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Trending: Metaverse—Moving The Internet from Interface to Interaction

Oct 20, 2014, by Ben Fineman
Tags: 2014 Technology Exchange

By now I'm sure many of you have read something about the new wave of head mounted displays that are coming down the pipe – the main example being the Oculus Rift, with its successful Kickstarter campaign that resulted in a $2 billion acquisition by Facebook. These technologies are poised to carry us past a tipping point in terms of adoption and utilization of virtual environments through enabling an entirely new level of immersion. What is important to note is that while these devices have many possibilities in the entertainment space, their eventual impact will be much more than that – readily available immersion into virtual environments will fundamentally change the way we share information and collaborate—even a new kind of Internet.

To date, information sharing on the Internet has primarily been done via the World Wide Web in formats that are similar to printed documents – that is, web pages that are two-dimensional and scroll vertically. Real-time collaboration technologies have enabled richer collaboration through the use of high quality video and audio ("telepresence", as some call it), but these applications have also been limited to two-dimensional displays. Three-dimensional, 360 degree, immersive displays will enable as-yet-unimagined information sharing and collaboration capabilities.

Examples of realistic 3D environments are now widely available, but have historically been used mostly for entertainment applications. Educational, training, collaborative, and simulation applications of 3D environments have long existed, but their impact has been limited by the non-immersion of flat computer screens, or the extreme expense of purpose-built VR rooms. These non-gaming applications will gain traction and momentum through the availability of more accessible immersive displays. In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) identified virtual reality as one of 14 Grand Challenges awaiting solutions in the 21st century – and we’re on the cusp of seeing this realized.

As we move into the 3rd dimension, we’re bound to see the rise of many proprietary virtual environments – spaces where rich experiences can be found. Today, these applications are only usable when everyone is utilizing the same platform. Think of it as the Internet before the world wide web – there were a lot of compelling content sources and collaboration capabilities available, but one had to log on to a specific platform like Compuserve or AOL to access them. It wasn’t until necessary tools like HTTP and HTML were invented that we were actually able to experience an open web where anyone, anywhere could create and visit websites. And in turn, when the Mosaic browser was released, the web became readily available to the public.

We are at a similar crossroads for virtual environments. Nearly 45 million users exist between just two popular virtual environments—World of Warcraft (7.4M), and the open-ended Second Life (37M). Further, the space sandbox Eve Online boasts an in-game economy valued at $18 million real-world dollars. But, each platform is closed and proprietary and one cannot bridge experiences between the virtual environments—drastically limiting capabilities and broader adoption. To enable a world where diverse virtual environments can be seamlessly interlinked, we must achieve the same common set of tools and standards that were pioneered for the Internet so many years ago.

Given its history of excellence in creating many of the technologies comprising the Internet we know today, the research and education community is ideally suited to face the impending challenge of a standards-based and interoperable Metaverse. Some standards exist, as hashed out by the IEEE Metaverse Standards Group, but few example implementations have been created. Additionally, challenges remain in the areas of distributed architecture, identity, and scalability.

The Internet2 community is pleased to announce the creation of the Metaverse Working Group, which has the specific goal of implementing standards-based, interoperable virtual spaces that are distributed across universities. Anyone in the research and education community is welcome (and encouraged!) to join simply by indicating interest at: metaverse@internet2.edu.

In launching this new working group, a number of corresponding activities are planned at the upcoming Technology Exchange next week in Indianapolis, IN.

  • During the opening general session we will hear from Dr. Edward Castronova, I.U. faculty and author of "Synthetic Worlds" and "Exodus to the Virtual World" in his Tech Talk titled "Games as Petri Dishes: The potential of populated virtual environments for social science research." View the netcast live at 1:30pm EDT on 10/27.
  • We'll have a panel session entitled "Building the Metaverse: Architecting Distributed Virtual Environments" with Dr. Castronova as well as Josh Carpenter (building 3D into Firefox at Mozilla), James McCrae (creator of JanusVR), Margaret Dolinsky (I.U. faculty in virtual environments), and Bill Sherman (I.U. visualization lead). View the netcast live at 4:15pm EDT on 10/27.
  • For those attending in person, the demonstration hall will feature a pair of Oculus Rift DK2 head mounted displays on site to demonstrate the promise of current virtual reality technology. Thanks to the 3D Virtual Environments class from I.U. Bloomington for running the demo.
  • Finally, we'll be kicking off the Metaverse Working Group with an onsite meeting at 12:15pm on 10/29. If you can’t make it in person don’t worry, just email metaverse@internet2.edu to be informed of future meetings.

The future of collaboration and the web is an exciting one with the promise of virtual reality – and if the research and education community’s contributions to the Internet we know today are any indication, our influence and shaping of the Metaverse has all the potential to be the next big Act!