Applications and Tools, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Virtual World Platforms

OpenSim Developers: They Don’t Bite

The open source community says that standards arise first from code. Without the code driving things, there are no policies, standards, identity systems, content protection, or ability to tag and flag grids for their level of privacy or whether they’re G or X-rated or any of that stuff - it all starts from bytes, baby, and what brilliant little bytes they are.

OK, so some context, because the geeks had their own table at the recent Virtual World conference in LA. Two tables in fact - one a booth in the exhibit hall, and the second a panel discussion on the main agenda, unfortunately slotted in the last spot on the last day but well-attended.

The panel was facilitated by Tish Shute of UgoTrade and included Ubergeek Adam Frisby of Deep Think, Mic Bowman of Intel (who, Trish took great pains to tell everyone “has actually written code” as if the writing of code was a critical entry pass to even be ON a panel like this), David Levine of IBM (Zha Ewry in SL), Justin-Clark Casey who’s currently ‘unemployed’ but is about to start work on the Fashion Research Institute project, and Mike Mazur working with 3Di in Japan (and who had that endearing Japanese way of giving you his business card).

Super Geeks

Now, before I go on, I should say that I use the word “geek” in the most endearing possible way. This being an open source discussion, I’ll rely on the open source Wikipedia and choose one of their definitions of geek (leave it to Wikipedia, by the way, to point out that we can all join in the celebrations of Nerd Pride Day on May 26th in Spain…I didn’t know there was such a day and I really didn’t know that Spain was such a hot bed):

“A person with a devotion to something in a way that places him or her outside the mainstream. This could be due to the intensity, depth, or subject of their interest.”

In fact, these aren’t your usual geeks. These are super geeks. Brilliant people who live in that netherworld of code and deep thought and IRC channels that put the SL forums to shame with a kind of rough-and-tumble energy and, well, geekiness.

OpenSim Booth Babes Photo by way of Adam Frisby

And I mention the fact that these are super geeks because, well, I’m not. Or maybe I’m just a geek in whatever way a non-coder can be a geek, but it’s a tough call because I can get intense sometimes but I don’t have much depth and I don’t have a particular subject of interest, in fact my attention span is that of a gnat, so I was thankful that the session on “open source and virtual worlds” was kept on schedule, because an hour is really pushing my ability to pay attention.

What They Said
OK - so, you can see what’s happened here. I have a point but it takes me 30 minutes to get to it. With the VW panel on the other hand, they get to the point, and they arrive at it with the ruthless efficiency that only bright minds can. But because of that efficiency - and you know what I mean if you know any geeks, sometimes the message gets a little lost in translation, it gets lost in words like “extensible” and my favorite new phrase “computational fabrics” and the fact that for some reason, and I don’t think it’s because it was a public forum, these folks TALK really fast which makes it all a bit of a blur.

Now…thank goodness for Tish from UgoTrade who managed to bring some structure and purpose to the conversation - plus, she talks at a speed I can follow.

And this is important: because I think that lost in all the code talk is a message that I can buy into, or at least understand, but the thing with people with passion is that they can be SO passionate, and they can get SO excited about how OpenSim is a “tight kernel” (whatever the heck that is), that you sort of lose track of what they’re getting at. So I can only give a kind of impressionist take on half of what was said, or at least what they intended to say, although frankly I might be making some stuff up here as well.

OK, so here’s what was said in a very broad, general way:

- OpenSim is driving innovation for virtual worlds (being a VW conference, they assume I guess that everyone believes that virtual worlds are important)
- Open source is better because it helps to establish standards, a code base, and that innovation thing again
- Insert lots of code-type structural talk here such as “modular components” and “browser neutral” and all that. They SORT of made a connection between why this was important and examples, but they kept getting side-tracked.
- Justin Clark-Casey for example is doing some really interesting stuff, but he merely touched on it without really explaining why it’s an example of why OpenSim is important.
- Likewise Mike started to talk about what they’re doing at 3Di which is also interesting stuff - for example, a browser-based client, one that WORKS (mostly), load balancing so that you can exceed avatar limits and reduce lag, things like that. But he got side-tracked on some codey discussion of some sort.
- OpenSim will work because there’s lots of people, well, working on it….and they’re very smart people, and some of them are adults (which doesn’t make them smarter, it just means they have IBM and Intel on their cards)
- Standards will be a critical component of OpenSim IN ADDITION to open source code, although the point got somewhat lost in explaining the technical stuff about how OpenSim is coding a very granular list…something about “disaggregating architecture” and “articulating boundaries between modules”.
- Policy will arise from all this coding.
- And, oh….the OpenSim development community “doesn’t bite”, according to David Levine.

What I Think They Meant
So I went back to my hotel room and sorted through everything and had two feelings: one, that I was highly impressed, and two, what I heard and what they were saying were, I think, two different things, especially when it comes to standards and policy.

