October 7, 2008 - Project Wonderland is a toolkit of open-source software for creating 3D virtual worlds. But it's not what it is that excites people; it's what it does. Project Wonderland allows developers to create highly interactive environments where people can collaborate, conduct real business, and learn through immersive media. It takes virtual worlds to a whole new level of scalability, reliability, and extensibility.
Finally, a Virtual Workplace that Gets Down to Business
Project Wonderland overcomes some of the tough technical challenges that have constrained the adoption of virtual worlds for commercial purposes. Its focus is on solving real-world challenges for businesses, researchers, and educators.
When commercial virtual worlds were introduced a few years ago, they created quite a stir. The promise was compelling. By creating virtual worlds organizations could facilitate collaboration without sacrificing a sense of presence. A 3D collaborative environment would provide higher emotional bandwidth than audio or video conferencing. It would allow for multiple simultaneous conversations, and it would be a more natural way to share than static Web pages or chat rooms.
Companies envisioned hosting virtual trade shows or conferences to cut travel costs; avoiding the expense of special-purpose equipment for training; and replicating the human interaction of brainstorming rather than using static chat rooms or Web pages.
The potential for education was equally exciting. Physics professors could create a virtual universe and show the influence of gravitational forces on planets or stars. Chemistry students could mix virtual compounds, acids, and gases rather than the real thing—and learn without the consequences of real-world errors. Data center administrators could train in a realistic setting, using virtual products, without leaving home.
But the enthusiasm for virtual worlds faded a bit when it became apparent that there were significant technological hurdles. Steep learning curves, security concerns, scalability issues, limited application choices, and poor audio quality were among the key issues.
Project Wonderland set out to rekindle the excitement by addressing those and other challenges using leading-edge software and technology developed at Sun Labs.
MPK20 is a virtual 3D environment in which employees (represented by avatars) can move about freely, meet with colleagues using natural voice communication, and share live applications—such as Web browsers, OpenOffice documents, and games. Just like on Sun's physical Menlo Park campus (known as "MPK") inhabitants of the virtual MPK20 office building can work together in planned meetings, or can talk informally in unplanned encounters. The environment not only allows people to come together in designated "team rooms" or virtual conference rooms, but also allows for casual, chance encounters as people move about in the virtual space.
The MPK20 virtual world created with the Wonderland toolkit
Powerful Functionality Brought Together by a Virtual Dream Team
Project Wonderland brings together an impressive array of innovations and open-source technologies. Equally important, Project Wonderland brings together a team of highly experienced researchers with complementary expertise covering all facets of architecting and implementing virtual worlds.
Led by Nicole Yankelovich, the team includes Paul Byrne, Deron Johnson, Jonathan Kaplan, Joe Provino, Nigel Simpson, Jordan Slott and Doug Twilleager. With the features they've implemented and the technologies they've been refining, developers can now create virtual environments that take a dramatic step forward in functionality, performance, security, scalability, and reliability.
Just a few of the key features and capabilities of a Project Wonderland world include:
- Immersive audio: The high-fidelity audio of Project Wonderland actually improves upon real-world sound. For instance, with the voice attenuation feature, as you approach a group of colleagues you can begin to hear what they're saying; as you walk away their voices become less audible. Yet if you're sitting in the back of a virtual classroom, you can hear just as well as the people in the front row. And unlike real-world classrooms, you can tune out all distracting background noises: the clacking of laptop keys, whispering, coughing, etc.
- Application sharing: Avatars in Project Wonderland scenes can share applications ranging from presentations and spreadsheets to Web browsers and games, in real time. As these applications become more "share-aware," new possibilities for collaboration open up. For example, ten people could join a meeting to review the latest version of a presentation. Everyone would see the slides; everyone would be able to make changes; all changes would be tracked and color-coded; and multiple people could make changes simultaneously. Each individual could choose to follow the presenter, or go back and review previous slides, or even open a side discussion about a particular slide with other individuals while the main group forges ahead.
- Telephone integration: In Project Wonderland, "outworlders" or people not in the virtual world can join virtual meetings via phone and be represented with an icon such as a glowing orb. Participants in the virtual meeting can also place phone calls to real-world phones. Project Wonderland can also support features such as conference calls and telephony and audio features within enterprise applications--for example one-click calling to corporate directories or other Web pages.
- Security and privacy Project Wonderland provides strong user authentication and access controls, protecting privacy and confidentiality. These security mechanisms are built in rather than bolted on, and they're based on proven, enterprise-class technology.
