You cant beat reality

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  You can’t
  beat reality

Virtual worlds are starting to go beyond fantasy
and take on the qualities of the real thing
annalee newitz                         Stewart Brand, who is based in
                                       Sausalito, California.
YOU are in a foreign city. Instead         Although people will continue
of lugging a guidebook around,         to inhabit fantasy worlds –
you put on a pair of chic glasses.     precisely because that’s what they
As you walk down the street, the       like about them – for those who
lenses become semi-transparent         don’t really “get” Second Life,
monitors that feed your eyes with      digital glasses might be the first
information about the buildings        use of a virtual world that makes
and streets around you, maybe          sense to them.
giving you directions to a shoe            Despite the hype surrounding
shop, or the nearest place that        Second Life, relatively few people
sells ice cream.                       actually use it. That’s partly
    This, say many researchers,        because of the fantastical

is the future of virtual reality.      weirdness of its world, which
Unlike the fantasy space of            bears little relation to real
virtual worlds like Second Life,       geography and can be downright
the world of the networked             confusing. San Francisco-based                          a similar application called               There might be several
glasses is there to enhance the        Daniel Terdiman, whose book The                         Virtual Earth 3D (New Scientist,       advantages to this kind of
real one. It can be used to map        Entrepreneur’s Guide to Second                          11 November 2006, p 29).               virtual world. Mikel Maron, a
objects, instructions or data onto     Life will be published in                                   Stephen Chau, who helped           programmer in Brighton, UK,
what you see through the glasses       November, says nine out of 10                           create StreetView, says at the         is working on a project called
in a way that is, hopefully,           people who sign up for the virtual                      moment people are using the            geoRSS, which aims to make
relevant and useful.                   world never return because it is                        application to do things like          map data more portable. It works
    “You can do all of this with       simply “too hard to figure out”.                        supplement driving directions,         in a similar way to standard RSS
technology that’s available now,”          If the glasses sound overly                         see what neighbourhoods look           feeds, through which a website
says Amy Jo Kim, who teaches           futuristic, you could just check                        like and pick out landmarks            can send news headlines directly
game design at the University          out the online versions of the real                     before visiting them. In future        to subscribers’ PCs, saving them
of Southern California in Los          world. The best example of this is                      these digital cities might be          from having to visit numerous
Angeles. Such glasses are already      Google StreetView. It was created                       populated by avatars, preserving       sites to keep up with current
being used to augment the sight        from millions of panoramic                              many of the advantages of              affairs. GeoRSS broadcasts
of people with tunnel vision by        photographs taken by specially                          Second Life – such as the ability to   geographical information
superimposing a sketch of a wider      equipped vans that drove down                           change what you look like (New         instead. You could use it, for
field of view onto what the person     every street in nine US cities,                         Scientist, 25 August, p 26) – but      example, to overlay weather
can see. Kim believes this kind        including San Francisco. The                            this time in a world that looks just   data onto a virtual representation
of technology will soon evolve         program allows you to walk                              like the real one.                     of a region and plan your route
to become a reality augmentation       through a photorealistic, 3D copy
or “digital filter” over real life.    of the real city, rather than just    “You could overlay weather data onto the
“We’ll drape digital magic over        viewing it from above, as you do
the real world,” says futurist         with Google Earth. Microsoft has       virtual world to plan your route home”
30 | NewScientist | 8 September 2007                                                                                                        
                                                                               WHOSE WORLD iS it anYWaY?
                                                                               You can fly around Google’s digital          fewer resources, perhaps highlighting
                                                                               globe and explore its 3D virtual cities,     problems with the proposed
                                                                               but some geographers say Google earth        redevelopment, might not come up in
                                                                               and StreetView have the potential to         the search results.
                                                                               present a biased view of the world.               already, however, control of Google
                                                                                   Google earth images can be overlaid      earth is being wrested away. Because
                                                                               with anything from photographs and           Google designs its 3D landscapes in a
                                                                               notes about local businesses to full-scale   portable graphical format, developers of
                                                                               maps showing the damage caused by            other virtual worlds can literally borrow
                                                                               bombings or floods. these can then be        cities and buildings from Google earth.
                                                                               found by other people looking for            the company Multiverse is developing a
                                                                               information on the area in question.         virtual world right now that is entirely
                                                                                   the problem, says Matthew zook,          populated with buildings borrowed
                                                                               a geographer at the University of            from Google. “it wouldn’t be hard to
                                                                               Kentucky in lexington is that the            pick a geography, get models out of
                                                                               Google search algorithm works by             Google earth, then build a world on the
                                                                               ranking things that are more popular         fly,” says Bill turpin, CeO of Multiverse.
                                                                               higher up. “Certain groups who are                Meanwhile, dismayed that
                                                                               better represented than others online        StreetView’s panoramic photos can’t
                                                                               will determine how places are seen,”         be borrowed, hackers have already
                                                                               he says. For example, a wealthy firm of      found a way to get into StreetView
                                                                               property developers might post a map         so that intrepid programmers can
                                                                               showing the planned redevelopment            feed Google’s photos into their own
                                                                               of an inner city area, while information     mapping applications.
                                                                               posted by local campaign groups with