Now admittedly, this was a panel discussion, not a presentation. Which means it had permission to meander a little. To get lost down little side roads and to use words like “articulating boundaries” and “expressing virtual worlds across various computational fabrics” (huh? You mean use it anywhere?) and “decomposing virtual world activities in order to create innovation ecosystems”.

So here’s my own version:

OpenSim is a large group of very smart people that may have used Second Life as its jumping off point, but that has moved well beyond that. OpenSim has broken down all the stuff you DO in virtual worlds: how your avatar appears, how architecture and objects rez, how identity is managed, how the viewer works.

By breaking it down into the smallest possible “chunks” it means that you can create your own “world” out of whatever Lego blocks you want - prefer mesh to prims? Go ahead! Want to integrate with enterprise systems like Lotus? Go ahead! IBM already has! Want to prototype fashion and then turn it into real life clothes - fantastic! That’s what we’re doing already!

Now - if people can make their own “worlds” (or virtual environments) in any way they please, that means that it will give people more options - and more options are better, it will mean more metaverse for everyone, it will mean you can use it for more things, and you won’t be limited by whatever business models and code the “closed worlds” like Second Life restrict you to, and thus through innovation and a robust community we’ll see a more ubiquitous technology.

(Hmm…I take back the word ubiquitous, sounds too geeky. How about “we’ll see virtual worlds everywhere…work, home and play.”)

Are Standards the Same as Policy?

Now, I made a mistake, because I was curious about this very clear and, hmmm, entrenched view they seemed to present. The one that says “standards arise from code”. And maybe I don’t understand the difference between standards and policy - or how the code will enable policy, in any case, and so I asked a question about this philosophy comparing it to e-mail.

Because e-mail, I said, doesn’t really “work”. Which of course elicited one of those quick technical briefings about how e-mail actually does “work” including something about protocols or something, but my point wasn’t that you don’t GET or have the ability to SEND e-mail, my point was that e-mail is a standard that TECHNICALLY works but that wasn’t developed with some thought as to identity POLICIES which, if it had been, might be a solution for all this spam I wade through every morning.

And sure, e-mail came out 100 years ago before anyone dreamed of spam. But my point was, how do we avoid similar mistakes, and the response was that without the mechanisms FIRST, you shouldn’t really bother with policy discussions because standards should never arise from the top down, they should always arise from the code up, anything else is, hmm, Betamax I guess?

See….we have a communication issue here. And it’s really my point about them being geeks and me not being geeky. Because the immediate response is “No, there’s only one way to do this that will work” rather than, you know, showing that you can relate to the kitchen table issues of the common user, and you can do that Bill Clinton thing and say “I feel your pain” and then show that you actually DO get it and trust me, we’re not oblivious to these issues, which is what they WERE saying just not in a way that seemed particularly reassuring.

Levine said something for example about needing to create some sort of “Grid entry” panel so that before you teleport into one of these mini OpenSim grids you’d know what their policies are or whether the content is X-rated or what the dress code is (funny what they give as examples, I’m more worried about privacy and content protection than strip clubs). So, it’s not like they don’t understand the issue, it’s that they figure it’s better to get the code base up and running and then start testing policy and standards AGAINST the code instead of bothering with it ahead of time.

And you know - maybe that’s fine. Because I think what they’re really saying is the following:

Standards and policy arise when the code is tested against the “real world” applications of the code - because if it can’t be used in a way that won’t piss people off, then it won’t reach that “innovation/ubiquity” thing which is the promise of all this open code.

And thus, we’re invited to join the community - whether as coders or investors or hosts of our own mini sims. And Levine tells us not to worry, because the OpenSim development community “doesn’t bite” which is a slightly different pitch than “they don’t bite, and in fact WANT to work with people who not only want to test the code, but also the models and standards and policies that could arise from it”.

Innovation and Parallel Policy

In all fairness, again - the panel made these points. But they always start with what the code makes possible. And I understand that now - I understand that until you’ve sorted out all the granular bits of Lego that you’re not ready to have an intelligent conversation about policy - as Mic Bowman of Intel said (I think it was him) “You get the mechanisms in place first and then run policy in parallel” and others noted that social models, role transparency and trust were significant issues that would need to be addressed.

Whether decisions are being made at the granular level that will later restrict the range of policy I have no idea - I’m not a geek. And where the forums will be for testing various notions of standards and policy is somewhat unclear.

Maybe it’s time to find a geek and get him to code up some different permission systems or something - if that’s the case, let me know, I’ll fund it.

In the meantime I’ll say again - I may not have understood half of it, but compared to pretty much everything else on display at the VW conference, OpenSim is the true heart of innovation in virtual worlds today. Long live the geeks.


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