Have we seen the birth of the DOS equivalent for the metaverse?
David A. Smith, CTO and founder of Croquet Corporation, explains how the newly created operating system will empower the masses to build and take ownership of their own slice of the metaverse
In the early 1980s, the disk operating system (DOS) transformed the computing industry overnight, from the archaic method of using thousands of punch cards to a significantly more user-friendly and adoptable system. Computers were no longer just for the elite and academia, but accessible to businesses and households across the globe. This was further refined with the advent of graphical user interface (GUI) operating systems in the mid-80s (Apple Macintosh/Windows 1.0), further leveling the playing field.
Now, one California-based startup has created the world’s first open metaverse operating system (OMOS) – Croquet OS, which founder David A. Smith expects to have the same revolutionary impact on the metaverse as DOS did for personal computing.
Smith may have founded Croquet Corporation as recently as 2018, but the project’s roots stretch all the way back to the early-to-mid 1990s, combining the efforts of six independent architects: Smith, Alan Kay, Julian Lombardi, Andreas Raab, David P. Reed, and Mark P. McCahill.
“Alan Kay is considered the father of the personal computer for a very good reason,” explains Smith. “He led the team at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) that created the Alto, which is the system that Steve Jobs saw when he visited and that later became the Macintosh and Windows. His original vision of computing, from 1968, was the Dynabook, and one of the hallmarks of the Dynabook was that it let people communicate. When he first drew the concept he drew two children side by side looking at their tablets, and the interesting thing was that they were looking at exactly the same thing on both, at the same time. That’s where it all started.
“Alan and I started collaborating in 1990,” he continues. “At the time, everything I did was interactive 3D and collaboration. So initial discussions were all about communicating ideas and about users being able to create these really interesting and powerful simulated worlds. So Alan and I decided there was this problem, and we needed to solve it.”
However, subsequent prototypes revealed a series of problems with what Smith describes as ‘bespoke networking’, which made the process of creating multi-user real-time 3D environments too complicated. “It’s just junk,” says Smith. “It doesn’t really have very good architecture. It was too complicated, and it was hard for me and I’m a pretty good programmer. So I quickly realized that paradigm was bad.”
Smith and Kay quickly agreed that any future endeavors would need to be 3D and would need to be programmable by people who were not “hotshot programmers”.
Indeed, the team behind Croquet combines some of the most experienced computing minds in the industry. Smith, whose accomplishments include the creation of The Colony (the world’s first 3D interactive game), Virtus Walkthrough (the first real-time 3D design application for PCs), Rainbow Six (Smith established Red Storm Entertainment with Tom Clancy), and the creation of the virtual set and virtual camera system that was used by James Cameron for the movie The Abyss, is joined by co-founders and engineers Vanessa Freudenberg, Aran Lunzer, Yoshiki Ohshima (Kay’s former programming team), as well as Smith’s collaborator from Red Storm Entertainment, Brian Upton (chief creative officer), who was also the game designer for Rainbow Six. John Payne, former CEO of Stamps.com (STMP) and Day Software (SW: DAYN), operates as chairman and CEO. Kay, whose creations include the Dynabook, the modern overlapping windowing GUI, the idea of object oriented programming, and Smalltalk – the programming language for the Xerox Alto, acts as a key advisor and mentor.
Backed by a reported US$4.8m in funding to date, Croquet OS was finally launched in August 2021, and was shortly followed by Croquet’s Microverse World Builder in June 2022 and Metaverse Web Showcase in December 2022.
“The Web Showcase is just the start of some really magical things to come,” enthuses Smith. “I don’t use that word very often but it’s going to be such a really interesting evolution. We built the operating system around this idea of empowering anyone to do things, but when you have a very easy to use platform like the Showcase coupled with probably the most advanced development platform available, it’s going to make for a very interesting world.”
Put simply, Croquet OS is the engine for powering the creation of infinite, immersive, multi-user online environments (without writing a single line of server code) that are easily linked, owned by the creator, and provide an alternative to the plots offered on large centralized and decentralized platforms. Furthermore, portals and links to these worlds or environments can be placed almost anywhere online, even on static 2D sites.
Croquet OS synchronizes multiple metaverse experiences so that users can work or play together within a single shared environment, while guaranteeing that it remains bit-identical for every user.
To overcome the issues presented by networking, Smith and Kay settled on a thesis by eventual collaborator David P. Reed, which presented the idea of having two computers working together and running the exact same programme in the same way at the same time. All the computing and processing of that information would also be done in exactly the same way.
