Saturday, 17 May 2008


Early March I wrote a post about why I think Linden Research should open their server sources. I concluded: "I think Linden Labs basically has no choice but to open up their source. If they don't others will soon be competing to set the standard for an open grid". From the looks of it I may have been right even though the competition comes from a somewhat surprising source.

Santa Clara, California based Sun Microsystems, developpers of the Solaris operating system, Java and builders of high-end server hardware have been in SL for a good long while now. The sims they own are only partly open to the public. Some are Sun employee-only isles. I often wondered why they didn't use SL more as they are known to be big proponents of the "the network is the computer" adagio and SL fits that bill perfectly.

Java mascot Duke in SL

The answer is simple, they have develeoped what they call "Project Wonderland". It is described as a "toolkit for creating collaborative 3D virtual worlds." Sun's vision for this Java based multi-user virtual environment is to "provide an environment that is robust enough in terms of security, scalability, reliability, and functionality that organizations can rely on it as a place to conduct real business". This all sounds like music to my ears because let's be frank: SL is neither secure nor reliable and I have a hunch they are at the end of the ride in terms of scalability. Functionality? Everything in Wonderland seems to comply with open standards which will make interaction with existing tools easier. At the moment Maya is used for content creation but other tools like Blender, 3D Studio Max, Lightwave and a number of others are being looked into. Imagine how much easier life would be if you could use these standardised tools to create content ready to upload.

Even though it is still in it's beta stage (present release is version 0.4) Wonderland is not just an exercise. At Sun's Menlo Park Campus there are 19 physical buildings named MPK1 to 19. Now they have a new building: MPK20, built in their own virtual world. In this video Nicole Yankelovich (Principle Investigator for Collaborative Environments program at Sun Microsystems Labs) shows us around MPK20.

Watching this video you can see it doesn't look as imaginative or artistic as SL does but, that's just a matter of content. The core functionality is there and what's more it's all based on open source projects. Wonderland relies on these existing technologies:
  • Project Darkstar - provides the scalable, persistant server software infrastructure
  • JVoiceBridge - provides realtime immersive stereo audio with distance attenuation
  • Java 3D - provides the scene graph on which the 3D world and scene manager is built
  • Project Looking Glass - provides the 3D scene manager
So, could Wonderland be the keystone of the Metaverse? I don't know but it seems to me Sun steps up to the plate well prepared. Compared to SL, Wonderland is build on existing tried and tested open source technologies, it complies to open standards and since it's Java based it's completely platform independant. On top of that Sun has the resources and more importantly the in-house knowledge to address issues like secure authentication, content protection, compatibility with open document formats and many others. Unlike SL, Wonderland is not a stand-alone client-server application, it's embedded in an existing framework.

Did I mention I like Sun stuff ?

Even though they themselves seem to see Wonderland purely as a collaboration tool for businesses and educational puropses I think it's important that a big company like Sun recognises the fact virtual worls have an added value and deem it important enough to devote time and money to them well beyond setting up some sims in SL. Unlike LL's server code the Wonderland source is out there. Will someone pick up on it?

Interesting reads about Sun and its involvement with virtual worlds:

The Wonderland homepage: includes the Wonderland sources and a binary download
Wonderblog : a blog about project Wonderland
Virtual wolds at Sun
: A blog about Sun's involvement in vitual worlds including SL

Just for the record: I'm in no way associated with Sun Microsystems other than being a Solaris sys admin :-)


Ravishal Bentham said...

A fascinating story Loki. I agree, it seems SL is hitting a wall as far as scalability. Unless they can fix their code to allow an even more expansive grid then some one else will come along and solve that problem for them.

Loki Popinjay said...

I think their biggest problem is that the initial code was never written with such a large scale operation in mind. Now they are stuck. All they can do is tweak the set-up to get a bit more performance here and there while what they should do is start from scratch. I guess from a business point of view that would be way too expensive so they are stuck.

Danton Sideways said...

There seems to be more here than meets the eye. The video is rather disappointing when compared to Second Life - the woman waddles like a duck, rather than walking graciously like the normal SL avatar. But as you point out the underlying software seems sounder than that of Linden Lab, being based on the Sun platform, and their deep experience with open source packages.

I'd heard of project Wonderland, but never got the specifics. Thanks for leading me to their binaries (compiling source code is a bit beyond me for now). If I have time I'd like to try running it somehow, but maybe for that I need a whole server?

John Norris said...

I can't imagine how much easier things would be if I had to use *those* outside tools. If you are handy with those things, great, but I need some simple stuff that I can sketch out a few ideas with. Seems more of a limiting factor to non-corporate users.

A firm base in open source is very cool 'tho.