Open source virtual environments living server-free

Inside Solipsis, one month ago.

Most people familiar with the Second Life grid are also aware of the existence of OpenSim technology, commonly thought of as the Open Source alternative to Second Life.

With OpenSim, you can create your own virtual environment grid without needing to pay for licensing. The grid can be made open to the public, or be kept private, only available to those on your side of the firewall.

What is the difference, then, between the OpenSim concept, and that of Open Cobalt and Solipsis? Essentially, OpenSim grids are designed to be served from a common point. Open Cobalt and Solipsis implementations are designed to be served from many points – they are both peer-to-peer technologies.

Open Cobalt: specific market niche

Open Cobalt consists of two parts: a browser and a toolkit. The browser is used to view the 3D virtual workspaces created with the toolkit. Each workspace can live on a separate personal computer. Workspaces are real time and computationally dynamic, and each can host multiple participants. Additionally, individual workspaces can be interlinked into a private and secure network of workspaces.

Open Cobalt is based on Croquet technology. Squeak is an open source software development environment for Smalltalk-80 programming purposes; the Croquet system is derived from Squeak. The Croquet system features a peer-based messaging protocol that eliminates the dependence of a virtual environment upon a single server or server cluster, and that fosters the creation of highly collaborative workspaces. The Croquet software developer’s kit (SDK) was released in 2007, after which development under the Croquet umbrella ceased. Further development of Croquet has continued under the Open Cobalt banner.

Open Cobalt has a number of very attractive features, particularly for researchers, educators and students:

  • Open source licensing (MIT).
  • Deeply malleable, collaborative space.
  • Runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
  • Internet access is not required; it can run over LANs and Intranets.
  • Private environments can be created. This eliminates the incidence of griefing by outsiders.
  • Public environment can be created. This brings richness and diversity to learning environments.
  • In-world text, voice and video chat, web browsing (VNC allows access to browsers like Firefox) and annotations.
  • Access to remote applications via VNC.
  • Navigation between virtual workspaces is possible using 3D hyperlinks.
  • Workspaces can be easily saved and restored.
  • Mesh, texture, media, and whole avatar imports are possible.

Open Cobalt was started in January of 2008 by Julian Lombardi and Mark P. McCahill of Duke University.  The pre-alpha release of Cobalt (downloadable here) was announced in June 2008. Since then, Open Cobalt has progressed in leaps and bounds, featuring more functionality and more extensibility. The beta release is due this year, and a full implementation is expected to be released in 2010.

Solipsis: our market niche includes everyone.

Solipsis is also open source, and also features de-centralisation of computational work and data storage. Nonetheless, its background, implementation and philosophies are of course quite different from those of Open Cobalt.

Solipsis has been developed by French R&D partners Orange R&D, Artefacto, Archivideo, IRISA and the Université de Rennes II. The product, which has been available for download for some time, is currently in beta testing, though that is slated to be completed soon.

The Solipsis 3D project grew out a prior 2D project; the 2D browser also featured a peer-to-peer facility, and thus allowed users to engage in chat sessions without the use of centralised servers.

Beginning in 2006, with a time-line of 30 months to completion, the Solipsis 3D universe and the advanced modelling tools should now be available.

The Solipsis team has a rather grand notion of the position it will hold in the future: they desire it to replace and greatly extend the Web as it exists today. Far more than just creating a metaverse in which to communicate and collaborate with other people, they also see Solipsis as a potential way to store and present data in a more meaningful way than the conventional Web does now. Additionally, they hope that Solipsis will conquer scalability issues, promote usage and creation of high-bandwidth services, and that it will be self-organising – any part that is cut off from the rest of the metaverse will be self-sustaining.

The Solipsis GUI presents as both a stand-alone navigator, and as a Firefox plug-in and ActiveX component.

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