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The Future of You
Think the Net has changed your life? Wait until it becomes an immersive 3D environment — and it will.
PC World
Mark Wallace
October 2, 2006

An online game is an odd place to have your reputation precede you. But that's exactly what happened to me not long ago in the massively multiplayer universe of EVE Online. My character there, a spaceship pilot named Walker Spaight, was minding his own business one day when I got a message from another player, who wanted to know if I was "the same Walker Spaight from Second Life," another 3D online world.

Indeed I was, I told him. And the response I got back was curious. My interlocutor was excited to meet a "virtual celebrity." In EVE I may simply be a midlevel combat pilot, but in Second Life I am among the best-known figures in a community of 250,000 or more. As editor of the Second Life Herald, an online newspaper covering events in Second Life, I've been digging up stories for the last two years, profiling interesting players and their creations (and not infrequently, their crimes), reporting on the businesses emerging there, and taking to task the company that runs the world.

While it may seem as though I'm reporting on a game, 3D virtual worlds like Second Life are becoming a very real component of people's lives, and over the next ten years they'll begin to shape the way we work, play, and define our identities online. To Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, online worlds constitute nothing less than "a new means of human expression."

More Than a Game
Until recently, shared 3D online spaces were the province of massively multiplayer computer games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and EVE Online. Over the decade that such games have been around, they've attracted an ever-growing audience of committed players. Though perhaps only half a million people have ever dipped their toe into Second Life, anywhere from 20 million to 40 million people around the world are regular visitors to 3D online game worlds, and the number continues to grow.

But persistent worlds like Second Life are more than games. Players don't get points for slaying orcs or blowing up spaceships in Second Life. Instead, residents are given the framework to create whatever they please--from houses and cars to clothing and space-age weaponry to detachable wings or anything else their imaginations come up with.

In fact, the entire landscape is composed of such creations; the company that runs the world provides only the virtual real estate that residents occupy. In that sense, worlds like Second Life are more of a platform than a game--a place where outlandish fantasies can be constructed, but also one where players can build useful tools. In this environment, the power of Web 2.0 to support the activity of millions of people as they freely borrow, build on, and mash up each other's ideas will meld with new expressive powers to create a medium where people can earn their livings, get their educations, fall in love, and consume their news and entertainment in a way that promises to bring people closer together than today's Internet has been able to.

Aficionados often refer to this collection of tools as the "metaverse," a term coined by Neal Stephenson in his prescient 1992 novel Snow Crash. And the impact of those tools can already be felt today.

"Entertainment, education, art, and business are already throwing spaghetti at the metaverse to see what sticks," says futurist Jerry Paffendorf, who convened a Metaverse Roadmap Summit this summer to plot the course of such technologies. "Over the next several years, we'll see this kind of technology mature to the point where it will not be uncommon to follow hyperlinks from the Web into immersive virtual spaces filled with other people. We're still learning to separate the unique efficiencies of this kind of technology from its inefficiencies, but the process is underway."

The process is leading to a convergence between our physical lives and our lives as they unfold in virtual worlds. In early 2006, 26-year-old Ron Blechner quit his job as a cellular network technician to set up shop in Second Life. The small company he founded, Out of Bounds Software, specialized in creating a virtual presence for nonprofit agencies and educational institutions, and developed a "3D wiki" that's being used to collect community feedback for the multi-million-dollar redesign of a public park in Queens, New York. While the pay wasn't great, Blechner's business steadily grew; and by the end of the year, he had merged his virtual-world services shop with a larger one. "This has been the best decision I've made in my life," says Blechner (known in Second Life as Hiro Pendragon).

More significantly, Queens will soon have a park designed, in part, within a virtual world.

Though they're just beginning to take hold, such online "places" are increasingly becoming a part of real-world business, marketing, and design plans. Architects now use Second Life as a platform for creating design prototypes for clients. Emergency-services departments use it to develop crisis response strategies. Starwood Hotels is using it to design and advertise its new Aloft properties. And the entertainment industry has caught on big-time. MTV's hit television show Laguna Beach recently unveiled a virtual version of itself in the online world of There.com, where fans can meet and socialize in a digital re-creation of the show's locations. And next August, Duran Duran will open its own "futuristic utopia" in Second Life, where the band will give concerts, showcase new acts, and drop in occasionally to chat with fans. "This for me is the most substantial move forward in entertainment technology that I've seen almost going back to MTV," the band's keyboardist and songwriter, Nick Rhodes, told me.

Hot on the heels of the entertainment industry are top-tier banks, public relations firms, auto manufacturers, consumer products makers, and other companies that see the potential of these new worlds and already have projects in the works. Serving them are small virtual-world services like Ron Blechner's, larger counterparts like Millions of Us and Rivers Run Red (which brought Duran Duran to Second Life), and the largest of all, the Electric Sheep Company, which has nearly 20 full-time employees, including Jerry Paffendorf. (Full disclosure: The Sheep are a sponsor of my blog, 3pointD.com.)

A New Means of Human Expression
For true believers, the metaverse offers ground-floor opportunities for involvement in what will be a world-changing technology, something like the next generation of the World Wide Web: an easy-to-use interface of immense expressive power, through which people can share new kinds of information and interact in new ways. While the metaverse probably won't replace the Web entirely--after all, it's easier to read a newspaper on a flat computer screen than in a 3D world --it will expand the Internet's functionality in a way that could soon revolutionize people's lives no less radically than the Web has over the last 15 years. A newspaper may be easier to read on today's Web, but you can't click through a story to launch a 3D version of the place where the events occurred, and then walk around it in the company of other people who are reading the story at the same time.

