OpenSimulator offers a glimpse of a decentralized metaverse

One open question, assuming the metaverse proves popular, is whether the technology will be tightly controlled by a handful of companies operating their own incompatible systems—as social media apps and video games basically work today—or whether it will be possible to jump from one metaverse world to another, the way it’s possible to send email from one site to another or follow links across the Web today.

These questions aren’t new, and, to some extent, a vision of a decentralized metaverse already exists today through an open-source project called OpenSimulator, which has been around since 2007 and is still in active use. OpenSim, as fans call it, allows anyone with some technical knowledge to set up a server to host their own virtual world that they and others can connect to (or to pay one of multiple hosting companies to do it for them). The project was designed from the beginning to be compatible with the technologies behind Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Lab that became an object of media fascination in the 2000s but never quite hit mainstream status.

OpenSim is still in active development, and users and coders gathered in a virtual world created with the platform in early December for the 9th annual OpenSimulator Community Conference. There, they talked about the latest developments in the OpenSim software and tools for building objects in its virtual worlds, shared art and music, discussed how they’ve used the platform for educational purposes and, of course, thought about OpenSimulator’s role in the metaverse boom.

“Lots of eyes are looking at what is the metaverse and what can you do with it, and those of us who had been in the space for a long time, we kind of have that perspective of having been through a lot of things already,” says Joyce Bettencourt, one of the conference organizers. Bettencourt is also a cofounder of AvaCon, a nonprofit focused on metaverse work, and of the Vesuvius Group, a company that designs and develops virtual worlds.

The OpenSimulator community has already found ways to host meetings, classes, and, says Bettencourt, “complex trainings” in virtual spaces, one of the stated appeals of new metaverse technology, especially during the ongoing pandemic that has shifted work events online. OpenSimulator has also long offered ways for users to jump from one virtual world (or “grid”) to another, keeping their avatars and possessions intact. Operators of worlds can also decide to limit where visitors can go, or simply keep their worlds accessible to members only.

“I did something that is unique to OpenSim that doesn’t exist in Second Life, which is sort of a federation architecture so you can teleport between virtual worlds,” says Cristina Lopes, who developed the technology —dubbed the hypergrid— and is a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, where she has taught some virtual classes using OpenSim. “You can hop around between worlds that are in different places and operated by different people.”

That means users can easily jump from a buttoned-up environment like a class, conference, church service, or corporate training event to a more relaxed virtual world where they can dance to music, have virtual sex, or otherwise explore multiple aspects of their personality through OpenSim, says Ilan Tochner, the cofounder and CEO of Kitely, which provides OpenSim world hosting and other related services like a virtual goods market.

“People can control what they do,” says Tochner. “If they don’t like my rules, they can just take their content and go somewhere else.”

Competition and self-hosting also help keep the price down in the OpenSim world. Median prices for a standard plot of land are around $10 per month, but you can find some regions for less than $1 month, estimates Maria Korolov, one of the organizers of the OpenSimulator Community Conference and editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business, which covers virtual reality, virtual worlds, and metaverse technology. In contrast, Second Life advertises a basic private region for a one-time fee of $349, plus a monthly maintenance fee of $229.

OpenSimulator, like Second Life, is also known for flexibility in allowing people to create their own in-game objects, with far more customization than is typical of even creative video games like Minecraft. “You can upload any image to be a texture on the wall of your object,” says Korolov. “You can upload sounds. You can upload animations that you create externally or download somewhere else.”

That can be a strain on OpenSim servers, and while it is possible for anyone to host a server on their own computer or one rented from a generic cloud computing provider, hosting providers like Kitely are also popular. Tochner emphasizes that his service can also provide other useful features, like mass automated onboarding of users and the creation of multiple, parallel identical worlds for a large event.

OpenSim world operators can generally also control behavior on their own systems: As Tochner says, people who don’t like the rules in one world can pack their virtual bags and take their avatars to another one. That means that, as with the existing Web, anyone can set up a server that allows content that likely wouldn’t be allowed on the big social networks, whether that’s animated sex or, potentially, hate speech or promoting political violence. With OpenSim worlds so far out of the mainstream, that hasn’t proven to be a big problem, but it’s likely something more world operators and metaverse developers will have to wrestle with.

As far as the future of the metaverse, even OpenSimulator enthusiasts say that while the underlying technology does have a lot of advantages, like compatibility with existing Second Life software and the ability to run on relatively low-powered computers, it isn’t necessarily the final iteration.

“It’s like Gopher or BBS to the internet,” says Tochner, who says his company has some projects looking at the next generation of the metaverse in the works. “It’s not the tech that will rule the world.”

Existing users and developers are also generally used to the capabilities of OpenSimulator and not necessarily incentivized to build in new technologies, like VR compatibility or high-quality graphics that new users might want, says Korolov. Many existing users came from Second Life and are used to the existing aesthetic. They’re generally more interested in attending events and hanging out with friends than checking out the most beautiful visual creations possible in the platform, she says.

“It’s not the prettiest grid that attracts users,” she says. “It’s the grid that has the most stuff for people to do.”

But while the graphics might seem dated to newcomers, OpenSim users and developers say the openness of the platform and the ability to jump easily between virtual worlds will likely provide an inspiration to people who get tired of any locked down corporate metaverses that may emerge.

“It’s a lot like AOL—sooner or later, you want to do something more than that,” says Bettencourt. “The walled garden is only so good.”