If you've been watching the development of videogame technology and user interfaces, you might have noticed that we're getting closer and closer to the point where the Matrix becomes a reality. At some point in the future, most of us will be socializing, working, and having fun in a vast virtual landscape -- also known as the 3D Web, the metaverse, or the hypergrid.
But there are some issues that need to be addressed. I'm not talking about the technical stuff -- that part is easy and inevitable. The pioneers of the new 3D Web have some major philosophical differences on a number of subjects. How these get resolved will help determine the future evolution of the Internet, and, possibly, the future business model of your company.
Issue No. 1: copyright
There's a school of thought that information should be free, and an entire industry of pirates and activists is working to help that time come about. But it's not just traditional digital content that's at stake, like music, videos, software, and e-books. As the number of virtual world platforms proliferates, so does the trade in pirated 3D content, such as virtual designer clothing in Second Life.
Corporations have two battles to fight here: First, they must ensure that the virtual content they are using in their own virtual worlds does not infringe anyone's copyright. Second, they have to protect their own virtual content from illegal copying.
To help with the former, companies need to carefully track the licenses of the content they acquire. This could be tougher than it seems: As enterprises work on their content management strategies, they should be prepared to handle a growing volume of content requiring a lot of memory, which may be difficult to index or search.
Protecting proprietary content from illegal copying and distribution requires the ability to find and track the content. This isn't possible with today's technology -- there are too many different platforms with different standards, and no comprehensive search methods on the platforms that do exist.
Meanwhile, bigger battles will be fought in the courts and legislatures about how copyright should be enforced -- something that all of us have a stake in, and should be keeping an eye on.
Issue No. 2: patents
The use of software patents has been controversial from the early days of the Web. Patents are an expensive drain on our economy and speed of innovation. Recent high-profile battles over mobile technology underscore that, under the current system, everyone loses -- vendors as well as customers. Patents have become a nuclear arms race.
Virtual worlds are not immune to this, with companies rushing to patent many basic -- and obvious -- virtual world technologies.
Unfortunately, there's no solution here other than legislative actions -- to eliminate software patents entirely, or to limit their length, or to make it a lot more difficult for corporations to get new patents for vague and dubious innovations.
Issue No. 3: walled gardens
In the early days of the Internet, most commercial content was located inside walled gardens like AOL and Compuserve. Over time, most commercial Internet service providers either dropped their walls or went out of business, and companies opened their email systems.
But some walled gardens remain. Many games, for example, remain locked into proprietary platforms. And most large corporations have behind-the-firewall intranets where they keep their proprietary information under lock and key.
With the exception of the 100-some worlds that are connected via the
hypergrid, today's virtual environments are all walled gardens. You can't teleport from Second Life into World of Warcraft, for example. And you wouldn't want to -- someone could build a nuclear bomb inside Second Life, teleport it to a medieval city in World of Warcraft, and nuke all their enemies. Similarly, game content creators wouldn't want to see their proprietary content, which they spent millions of dollars designing, showing up on other worlds.
Over time, however, many publicly-oriented and social worlds are likely to drop their walls and allow free teleports in and out, and there will be battles over standards and security. Some are already trying to paint this issue in philosophical or moral terms.
Enterprises fall on both sides of this issue, and it's simply a matter of practicality.
When they're using virtual environments for training, rapid prototyping, collaboration, meetings, or conferences, for instance, many companies wouldn't want their competitors to be able to wander in and look around. On the other hand, corporations may also want to have a public presence for public events, marketing games, customer outreach, and investor relations.
It's not an either-or situation, and companies need to be careful to choose platforms that meet their needs.
— Maria Korolov is president of Trombly International, an editorial services company that provides coverage of emerging technologies and markets. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years.