More information and some thoughts on LL’s new, work-in-progress, virtual world

ebbe-altbergAs I wrote yesterday, Latif Khalifa reported on the SL Universe forums that Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg confirmed in an “oh, by the way” manner during the TPV developer meeting of Friday 20th that the Lab is working on a new, next-generation virtual world. The story was reported by Ciaran Laval, and Inara Pey blogged on it in far greater detail (complete with an excerpt of her audio recording of the meeting) – and I hope her reports might help (to whatever extent) do away with the FUD that started circulating shortly after Latif made his post on the SLU forums. In the meantime, the story was picked up by various blogs and commentary platforms of varying reliability and credibility.

What will follow will be the details I gathered from the initial posts, from Inara’s post, and from Ebbe Altberg’s replies on  the forum and on Twitter, and also I’m going to give my own thoughts on the matter.

Let me reiterate what Latif posted in his original post in the forums:

  • Linden Lab is working on a next generation virtual world;
  • Most of Lab’s development resources are already working on it;
  • A smaller dev team headed by Oz Linden remains working on SL;
  • The new worlds will be closed sourced, and not backward compatible with content from SL.

As Inara pointed out in her own initial coverage of the announcement, that the Lab is working on new virtual world platforms is not news. In her October 2012 review of an interview that VentureBeat’s GamesBeat had with LL’s then-CEO Rod Humble, she picked up on a statement he made that the Lab “is still investing in 3D virtual worlds.” Mr. Humble commented on her blog and had this to say:

Hey thanks for the write up. For sure our commitment to Second Life remains key and central to our company. When I talk about shared creative spaces I put virtual worlds right in that.

My comment about also investing in virtual worlds is correct. As you know I dont like to detail things until we are close to something actionable, but we absolutely are investing in the large virtual world space which I think will make Second Life users, business owners and developers very happy…. but its a ways off 🙂

He also confirmed that the plural (“virtual worlds” instead of “virtual world”) was deliberate. So, I don’t think we should be surprised or shocked by the news that LL is looking at making a new and hopefully better virtual world.

Remember, despite the fact that we can do some pretty amazing things in SL and its OpenSim clones, it is 11 years old, its roots come from the late ’90s, LSL is hardly the best scripting language you can find, many of the principles it’s built upon are now obsolete (such as the default avatar base), it’s monolithic, and is therefore very hard to improve and maintain – this is why adding new capabilities, fixing bugs, and closing security vulnerabilities often leads to extremely painstaking and long-winded projects.

If I’m completely honest, I do agree with the idea that the best way for Linden Lab to provide a better virtual world is to start over from scratch, building on what they’ve learned from all those years of developing Second Life, avoiding the technical mistakes that were made, and drawing from the latest technological advances and changes in people’s usage model of virtual worlds. It’s a better way to go, rather than be shackled by the need for compatibility with obsolete technologies, content and codebase. After all, this is not unheard of in other IT business fields; OpenERP did the same a few years ago.

What will this all mean for Second Life users?

I. Will Second Life be killed off?

First of all, it’s too early to tell when this new virtual world will open its doors to the public. What is certain is that, at least initially, Second Life and the new virtual world will be both available. So, it’s not like SL will suddenly go the way of the dodo. Development on SL is ongoing (although most of the Lab’s staff is working on the new virtual world), and new capabilities are being added in order to make it more immersive (such as for in-world games).

II. But it won’t be backwards compatible with SL content!

Yes, I don’t expect sculpties, prim-based builds and LSL scripts to be compatible with the new virtual world. Mesh, on the other hand, is a different ball game. I believe what LL was taught about mesh, rigged mesh and even fitted mesh the hard way over the years will be applied and mesh content will be compatible with the new world, within limitations. For instance, if the new virtual world uses a different, improved avatar base that is incompatible with SL’s current avatar base, it goes without saying that any existing rigged mesh content will need to be reworked before it’s ported there.

