1997 release[proprietary], Second Life 2001(pre-alpha) 2003 release[proprietary backend – FOSS browser], OpenGrid (OpenSim 2007 release – based grid) based upon Second Life compatible browser with reverse engineered back end – FOSS – and supports Hypergrid/hyperlinking.  In all three of these virtual worlds users can not only populate the world, but also create objects and scripts that run in the world – making changes to the world that are persistent.  Most recently, Second Life has added support for 3D mesh objects created in tools like Blender or Maya.  RealXtend [2008 – FOSS] is another open source system – designed for professional development of mulitplayer games, 3D advertising, 3D gaming and other things as desired – integrates nicely with Blender, and has a C++ API that allows use of various programming languages for creating new extensions (Python, C++).  Uses Ogre engine on back end – and supports a java based client in web browser.  Notable to me because it started off as a modified extension of the OpenSim server, but was extended further and eventually replacing all the OpenSim .Net code with C++ code.  A similar system called OpenCobalt – built upon OpenCroquet SDK university research project; uses Squeak language (developed by Apple Computers – a free Smalltalk implementation).  Open Cobalt can import standard 3D graphic object types easily – drag and drop; the programming language is built-in and easy to script in world – but has a high learning curve for most people.  Blue Mars is similar to RealXtend – in that you can use development tools like Maya or Blender – however it’s viewer and backend server is proprietary, much like Active Worlds and is a single world with multiple ‘towns’ that are unique ‘shards‘ .  Most of these systems have multimedia capabilities including inclusion of sound in objects, voice chat, video and access to and display of http resources on the web.

Kids, Teens and Young Adults – Text Chat Systems

In the beginning there was Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and Newsgroups.  Then people started getting creative with chat systems – hosting their own systems, adding graphics and so on.  The Palace [1994] was a popular graphical chat system with modifiable avatars and the ability to link rooms together – so your chat avatar could move from one room to the next.  Microsoft Comic Chat [1996]- was another IRC chat client that displayed avatars and their conversations as a comic strip.  The cell phone revolutionized text chatting by allowing teens to keep on chatting no matter where they were.  3D virtual worlds followed, and while more sophisticated, are used more as an extension of chatting and light entertainment for this group.  Examples of 3D worlds in this genre:   There is a world that went out of business In 2010 – appears to be coming back slowly with access available to previous subscribers now (see the link for details).  It is geared for teen users, and includes already created content/objects that can be used in the game – and it is about socializing and gameplay, more than creating new things.   The most popular worlds in this genre include Club Penguin, Toontown, Gaia, and Habbo Hotel.

Gamers – Less Talk, More Game!

The remainder of worlds are geared primarily for game play, with any social or world impacting activities being incidental to the game.  Games in this genre include flight and combat simulations, fantasy MMOs, first person shooters, and games that are more interactive cartoon strip than virtual world.  Flight Gear and Microsoft Flight Simulator – fly realistic aircraft simulations through real-world regions; equal parts training device and game – you can use real world navigation maps and approach plates as all the navigational aids are operational in game. Battleground Europe – is a perpetual WWII battlefield in Europe; fly combat aircraft, be an infantryman or a tanker on the front lines, or join the navy to pilot patrol boats and destroyers.  The 1/4 scale replica of western Europe is probably the largest continuous world simulation in any game to date with elements of first person shooters, simulations, and real time strategy games.  The most recognizable game type in this area are the First Person Shooters (FPS), with very active releases on various platforms (console and PC games).

Fantasy gaming in the form of MMORPGs (Massively Mulitplayer Online Role Playing Game)  is the king of all virtual world populations – hosting many millions of people on a daily basis.  The MMORPG traces its roots back to the text based Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) games and table-top gaming that developed prior to the implementation of multimedia PCs.  World of Warcraft has the record of being the most populous game in North America; there are games in Asia that have larger populations still.  Other games in this genre include: RIFT, DAOC, Everquest, and many more.

