Here Comes the Open Source Metaverse

While Second Life is frequently described as a 3D web browser, there’s a chance it may be remembered as the (late and lamented) Netscape Navigator of metaverse browsers.

That thought occurred to me as I was attending the “Open Source Virtual Worlds” panel at last week’s Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York. Like Netscape, Linden Lab last year open-sourced its viewer code, which led to a number of unofficial versions, some of which have been reverse engineered to run on non-Linden servers. And at least one of them already looks significantly better in some respects than Linden’s official viewer.

While IBM showed off its contributions to the open-source 3D Internet on the showroom floor, two of the SL spinoffs were featured at the panel, along with two unrelated platforms — one from a startup and another from Sun Microsystems. Here’s a look under their BSD-friendly hoods:


Billed as a “virtual spaces for real work,” Qwaq is a user-friendly enterprise-level application built on the Croquet open-source virtual worlds platform; it uses Python-powered application and employs XML standards. As presented by company VP Remy Malan, its main value proposition is the ability to quickly launch prefab 3D spaces for business presentations and meetings.

Project Wonderland

A spinoff of the GPL-ed Java 3D and Sun’s Project Darkstar open-source server software for online worlds, Wonderland also emphasizes business applications, such as the sharing of Open Office documents and Firefox pages in an avatar-driven 3D space. Sun’s Nicole Yankelovich showed off Wonderland’s ability to broadcast multiple group voice chat, a feature intended to simulate the valuable “watercooler chitchat” that real-world office spaces provide. Even more impressive, telephony is integrated into Project Wonderland, so users can communicate in or out of the virtual world space by phone.


Derived from Inspired by Second Life’s open-sourced viewer code, the BSD-licensed OpenSimulator Project was presented by key developer Adam Frisby, a young Australian with a distracting resemblance to Charlie from “Lost.” With an aim of becoming the “Apache of virtual worlds,” OpenSim is built with a set of modules that can be tweaked and added to without disturbing the underlying code. Frisby announced that his team is working with Linden Lab to connect OpenSim-driven servers to Second Life six to 12 months down the road.

Among OpenSim’s developers are two full-time employees of IBM. “What we did is hook that up with IBM’s Open Source team to see how we can contribute,” Michael Rowe, the company’s “3D Internet Manager,” told me at their VW2008 booth. IBM is using Open Sim to experiment with practical 3D applications, including a “3D-Data Center” (pictured) that’ll enable developers to plan, build, and monitor server farms. At the same time, it’s also part of the company’s dedication to leading the way to an open 3D Internet. IBM’s Craig Becker foresees a coming “[S]tabilization of two [to] three virtual world platforms, and it’s important they interoperate.”


realXtend is the name of another modified version of outgrowth of the open source Second Life viewer, created by a Finnish non-profit group that’s aiming for avatar interoperability between various worlds. (Here’s an extensive write-up of the project from the blog of Tish Shute, panel moderator and tireless supporter of open source metaverse projects.) realXtend’s Jani Pirkola presented an impressive demo video, showcasing graphics and physics features that look better than SL’s, including more diverse avatar creation, mesh-based avatars, and more realistic rendering and lighting. Recently partnered with OpenSim (see above), this may become the strongest alternative to official Second Life. Unsurprisingly, Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale was in the audience, listening intently.

Image credits: RealxtendVideo. 3D-Data center courtesy of Michael J Osias, Chief 3D Architect, Grid Operator, IT Optimization, IBM.