The Foundation On-Line Community Program would be a continual program throughout the Foundation phase and well into the rest of TMP. It’s objective is to exploit the technologies of digital communications and the Internet as a medium for cultural development and practical collaboration through the cultivation of various platforms of group communication, collaboration, and socialization. Today this aspect of Foundation is its most important. It exists primarily as a community of people using existing Internet discussion forum systems and web sites as a means to discuss, cultivate, and disseminate information about TMP.
The On-Line Community Problem Edit
Marshal Savage considered the development of virtual communities the critical start of Foundation, seeing the emerging Internet as an inexpensive but powerful means of collectivizing the collaborative effort of people all over the world. But experience has proven there are practical limits to the potential of virtual communities as they exist today owing to the inefficiencies of on-line communications mediums, the limits on the robustness of collaborative activity on-line, the unresolved issue of trust-building in a virtual world, and the differences in demographics, activity patterns, and communications venues of typical Internet users compared to that of the community of professionals and investors. Bottom-line, virtual communities today are not all they’re cracked-up to be. There remain critical obstacles to translating virtual community participation into effective real-world activity because digital communications cannot compensate for physical distance when it comes to physical activity, and are not a substitute for talent, skill, and wealth, the demographics of the majority of virtual community participants today differing greatly from the majority of effective professionals who –if they are computer literate in the first place– don’t often recreate on-line because of the work character of their computer use and prefer more exclusive ‘noise reduced’ communications venues out of reach of the general public. And perhaps the greatest problem with virtual communities of all is their lack of effective mechanisms for social trust-building, encouraging the Internet’s reputation as something of a jungle full of predators.
Much of this situation relates to the fact that the general design of contemporary personal computers and Internet communications platforms remain quite primitive, thus their full potential as entertainment, communications, and collaboration venues remains unrealized. Computers remain, as a consequence of their physical design, ‘special’ artifacts in our culture requiring special space, furniture, physical postures, and elaborate skills to use, still unable to integrate into the casual daily activity of all but a rather peculiar few. Internet communications platforms remain over-specialized in function, over-complicated in use, and hermetic in architecture, the venues of group chat dominated by an increasingly insular and disaffected youth culture and a similarly insular community of hard-core computing hobbyists who often revel in the exclusivity the cumbersome nature of their tools affords.
Overcoming these problems will require a persistent community effort to improve the existing communications tools, develop new superior systems and platforms, new mediums of collaborations and interaction, and encourage through careful implementation and social/cultural gravitas more –and more progressive– use of existing communications and collaboration venues in spite of their limitations. This will be an ongoing effort that may ultimately involve the development of sophisticated new hardware and software –in particular virtual habitat platforms that may ultimately evolve into a new extension of the civilization in general. But the issue of trust-building in the virtual environment is likely to remain a tough and complex problem well into the future, seeing as much of the entertainment value of on-line socialization is rooted in the psychological safety of anonymity, which by its very nature is both personally liberating yet works against trust, honesty, and fair collaboration. Solutions to this sort of problem are likely to be much more cultural than technological.
At present, the LUF and nascent Foundation are limited largely to the off-the-shelf communications, socialization, and collaboration tools currently available but these have yet to be utilized to their full potential, offering much room for progress.
Virtual Habitat Program Edit
The Virtual Habitat Program represents one of the more advanced projects of the Foundation On-Line Community Program. It’s basic objective is to create, as a promotional effort, virtual environments simulating the many settlements of TMP, illustrating their novel architecture, creating a new forum for communication and socialization between LUF members, and allowing public involvement in the refinement of their design. This project would have two sides to it; habitat development and virtual environment technology development. The habitat development side simply involves the design, creation, and maintenance of specific TMP-themed virtual environment using whatever virtual environment platforms are at-hand –ideally those that are open to a large audience. Currently, the most practical of these available is Second Life, though similar systems may soon be emerging now that its software is moving towards Open Source status.
On the other side, work would involve the active development or refinement of virtual environment software platforms in order to overcome their many current limitations. Current virtual environment software remains primitive and hermetic in architecture and lacks key interoperability, free scalability, graphics flexibility, and ease of use for modeling and avatar creation. Many of these limitations, of course, have to do with the state of personal computer design but also the legacy and design conventions of game software development from which most of these platforms originate.