Memoir of a Metaverse Denizen

1981 was the beginning of my journey – my junior year in high school – I was failing chemistry class miserably, and decided to transfer to a new class that was being offered: computer programming.  It piqued my interest, and soon I was hooked.  I learned Fortran and Basic on NCR and the Apple ][ machines respectively, but more importantly we also had access to a timeshare system composed of two CRT terminals and a teleprinter (typewriter keyboard built into a printer that itself could serve as a terminal in addition to spewing printed output upon copious and what we would consider grotesque amounts of fan-fold tractor fed printer paper) connected mysteriously via wires through the wall to some minicomputer somewhere else.  It could have been in a closet next door or across town – I never did see that system (I want to say it was VMS based Vax/PDP perhaps?).  Ostensibly this system was to be used to print out the listings of our assigned programs that we carefully transcribed into the CRT terminals and saved in our named accounts and the output, but one day I found a classmate playing a game called ‘Advent‘.  Soon I began playing it too – it was one of the first text based dungeon games; inspired by Tolkien novels.  This is when it first hit me that this medium could be a place to explore – not only the file systems and machines it was composed of, but more importantly worlds we could imagine and recreate in software ourselves – similar to the way we would create scenarios and locations as DMs(Dungeon Masters) of table-top games (Car Wars, Dungeons and Dragons et al).  Popular media soon saw the patterns – movies  Tron (1982), Blade Runner (1983), War Games (1983) – and literature – Neuromancer (1984) – gave words and imagery to what we were experiencing and inventing – and became part of the internet lexicon we take for granted today.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take advantage of my insight, instead choosing to be a passive consumer of these games – rather than a creator of them.

In the intervening years between my high school graduation and entry in the university, I continued to program, even as I worked in my first real job.  I taught myself  C, Intel 8088 assembler, and gained exposure to different systems including the Commodore Amiga, IBM PC, DOS – and learned the intricacies of modems and modem connection command strings.  I quickly found BBS systems and connected to as many as I could.  In this process of exploration, I stumbled upon the FIDONET – a parallel network that contained discussion threads and messaging systems that was distributed coast to coast through regional nodes that shared with the collective.  The network I found contained a vibrant social milieu where anything was possible and expression and experimentation was tolerated, if not rejoiced.  I also continued to experiment with different virtual experiences – starting with the SubLogic Flight Simulator, Zork series of text based adventures and so on – but these were single player games and the computer was not a viable opponent.

When I joined the university in 1992 as a computer science undergraduate, I was exposed to the internet, Unix and deeper critical thinking on various topics available in newsgroups from a wide range of scholars and students alike.  The internet was in its infancy, and at that time the way to find resources was to use Archie, Gopher, and anonymous FTP to find and retrieve files on the subjects you wanted.  There was also an extensive email system and newsgroup system going at that time.  I felt right at home as this mode contained essentially the same elements I found in FIDONET – but it was ‘always on’ in the computer science lab, just sit down at a console and login – we take for granted today – that wasn’t that common back then.  But there was a buzz about this thing called ‘html’ and the ‘world wide web’ that culminated in the availability of NSF Mosaic – the first graphical http client (web browser), and the term ‘web surfing’ entered the jargon.  By the end of 1993 there were only 623 http sites on the web – and over 1,000,000 systems connected to the internet.  That year WWW traffic would grow 341,634% annually.  I had arrived just at the right time to straddle the old and new access paradigms, and get my fingers into both.  In between all that excitement, I was learning how to program systems, databases, and client-server applications via BSD sockets.  I also loaded my first Linux installation in these years (Slackware! Got Slack?), so I could do my work at home to avoid waiting in line for a console in the lab – and upload it to one of the servers via modem.  Games became more sophisticated and we saw the first multiplayer online games in this decade.

Since then I’ve dipped my toes into just about every virtual world available – and dove head-first into quite a few – including Everquest (2 years) WWIIlonline(Battlefield Europe) (7 years), Second Life (4 years), and WOW (2 years).  My key focus has been immersion when judging a given offering.  For sheer scale – WWIIonline (Battlefield Europe) is the top world – it would literally take you weeks to walk across the map – and many hours if you were to fly – with no ‘zoning’ or other partitioning magic used by other titles.  Unfortunately – it has a very limited focus (WWII battle).  SecondLife, and OpenSim (basically the same – since most SL compliant browsers will work with both) – is best in terms of user generated content and building – but because of that strength they had to trade off performance – so games and large spaces are very limited, and boundary crossing are still fairly painful – and limiting to high performance vehicles.  There is a fork of OpenSim called AuroraSim that is trying to address the performance issue with some success – but I have misgivings as long as they continue to use .NET for building the system.   Overall – I’m not completely happy with what is going on – there are few entities in this arena who are willing to work together on common standards, preferring instead to keep to themselves.

So now I have the itch to do something, and to scratch that itch I’m thinking of setting up my own FOSS project associated with the metaverse.  I’ve settled on a toolset already, and more to follow once I have something built worth looking at.  I will say it will be designed to provide a standard protocol for free access by anyone, and an abstraction layer to allow external protocols to interact with it (perhaps with lesser performance – but interact nonetheless).  We’ll see if my reach exceeds my grasp…

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