                                                                               are free to tweak the worlds by              they will build their own worlds
                                                                               building in secure access controls           that are as private as the buildings
                                                                               if they wish. For example, a bank            their staff work in.
                                                                               might want a heavily protected                   That’s why Nicole Yankelovich
                                                                               server where customers can be                of Sun Microsystems Laboratories
                                                                               sure that the avatar helping them            in Burlington, Massachusetts,
                                             –See the louvre through new eyes– get a loan isn’t an identity thief.          is building a virtual office
                                                                                   Though each Multiverse world             called MPK20. Here employees
home to avoid fog patches.            improvements are in store.               is separately owned, the company             who work apart can meet and
   Maron also imagines a future       Some companies refuse to set             has a virtual world browser that             brainstorm without worrying
where the real world is full of       up shop in Second Life because           enables users to jump between                that an avatar from Google, their
sensors that monitor everything       they perceive it as unsafe. They         any of the worlds built using the            rival, will wander through and
from pollution levels to how          don’t mean that their avatars            company’s software. That means               steal their ideas. “Sun has more
crowded a place is. “Each sensor      might be harassed (New Scientist,        you could, say, walk into a virtual          than 50 per cent of its employees
could have a geoRSS feed,” he         1 September, p 28), rather that          bank, deposit your paycheck, and             working remotely,” says
says. It could send out a stream of   Second Life’s underlying                 then surf to another world to                Yankelovich. She says MPK20
data about what’s happening at a      technology isn’t secure enough           spend some of it playing a game,             will allow people to feed other
particular place. Subscribers         to support sensitive financial           watching a movie, or buying a                applications into the meeting
might plug that information into      transactions or to host private          new desk. Currently, about 200               rooms so they can open a screen
Google StreetView, or even their      business meetings.                       virtual worlds are being built with          on the wall, for example, and
networked glasses, and get an             That concern is one of the           Multiverse software. The software            work on a document together.
instant image of how many             reasons why the newly hatched            is free but the company makes                    MPK20 is a pleasant place
people there are near their           company Multiverse of Mountain money using the eBay business                          to be. I take a tour, enjoying the
favourite park bench, or how          View, California, has created            model, skimming 10 per cent off              atmosphere of an airy atrium
polluted various cycle routes         software that allows people to           each financial transaction that              surrounded by meeting rooms
home are. “I hope this will get       build their own virtual worlds.          takes place in its network of worlds.        and an exhibit hall, as avatars
people more into and engaged          Not only does this give people               This set-up still means another          wander back and forth.
with reality,” Maron says.            more freedom to create their own company is hosting your content,                         One way or another, in the
   Even for those virtual world       flavours of virtual world, it also       though. As some companies                    future many more of us will be
denizens who prefer the fantasy       means that each world can have           might want total secrecy, such as            using virtual worlds. It’s not just
of places like Second Life,           its own level of protection: users       those developing new products,               a game any more… l                                                                                                                  8 September 2007 | NewScientist | 31

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