Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Open Avatar Announcement a Great Move

Open Avatar Announcement a Great Move

The announcement today by Linden Labs and IBM that they are working on interoperability in virtual worlds is really good news not just for the 3D web, but perhaps a sign that some companies are getting that "winner takes all" isn't the only way to play the game. First, the announcement, as reported by Steve Lohr in the New York Times story Free the Avatars:

"At the Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo at San Jose, Calif., the two companies are announcing plans to develop open standards that will allow avatars to roam from one virtual community to the next. The goal is let a person create a digital alter-ego that can travel to many virtual worlds, keeping the same name, look and even digital currency.


The logic of the move is impeccable. The growth of the Internet and the Web, after all, has been fueled by open standards. The more people who can communicate, inform and entertain each other freely on a network, the more valuable it is. Economists call this the “network effect.” And the Internet is the network effect on steroids.

"I.B.M. also hosted a meeting on Tuesday in San Jose with a group of companies and some university researchers to discuss open standards for virtual worlds and plans for establishing an organization to promote the technologies needed for an interoperable 3D Internet. The companies included Cisco, Google, Linden Lab, Sony, Intel, Multiverse, Microsoft, Motorola, Philips and others."

Amen to the logic of open systems and interoperability. They are the secret to the internet's ability to create value, changing what had become a zero-sum game in the computer industry to an open ended game that just keeps on creating new value.

And virtual worlds are far more than a game. They are ultimately a simulation layer that can be overlaid on the real world, as well as creating new purely virtual "real estate." (See my 2006 Radar post Google Earth, Sketchup, and Second Life. The story I wrote the other day, mentioning SAP's work with a Swiss property management company to turn Second Life into a platform for sensor-based property management, is also relevant. See also Forterra's "distributed virtual world technology for the corporate, healthcare, government, and entertainment industries.")

Just as the web put an end to the competition between early online communities to be the one-size-fits-all destination, an interoperable 3D web will allow vertical 3D application niches and platforms to flourish.

I look also for the 3D web to interoperate with location-based services. We shouldn't think of this interoperability as being just for virtual worlds. Ultimately, virtual is just another layer on top of physical. GIS folks don't think of maps per se, they think of map layers -- hundreds or thousands of levels of data overlaid on the world. Many of these layers are abstract and virtual. Aren't street addresses actually virtual? Might not other classes of data be anchored to the real world in some way? A company has a physical address, but they also have an address on the telephone network, an address on the web, and many others. Just as a skyscraper reaches into the sky from a single street address, housing thousands of souls at work or at sleep, might there not be virtual towers anchored to physical locations, embracing and extending our world?

There's quite a future ahead of us here. It's silly to try to recreate the wheel (or to own the wagon) when by working together we can build something that is so much bigger. Open standards are a winning strategy.

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