“That was actually an ideal way to accomplish what we wanted to do,” says Smith. “This idea of a shared truth in a communication model. That means that when the computer generates a complex simulation, between you and me, we’re going to see exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time. So even a complex simulation can be shared, which means that conversation gets wider.”
To achieve this, Croquet OS comprises three key components: the global network of public reflectors (a system of lightweight stateless microservers called reflectors that can be deployed on public or private networks); the kernel – a powerful replicated version machine that runs bit-identically on all the client systems; and the locally rendered view (the environment that we see) which is an interpretation of the state of the kernel. Croquet OS is unique in the sense that any changes made by the user are encrypted end-to-end and sent back to the reflector (which isn’t able to view them) and fed back into the kernel, avoiding any divergence between users, something that would happen if alterations were made directly to the kernel. The encryption also ensures complete security.
While the metaverse operating system and templates are free, Croquet does charge for use of the reflector infrastructure which delivers latencies as low as 10-15 ms on public networks and 2-5 ms on private networks. The kernel is the only part of Croquet that isn’t open-sourced.
Because Croquet OS is built on open web standards and browser-based technologies, it has equal applicability for web and web3 developers. “This is one of the key aspects,” explains Smith. “The web already exhibits a lot of what we think of as essential for the metaverse. It has the ability to link from one page to another, it’s friction free, I can jump into that same world as you without having to download any applications or anything, and it’s open.
“We’re actually developing some tech that will allow our worlds to connect two completely different web based worlds. These multiplane portals (which are essentially transparent iFrames that act as tabs) will enable the Croquet worlds to connect to any space, even one of those crypto worlds, for example, so you can see through the portal from one to the other before you even go there.”
Microverse World Builder
Microverse World Builder is the browser based development environment that enables web and web3 developers to rapidly create the multi-user 3D metaverse worlds that can be published to any web server, completely independent of proprietary platforms. For the first time it simplifies the process of creating and owning your own digital space, where you can showcase whatever digital assets you desire, and link to other, sometimes larger, centralized or decentralized spaces using portals. You can then invite anyone by sending a QR code or URL.
Applications can range from personal worlds or galleries, to working digital twins for businesses, delivering functionality such as monitoring a drone manufacturing hub or theme park. In one example, Smith is in the process of creating a digital twin of a data center for a large tech manufacturer, where all screens, indicators and hardware are displayed in real time. Each digital replica of the hardware/software is linked to the real thing. “This is just the start of a very simple project that will get deployed in the next few months,” he explains. “The really cool thing is that we are able to build this very, very quickly. The goal is to be able to assemble a space like this in a couple of days, and we’re getting very close to that,” he says.
Microverse World Builder includes the newest release of the core Croquet Microverse open source project, which includes a selection of virtual world templates that help developers jumpstart their efforts and a growing library of behaviors that can be applied to any object in a world. Templates freely available on GitHub include a gallery/showroom, infinite procedural outdoor world, outdoor refinery, factory floor, university campus, and multiplayer game.
One of the key new features of the World Builder is integration with ‘Ready Player Me’ half body personalized avatars. Users can bring their own avatars into a Microverse world or use default avatars selected and customized by the developer.
Metaverse Web Showcase
The Metaverse Web Showcase provides a taste of what the World Builder can do, with a ready-made metaverse-style gallery that can be embedded interoperably in any 2D website. As with environments created with the Microverse World Builder, users can invite people to join them to collaboratively browse the space and converse using Dolby.io Spatial Audio Chat.
Web Showcase is a low code implementation where web site designers grab a snippet of code, deploy it to an Inline Frame (iFrame) in the site, and identify the location of assets such as presentations, videos and logos in order to customize the showcase for the business. To enter the Metaverse Professional version of the Web Showcase, click here.
At present, the Web Showcase operates as a regular iFrame but future plans include pluggable modular versions for web building software. “We’re looking at building these plugin modules for these big players, such as WordPress, Wix and some of the others, and then when you download it, you’ll be able to customize it with no coding at all,” says Smith.
“Moving forward, the complexity of these things is going to drop really really fast, and the power’s going to go up. We’re using Dolby Spatial Sound, which is fantastic, it’s in there. You can actually go in and have a meeting, simply by copying and sending the link. You can have a 3D conversation with people about your stuff, showing a PDF or a video, and it’s all synced. And the next generation is only going to get better.”
