Virtual worlds come in two forms. Some, like Second Life, are 3-D, requiring users to install programs that run most smoothly on computers equipped with high-end graphics capabilities. Others, like Disney’s Club Penguin, are browser-based environments that can be accessed through older computers–even those that access the Internet using dial-up modems. Each form has its drawbacks: not everyone has the computing power to get into a 3-D virtual world, but the browser-based worlds don’t have the breathtaking, immersive qualities of 3-D. Today, at the Virtual Worlds conference in New York City, Multiverse, a company based in Mountain View, CA, that provides foundations for virtual worlds, will show new technology that allows developers to build virtual worlds that users can access in either a rich, 3-D form or a simpler, browser-based form.
“For worlds that take advantage of this, you as a player may not actually know if the people you’re talking to are accessing a 3-D world or coming in via 2-D,” says Corey Bridges, cofounder and executive producer of Multiverse. This is important, he says, because it gives virtual worlds the flexibility they need to reach a larger audience. Developers can build virtual worlds with beautiful 3-D graphics without shutting out users with older computers. The flexibility also allows the possibility that the user might experience a virtual world in different ways throughout the day, perhaps accessing the 3-D version from a home computer, and then later accessing the browser-based version from a mobile device. “We knew that virtual worlds were more than just PC-based experiences,” Bridges says.
The demonstration will take place in a virtual Times Square. Bridges says that the company will showcase the photo-realistic 3-D version of the environment, spotlighting two users interacting there through 3-D virtual representations of themselves, called avatars. Then, Multiverse will show the other side of the conversation: a cartoonish Flash animation running through a browser.
The switch is made possible, Bridges says, by the way Multiverse has designed its system. Most virtual worlds are hosted by servers customized for close interaction with specially designed clients at the user’s end. In contrast, Bridges says, “we built our servers to not know how the world in question is being displayed.” Multiverse servers perform typical server functions, such as resolving conflicts, determining the results of character interactions, communicating those results to clients, and collecting responses. However, they’re not as closely tied to specific clients, Bridges says, adding that a Multiverse server could run an old-style text-based game or a 3-D virtual world and hardly know the difference. The client is entirely responsible for how the world is displayed. Developers building worlds through Multiverse can decide which kinds of experiences their worlds will support and build the corresponding clients. Worlds could be built to work only in Flash or only in 3-D, just as they could be built to work with both.
Multiverse isn’t the only company working on this type of system. Areae, for example, is creating Metaplace, a platform that is being designed to allow developers to build worlds that can be accessed from Web pages and mobile phones, as well as from specialized clients. Metaplace has not yet been publicly released, and the company’s previews so far have showed only its 2-D capabilities. Raph Koster, company president, says that he eventually expects Metaplace to offer 3-D support.
Eilif Trondsen, director of the Virtual Worlds Consortium for Innovation and Learning at SRI Consulting Business Intelligence, says that Multiverse’s new technology “could be a huge opportunity for virtual worlds … There’s been a lot of talk about how we can make [virtual worlds] simpler for the users.” He anticipates that, thanks to the universality of Flash, the new technology will help drive growth by helping users overcome several hurdles to entering virtual worlds. He says that, in addition to being put off by problems with older computers, some users have not gotten into virtual worlds because they’re intimidated by the learning curve of 3-D video-game-style navigation. Trondsen also notes that business users of virtual worlds have been limited because of barriers to installing clients on corporate computers. Finally, he says, many users, particularly in Asia and other world markets, demand the ability to interact with software through mobile devices.
Trondsen notes that, while many companies are working on this type of technology, “it’s impressive that Multiverse was able to do this so quickly.” He says that the flexible design of the company’s platform architecture probably helped Multiverse adjust quickly for Flash. Trondsen adds that Multiverse’s technology could also contribute to connecting social-networking sites with virtual worlds–a trend that he sees being started by companies such as Vivaty, which provides 3-D chat rooms.
Developer tools for Multiverse’s 3-D client are already available for free download. Developers can make their worlds available at no cost, but if they charge users, they must share the profits with Multiverse. Bridges says that Multiverse’s Flash technology is immediately available to developers who want to incorporate it into their worlds. However, he says, the company doesn’t have a good way of monitoring how the Flash technology gets deployed. Therefore, in order to maintain the same business model, Multiverse is only making its Flash developer tools available to those who contact the company directly.