The Future of Virtual Worlds

So my friend Cory Ondrejka (co-creator of Second Life) started an interesting thread last week that I didn’t see covered as widely as it should. Here are his slides — alas I didn’t get to hear the narration that went with it, but I can guess.

What he seems to be describing is apparently not too far from what I’ve been writing about for a while. The part I’m still skeptical about is the life-logging, and probably because of my own preference for privacy. You’ll notice I don’t twitter. I have a hard time believing anyone would even care to follow what I do from moment to moment. And I think careful editing is the secret to any compelling narrative. I just don’t want to put gigabytes of sub-standard, often mundane, prose out there into the digital firmament.

But putting that aside, the germ (and/or gem) of what he’s saying, and the part I totally agree with, is this notion of a pervasive synthesis of augmented, mirror, and alternate realities — no need to distinguish between those arbitrary categories. Turns out, there’s an old word for this which I think we can now safely revive to summarize the intent:


Practical Magic (not the movie that has usurped the term) is ultimately what’s driving the vast majority of virtual worlds interest. When I enter a virtual world, I can suddenly do and be things I wouldn’t even try in real life. If that kind of magic invades the real world (and it already has, as I’ll get to in a moment), I get the best of both worlds. I don’t need to "log on" or even "go anywhere," but I can now do things that would have been inconceivable to people just 100 years ago, at least outside of science fiction or fantasy genres.

What would I do? Well, for one thing, in an augmented/mirror world, I can gain a degree of omniscience, knowing anything that has been modeled with meta-data. I can point to objects and see their history, their meaning, their ‘DNA.’ But why limit ourselves to overlaying information onto boring real world objects. When important objects exist only as bits of data, piped to my brain via (pick: desk/wall-mounted, head-mounted, eye-mounted, or cortical interface), I can now manipulate those in any way I choose, as if by magic. I can morph them according to my needs or whims. I can clone them. I can make them do seemingly magical things — fly, dance, interact with real and virtual objects, do work for me, entertain me, and so on.

Is this sort of magic really so new? No. Remember the telephone? It’s a device for putting people, who may be on the other side of the world, right beside your ear. That’s pretty damn magical, considering the ordinary limitations of time, space, and airport security. Cut the wires and walk around while doing so and it’s even more magical. Television would be even more magical still, if only the content wasn’t designed to turn your brain to consumer mush (quality of TV is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and by that I mean the D&D monster that can paralyze you with a glance). All in all, we have been increasingly bypassing limits of the real world through communication technology.

What this all comes down to is not just the future of virtual worlds, but the future of communication itself, of which pure virtual worlds are only the most natural embodiment. Virtual Worlds are not a place, it turns out. They’re not a novel software application either. They are a key component of human-to-human communication, as old as humanity itself. Virtual worlds are what sit in our brains to reflect (i.e., model) the world around us. They are what sit in the bits in a computer’s memory to do much the same, but without as much intelligence or understanding. And they are what "virtually" sit between us when we try to communicate what’s in our heads — they are concepts in context, encapsulated in content.

The real world — physics, biology, even time — has very little to do with it, except as it serves as the funnel through which we must inevitably pass such information in order to communicate (see "limits" above). Virtual worlds widen that funnel to a full-on wind tunnel. They permit all sorts of sensory, conceptual, and sometimes even factual information to pass between us more easily.And what the future holds for that goes way beyond the "metaversal," almost cartoony manifestations we see today. Virtual worlds have the potential to literally open my mind to yours, as directly as possible, to allow the free flow of information back and forth: ideas, and expressions moving between people in a massive increase of both bandwidth and understanding. That’s what we’re dealing with here, and nothing less.

So lets get back to what it will look like. The easiest thing to imagine is the virtual meeting — that’s being built already. Seven people spread across seven cities can meet around a common table. Now, forget the large projection screens and make it a cafe table in Paris, or an office anywhere. The easiest way to make that work is to give everyone their own virtual view overlaid on the real world. It’s not the only way. But it’s certainly the most compatible with our current business models. [Imagine if that cafe has to shell out $30k (even US dollars) for a VR-enabled table+room and it’s much less likely to happen.]

