A virtual world with peer-to-peer style

Developers are hoping to create grassroots "metaverses" that exceed the ambitions of "EverQuest" and "Star Wars Galaxies." Images: Brave new worlds

For a virtual world, it starts out very bare: Just an empty blue space, with a picture of a cat in a "Star Trek" costume at its center.

But that confused-looking cat is an avatar--a digital representation of a real person (in this case a reporter)--and the empty blue space is an early "node" in Solipsis, an experiment with building a peer-to-peer virtual world, released late last month by researchers at France Telecom.

Still in the very early stages of development, the Solipsis project aims to draw together the technological lessons of "massively multiplayer" games like Sony's "EverQuest" and file-swapping networks like Kazaa or eDonkey. Developers are hoping to construct a sprawling virtual world that runs on its inhabitants' own linked computers, rather than relying on powerful central servers like those that run Web sites or EverQuest's fantasy adventures.

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What's new:
Massively multiplayer games are moving toward adopting a peer-to-peer model.

Bottom line:
Developers are hoping to create grassroots "metaverses" that exceed the ambitions of "EverQuest" and "Star Wars Galaxies."

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What's the advantage in that? It sets Internet dwellers free--both in the "free beer" and "free speech" senses, according to the developers.

"In a closed system, the world is bounded by the imagination of the people working in the company that owns the world," said Joaquin Keller, one of the developers at France Telecom, the French telecommunications giant, working on the project. "If your system is open, a lot of ideas will flourish. It's like the difference between one Web site and the whole Web."

Solipsis and similar peer-to-peer and open-source projects are aiming at nothing less than a radical transformation of the way that games are developed, and even of the way people communicate and manipulate information online.

Inspired by science fiction novels like Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," which told of a sophisticated online virtual world called the "Metaverse," these developers want to make digital environments as complicated and rich as the real world. People might meet in a digital representation of their own rooms, or of the Taj Mahal, rather than simply exchanging e-mails, for example.

Increasingly, this vision is being blended with the grassroots peer-to-peer and open-source movements, which aims at distributing computing power and creativity as widely, and as close to the individual user, as possible.

Most big online virtual worlds, such as "EverQuest" or "Star Wars Galaxies," are hosted on big central servers. That's partly because the computing requirements of keeping track of a world's consistency--where people are, which dragons have been killed, which houses have burned down--are high.

Keller and a growing number of developers have something else in mind. In their vision, each inhabitant's computer is responsible only for keeping track of what's in its own little corner of the world. In that model, visiting someone else online might mean a literal visit to their space, which has its own look, rules and feel.

That anarchic model, without a central authority or even purpose, could be even more overwhelmingly immersive than today's "addictive" online games, some predict.

"If you had a bunch of P2P worlds, it occurs to me that you might just lose people," said Edward Castronova, an Indiana University professor whose upcoming book "Synthetic Worlds" examines the issues around online games. "People won't show up on scorecards in a game, won't be in our economy anymore, we won't know where they are. They might be producing valuable things, and having a rich and productive social and economic life, but all in the virtual worlds."

Not exactly the "Matrix," yet
To be sure, a peer-to-peer virtual world with the three-dimensional visuals and rich environment demanded by today's game players is far away.

Graphics production alone makes the project a difficult one. Big worlds such as "EverQuest" can cost tens of millions of dollars to produce, with much of that money going to art and design.

Solipsis is utterly rudimentary in this regard. Two-dimensional images, each representing a person or a "bot," float inside the blue space of

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