Educators exploring online virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL) have often commented on the impact of commercialisation on virtual environments. In the case of SL, that impact can be overwhelming, where real estate entrepreneurs are often racing to acquire as much of the (virtual) landscape as possible, with a view to on-selling it to innocent new-comers and thereby turning a profit. An apparently endless supply of SL designers seem to have decided that their future is in designing virtual objects for sale, and the SL management is happy to support this as it fits their model of what virtual reality should be; a mirror of the real world as a market economy.
Any commercial virtual environment, no matter how enlightened it’s philosophy, will always operate according to the will of it’s proprietors. It’s not that different from how newspapers are run, where the political , ethical and commercial persuasions of the proprietor will always over-ride any radical ideas presented by individual journalists. Fortunately, the open source programming community can provide alternatives to commercially prescriptive VR worlds such as SL. A recent example is the Open Simulator Project, currently in alpha development, which has produced a “virtual worlds server” written in C#. The server hosts an SL-like environment that can be extended by users to “produce more specialized 3D interactive applications”.
The Croquet Consortium is an alliance of open source software developers whose Software Developer’s Kit allows developers “to create and deploy deeply collaborative multi-user online vitual world applications on and across multiple operating systems and devices”. Cobalt is one product of the open Croquet effort that aims to create a “metaverse browser and toolkit” aimed specifically at developers working in research and education.
Another approach currently in development is the idea of connecting virtual worlds. The realXtend organisation produces “a free open source virtual world platform” that allows users to create and host virtual worlds and avatars, or move between worlds with a common avatar.