What Does It Mean for a Virtual World to be "Second-Life-Like"

[This article originally appeared on my blog on April 12th, 2010.]

So the VWRAP working group is off to a good start. We've completed the chartering process and published a few Internet Drafts. We also had a face-to-face meeting a couple weeks ago that identified a couple defects in some of our draft documents.

Now it's time to start recruiting people to help with the effort. The documents we produce will require a number of participants documenting use cases, writing documents, creating sample code implementations, checking the technical contents of draft documents and reviewing the group's output to make sure it just plain makes sense.

But every time i ask someone to help out, they want to read our background documents. And this is where i start getting kind of embarrassed; we don't have nearly as many as we need. I'm writing a series of blog posts about it to give an informal and informational introduction to VWRAP, the Virtual World Region Agent Protocol.

If you're new to VWRAP, you may want to read the "What's VWRAP"for more detailed info, you may want to read the "VWRAP : Introduction and Goals" document. The current draft is 32 pages and is written to be as precise as possible. Because it was written with "correctness" in mind, it can be a bit wordy at times so my first couple blog posts will be high level discussions about what we're trying to accomplish.

Several people have used the term "Second Life-Like" to describe the type of virtual world we're hoping to create. But that's a bit of a fail; it's bad form to describe something new by saying "Hey, it's just like this other thing, only a little different." So maybe the first question to ask is...

What Does it Mean to be Second Life-Like ?

If you've visited Second Lifeas a user and then visited World of Warcraft or EVE Online, you know they're each pretty different experiences. WoW is mostly about fighting. Sure, you can be social in some corners of the world, but what you're paying for is the ability to reign down hurt on other players. EVE Online is about dueling spaceships while Second Life is about capturing the experience of burning man by socializing and building interesting bits of art. Or maybe its about business and education; we're still trying to figure that one out. But it's clearly more open ended than other popular massively multi-participant systems.

But for software developers and virtual world deployers, it's probably a good idea to have a better description of the protocol than "Oh, it's sorta like Second Life or OpenSim." In the "Intro and Goals" document referenced above, there are three primary features of VWRAP virtual worlds:

  1. The virtual world exists independently of the participants,
  2. Avatars have a single, unique presence in a single virtual world, and,
  3. The virtual world contains persistent objects.

Let's look at these features in more depth:

The Virtual World Exists Independently of the Participants

Some readers will remember VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language.) It was a text based language for describing virtual world scene graphs. There was an interactivity model for VRML, so you could get objects to do things by interacting with the virtual environment. But for the most part, tools that used VRML rendered scene graphs on local systems and did not interact with remote systems or users.

So you loaded a virtual experience from local storage or from the web, rendered the scene, twirled around to look at the objects and could optionally interact with this "pocket universe."

Some of the tools seemed advanced (even for today) and you could mock up some relatively interesting scenes. But, at the end of the day, there were no standards for how to invite other participants into your virtual creation.

This is NOT what VWRAP is all about. VWRAP is about multiple individuals accessing the same scene graph hosted on a public server somewhere and everyone sees the same thing when they log in. VWRAP worlds are inherently shared experiences, not pocket universes on someone's desktop system.

Avatars Have a Single, Unique Presence in a Single Virtual World

Like the reified world, the virtual world is a social space. The locus of social activity in the virtual world is the user's avatar; each avatar representing a single user. With due respect to even the best "real world" multi-taskers, you can still only be in one place at a time; so it is with avatars in the virtual world.

It also means that for every different virtual world, there is only one of you. By default, you can interact with everyone else in the world and they can interact with you.

The Virtual World Contains Persistent Objects

Objects in the virtual world, like virtual worlds themselves, persist beyond a user's presence in the virtual world. If a user created a desk and chairs in a VWRAP virtual world, it would continue to exist until explicitly deleted. So the user could log in, create an object in a particular location in the virtual world and then log out. When another user logs in and travels to the same location, they would see that object.

The "intro and goals" draft referenced above describes these characteristics in more detail, but the text here describes the basics of VWRAP virtual worlds: there's only one of you, there's stuff in the world and the world doesn't disappear when you turn your back.