Will O3D Get Google Back Into Virtual Worlds?

o3d demoWhen Google (s GOOG) launched its O3D browser plug-in for displaying rich 3D graphics last month, I was dubious that the virtual world industry would eagerly embrace it as a platform for future MMOs. Most of the larger casual virtual worlds, like Habbo and Gaia Online, run on Flash; Mozilla and the Khronos Group are already developing their own 3D graphics API for Firefox. There’s also a lot of insider buzz about Unity 3D’s web plug-in, which already has an install base of 10 million, a company representative recently told me, and is the chosen platform for several major MMOs in development. What’s more, the weak launch and hasty execution of Google’s own virtual world, Lively, suggested the company had given up on the space.

After this weekend, however, I think O3D deserves a closer look from MMO makers. Here’s why:

O3D To Be Fully Integrated Into Google Chrome This Year

Vangelis Kokkevis, O3D’s tech lead, spoke at the Metaverse U conference in Stanford, making his API’s case to the virtual world developers in attendance. While it’s still just a plug-in for IE, Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Camino, Kokkevis said the “next goal” for the team is to fully integrate it into Google’s browser by the end of 2009. Since launching last September, Chrome has gained a slightly bigger slice of the browser market, and an aggressive marketing campaign could help it build momentum. If O3D is integrated on schedule, virtual world developers would gain a potential audience of Chrome users who can launch their products without having to pre-install a plug-in.

COLLADA Converter Makes O3D Compatible With Leading 3D Graphics Formats

At Metaverse U, Kokkevis emphasized O3D’s COLLADA converter, which translates graphic files made with industry-standard graphics software like Maya, Max, and Google’s own Sketchup. That makes O3D much more attractive to studios already working with these tools; by way of demonstration, he showed off a graphically rich platform video game built in Max and converted to O3D, he told us, within a couple weeks. COLLADA’s code is managed by the Khronos Group, which the O3D team is also participating in; Kokkevis even suggested that O3D’s efforts could be merged with Khronos. As he put it, “We want a 3D API for the web browser, whatever the flavor.”

Google Wave Plus O3D Plus Chrome = Virtual World Win?

Virtual worlds are hardly just about graphics, however; at least as important are communication channels between avatars and their groups, both asynchronously and in real time. After I got back from Metaverse U and read early reviews of Google Wave, the product suddenly struck me as a potential complement to a virtual world running O3D, especially within Chrome. Rather than implement a third-party chat/instant-messaging system or create one from scratch, MMO developers working with O3D could use Wave to perform those services (assuming they’re compatible, to be sure.)

After his presentation, a group of developers surrounded Kokkevis, peppering him with tech-heavy questions. He told me there weren’t any companies creating MMOs in O3D yet, but he raised the possibility that Google might port Sketchup and Google Earth into O3D, “once we become part of the browser.” (Both have been implemented for MMO-related projects.) Still, the debacle with Lively has left in its wake some distrust of Google’s commitment to virtual worlds; one Metaverse U attendee openly challenged Kokkevis on that point: “What makes you sustainable?”

“I really cannot tell you what the future can be,” Kokkevis replied. “We’re hoping it’s going to be successful.”