Of course, in Second Life, where any resident can build anything at almost any time, the potential for mischief runs as deep as the potential for productive uses. The technological backbone of the metaverse is not yet sophisticated enough to guard against pirates, pranksters, and thieves. Second Life events are regularly "griefed" by users who enjoy building cages around others' avatars, for instance, or who release self-replicating objects to choke the world's servers into shutting down.

Many observers attribute most such occurrences to the anonymity of online communications. But they may be evidence of just the opposite: that people want a strong identity online. John Suler, a clinical psychologist at Rider University who has long been a student of the psychology of cyberspace, has written that, "The person may experience the anonymity--the lack of an identity--as toxic." Griefing is a way to build whatever identity the griefer can. It's up to virtual worlds to make themselves more conducive to harmony than to hostility.

The popularity of Web 2.0 sites like MySpace, Flickr, and CyWorld (a 3D version of MySpace that launched in the US in August) demonstrates the near-universal desire of people to express themselves online easily and more richly than in the past, and to share what they have to say in an organized fashion with friends, family, or whoever may happen along.

Online worlds will only extend that power of expression and interaction. "In the real world, there's a big difference between what we can imagine and what we can do," Linden Lab's Rosedale says. "The real world is not as malleable or as plastic or as alterable as we would like it to be. Because of the degree to which Second Life is alterable, it is likely in a few years that everyone will have an identity in 3D worlds. Your identity there--your projection of yourself, the representation of yourself that will be your body, your persona in Second Life--will probably be a more accurate depiction of who you are mentally than the body that you walk around in."

The 3PointD World
At the intersection of 3D online worlds and Web 2.0 is a space I call Web 3pointD. That's a term that I use on my blog (3pointD.com) to refer to a loose set of technologies that are bringing a new sense of expression, presence, and place to the Internet. E-mail, instant messaging, chat, VoIP, and videoconferencing connect people with varying degrees of richness. But none of these have the power of even the simplest interactions in a virtual world. Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes was fascinated to see a group of avatars in Second Life all look in the same direction at something happening nearby. That just doesn't happen on a chat channel. And it's only the beginning.

In online games like World of Warcraft, you can watch as another player slays a fearsome enemy, you can stand by his side and help him dispatch the beast, or you can do battle with the other player yourself. Online worlds like Second Life let you pursue observation, collaboration, and interaction at a new level. There, you can attend a talk by Kurt Vonnegut or a live concert by Suzanne Vega. You and your team can build a venue to host similar talks, and track the status of the project on a virtual collaborative writeboard. Once your series launches, you can gather information about who attends, how long they stay, and what souvenirs they buy; and you can write the results to a Web site where you analyze the success or failure of your efforts, and let your audience use the information to form networks of their own.

Similar Web-based tools and 3D online spaces are beginning to converge already. Second Life users have built Web-based shopping and social networking sites that interact with the virtual world, and a group of Amazon.com employees have built an interface for browsing products on the Amazon Web site from within Second Life. At the recently opened Second Life branch of hipster clothing retailer American Apparel, you can browse and purchase products from within the virtual world in the same way. Social software, shopping sites, Web applications of various kinds, even search and wiki spaces have begun to take on three-dimensional forms and to expand the power of the Web.

As those kinds of functionality improve, the power of this new kind of three-dimensional connectivity becomes clearer. With new ways to represent information, interact with each other, and shape ourselves and the surrounding virtual world, a new set of possibilities opens up on the Internet. The final piece of the puzzle drops into place when we extend these technologies to the physical world in which we live.

Re-creations of the real world in online spaces are beginning to take shape, in the form of applications like Google Earth and services like Google Maps. Google Maps "mashups" (variants) let users get directions to a friend's house; locate movie theaters and showtimes; browse real estate listings; share photos; monitor pollution, weather, and traffic; and do much, much more. When you imagine a massively multiplayer version of such applications, a Google Earth you can not only zoom into but walk around in with other people, you begin to see the expressive capabilities of virtual worlds. New ways to represent and manipulate data, collaborate on problems, and learn about and improve the world immediately take shape.

Of course, the ultimate massively multiplayer environment is the earth itself. It, too, will become part of the metaverse as technology moves forward. Many attendees at the Metaverse Roadmap Summit envisioned a future in which the objects around us stream data to handheld devices that enable us to harness the information in ways we can scarcely envision today. As processing power, miniaturization, and display capabilities progress, we may use a pair of specialized eyeglasses or contact lenses to browse this Internet of things in full 3D.

What I'm describing is more than just a portable World Wide Web. It's a way to collect and access information that changes depending on where you go and who you're with-- whether those places and people are real or virtual. It may sound a bit sci-fi to anticipate a day when our physical selves become more closely integrated with the informational processes going on around us, but advances of the past 15 years suggest that it may be inevitable.

A lot of questions remain to be answered, and a lot of hurdles must be overcome, but none are insurmountable. As millions of people start to experience virtual worlds, technologists, legislators, and developers will have new challenges to tackle. If developed properly, these technologies will give us more control over the world around us than we've ever had before. It's not too early to start thinking about these things. The online world of the future is already here.
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