don't forget the MOOs
(This is a copy of my response to the LWN article Toward a free metaverse, which won't be freely available itself for another week or so.)
There's an unconcious bias in this article toward 3d graphical worlds, and I think it's important to realise that that's not a necessary component of a virtual world, although it's certianly a component that will appeal to a lot of people and that fits in nicely with some current ways of working with computers -- ie, sitting in front of expensive screens weilding a mouse. Long ago we had MOOs, MUDs, etc, and they were text based. Just words, you know. And nearly all of them were free software. It might well be that text, or speech, or the like ends up being a better interface to virtual worlds of the future, especially if they are tightly integrated and layered on top of the real world.
And I'm increasingly convinced that if these worlds don't integrate into the real world, if the ideas that have been bubbling up out of ADVENTURE and the MUCKs and the MMORPGs and such don't spread out and become something larger and more inclusive than their own little pretend world, then in the end that whole area has been nothing but pointless games. Which I hope it hasn't, but perhaps I'm getting old..
Speaking of freedom, there are levels and layers, and it's possible to build the free on top of the non-free. After all, I'm typing this on a device that is present in the er, First Life, which is not particularly free in its implementation; it has non-free firmware and BIOS, and is composed of atoms of some substances that are less easily available than air, and which follow some annoyingly inflexible physical laws, and it needs a constant input of metered electricity to run. But on top of all that is some free code that gives me a measure of freedom.
Similarly, it would be possible to run free code in Second Life, and given how rare it is overall for such services to support coding at all, let alone explcitly give a program (or object's) creator the freedom to make it Free, that Second Life does so seems encouraging to me.
If we get a distributed standardized free online world by 2010, I'll be happy indeed.
(Disclaimer: I write text based MOOS, and have never used Second Life, though I chatted with someone there on the phone today.)