Wonderland Application Sharing
The Project Wonderland team continues to innovate on a number of fronts. A few examples of what they're currently working on:
- Avatar expressiveness: Researcher Jonathan Kaplan is working on new ways to increase the emotional bandwidth of virtual world participants. "The tough challenge is capturing more expressiveness, like a smile or a head nod, without exaggerating the motion," he said. "It's difficult to reflect nuances of facial expressions or body language with a small avatar." Mr. Kaplan explains that the team is using sensor data to more accurately reflect various forms of expression, and is also looking at various alternatives like making the head bigger or making the avatar more iconic so the things the avatar does are more communicative. "We're also putting all kinds of additional gestures into the system, creating an ecosystem of emotions—from winks to fist pumps," he said.
- 3D application sharing: Team member Nigel Simpson is exploring ways to take shared applications out of their traditional 2D box and go 3D. "We've been stuck in the 2D paradigm for 30 years, but I'm really excited about the possibilities of exploiting the 3D nature of virtual worlds," he said. "Why should a virtual world simply reflect our physical world? Why not create an application that lets people draw in the air, in 3D, instead of on a shared whiteboard? Why limit a presentation to a specific rectangular display area? Why not find new ways to represent data in 3D?" One example of how data can be expressed more creatively is the "Music in Wonderland" application, which allows a music collection to be arranged by category in a 3D sphere that surrounds the avatar. Music in Wonderland allows people to see all the music in the collection at a glance and listen to any album simply by clicking on it.
- Mixed reality:
Researcher Paul Byrne describes how Project Wonderland offers new alternatives for large-scale meetings: "a global, all-employee meeting, for example could be attended in person and shown live on a screen within a virtual world. Within the virtual world you could provide a single large hall that everyone could'sit' in, or you could provide team tables, or everyone could have a front-and-center seat." According to Mr. Byrne, Sun Labs is also trying to ensure that nothing that is done in the physical space doesn't have a virtual counterpart: "For example, people could bring virtual capabilities with them to a physical meeting so that everyone shares the virtual experience whether they're physically present or not," he said. Employees could also take advantage of "multiple realities" to be in several places at the same time. For example they could leave an avatar in the office to handle routine tasks and deploy another to a virtual conference.
Music in Wonderland scene
An Extensible, Open Architecture
Project Wonderland was designed from the outset to be an extensible architecture, meaning it's easy for other developers to add new applications and functionality. All of the core technologies behind Project Wonderland are open source. Developers and graphic artists can extend the functionality to create entire new worlds, new features in existing worlds, or new behaviors for objects and avatars.
The art path for Wonderland is also designed to be open, utilizing existing tools and data interchange formats to ensure content creators of all skills can create content using familiar tools. The current system uses the X3D interchange format and will move to COLLADA in the next major update of the platform. Art tools, such as Maya or Blender that can export X3D/COLLADA, can then be used to create content for Wonderland. The art path includes support for static models and for animations. Artists, who are generally more skilled at making objects animate nicely, can create animations in their own tools and import them into Wonderland without writing custom software.
"One of the great things about working on Project Wonderland is that it allows you to work with other developers in the community, and they will constantly amaze you," said team member Deron Johnson, who has been with Sun for more than 20 years. "We've always been focused on letting people add new apps to the world, and that has increased the level of innovation and enthusiasm behind Project Wonderland by orders of magnitude."
One of the big advantages of Project Wonderland technology is that it allows companies to host their own virtual worlds on their own servers. "It's amazing how many people can't use Second Life because it's outside the firewall," said Nigel Simpson. "With Project Wonderland you can build your environment your way, with all the security features you need, and later you can connect it with other virtual worlds outside your firewall and participate in other virtual environments."
One big question that Sun is now addressing, says Nicole Yankelovich, is whether virtual worlds created with the same technology will be able to interoperate. "The next big breakthrough will be when we can move an avatar from one world to the next," she said.
To that end, Sun is active in standards efforts that will enable "federation" of virtual worlds. With standards in place, as different companies create their own virtual worlds they can begin to interconnect them. Consumers could then hop between those worlds and take some of their online identity with them. The same way people now move from one Web site to the next, they could move from one virtual environment to another—without having to log in separately and remember multiple passwords. And that means they could do virtually anything in a virtual world: work, shop, and play.
Try It Out—See What Develops
Project Wonderland is still in its infancy. The Sun Labs team is focused on developing, integrating and testing key system components. But the software is available through open source, and there is a great deal a community member can contribute at this time—from new artwork for avatars to new features and functionality.
Early access and release builds for Solaris, Linux, Windows, and the MacOS are freely available at wonderland.dev.java.net.
You may also check out the Project Wonderland wiki: http://wiki.java.net/bin/view/Javadesktop/ProjectWonderland#Content_Creation.
You'll find everything from FAQs to a "desired feature" list, and you are welcome to add to the list or take a shot at delivering a desired feature or content.