III. Why is it going to be closed source? What consequences will this have?

SL itself is not open source. The server-side code is not open source. What is open source at the moment is the viewer only – and let me remind you that, in the early days, even the viewer was not open source either. Now, while it has been theorised in the discussions that a fully proprietary (closed source) virtual world/viewer combination would be somehow immune to copybotters, this is not the case. Not by a long shot. Of course, I fully understand why LL would prefer to keep their server-side code proprietary, as they have done so far. But an open source viewer would allow for customised, optimised third-party viewers as is now the case in Second Life and OpenSim.

IV. Is it Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity, in which LL is an investor?

No. LL and High Fidelity are separate entities. This doesn’t mean that some of what High Fidelity is doing won’t be incorporated in LL’s next-gen virtual world (or vice versa), but we’re talking about two entirely different and separate platforms, developed by two entirely different and separate companies.

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11 thoughts on “More information and some thoughts on LL’s new, work-in-progress, virtual world

  1. At a guess regarding backwards compatibility…
    – Would you give a wild guess at what proportion of SL’s present content could be transferred into a new world using macro-style automation?
    – Basically the question is, how much of that work might be mechanical ‘translations’, and how much of it do you think would be too abstract and requiring higher level functions?
    – In absence of knowledge of the new worlds, would you rather guess that from-scratch build in them would probably be easier and better?
    Bruce Thomson in New Zealand.

    1. Even if you addressed these questions to Ebbe himself, you wouldn’t get an answer – even he himself wouldn’t know, as things are certainly too fluid at the moment. I’m semi-flattered that you think I might be able to answer any of them, but I’m not privy to any of LL’s technical workings and I must say I don’t feel comfortable being seen as an LL insider.

  2. It will be interesting to know what graphic engine the Lab chooses for the new world. Will it be voxel-based like HiFi? Or, will it be compatible with Allegorithmic substances, as is the case with the Unity and Unreal engines? It would be awesome if LL adopted the Substance Engine. Or, C# for scripting…

    1. Re: voxel technology, I’ve no idea. Allegorithmic? No idea. What I do know is that Allegorithmic’s Substance Designer is proprietary, it’s Windows-only, and so I’m not sure how attractive that would be; you can find tools for making bitmap textures on all platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux). I do think, of course, that support for procedural textures would be hugely beneficial. As for C#, I’ve no opinion on that… And no idea, either.

      1. Actually, Allegorithmic products are not Windows only. The tool to make procedural textures, Designer, is available for both Windows and Mac. Painter is still in beta. The engine, which is required to stream their compressed format (one of best benefits in adopting Allegorithmic’s technology), is available for Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Android, iOS, PS4 and Xbox1, and that is required only server side. I don’t see the fact that the technology is proprietary to be a limiting factor server-side. Even the graphic engine LL will adopt will be proprietary, just as Havok engine is for SL.

        I am not sure if substances require a client-side texture renderer, as that may be a problem for 3rd party viewers. In such a case an arrangement could be made with Allegorithmic to provide a free or low-cost library.

        1. Still, tools are needed for all operating systems (including Linux and Android). As for the proprietary nature of the engine, there’s one disadvantage: vendor lock-in. If the engine’s vendor goes under, the customers are in a rather uncomfortable situation.

          LL also uses Kakadu’s proprietary technology for the textures. And the insecure piece of crap called Vivox for voice chat. I know that LL has secured licences for its TPV devs.

          1. Sure, vendor lock-in is a disadvantage but unavoidable in some cases. Unless LL decides to develop all the components of the VW on its own, including the graphic engine… 🙂 As for Allegorithmic’s technology, I see that in addition to regular texturing, not as a replacement.

          2. The way things are, I don’t think developing everything from scratch is an option. And yes, providing Allegorithmic as an additional texturing option is what I had in mind too.

  3. One thing I would like to see in any future LL virtual world: protection of our identities. Leaving behind our content will be painful enough; I’d like to see a promise from them that our names will be available to us if we choose to participate in the new world, and will not be available to anybody else.

  4. That was always one of the things Rod Humble emphasized, the right to Anonymity was and should always be a fundamental part of Linden Lab, regarding Sl.
    I do wish the same will apply to the new product even if I’ve my doubts about the goals and audience it will aim towards.
    Still, let’s be fair, all is to soon to guess and even if i’m prone to the most terrible scenarios for now all i care is for Sl and the joy it gives me.

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