Increasingly over the last year, I have been asked to share my thoughts about virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life and World of Warcraft). After repeated provocation, I took a peek into these interactive 3D La-La-Lands to see what is up. Here are a few of my core conclusions:
1. Virtual realities will end up consuming the attention of a substantial number of humans and this will happen more quickly than most may think.
2. Data synchronization between the real world and virtual worlds will increase the relevance of virtual worlds.
3. Along with the eyeballs of transacting consumers will come increased corporate investment thus driving more relevance and more growth.
4. Investors in virtual world physics re-engineering will possess a distinct advantage in virtual worlds.
5. As with any tool, a very small percentage of the population will use virtual worlds for criminal activities.
Here are a few details related to these points.
Virtual reality: soon serving the masses. As these alternate worlds become more immersive (i.e., ability to hold ones attention when in the virtual space) and accessible (think One Laptop Per Child), I think it is possible that a half billion people show up. How soon? In six to ten years – maybe faster. Why? Because there are a lot of people on Earth that would rather exist in a synthetic world as opposed to their real world. Hmmm … shanty town, nagging spouse, or insurmountable odds versus a stimulating environment with near limitless potential to reinvent oneself.
Cross-reality synchronization. Imagine taking heat sensors in a real-world data center and publishing these into a virtual space which is physically configured like the real data center. The difference being that the immersed person can now physically visualize the temperature distribution in the data center. This is already being done. Then move something in the physical world and it moves in the virtual world at the same time, automatically. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is already happening in some context, somewhere. As well, the inverse: There is supposedly a fellow who has an island in Second Life with a surveillance mechanism implemented that sends him a real-world email or text message whenever someone steps foot onto his island. Long story short, if one wants to look at something specific, if the real and virtual worlds are synchronized, it’s going to be cheaper, faster and will burn less carbon if one takes the virtual option.
Real economic growth in unreal worlds. Have you heard about the real estate developer in Second Life that has made $1,000,000 (real) US dollars? True. Linden dollars, the monetary unit in Second Life, have their own currency exchange to US dollars called the LindeX – a currency market apparently moving millions of dollars a month between the virtual and real worlds. Point being, if a billion people show up in virtual spaces, each on average spending only eleven cents ($0.11) a month – this amounts to a real growth market which will trigger further industry investment. Consequently: more people arrive.
Virtual world physics re-engineering. Through serendipity, careful study, and/or experimentation it is possible to develop capabilities within virtual reality that other participants, or in some cases even the creator, cannot fathom. The first such instance I heard of five or six years ago involved a player who figured out he could climb walls by mounting deactivated explosive devices on a wall. Placing one above the other, the avatar cleverly scaled the wall. He climbed so high that he moved beyond the rendered space … into a region of the game where all that was visible was texture-less grid lines. In a more recent example, in Second Life an individual created a covert listening device the size of a single pixel -- then placed this pixel inside some object. Later when the object was near a conversation, all communications were echoed to a third party unbeknownst to the victims. Prior to this event many players in Second Life would not have considered this possible. Game physics re-engineering is also happening in World of Warcraft (where it is called "Theorycraft"). In this virtual world, one expert explained it to me this way “[we are] unwrapping the mathematics and developing a perception of space and time in relation to the virtual world, that determines which combination of attacks or defenses have the greatest efficacy.” This info is then shared with colleagues in password protected chat rooms. Using this knowledge delivers extraordinary advantage, namely lethality per second optimizations, hence the importance of keeping this specialized knowledge to a privileged few as long as possible. By the way, let’s not forget that we are re-engineering the physics here on Earth in a similar manner. Heck, ten thousand years ago, who would have conceived of the possibility that spaceships could be devised to take man to the moon and back!
Tools are tools. Are virtual spaces dangerous? Well, is a phone, the Internet and email dangerous? Nope, not for the most part, in fact the opposite, as the social and economic values of these technologies far outweigh the consequences of misuse. Sure bad actors will continue to use the best tools they can get their hands on too. And with this behavior, as more bad actors show up … the folks paid to “protect” us will venture into these virtual spaces in an effort to detect and preempt. Hence some of my quotes in this recent Washington Post story “Spies Battleground Turns Virtual.”
And finally, how will you know virtual worlds are starting to collide with your own real world? Watch for this sign: someone wants to chat with you while showing you something and they explain the best way to do this efficiently is for you to “step in” [to the virtual world that is].
Ghost in the Machine?