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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Massively multiplayer games are moving toward adopting a peer-to-peer model.
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
each individual computer's node. A separate chat room allows visitors to a node to interact. Graphics production and features like voice chat in future versions are being called for by developers.
A few other projects, such as the Open Source Metaverse Project, are a little further along. That effort aims to let developers create their own 3D worlds, which can be hyperlinked together to provide bridges for server-hopping visitors. That project is drawing on modeling technology from the developers of the "Quake" video game.
However, even some larger commercial projects are moving in the grassroots direction, and they could show a path to the future.
Take "Second Life," the virtual world created by Linden Labs. Rather than offer a traditional game environment like "EverQuest," it provides a growing world in which inhabitants can build their own homes, create their own "in-game" games, run businesses or do pretty much anything else that strikes their fancy.
"Second Life" has 28,000 people online today, and some inhabitants are already making more than $100,000 a year in real-world money by selling digital wares constructed inside the world or running full-fledged role-playing games.
"Second Life" is built on a distributed model, in which numerous servers are connected together, each one representing about 16 acres of land in the digital world. Those patches of digital space are seamlessly connected together to create the world as experienced by visitors.
Today, all of those servers are run by Linden Labs, but the world was built to ultimately support a peer-to-peer model, where players might add their own 16-acre plot into the world from their own computer, said Linden Labs' chief executive officer, Philip Rosedale. For security reasons--including the fact that a real currency is traded inside the world--the company hasn't taken that step yet, however.
"Interesting virtual worlds are ultimately going to be so huge that they couldn't possibly take the centralized approach," Rosedale said. "But pragmatically, we run all the servers today, since it gives you reliability."
Some analysts say it's exactly that fear of giving way to the total anarchy of user-created content that may keep commercial ventures from going all the way to peer to peer. User-created environments will naturally be rough around the edges, and they might infringe on copyrights here and there and even be dangerous, after all.
But they'll never fail to be interesting, backers say. And that's the point.
"P2P virtual worlds are not for the faint of heart," said Crosbie Fitch, a developer who has written on the subject for several years. "But where would you rather play? In an expensive Utopia indistinguishable from an online creche? Or a collection of interactive universes that make the Web look like a quaint old tool, like Gopher does to Web surfers today? "