Second Life and Open Croquet

Over the past year or so Second Life has slowly been emerging into the consciousness of the wider world — companies like IBM have taken an interest in it, the entertainment industry has begun to take notice (most notably with the recent CSI episode). Philip Linden’s dream of seeing Second Life take off as the ‘3D Internet’ (or more precisely, the 3D Web) actually looks like a plausible possibility, in spite of all the technical and cultural difficulties that it has faced, and still faces.

Personally, in spite of my long involvement with Second Life (over three years now), and in spite of the fact that, yes, even with all its faults, I enjoy Second Life, the prospect of Second Life becoming the de facto 3D Web fills me with dismay.

Some explanation is in order. Let’s go back to the original Internet. Or, more appropriately, to the World Wide Web (as Second Life more closely resembles the latter – a point I will come back to).

Imagine that instead of being invented by a lone physicist who wanted a simple way of sharing information across the Internet, it had instead been invented by a company. Instead of being open, imagine that it had been proprietory, owned and controlled by one company (yes, I know there has been talk of making Second Life open, but talk is cheap, and Linden Lab’s current business model depends on their retaining ownership of the servers). Imagine that instead of webpages being able to be hosted on almost any machine on the Internet, they instead had to be hosted on the servers of that one company.

Maybe you think that would have been a good idea. If so, I have a bridge you might like to buy…

Now imagine an alternative. Instead of everything being hosted on central servers owned by one company this alternative is open, and anyone with a reasonable machine can host a world (actually, most worlds will probably be fairly small, so let’s call them islands). Each island would be the equivalent of a web-site, or a web-page. As you walk round an island you come across ‘portals’ that let you see into other islands. Walk through the portals, and you end up in those other islands – the 3D equivalent of a hyperlink. Some of these islands will be part of the same site. Others might be anywhere else on the Internet.

Welcome to Open Croquet. There is a lot more to it than I’ve mentioned above. For example, Second Life has long promised HTML on a prim. Open Croquet already has it. In fact, it has editable HTML (or just plain text if you want). For a glimpse of the possibilities, visit the main site and take a look at the video.

So, why aren’t people making the same song and dance about Open Croquet as they are about Second Life? Well, Open Croquet is not without its own problems, the overriding one being that in terms of development it is a long, long way behind Second Life. The avatars are ridiculously primitive – there are groups working on better avatars, but it looks like they will be a long time arriving. Actually connecting to other worlds is flaky to say the least (I have only ever managed to connect to one other world), and my own experience has been very, very laggy, at times almost unusably so. The programming language behind is Smalltalk, which although it might be well suited to Open Croquet is nevertheless a minority language.

In terms of potential, Open Croquet strikes me as being exactly what a 3D Web ought to be, and the fact that it lags so far behind Second Life (and that the speed of development seems so slow) is very frustrating.

It would be very sad if Open Croquet vanished from sight, and Second Life became the standard for the 3D Web, because I think it would mean that the 3D Web would be a pale shadow of what it could have been.

In case I have piqued your interest, I’ll repeat the link to the main site:

Open Croquet Consortium