Day Two: Sun WERC

Today was day two of the Sun WERC Conference in San Francisco. There were some excellent speakers today, and more Wonderland/Darkstar information (lots more).

There was a panel discussion in the general session before lunch, and then a break out session after lunch. I’ll post blog entries about both shortly. I am very glad that I came to this conference. I had planned on being up in Redmond at the Microsoft CIO Conference, but this event appealed to my need for a customizable distance learning platform. I’ve now had a chance to meet many of the people at Sun involved in this project and others from the virtual world community (several from SL). I was even finally able to meet Aaron Walsh from the Immersive Education Media Grid Project.

It is clear to me that even though the Wonderland/Darkstar platform is only in version 0.3 (currently going through a review, rendering engine change, and version change), there is significant buzz and synergy forming around this project. People who have experience with virtual worlds are getting excited about this platform. And that should not be a scary thing for educators using Second Life.

Second Life has many things that appeal to educators.

  • There are minimal barriers to entry with Second Life
  • There is a mature and rich community of developers, and an established economy driving development in Second Life
  • There is a very large community of educators working in Second Life, both in K12 and Higher Education
  • Second Life is ideal for rapid prototyping of new learning environments and assets. This will remain true even after the Sun platform is released in v1.0 (read the other blog posts on the steep learning curve for the Sun platform)
  • Everyone can quickly learn how to create content in Second Life, even teachers

The Sun platform is NOT aiming to supplant Second Life. I’ve been here two days now and I’ve heard nothing about ‘doing business’ in this virtual world, in the way that Second Life tries to promote consumer consumption in their virtual world. There are no plans to provide in-world development tools like in Second Life. Paul Byrne, Senior Engineer, Project Wonderland, keeps using the term ‘Federated Model’ to describe this platform. Now that I’ve been around the team members of the Wonderland/Darkstar project for a few days, and have been in Second Life since the BETA, I think I can frame it in a simple (and likely debated) comparison:

If you compare today’s virtual world technologies with online services of the early 1990’s, Second Life is to AOL as the Sun Platform is to the Internet. Remember, you heard this comparison here first, as I suspect others will start drawing the same comparison. And this is not intended to put Second Life in a negative light, quite the opposite.

Second Life was designed as a closed proprietary system. Linden Lab owns the currency, they control the land, they control the IP (debate this as much as you want, you can’t take your ‘stuff’ out of Second Life), and they generally control everything about the virtual world of Second Life. You can be banned, you can lose your assets, your business may be shut down if the TOS of SL change, and you must accept all of these conditions (or terms of service) if you are to get a Second Life.

Darkstar Wonderland is being designed from the ground up as an open source model, a ‘federated’ virtual world. There is no currency, there is no central Sun asset database, and there is no master system for managing accounts (and the creation of accounts). All of the elements of the platform are being set in industry standard 3D file formats, the applications being used for content creation are industry standards (Maya, Blender, and soon Sketchup). XML is at the heart of the programming structure for defining the world. And hooks are being made for external applications to run inside of this virtual world platform. How many people would line up for the ability to run Windows applications in Second Life through VNC on a prim? A line would encircle the virtual world if you could get HTML on a prim.

But just as the Internet was a giant leap in complexity and extensibility from AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy and other online services of the early 90’s, the new Sun platform is a giant leap in complexity over Second Life in content creation and the hosting of servers. All of the Second Lifer’s in the room today commented after the break out session that they were going to have to quickly acquire skills in Maya (and/or Blender). Maya is not cheap, and will present those outside of education (you can get Maya at an educational discount) with a barrier to entry. Blender can be used, but this is like using Gimp instead of Photoshop for graphics editing. And all the books are written to Maya, as it is the choice of professional graphic artists.

The virtual world application I envision for distance learning and business in the Sun Wonderland/Darkstar platform cannot be done in Second Life today. I’ve never considered Second Life a viable platform for distance learning specifically because of the absence of full applications running in-world. Even something as simple as a PowerPoint presentation is kludgy to put together and present in-world with Second Life. Sun has designed a platform that is aimed squarely at the needs of distance learning and business communications from the start, and most likely learning from the lessons learned in Second Life since its launch in 2003. And Sun is invested in the platform, as it was primarily developed to meet a high demand of their mobile workforce and their iWork initiative.

I believe that the barriers to entry will erode over time with the Sun platform as a community grows around it, and people start to produce and tag assets for use in the platform. The key is, since these assets will be saved in standard file formats, that they will likely be able to move between worlds that use these standards and be portable to other platforms if a better one come on the scene in a few years. The ‘federated’ model is the one that has the best chance of becoming Web 3.0, and at the moment Sun looks to be tailoring their platform to fit this need. ‘Bubble’ worlds will rule in Web 3.0.

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6 responses to “Day Two: Sun WERC

  1. Presumably in the braoder scheme of things there are also going to be overlaps with Qwaq Forums and OpenSim as well as opportunities to move content between platforms. Not a two-horse race or possibly even a race at all.

  2. Much thanks for these two excellent posts about the Sun initiative. Very perceptive and informative.

  3. Thanks Stan – It looks like 2008 will be the year of new viable educational virtual world platforms… Wonderland/Darkstar, Qwaq/Croquet, Tomorrow Space/Ogoglio, *grid/OpenSim… and since we educators have limited time, posts like this are great: we can quickly benefit from each other’s investigations and experiments. (Imagine if we had to wait for you to publish a peer-reviewed journal article instead!)

    Linden Lab still says that the Second Life server code will go open source eventually. OpenSim is an option for people who can’t wait. Philip Rosedale also said that they hope to have some kind of HTML-on-a-prim in SL by May 1.

  4. Pingback: The Grid Live » Second Life News for February 28, 2008

  5. I cringe at the idea of having to master Blender or Maya to create content in Wonderland/Darkstar. The funny thing is, while SL is a closed world without the administrative freedoms of an open-source system like this one, the average user is incredibly limited in what they can create due to the steep learning curve. Only the pros and masochists will be making stuff for Sun’s system. It is an exciting platform for serious work, but I reiterate your point about this not being a replacement for SL – There’s absolutely no way that the average teacher or student will put forth the effort necessary to learn how to create content on Wonderland/Darkstar. Though, it will be nice to have a reliable place for working and sharing presentations. Also, how will the placement of the sims work? Will there be an open/close switch to make your island public or private instantaneously? How will residents share content with one another? Will Sun develop an offline system for transferring content?

  6. Pingback: Sun’s Wonderland/Darkstar Open-Source Virtual Worlds Project | Tom Werner

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