So now we walk around our daily fog with displays that let us see things that aren’t really there. What then? Well, we’ll need to interact with them. 3D Cameras are becoming good enough such that we can skip the data gloves of my youth. It doesn’t give much force feedback, but there are better ways of doing both on the horizon — if we can help paralyzed people walk via electrical stimulation, we will eventually be able to simulate sensation and force feedback as neural impulses with no mechanical linkage required. So-called mind-reading rigs may also do a better job deciphering our motions with zero latency and even some predictive abilities to infer intent.

What does it mean, then, if I can not only twitter my friends constantly, or in turn be-twitted, but I can now see my friends around me all day long, as virtual "ghosts" not quite haunting my active life. What happens when I’m sitting at work and my mother (who is in Florida in RL) strolls into my office to talk to me about a recipe for chicken soup? Or better yet, my son plays with his friends in an entirely virtual game of cops and robbers, running through our real neighborhood, shooting at imaginary (to everyone else) targets?

There’s not much left to hold this back except the display and sensory technology, and that’s almost ready. Laser retinal scanners will be mass-marketed in the next 2-3 years, in the way blue-tooth headsets are becoming ubiquitous today. Give it 3-5 years to solve capturing your facial expressions from such a headset, just to be safe.

Rendering, by itself, will be more than good enough in 3 years. For an ever-diminishing price, we will have completely photo-realistic views of objects in real-time, overlaid and indistinguishable from the material ones. And within 5 years, even virtual humans will cross the uncanny valley and come up the other side — especially at least when those virtual humans are driven by real ones at the other end, meaning that teleconferencing can finally do away with video feeds and go 100% virtual in the next 5 years. That alone frees up a few degrees of freedom in terms of interaction.

So that’s most of what Cory was referring to, I imagine. I don’t even think it’ll take as long as he does, except to find the compelling applications. And the part that obviously interests me the most are the issues of communication — inventing new ways to share ideas that transcend the limits of the real world we’ve come to know and overcome.

Now, back to life-logging. In all this, the one element that should be clear is how much more control I can exert over my environment, real and virtual. It’s all about adding magic and power over your world. So I still am not convinced I will ever choose to give up so much power by giving out the stream of information (most of it useless) generated by my daily activities, where I look, who I see, etc.. Using that in a sort of ‘local augmented memory’ is fine. But sending it up to Google, or Lifepress (a fictional WordPress for lifelogging), etc.. is where I’d draw the line. (note: we already do give a lot of info for free in our daily credit transactions, but slightly less revealing).

In fact, I’d even be concerned about simply outsourcing any visual enhancement of my perceptual space to some seemingly benevolent company. What happens, for example, when that company modifies what I see to subtly persuade me to act a different way? (buy something, vote some way, etc..) 

Well, I can certainly imagine a few useful tools that would at least offer to give me more power (more magic) through recording everything I see or do. But those recordings would inevitably get out or be used by someone to mine me for profit. And so I’m still waiting to see the compelling case for such a potential power loss. It may yet happen, but on this point, I remain to be convinced.

What do you think?


6 thoughts on “The Future of Virtual Worlds

  1. I completely agree with what you said here, though I suspect that timeline is too aggressive…we are just getting into very rough overlays like the GPS arrow projected onto a car windshield, and I suspect it will be more than 3 years to get to real-time photorealistic overlays. I’d guess 5 years to get there, and 10 years to emerge from the uncanny valley, based on the rates of improvement over the last few years.

  2. 3-5 years is just for the 3D rendering side. I agree behavior for “NPCs” (AI, etc.>) is more than 5 years out. Overlays are only limited by display and sensor tech.

  3. For one thing, their headset is still very large — not something you’d wear out. For another, as far as I know, it still works by recognizing patterns you train it to recognize. For example, you think about a word and associate that thought with an action in a game. I haven’t yet seen anything that can recognize ad hoc facial expressions and/or thoughts, including that interesting product you linked to.

    I think it could do well, but I’d bet that even they would need an initial success plus 3-5 years more R&D to do what we’re talking about here.

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