VWFE: IBM on why virtual worlds need to be interoperable

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paul-ledak.jpg up at the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe is Paul Ledak, who’s one of IBM’s virtual world gurus. He’s explaining the important (if you’re in the virtual worlds business) of interoperability.

He’s kicking off with a personal example: creating a house in a virtual world, with an eye to building it in real life (I think). So, you start with a 2D floorplan design, and have to turn that into a 3D form – maybe via an architect who visualises it for you, in partnership with an interior designer. “At the end of the day, there are many different people involved in putting this together.”

Basically, you can design this in 3D and put it into a virtual world, but there’s no way to, say, get a kitchen company to come into your virtual world house and show you their products. You have to go off and look at products on 2D websites, but you can’t import them into you virtual house. Innit.

I was a bit confused for a minute there, but it’s all making sense. You have a virtual house, but real-world companies can’t come round and show how their products might fit into it. I am actually having my real-world kitchen done next month, and am RIGHT THERE with Paul on this being potentially a wonderful thing to do in virtual worlds.

So, now he’s broadening out to the virtual worlds industry. Right now, virtual worlds are all separate, in terms of their tools to create stuff, their content, and the applications you use to access them. “Imagine if you were a Vodafone customer but could only call other Vodafone customers, because the data transmission technologies were different,” he says.

A-ha, so this is where the future will be different. Paul has a slide showing that virtual worlds in the future will use common tools and shared content, and serve everything up through standard browsers. “If I wanna go from a kitchen supplier to an architect to a wallpaper supplier, I don’t have to keep downloading different clients and creating new avatars, just to see what a cabinet’s going to look like in my new house.”

So, what does interoperability mean for virtual worlds? There’s several elements, the first of which is universal registered names and avatars, so you can keep the same name and avatar across different virtual worlds.

“We think there will emerge a concept of avatar name registration not unlike web domain name registration,” he says. “Seperate out the avatar from the virtual world, so that when you create an avatar name and design, you can then serve that avatar into different virtual worlds. We’re not there yet, but it’s one of the key elements of interoperability.”

Paul says this is one of the fundamental things – to transport your virtual identity from world to world.

Secondly, protocols and file formats. Paul says IBM is seeing a positive attitude from virtual world companies on this score, with many agreeing to work together – IBM is actually co-ordinating a working group around this.

And third: universal client. He has a slide showing that you’ll access virtual worlds via a 3D browser, a 2D browser, and a mobile phone (I’m really interested in that last one). So doing away with each virtual world having its own application that you have to download to access it. “It’s one of the toughest areas,” says Paul, with each world having different technical attributes. The industry needs standards, in short, to remove that barrier.

How do virtual worlds need to evolve visually (or, as Paul describes it, “visual fidelity”). How like you do you want your avatar to look? Paul accepts that a lot of people will want their avatar to be completely different, but says it’s important for the possibility to be there for your avatar to look just like you, in a photorealistic stylee. I guess that’s particularly true for corporate worlds (nothing impresses the boss in a virtual meeting more than a big furry green penis, I find).

Now there’s another interesting slide, which puts mobile as a big element. “I hear a lot about the failure of videochat on a cellphone, because people don’t want their real appearance to be transmitted. But what about an avatar of yourself being transmitted, with some level of facial recognition so it can frown or smile as you do?” That sounds very cool.

But yes, the big message is that virtual worlds need to be interoperable: us users need to be able to move between them more easily, using the same avatar (or a modified version) if we want to.

I’m thinking that a lot of people might want, say, three avatars though: one that looks more or less like you, one that looks nothing like you, and then one that’s utterly ridiculous (hello wings, big dragon tails, whatever). I suppose you might end up with a bunch of avatars, which you choose between according to what you’re doing and which world you’re doing it in. Something like that.

Oh, I just asked about interoperability between child-focused worlds and adult virtual worlds. Are there issues around that? I’m guessing there are a lot of teenagers who’ve grown up in child-focused worlds, and want to migrate to adult worlds with their avatar – but if that’s too easy, could it raise issues?

“It’s a tough problem, but there are several technical solutions,” he says. “You could be granted a certificate that says your age, and if worlds honour these certificates, so you could have a kid world that only allows people with certificates saying they’re a child, or adult worlds which only allow people with certificates saying they’re an adult.”

Basically, it’s an issue to be grappled with in the future, as interoperability becomes more of a factor.

Check out other stories from the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe in our Virtual Reality category.

Stuart Dredge