Vacation time is book reading time and thus I took the opportunity to read Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson on my recent vacation in spain. While I think that the story is a bit silly (at the beginning I maybe do not have the right humour) it was quite interesting to read about the Metaverse as described in this book and I thought I can summarize some of the stuff said about the Snow Crash metaverse in here. As a little disclaimer: I’ve read it in english which is not my native language, I did not look up every word I don’t know and I didn’t reread everything to check if it’s really completely true what I write here. So bare with me. I am also not talking about the story of the book but just about the metaverse part which IMHO can be described separate from the story. If you still want to read the book and don’t want to know anything about it before I advise you now to stop reading this post, read the book instead and come back then :-)
Basic Structure of the metaverse
Let’s examine the topography of the metaverses first. In the Snow Crash metaverse there is one big street which is 65536 kilometers (or was it miles?) long. Millions of people walk over that each day. It is a public space for everybody. Above the street there is a monorail for easy transportation along the street. The street is also full of advertisement etc. and it can be thought of as sort of Champs Elysee. Left and right to the main street there are neighborhoods which are the parts of the metaverse you can actually buy or rent (not so clear which one of these two). There is also a more crowded “downtown” area of the street which is also the oldest part where lots of early adopters built their houses next to.
Further down the street the neighborhoods get more rare and apparently it’s not that crowded.
Compared to Second Life the metaverse thus is one continuous piece and you are able to examine the whole metaverse just by walking.
I mentioned the monorail before but this is not the only means of getting from A to B in the Snow Crash metaverse. You can also program your own vehicles such as motorcycles or and sort of fantasy vehicle although these are too big for driving around all the obstacles in the metaverse by the time the story plays. There is no teleportation because “it breaks the metaphor”. This means that on the one hand that it takes quite some time sometimes to get from A to B (even with the monorail) and on the other hand it enables car or motorbike chases.
To me it seems that the only real defined thing is the protocol on which the metaverse operates. Apparently there also need to be some servers of course to host the data but Hiro and friends at least have contributed quite a lot to the creation of the metaverse like creating sword fighting algorithms, creating the graveyard daemons who clean up “dead” people, creating avatar faces and so on. All in all it seems to be quite open in terms of enhancing the platform. Of course this might not work in reality that way but it sounds very nice :-)
The user interface consists of goggles you put on and then you see the 3D world. You also use your normal voice to speak to people which also does mean that people around you can hear what you speak. Not so clear to me is how controlling your avatar is handled as they don’t seem to use a keyboard (or I misread that). This is left a bit unclear I think.
They also speak of being able to get online on the road by just putting your goggles on and having your computer around.
Then there are public terminals to enter the metaverse. When logging in through these you seem to look like you do in RL but appear in black and white because of that type of terminal.
Besides these appearances there are also avatars you can buy or create just like in Second Life. The only difference might be that most stuff seems to be accomplished by programming it yourself and not really through editors as it’s the case in Second Life. Thus you can say that usability in this case is actually worse than in Second Life.
Stephenson also thought about the performance and traffic problem in that on the main street where a lot of avatars show up collision detection is removed and you could walk through the avatars which only appear half transparent. The same would be true for vehicles actually. Now I wonder if that would be an idea for Second Life. I wonder if it would make any difference if you update avatar motion etc. not that regularly. OTOH I wonder if that would actually work (think of somebody walking. You should actually stop the avatar where it really stopped and do not want to keep it walking for another minute).
Then there are hypercards. Hypercards are pieces of software similar to virtual business cards but with eventually much more data such as video and audio. You can give these cards to people and the contained information then gets transferred to your computer. So in the Snow Crash world not everything is actually stored globally on the grid but also locally on your computer. It can also contain complete programs which then run locally on your computer. So after reading this I am dreaming of an offline client where I can still access my office or which parts I downloaded and do my work there such as programming or building (unfortunately I am not living in a region where constant internet connections are that affordable esp. wen it’s about the bandwidth you’d need for Second Life. In Snow Crash Hiro also uses an internet uplink but only for the additional stuff besides his office and not for the office and videos itself).
Politics and relation to Real Life
Stephenson does not write anything about hateful bloggers or forums except the main bad guys in the story. I guess he just did not predict how hateful people can get for no reason as they do in Second Life or at least the mediasphere around it.
The Snow Crash metaverse also does not seem that it wants to be a separate world but really more an extension of the real world. Signs of that are that people use the real life names also in the metaverse and that Hiro just knows people in the metaverse he also knows in real life. This bit actually is a bit unbelievable as I for my part mostly know people in SL or in the internet in general whom I never met (yet) in Real Life. It is also a bit strange that not many people seem to know Hiro personally but more by seeing him. This seems a bit strange.
And like it starts with Second Life as well now is that a lot of businesses have their virtual representation on the street. You can even go there and eventually get updates of some software there like drivers. Thus it sounds quite similar to the web (and this book actually was written before the web came into existence but of course things like FTP and BBS already existed).
Other remarks and Conclusion
Regarding the book as a whole I think it could also live without the metaverse in there as the main role is in the beginning to start the actual story and towards the end. But the story would apparently also work without these parts. But of course it adds to the overall atmosphere in the book and IMHO it actually is (with the general description of the state of the world) the most interesting part of it.
And although I said that I found the story a bit silly (or I should restate that maybe that I don’t think of it as possible) it’s still a very good book. Very will written, lots of great ideas in quite a depth.
And speaking of such books, if you like this you might also want to read “Babel 17” by Samuel R. Delany which has a similar topic.
Regarding the comparison to Second Life I think there are lots of great ideas in there while it’s also quite interesting to see how close it is nevertheless. What I now dream about would be a more open virtual world maybe created in an open source fashion and mainly by defining a protocol and hacking everything at first. Should it attract more developers more and more tools could be added then like editor and maybe various clients. I could imagine it more like the web works where you maybe setup your own server and mainly the protocol is the defined element in the whole process.