1. What is it about
Imagine a world where you have two lives; real and virtual. Imagine that the virtual world looks and sounds just as real as the real world. Imagine that when you are in the real world and you see something, you get the same reaction as you do when you watch a movie. Imagine being able to interact with objects and people in that world and manipulate them as you wish. Imagine being someone else. Someone you wanted to be, but could never do in reality. Imagine interacting with others in ways you could never dream of doing in the real world.
This imaginary world can be a Virtual World or a Virtual Reality. With virtual reality you also get to immerse yourself using head mounted displays or other type of real-world sensors and projectors to enhance the virtual experience.
2. Where is the fun
Business is going well. You just negotiated a fantastic piece of land with beach and a little hill next to your current land. You can now extend the shopping centre to have three separate departments. Recently there has been a surge of customers visiting you shopping centre and they love all the goods you are selling to them. The business model just works. You don’t need branches to expand. After all it takes only a touch of a button to teleport to another place. So all you need to do is to expand your deck space and put more merchandise on them. Money is flowing in and you want to spend it for fun.
You decide to go for some quality time in Blue Beach Night Club, an exclusive night club made for the rich. People who come here have it all and are willing to spend it all.
Before you leave, you make sure that your home is prepared in case you want to bring back visitor(s) for some late night quality adult fun. In this world anything is possible. Who knows where you are going to end up this time. There is so much going on that is mind-boggling. You can literally feel the billion people who are online.
Tonight you are going as James Bond, smart looking, agile and ready for action and entertainment. Better get that avatar looking right first …
3. What are its Applications
Virtual worlds are the next big thing. There was first the web, which is now known as Web 1.0. Static websites and the concept of an Internet Browser where the hall marks of this phase. Then came Web 2.0, which let viewers interact with the site’s content and contribute to it in their own way. Web 2.0 proved to open up the Internet to a whole lot of new people and made it truly an efficient tool in both expressing yourself and consuming knowledge that simply wasn’t there before. Then people wondered what’s next. What would come that would ultimately be termed Web 3.0, if this term is actually ever used when it comes out.
As communication bandwidth is increased, as computer processing power is increased and as more and more people end up spending more and more of their time in a digital world, it is natural to expect that a virtual world will be extremely appealing. Virtual worlds will be the Web 3.0 and we most probably won’t end up calling them Web 3.0, but will know them with their original names.
Virtual worlds can be used for a variety of applications:
- Entertainment, role playing, games, digital interaction with other humans, etc.
- A virtual world may have its own economy and you can make money in it (such as Second Life). Making money on its own can be entertaining apart from the fact that the money itself can become an income.
- You can see an analogy between real-life events and your virtual life and get inspired. This can be entertaining or simply educational.
- Create, architecture, construct and design just about anything you want to have in your world. Express yourself in many more ways than it’s possible to do in real life.
- Design the way you like to look like if you had the chance. Normally, you don’t get this chance in real life. There is only so much cosmetic surgery you can do and even then you may not be willing to go through the pain. In a virtual world, you can control every aspect of your looks, your avatar, have sets of them and experiment with them to your hearts content. Now, you can truly become someone else. Are you a man? Ever wondered how would it feel like if you walked in the world as a lady? How would people treat you? What issues will you have? Would it be fin to tease the boys? Would men be rude to you? And if you see another lady, how would you know if she is not actually a man? All too confusing, but amusing nevertheless.
4. How developed is it
Second Life is perhaps the best example of such a virtual world and is yet to be seen if it becomes the de facto standard virtual world in the future. The concept of virtual worlds were popularised by two great sci-fi writers, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. These fictions were so well-received that creators of Second Life decided to base their vision on their work, in particular on Snow Crash.
There are many competitors developing similar virtual worlds though some of them are more dedicated to specific worlds for entertainment and games. Some examples are: World of Warcraft, Red Light Center, EverQuest, Ultima Online, Active Worlds, The Sims Online, Kaneva, Entropia Universe, There and ViOS and the upcoming Sony Home.
There are other ongoing efforts, such as multiverse, to bring virtual worlds together so you can seamlessly hop from one to another. However, as soon as you provide a platform, you are forcing everyone to use your system and also expect them to share their profit with you. In the long run this may not work. Standardization usually takes one of two approaches. A company makes a killer product that comes to dominate the market. It is to the benefit of others to follow the lead company’s standards, simply because everyone is already using it. For example, 3D models created in 3DS format are normally treated as industry standard representation of a model. The other method is for a reputable non-profit organization to setup guidelines and infrastructure for all others to follow. Wikipedia’s success falls into this category. It is yet to be seen which method will prove to be most appropriate for multiverses.
5. How can it be improved
The biggest challenge for any technology is comprised of technical execution and social acceptance. Virtual worlds will benefit greatly from ease of use and visual realism. The visuals will have a considerable impact on users’ behaviour, since it makes the world more believable and immersive. The mind is very powerful in connecting the dots and making the world even more realistic. The current visual worlds in comparison with cinema are the same as silent black and white film of a century ago. Sound is the next important feature that will considerably add realism and sense of a place.
Another important concept is to explore the rights of individuals in a virtual world and compare that to the real world laws. A lawsuit on Second Life easily demonstrates the subtle differences between virtual ownership and real ownership and its implication. No doubt these laws will be updated as virtual worlds become more advanced and mainstream.
Another critical point is how money is transferred between people. Considering that a virtual world such as Second Life has its own economy, users from around the world will be able to exchange money with a touch of a button. It might be necessary to regulate these transactions internationally and there might be tax implications.
Another aspect of virtual worlds is their subject world. Theme based virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft tend to decline after a while since users may start to get bored of that theme and want to try something else. Open ended worlds such as Second Life are more immune to these issues as they try to cater for a wider range of activities.
6. What does it lead to
As with all technologies, initially they will be used for niche activities and entertainment. As the technology gets more mature, it tends to become more useful and efficient and more people start to use it until a critical mass is reached where having a virtual life becomes a normality.
Take email for example. Today, you almost expect everyone to have an email so you can communicate with them digitally. In the developed nations, you might be shocked if you realise that someone doesn’t know about emails and that you need to explain it to them. Virtual worlds will take that status in the near future and it will be natural to meet up in cyber space at work or after work. Virtual worlds simply let you extend your links, be it friends, family or business.
Imagine if you could explore a realistic-looking Google Earth as you explore Second Life. You could go inside buildings, interact with other citizens, find clubs and bars, buy stuff, share hobbies and so on all in a world that is familiar to you. You want to see how sunset looks like when you are on top of Everest? No problem, you can just teleport yourself there and watch it as it happens, while chatting to other like-minded people who happen to be there at the time.
Virtual worlds are so fascinating to us that there has been considerable philosophical thinking on our existence and if we are unaware that we are already living in a simulated reality.
Virtual worlds and the real world are heading for a tough competition for attention. Virtual worlds get developed further until they become more attractive than the real world, because they can offer a lot more. As emerging nations’ infrastructure progresses and their youth get to have access to faster Internet, they will start to plug into metaverses. They may find these worlds much more open than their real world with limiting political systems and cultural restrictions. They may also find it easier to exercise their entrepreneur skills, since they may have all sorts of restrictions, inadequate laws and cultural upheavals. When they come, they will come in large numbers …
Ultimately, virtual worlds start to directly affect the real world and vice versa. In mixed realities, you need to live in every world to know what is going on and take advantage of its opportunities.