Social Networking
The Concept and Status of 'Metaverses'
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The Fascinating Cover of Snow Crash
Illustrated by Bruce Jensen
When I was 11 years old, I read, and was absolutely taken by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. The book (roughly) revolves around the protagonists quest for the cause of a computer virus which causes users of a virtual world called the Metaverse to turn comatose.

Since then, the concept of online, large-scale virtual worlds have always mesmerized me. It has also inspired the creation of many such worlds: Blaxxun (the name derived from a private club in Snow Crash called Black Sun), There, The Palace and Active Worlds, for example. — but about two years ago I discovered one that I was exceptionally impressed with: Second Life, in which players can create (almost) anything they can imagine with the use of in-world 3D editing tools, a scripting language and XML-RPC networking with the real world. Perhaps the world is best described by a typical experience:

I fly up into the air (all users can fly, as the SL world is very large, horizontally and vertically). My overview shows a lighthouse, calmly beaming in the distance. I can hear the rustling of the leaves of the trees below me. A butterfly passes by, I move the mouse over it and a small info-pane appears showing it was created by a person that's not even online. I decide that I'd like to watch a movie. I pull up the search menu and select a preferred movie theater. I get teleported there in an instant. I enter the theatre, find the correct room, press play — and Blade Runner a non-copyrighted film from the 60's starts playing. The theatre was built by a regular user, the movie is streaming from that user's server.

In the above example, I try to touch on the essential features that give the world it's depth and contribute to making it intriguing to explore and spend time in. The following are the points that I find really interesting:

What's Interesting

1. Everything in-world is created by the world's residents.
In short: There are no objects, houses or magical monsters who have been created by the developers through means unaccessible to the regular users. Everything in-game is created through the use of the tools available to everyone (except for landspace, clouds and sky).
2. What you create in-world — you retain the copyright of.
This means that whatever you create, it's yours. For a real example; a 'player' of Second Life invented and constructed an in-world game similar to Bingo. This in-world game became so successful amongst the SL community that a real-life boardgame company heard about it and offered him a business deal to manufacture it.
3. In-world currency (Linden Dollars) can be exchanged to real-world currency.
For example. If you create something that becomes a popular commodity in-world (clothes, or a jet-pack, a car, or a spaceship, for example), you can exchange it to real-world money. There are examples of SL users whose main real-life income comes from selling virtual objects. At the time this article is written, 296 Linden Dollars (L$) is worth $1 USD. Absolutely techtastic.
4. Residents can own their own land, houses and islands.
5. Second Life (SL), and other Metaverse-like worlds are not games.
Metaverses are universes with no specific goal, no levels reached by gaining experience points — the 'living' experience depends on your ability to create or otherwise find interesting things to do.This fifth point is an immensely fascinating concept and in my opinion, the core of the Metaverse concept: A world in which you are not limited by game-like artificial boundaries (decided for you by developers), but only the boundaries of human imagination and certain laws (instead of spatial limits, we have bandwidth issues; instead of gravity, we have user interface considerations).

But even with all these excellent and futuristic features, I still only 'lived in' SL for about a month.
The question of why becomes very interesting from a certain perspective:

If The Metaverse is based on the same principles as reality — creating, communicating and learning — surpassing reality by being free of disease and giving us instant capabilities to create such things as airplanes single-handedly, then why should we not want to inhabit that world?

avatar_onBuilding
My current avatar in SL,
on the top of a skyscraper in a
user-built city. That's my insignia
on the chest
My answer: I still feel it's a game. Besides making real money and meeting new people it's not that practical. I felt as if I was wasting my precious time. We can't escape the real world, it's the top-layer — but in Metaverses we have a choice, and when put in context with real things like 'dying', spending your time in a virtual reality seems quite petty.

Through this argument, I've reached the conclusion that to escape the 'game-feel', a Metaverse must have very tight coupling with the real world. It must offer practical incentive to actually make spending time there worthwhile.

I've identified a few main points that might make a Metaverse more practical, or at least incite a longing in me to try again:

Suggestions for Improvement

i. Make it open-source and standardize the protocols
Allow the residents of the world full control over what's possible. Allow everyone who wants the possibility of hosting a 'grid'; a land that people can visit, like the websites of today. I envision, for example, a Metaverse integration with Wikipedia — in which users can explore Wikipedia entries like "Vostok 1" in 3D
ii. Emphasis on fusion with reality and practical usage.
With the standardization of the Metaverse protocols, it could compel companies and establishments to create virtual models of their workplace — allowing students to virtually tour potential universities in another country, or online shopping by actually walking through a store. Imagine for example customizing your avatar to match your real-world body — wouldn't that make it a bit easier to find a shirt that fits and suits you online?

Open up more possibilities for teleconferencing and online collaboration. For example, when working on papers or projects with people from different continents. E.g. streaming your computer screen onto a big-screen in-world, allowing everyone to help you edit that text, source-code or graphics file.

Marvin_(HHGG)
Marvin was originally
designed in SL
Integrate interfaces to allow Metaverse users to create in-world programs with languages like Java, C++, C# or LISP. I've seen and heard of very interesting experiments with Artificial Life within the SL world; user-groups creating virtual ecosystems of fish, experimenting with swarm-behavior and growing plants. The potential of these kinds of experiments would grow enormously if we could incorporate the use of more powerful programming tools.

Improve upon the 3D modeling tools, allow integration with other 3D programs; a virtual world is a great platform for concept-designs. There is a great example of this already. Marvin The Paranoid Android from the movie The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, was originally modeled in Second Life (see SL newsletter 2006/03/22).

Unfortunately, I think more fusion with reality can prove exceedingly difficult without open-source efforts and established standards.

iii. In-world VOIP (voice over IP, like Skype) to allow audible conversations
Bandwidth issues currently prevent this. While I usually prefer text-based communications, it seems wrong to have extremely detailed avatars capable of facial expressions — but no voice. This is besides the obvious advantages of voice-communications, like speed and more efficient turn-taking.


march1806_flying_001
A Close-up of my SL avatar
My Design
In relation to the last point; I'm worried that a Metaverse's full potential will never be realized until we can make cheap and high-rez head-mounted displays, or VR Glasses, along with gloves or other kinds of mechanisms to allow us to use our hands to manipulate in-world objects. In other words: Tighter reality coupling and a more immersive experience.

In summary: While we are certainly on the right track to a high-level Metaverse, we're still some way from getting rid of the game-feel. Practical usage is essential for making a Metaverse as described in
Snow Crash, and to appeal to everyone.

hoverbikeAndMe
My old SL avatar and a Hoverbike I created
Despite of my criticism, I recommend trying out SL to know where we stand in the evolution of Metaverses. It's free — and I would definitely like to hear your opinion and take on it.





Apple Mac Comment, from Wikipedia's Snow Crash page
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The title of the novel is explained in Stephenson's essay In the Beginning...was the Command Line, as the term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. About the Macintosh, Stephenson wrote that "when the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set—a 'snow crash.'"



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