TCS Daily

Why Second Life Won't Get a Third

By Max Borders - January 16, 2008 12:00 AM

Since well before the 2000 dotcom bubble left a glycerin residue on the economy, we've been waiting for that convergence of the Internet, 3D games, and peer-to-peer networking. For many, Second Life represents that convergence—and our collective future online. But there is a problem.

Conceptually, Second Life is exactly where we want to be. It's immersive, it's distributed and it has just about everything we need to start building "metaverses" (Neal Stephenson's prescient 1992 term for virtual realities that run in parallel with our own). The trouble comes, however, with the architecture—not just the software required to make Second Life an alternative to TV Land, but the whole technical edifice upon which our Internet lives are currently built.

Second Life will never scale because its designers embraced the computing hardware and software status quo. The architecture we currently enjoy was designed in large part for two-dimensional computing. Adding another dimension requires tremendous processing and bandwidth resources--resources that will start to cause bottlenecks in the hierarchical structure of the Web itself. And while Moore's Law and various parallel technological improvements would be a mitigating factor for a 3D future online, trying to make the current system cost-effective is rather Goldbergian (as in Rube). But getting it half right, means Second Life may have a much shorter half-life.

Like the walled-gardens of AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, Second Life attempts to be something of a closed system for 3D environments. But the open nature of the Internet would not abide walls. Neither will the metaverse. You can sense this frustration in the words of this Second Lifer:

Part of the problem is that the Second Life population is still relatively small; there are rarely more than 45,000 users logged on at a given time, which makes most in-world areas almost deserted. And that brings us to a central paradox of Second Life's growth. Most users won't stick around as long as they can't find anything to do -- and there won't be much to do as long as users don't stick around to create it.

But why so few people? If there are millions playing games and millions online, why isn't Second Life able to scale to the level of hype? I believe that this is largely due to lack of openness, and the cost-prohibitive nature of that underlying architecture. That is, the world-to-server ratio is too low. And it may always be.

So instead of trying to make what we currently have work - hoping it'll all get cheaper eventually - some of the original architects of both graphical user interface and the Web got together with a couple other interesting characters and just started over. Enter Croquet.

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it," Alan Kay is famous for saying. That's largely how he and his team came to the conclusion that they would have start from scratch with a new DNA for computing. Kay got together with an evolutionary biologist (Julian Lombardi), a grid-computing guru (David P. Reed), a Web 1.0 wunderkind (Mark McCahill), a Squeak developer (Andreas Raab) and 3D worldmaker (David Smith). The result has been a collaboration that can only be described as Copernican.

Right now, Croquet is more a platform than a world. The consortium built around Croquet is accreting interest and resources much like the HTML standards consortia of the past did early on. Military eggheads with loads of cash are perking up, too, of course. But like Arpanet (a precursor to the Web) eventually spread like a fungus into our homes and offices, Croquet may become our homes and offices.

But what is it, exactly? As Louis Armstrong said of jazz: "if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know." Croquet is a thing immune to elevator pitches. But let me try:

Croquet is a development platform that allows for radical collaboration in immersive online environments. "Online" is charitable, because Croquet will absorb the Internet eventually. The technology is scalable and an open (non-proprietary) standard like Mosaic was, but this time for a networked 3D future. Our human ability to handle information in tidy 2D hierarchies is pretty good, but it pales compared to our capacity to negotiate in the 3D environments we evolved in. Learning to live, work, collaborate and share information in co-creative worlds will help us find as many Archimedean points as stars in the sky.

Croquet is thoroughly peer-to-peer in both its application and its architecture. So it is not vulnerable to the limitations of hierarchy - either conceptually, or technically. It is a platform for networking just about everything. Mac? PC? Linux? It doesn't matter. Croquet is built on a "virtual machine", which means it transcends the boundaries of both operating system and geography alike, like some encoded blueprint for the space-time continuum. It not only can it scale to the level of the imagination, it will eventually look cooler than any game dreamt up by 20 geeks at Sony - and we will all participate in its creation.

I hope my clumsiness in elevator pitching was offset by my sense of awe. Because I've seen Croquet in action. And once you see Croquet operate, your understanding of this world, and all those possible worlds, will never be the same.

Max Borders is a TCS contributing editor and writer living in Cary, NC. He blogs here.


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