Over the past few weeks, there’s been a little more chatter than usual in the mainstream media and on blogs about 3D virtual worlds and their relative merits. Both Google Earth (GE) and Second Life (SL) have been mooted as a paradigm for the budding metaverse.
Currently, SL is much more of a full-service virtual 3D space, with avatars, one shared “state” of the world, scriptable objects and an economy. Google lacks all this, and if it were to want to become a competitor in the metaverse market, it would need to add that functionality.
A more fundamental, persistent difference between GE and SL, however, is that GE aims to be a mirror of the real world, whereas SL is a made-up world, with a geography dictated by the whimsy of its users.
[In the rest of the post, I argue that there are two conventions we can let go off when building virtual worlds: That space has to be flat (Euclidian) and that the topology has to follow the geometry of space (it can be non-contiguous, like the web.) It just takes me a while to say that:-)]
For GE’s developers, then, the main aim becomes accuracy in representation. For SL’s developers, the challenge becomes giving users free reign to express their creativity in shared 3D.
The reason GE is a globe is because Earth is a globe. Paris is to the southeast of London in GE because that’s where it is in real life. SL has no such constraints on the organization of its content; and yet its creators chose a very conventional world: the infinite Euclidian plane, with disk topology to match — a flat Earth. On it, we are exhorted to buy property — first come, first served, with the desirable centralized locations in scarce supply, and bound to increase in value as demand increases. It’s remarkably like local real-estate markets on “real” Earth.
But why should SL’s geometry and topology be anything like what’s found on Earth, when there are so many other options available?
I think (in the nicest possible way) that there is something of a failure of the imagination to SL’s approach. It reminds me of how for the first three years of the world wide web, we produced content as if we were still making newspapers and magazines, with virtual “issues”. Slowly, it dawned on us that the web is not made of paper, and we began adopting dynamic, just-in-time models of publishing, native to the web, of which the blog is its most evolved form.
It took time for us web users to abandon the old metaphors that worked best in old media. We should now leave behind conventional spatial notions when building the metaverse. We need to give the metaverse a native form, free of real-world constraints.
Before imagining what such a place might look like, a quick aside about World of Warcraft. It too is set on a Euclidian grid, mimicking a medieval-type map. Yet traversing the geography of WoW is fun. In SL, after an initial bout of newbie exploration, it quickly becomes boring (and time consuming) to travel conventionally; people teleport instead. What’s the difference between WoW and SL? WoW is a game, a goal-driven environment, whereas SL is not. In WoW, Euclidian grid topology is a feature of the game play. In SL, it is an impediment — a scarcity engine.
The widespread use in SL of teleporting to travel should tell us something — that the strongest connection between spaces in a virtual world is not geographical (as it is arbitrary) but semantic. The world wide web was a revolution for precisely this reason — it collapsed physical distance, letting you “teleport” between related sites with each click on a link. That kind of topology proved to be the most natural for navigating all information where the geospatial component is not its most important attribute.
Metaverse 2.0 should incorporate the best of both worlds: It should combine the efficiency of a node-like topology on the macro level with 3D realism at the micro level. You want your closest friends to be, well, closest. You should be able to walk along the nodes that constitute the six degrees of separation between you and everyone else.
How? Imagine a 3D
MySpace “homespace” (thanks Avi) where you and every other member are given a hexagon onto which you can build your own “home”. You then find six reciprocating “best friends” as neighbors. These neighbors’ hexagons become the immediate surroundings of your own hexagon, and indeed they are all visible in the distance from your own virtual mansion.
Yet these best friends of yours are under no obligation to choose compatible best friends as neighbors, other than yourself. If you share one or more “best friends”, then you can certainly create contiguous neighborhoods between your hexagons, but that’s not a requirement.
Your six friends’s properties will never be more than a short walk away. If you walk to one, you may notice that its adjacent properties don’t match yours. But your neighbors’ neighbors may in turn be your neighbors again, at a different angle. The upshot is that you can navigate such a world via loops and clusters of nodes, rarther than a predefined grid topology.
But why should Metaverse 2.0’s geometry be Euclidian? A sphere’s geometry is elliptic, though space is “crimped” as you travel. There is another possibility, one that offers “more space” and hence the potential for more neighbors: The hyperbolic plane. If a virtual world subscribes to hyperbolic geometry, then the tiling pattern can incorporate both hexagons and heptagons, like so:
(If this is getting too abstract, please read Crocheting the Hyperbolic Plane, a wonderful piece of expository writing from which I took the above picture.)
In a hyperbolic virtual world, the heptagons could become the commonses around which likeminded people cluster. The hexagon-heptagon tiling pattern is just one of many possible combinations, however (top row, third from the left, to be precise).
The future metaverse doesn’t need to look like any of these example, and likely won’t. (Personally, I want to reside on the surface of a Klein bottle or Möbius strip.) I do think we should abandon the arbitrary constraints on topology and geometry that current virtual worlds labor under.
Further reading: While I was writing this, Avi Bar-Ze’ev asked: “Can we come up with a world that’s as rich as Earth but unconstrained and content-driven, like the topology of the web?”. Mark Wallace posits a “distributed metaverse”, where, presumably, we all power our own 3D spaces, but connect them to each other via agreed-to protocols. I think that’s the way forward.
[Update 2006-06-04 08:49 UTC: Avi has already continued the debate, here.]
[Update 2006-06-05 07:21 UTC: Cory “Linden” considered topology and geometry when developing Second Life. More here.]