As described in earlier TMP 2 related articles, the ideal virtual habitat platform would have a much more open and distributed architecture, distributing data storage in a manner akin to the World Wide Web while relying more heavily on peer-to-peer communications and user-side processing to decentralize the flow of environment information and prevent performance deterioration due to bandwidth limitations. Here is one proposal for such a platform architecture as described in the 2007 article by Eric Hunting “The Transhumanist Spectrum and the Architecture of the Virtual Habitat”;
- “This is how I anticipate the virtual habitat eventually going. Though it will likely take today's developers a long time to realize the logic of this paradigm -considering the history of primitive business models in the software industry to date- eventually the true scale of this application will compel the realization that a virtual environment as potentially as big as the Internet itself cannot be treated as a discrete product and we will see the emergence of a virtual habitat platform ecology driven -as the Web is- largely by the development of simple -one might say 'atomic'- components. The end result will be a quite simple software architecture reminiscent of both the Internet's infrastructure and the Webs and comparable in potential scale and ubiquity. I envision this platform ecology consisting of the following basic components;
- Comprising most of the elements making up the physical environment of the habitat, these would be either static (meaning they have no changeable properties), persistent (meaning they have properties which can be changed through interaction with avatars and other objects), dynamic (meaning they have properties that constantly change independent of outside interaction), procedural (which means they have properties which are synthesized on-demand as a user's browser communicates with them), instance (which means they are generated and exist only temporarily for individual or small groups of users and may be non-existent or different for others), and characters. (dynamic/procedural objects which represent life forms and interactive characters) These would exist on the Internet in the form of static files hosted by servers, scripted files where the server or the users' browsers process some simple program associated with the objects, and object programs where discrete or collections of related objects -usually dynamic, procedural, and instance objects- run as self-contained programs behaving like servers.
Environment Servers Edit
- similar to -and perhaps originally the same as- contemporary Web servers used to host objects using static files and simple scripts. As with some Web servers, some may be based on sophisticated databases and scripting environments largely independent of the generic interface they present to the Internet as a whole, allowing them to individually manage large conjoined virtual environments with complex behavior scripting under a comprehensive content editing environment and to generate numerous instance environments -which we'll discuss a little more later. This will likely become a common form for commercially developed environments. As noted above, some environment servers would be focused on individual objects with some complex behavior rather than a collection of objects comprising an environment or portion of an environment.
- a more advanced form of procedural object server which mimics the behavior and functions of an environment browser and used either to automatically traverse and analyze the content of the virtual habitat -much like the web crawlers used by today's Web search engines- or to present a character with complex behavior and a full-feature avatar like that of users. Most characters in the virtual habitat would be server based and so their interaction and mobility would be limited to the environment managed by their host servers and the user browsers they interact with. Their environmental 'awareness' is limited to that supported internally by their host browsers. Bots, however, would be completely free-roving autonomous agents which can traverse the virtual habitat like any user. Likely to be employed to some degree of nuisance, particularly as a marketing tool as has already been tried among the current Internet group communications platforms. Bots are precursors to future AIs which would exist in the virtual habitat in much the same form.
Utility Servers Edit
- servers which provide specialized services linked to but otherwise independent in function from the virtual habitat. The simplest and most obvious use would be time, date, and RSS information servers as well as map and index servers but also likely to be used as communications bridges to facilitate media streaming into the virtual habitat and to support links to personal communications services like telephone/video phone through objects within the virtual environment or through users' browsers. Could also see use for merchant services supporting virtual vending machines and virtual stores or play host to virtual auction systems, lotteries, gambling, and more. Could also provide in-habitat interfaces for the management of virtual environment content and hosting as well as control interfaces to real-world systems outside the virtual habitat -a key function for future AI inhabitants.
Environment Browsers Edit
- akin to Web browsers in basic design paradigm, these programs serve as the primary user interface to the virtual habitat, rendering real-time views of the virtual environment, mediating communication between users on a peer-to-peer basis, and acting as a temporary server for the data of users' avatars and shared data. Though not as large in scale as some software systems in the habitat would be, this is likely to become the single-most sophisticated piece of software in the habitat -at least until the advent of AI. It is also critically interdependent with specific hardware and personal computer platforms. Every mode of user interface -be it based on a simple personal computer screen and keyboard or based on a suite of immersive VR hardware, or based on future neural interface technology- will need a browser system matched to it. And there would be steady competition in the improvement of these browsers and the features rolled into them, especially in terms of support for avatar editing, control, and switching, environment map and index services, links to personal communications outside the virtual habitat, and support for advancing environment properties data formats and object scripting languages. They may also include temporary private space hosting systems and instance space loading and hosting for both shared on-line use and off-line use.
Spatial Management and Tracking Network Edit
- a collection of servers which perform a function similar to the Internet's Domain Name Service. Providing the critical functions of managing real estate and maintaining a tracking database for the spatial coordinates of all objects in the world-wide virtual habitat, the SM&T Network ties the virtual habitat into a cohesive whole. The Spatial Management side of the system functions much like today's Internic service and establishes persistent spatial use rights in the otherwise infinite and infinitely multi-dimensional virtual space. Virtual space is infinite but in public access regions of it connected relative space -adjacent space around existing objects in a connected/collective environment- is limited by the sphere of editing rights of object owners. A single person might own an infinite amount of space in an individual private 'dimension' but when many people are sharing the same space so that they can be connected together for public use the individual 'authors' of the space must be able to agree on common environment metaphors (more on that in a little bit) and the fair parceling of space in which to create what they wish. The Spatial Management network would facilitate this by providing a way of registering Internet-wide the use-rights to specific spaces and their association to specific Internet domains.
