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Tech titans seek virtual-world interoperability

A group of 23 companies and institutions has set out to search for ways to make content and identity transferable between virtual worlds.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Get ready to hop your avatar onto a hoverboard and fly seamlessly between Second Life and There.com. To buy armor or gold pieces in World of Warcraft or EverQuest II with actual dollars or euros. Or to pack up your 3D models from a Multiverse virtual world and take it with you to Gaia Online.

Welcome to virtual-world interoperability: a new era where the many previously walled-garden virtual worlds can share content, currency and even identity, all in the guise of making life easier for end users and, ideally, for enterprises trying to leverage the Second Lifes of the world for businesses purposes.

Unfortunately for those who like that notion of interoperability, it's not going to be happening just yet. But a group of representatives from some of the biggest and most powerful technology companies on earth--including IBM, Cisco Systems, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Google and Sony, as well as from leading virtual-world developers like Second Life publisher Linden Lab, the Multiverse Network, Mindark and others--is hoping to change that in the not too distant future.

The first really public shot in this battle was fired Wednesday when Linden Lab and IBM announced their intention to work toward a day when virtual-world users can port a single virtual identity from one service to another.

The announcement was timed to coincide with the Virtual Worlds conference here, an event that has attracted hundreds of people interested in exploring how such environments can be used for business, entertainment, education and other purposes.

"I was a bit bothered by (the assumption) that seemed to exist in the room that moving avatars or objects across virtual worlds is actually much of a market need."
--Raph Koster, founder, Areae

But the real work may well have begun on Tuesday, a day ahead of the show, when representatives from 23 companies and institutions gathered here for a meeting organized around the principle of investigating what it will take to make virtual-world interoperability a reality. The offensive continued Thursday with a keynote address on the subject given by Christian Renaud, the chief architect of networked virtual environments for Cisco.

And while there is no formal leader of the interoperability movement, it seems that the ones fronting the charge, in the U.S. at least, are Renaud and Peter Hagger, a senior technical staff member of IBM's emerging technology and standards group.

"We've had lots of discussions with various companies and, of course, with our customers, and found a common need and desire for interoperability between the various virtual worlds," Hagger said. "We talked about interoperability and decided to kick the tires and see how much interest there was...(The Tuesday meeting) was a very good discussion. The common theme was interoperability as well as standardization to support (it) and the integration of the worlds with each other and with the Web."

To be sure, the idea of making discrete virtual-worlds function in tandem like this is nothing new. In 1989, Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins and several colleagues filed a patent application for the concept of moving avatars across worlds, and for anyone who joined Second Life and There.com in 2003 or 2004, the notion seemed obvious as a way of getting the benefit of the better There interface and the more interesting collection of user-generated content in Second Life.

But despite the wishes of many who would prefer to populate multiple worlds with a single avatar identity or to create a particular 3D build only once for use across different platforms, there has been little, if any, progress.

And to some, that's just fine.

"I was a bit bothered by (the assumption) that seemed to exist in the room," Raph Koster, the founder of virtual-world platform developer Areae, said in a after the Tuesday meeting, "that moving avatars or objects across virtual worlds is actually much of a market need."

Indeed, Koster added in his blog post that it struck him as odd that at the meeting, "entertainment, which accounts for 98 percent of all virtual-world users and revenue, was not really represented well in the room."

What's really unexpected, in fact, is that the movement for interoperability is being promoted by technology companies like IBM and Cisco, since neither actually makes a virtual world.

But IBM has put a lot of effort into being involved in environments like Second Life, and has many customers interested in participating in virtual worlds. And for its part, as Renaud pointed out, Cisco is deeply involved by virtue of its making much of the backbone technology that makes such worlds possible.

For Renaud, who focused his Thursday keynote address on the idea of how to bring some level of common usability to what he estimated are the 465 million global users of virtual worlds, the search for interoperability between the services is no less than an attempt to avoid being the butt of a generation of Betamax-versus-VHS jokes.

"I hope (the initiative) will be successful," Renaud told CNET News.com. "If we can do this, it will be a rite of passage. If we fail and there's no suitable substitute, it's going to be war of the competing worlds."

That may well be overstating the case, since the various virtual worlds are currently not interoperable and everyone seems to be getting along just fine. But the point is that end users and corporate customers may well lose patience with the requirement to create an entirely new identity or to have to build any kind of content multiple times if participation in multiple worlds is the goal.

And some have interesting visions for the infrastructure that would govern interoperable virtual worlds.

For example, Robert Gehorsam, president of Forterra Systems, which makes virtual worlds for clients like the U.S. military, universities and others, foresees a sort of search system that would allow users to locate content of many different kinds from within a series of worlds.

"It gets pretty wild," Gehorsham said. "In a 3D world, you're not looking for a document. You're looking for a thing. I'm looking for a blue Chevrolet, and up come 32 hits in some form: here's what it is, here's who owns it and here's where it is (in different worlds)."

For now, anyway, there is no specific plan for what happens next in the interoperability pursuit, and in that regard it would be easy to dismiss the concept as a pie-in-the-sky vision that is years away.

On the other hand, it's hard to do when you consider the companies that were involved in the Tuesday meeting and the fact that those companies did agree to consider the formation of a consortium that would be comprised of the 23 companies and institutions that participated Tuesday, as well as anyone from the public that wanted to be involved. There is also a public wiki in the works which would allow for the sharing of ideas and concepts for how to move forward.

But despite the vocal, if not actual, leadership on the subject taken by IBM and Cisco, some feel that the entire interoperability battle would be better led by those who actually make virtual worlds than those giant companies.

"If the platforms, like (Linden Lab) and Areae and Multiverse, can help steer the direction of this group," said Chris Sherman, the executive director of Show Initiative, which put on the Virtual Worlds conference, "then it's got a better chance of succeeding than if it's (run) by companies that have limited experience in the space."