#1088: Croquet’s Browser-Based, Operating System for the Metaverse: An architectural & philosophical deep dive into real-time collaboration

Croquet is an operating system within the context of a browser that serves as a virtual machine that enables bit-identical simulations across multiple computers synchronized via a dedicated network infrastructure of global reflectors. Croquet officially launched on Tuesday May 17th, and I had a chance to do a demo and then speak with Croquet founder David A. Smith on May 13th where we do an architectural deep dive on this operating system for the Metaverse using open web technologies.

Croquet’s approach bakes real-time collaboration into the core of the operating system, and aims to simplify & streamline portions of the multi-user networking architecture for the open web aiming for a 15ms latency for the Internet and as low as 5-10ms using 5G networks. Using a global reflector network means that a single server receives simulation state changes from any of the users, adds a timestamp, and then redistributes the master state to all of the computers. It also takes and distributes snapshots as an optimization feature to ensure that every computer has bit-identical representation for what’s happening within a shared virtual world. Adding this type of simulation synchronization as a core functionality at the operating system level and supported by external hardware is part of what has the potential to make Croquet’s approach help web-based applications to realize some of the explore some of the potential dreams of an open Metaverse.

Most of the applications that we use on our PC, mobile phones, or tablets are sandboxed within a native app that’s functionally like a virtual machine where you have a 2D window portal into the app. With the future of spatial computing, then that sandboxed 2D frame disappears, and applications become objects with behaviors that are interactively combined within a shared virtual space. I first had this conceptual breakthrough in talking with the team of PlutoVR about their spatially nested, multi-app ecosystem that they’re developing. Thinking about how real-time, multi-user spatial environments could be considered core functionality at an operating system level starts to open up some philosophical clarity as to what exactly is new and different with whatever the Metaverse may evolve into.

Another key feature of Croquet is the emphasis of being able to change and develop the simulation you’re embodied within in real-time. Part of the demo that was really striking to seeing how it’s possible to change some code and then have it instantly and automatically deployed to the server as well as to the virtual world copies of everyone that’s co-present within an experience. Being able to reduce the iteration cycles to real-time, distributed pair programming has the potential to catalyze a lot of experimentation and innovation in how to integrate the open source libraries that the open web is built upon. Croquet also intends to cultivate their own database of objects and behaviors to more fully leverage “View Source” collaborative spirit of the web as applied to XR applications. It’s worth noting that Croquet had not implemented WebXR or voice chat at the time of my demo and interview, but it’s certainly on their road map.

In my conversation with Smith, he took me on a historical journey through the evolution of Human-Computer Interaction and early dreams of computing starting with Doug Englebart’s October 1962 report Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, Englebart’s Mother of All Demos at the Computer Society’s Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco in December 1968, David Reed’s June 1976 thesis “Processor Multiplexing in a Layered Operating System”, and the contributions of his Turing Award collaborator Alan Kay that have helped to inform and inspire the Croquet operating system.

Croquet plans on open souring portions of their project, but since their operating system requires supporting a hardware infrastructure, then they plan on charging based upon how many messages are sent after a certain point. But there are free tiers to get started in experimenting with what’s possible. Rather than worrying about how to layer multi-user networking on top of whatever web-based application you’d like to develop, and then paying for the associated server costs, Croquet intends to help streamline all of that. It’s still in it’s early phases, but hopefully picks up some developer momentum and starts bringing some more of the millions of JavaScript & web developers into building web-native Metaverse applications.


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Music: Fatality