- The Spatial Tracking side of this system is used to facilitate user access to the virtual environment through the spatial tracking of persistent objects. In hermetic VR systems a centralized object database maintains the spatial coordinates of objects. But the ultimate virtual habitat will have no centralized database and the spatial status for objects must be maintained by the many environment servers. How then does a browser know where everything is when a user first enters this space? The answer is by contacting a service which maintains a database of the dimensional coordinates and ownership Internet domains for the more persistent objects and currently active user's avatars. A user can then pick any location in the virtual space at random and the browser can contact the Spatial Tracking network to get a list of the most persistent (landmark) objects and users in their immediate field of view while simultaneously reporting its POV location. The browser then talks to all the individual servers and browsers associated with the stuff within that field of view region to get more up-to-date spatial information and info on objects not known to the Spatial Tracking network due to the lag in 'propagation' of the tracking info through the network. For instance, user avatars would be some of the most mobile and independent of entities in the virtual habitat so often tracking info would be out of date. This might lead to a user joining a group of users and not being able to see many of them because the tracking network doesn't yet know they are in that location. But if any other visible user's browser is aware of these other invisible ones, it will pass along that awareness to all others it's aware of peer-to-peer. Likewise, if one had a list of friends ones browser would always be aware of their status by continuous peer-to-peer updates.
Environment Editing Tools Edit
- these are the tools of environment crafting and object behavior scripting/programming and would ultimately become so numerous and sophisticated that they may comprise the lion's share of revenue generation in the virtual habitat. They would basically be designed for two modes of use; in-habitat and out. In-habitat tools would function through the browser as an extension of avatar functions or through objects linked to a utility server in the habitat. Out-of-habitat tools would function much like today's Web and 3D modeling programs. Avatar editing tools are likely to see the most competitive and rapid pace of development as avatar creation and editing is of most direct appeal to users as the basis of self-expression.
- Now, some readers familiar with the history of Virtual Reality research and computer graphics may note that there are similarities here to the original concept behind VRML; the Virtual Reality Modeling Language which began development in the late 1980s with the intension of creating a Virtual Reality Web akin to the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, VRML was rather quickly relegated to the status of a little-used Open Source 3D object file format long before it could ever realize this purpose, the reason being that its developers were rather oblivious to the importance of socialization as the primary application of VR and neglected the development of shared environments and a robust VRML browser suited to that in favor of chasing after corporate support for a 'purposeless' technology. VRML browsers never got beyond the function of a single-user 'viewer' tool, sometimes embedded as a plug-in for existing Web browsers and vastly inferior in function to thinks like QuickTime VR, while VRML environments themselves never got beyond static 3D objects viewed one at a time. There is certainly a possibility that VRML could be resurrected as the basis of this new virtual habitat platform -it has been employed as a raw file format in some VR chat systems- but in the end it will not likely look anything close to what it started out as. The actual graphics formats used by the virtual habitat are important but relatively insignificant to the overall architecture of the environment and its mechanisms of object and user communication, which simply don't exist in current VRML. It is likely that the environment may evolve through a large variety of graphics formats on its way to an ultimate generic 'physical properties data format' (PPDF) that is completely independent of any specific graphics technology, relying instead on a predominately 'procedural' method of object rendering. (by 'procedural' I refer to the generation of object properties by algorithmic process rather than static file data, as in 'procedural textures' in the 3D modeling field and 'procedural behavior' in the simulation and gaming field) After all, when artificial intelligences ultimately appear in this environment as well as eventual neural interface technology the interface to this is not going to be based on any display-oriented graphics rendering. This environment will be experienced in essentially the same way our brain perceived the physical world through our five senses, using methods of encoding and modeling of physical properties we can't clearly envision at present since we're only just beginning to learn how the brain itself does this.”
While initially the Virtual Habitat Program would be predominately promotional, entertainment, and socialization oriented, long-term it would have the potential to evolve into an important revenue source, spawning a variety of business ventures relating to software development and virtual environment design. Even farther down the road, it has the potential of evolving a new extension of civilization itself. With the eventual advent of sentient artificial intelligence the collective virtual habitat may become the primary residence of a new branch of human society, and thus become the basis of inorganic human space colonization through the much easier and faster prospect of cybernetic settlement, either for its own sake or as a precursor to organic human settlement. With the technology of advanced future virtual habitats combined with self-replicating robotics and nanosystems it becomes possible to settle whole worlds or solar orbits with little more than small space probes initiating the creation of banks of data processing systems as a host for inorganic life. So, as pointless as Second Life might seem to people today, long-term this sort of thing is far from kid-stuff. This is potentially a whole new kind of space for human colonization –a place for a whole new parallel branch of civilization bridging the physical habitat across space and time.
External Links Edit
- Second Life - A free online virtual world imagined and created by its Residents.
- Google Wave - A next generation web collaboration platform under development.
- Open Simulator - A 3D Application Server. It can be used to create a virtual environment (or world) which can be accessed through a variety of clients, on multiple protocols.
- Solipsis - a public, massively-shared and user-generated unbound digital universe, sustained by a dedicated Peer-to-Peer protocol, with a modern day rendering engine and some great and accessible 3D modelling tools. In other words: a decentralized Metaverse platform.