How will this all help define the metaverse?
It’s increasingly easy for marketers to label any online digital environments as ‘the metaverse’ while critics continually argue that online collaborative environments are nothing new, and have been most successful in gaming formats, many of which already have social elements. So how will future Croquet OS creations be any different? When asked whether much of the ‘metaverse’ marketing hype was without substance, Smith concurred. “That’s kind of true,” he says. “Any new technology is going to be utilized that way as quickly as possible, and in some ways that’s a good thing because it pushes the further development.
“Creating a very exciting thing in peoples’ minds and then trying to fill that niche as quickly as you can is the American way. All you’re seeing in a sense is the replication of the beginnings of the movie industry at the beginning of the 20th century. It was exactly the same thing. People were stealing from each other, there were no standards, but everyone was making movies as quickly as they could, and certain big companies were trying to dominate the space and control it. If you take the metaverse and look at it through the lens of history there’s no surprises.”
Further contemplating what defines the metaverse, Smith adds, “People have figured out it’s a kind of art. It’s an extraordinarily compelling experience, in particular as a communication channel, it’s a medium. But a more important medium in the sense that it’s a very intimate one. I like to think of it as the next iteration of what the phone really is. It’s a communication device but in this instance it’s an active participant as well. For example, we’re having a conversation and the computer is a full participant, not only rendering the scene but it could introduce an AI helper or moderator that creates a simulation between both of us based on what was said, that we would be able to modify and interact with.
“We’re really at that point of time where there’s going to be an understanding that the conversations we have are going to be augmented,” he says. “That’s really the other side of the coin, from the media and marketing hype. We’re going to expand the scope and capabilities of engaging with each other.”
Expanding on his understanding of the metaverse and the origin of Croquet, Smith references an early demonstration by computing pioneer Doug Engelbart in 1968: “In that demo, he completely transformed the nature of what people thought computers were and demonstrated that it was truly a communication platform. But somewhere along the way, that idea got lost. He was using a timesharing system but when we went to personal computing these computers no longer had the same ability to communicate. When you’re in a timeshare system, everybody can see everything. With personal computing, we each have our own computer but we don’t have an ability to really communicate. We can text, we can send files, but what will happen when anything we do in one place, we can do in another, and at the same time. In a sense our intent was to go back in time and resurrect the original vision that Doug Engelbart had.”
More to come
Moving forward, Croquet is planning to release a paid version of its Web Showcase (Plus) that will come with a whole host of new features. Steps are also being taken to further simplify the Microverse Worldbuilder, opening it up to a new generation of developers.
“Right now, using the Microverse system, you have to be a pretty sophisticated developer but it’s going to become more and more like the Showcase, where you’re able to build the world from inside the world, which is really an important, big step,” says Smith.
Croquet also has designs for significantly increasing the number of behaviors available for ‘cards’ in the Microverse Builder: “We already have quite a few of them but in the next year there will be thousands of these behaviors. When creating a world, instead of having to programme anything, you just search for the behavior that’s most like what you want, drop it on the object, and you’re done.”
Summing up the ethos of the Croquet project, Smith concludes: “Engelbart said, if we don’t learn to collaborate on hard problems, we’re doomed. Right now, humanity faces some extraordinary problems, and we have an inability to communicate the complexity and architecture of the problem. So we need new tools, and new ways of thinking about and solving things. They have to be accessible, they have to be open, and extendable in a way that as you come up with an idea for a new thing, it’s part of the system. That’s the magic of operating systems, as soon as you build something that has value, it can be given away or it can be sold, it doesn’t matter, it’s shared, and everybody in that ecosystem benefits. The entire system increases in value and usefulness.
“The intent was always to redefine the landscape in a foundational way,” he says. “If you look at DOS as a comparison, when DOS showed up, it first of all allowed IBM to sell its computers. But Microsoft did something really, really smart and maintained the right to sell DOS to other companies. That meant that everybody could now write to one standard DOS, and every computer that utilized DOS, whether it was made by IBM or not, would work, too. It allowed interoperability, and that’s what we are. Ninety-nine percent of people using DOS were probably not programmers, but they used the apps. It enabled everybody to participate, and everybody did well out of it. Microsoft did well because every time somebody built a new application, the value of the OS increased. An ecosystem is a hard idea for people to understand, but it’s the most valuable kind of software on the planet.”
February 28, 2023
August 15, 2022