The open future of virtual worlds

Text Yrjö Lappalainen

While the initial hype regarding virtual worlds already seems to have settled, virtual worlds still continue to be used in education around the world. Second Life has been one of the most popular virtual worlds so far, but rising costs and growing needs for more customisable environments have led many to seek alternatives. Open source virtual worlds may provide a solution, but more research is needed to examine their potential. To provide new insights, a benchmarking of Second Life and 5 open source platforms (OpenSim, realXtend, Open Wonderland, Open Cobalt and OpenQwaq) was carried out as part of an ESF funded project called Openness Accelerating Learning Networks.

Open source platforms are a potential alternative to Second Life as their acquisition is free and they can be highly customised, thus providing more flexibility for different types of teaching. However, the development of standards is important in order to facilitate interoperability among different platforms, e.g. transferring objects and avatars from one platform to another. A personalised avatar, for example, is an important part of the user experience, which is why users should be able to use the same avatar in different worlds. A single compatible client or browser integration could also facilitate the co-use of different platforms. This could eventually lead to a standard hypergrid where users could move seamlessly among different environments.

Emerging opportunities

Virtual worlds are inspiring environments as such, but mixing virtual and real spaces will offer new and even more versatile possibilities. Video and audio connections between virtual and real spaces are already common, and motion control is also making its way into virtual worlds. Data glasses, mobile devices and various controllers can be used to view and manipulate virtual objects, enabling users to interact with each other and the world in entirely new ways. The ideas are nothing new, but technology is finally catching up. The realisation of this dream, however, still requires standards, more research and open cooperation. The future of virtual worlds is open – welcome aboard!

Key findings

  • All examined platforms offer similar basic functionality, but they differ from each other in both technical properties and potential uses.
  • Installation and basic use of open source platforms is free, but costs may arise during maintenance and customisation.
  • Rather than forming a single cohesive environment, open source worlds are deployed on different servers. Separate spaces may help users to better focus on individual tasks, but they also prevent users from moving seamlessly between worlds, using environments built by others and experiencing random encounters.
  • Most open source platforms do not offer tools for building and creating objects within the world as does Second Life. However, objects can be imported and free content is available for all platforms.
  • Some platforms are still in an early stage of development.

Open source virtual world platforms

More information

Yrjö Lappalainen
University of Tampere