Such possibilities are uplifting, to be sure, but the hardnosed truth is that we don’t need a Stephensonian Metaverse to make them happen. Remote collaboration, virtual tourism, shopping, education, training, and the like are already common on the Web, a vast resource that grows faster than we can figure out how to use it. Digital globes are gaining in fidelity, as cities are filled out with 3-D models and old satellite imagery is gradually replaced by newer high-resolution shots. And today’s island virtual worlds will only get better, with more-realistic avatars and settings and stronger connections to outside reality. A fully articulated Metaverse, whether it’s more like Snow Crash or Second Life, would undeniably be overkill.
But many people feel a pull toward the Metaverse dream that defies practical logic. To illustrate, Will Harvey, the creator of There, tells a story about water.
Liquid, running, rippling water was one of the features he and his team badly wanted to include in There. “Every employee of the company understood that water was an essential component that made a landscape feel like a real place,” Harvey says. And when arch rival Second Life launched a few months before There in 2003, it was soaking in animated H2O, from waterfalls to fountains to the vast ocean surrounding its continents. “It became a standing joke that we desperately needed water,” Harvey continues. “But the business side of the company understood, correctly, that water wasn’t necessary to solve the problem of creating a place for people to socialize.”
The argument wore on for months. In the end, There got water, but it was motionless and impenetrable–“like blue cement,” Harvey says scowlingly.
The point, says Harvey, is that “if you trim the technology down to the features you really need in order to solve a problem, you end up with something that’s a lot less than the Metaverse. But deep inside me and inside all of the people running There or Second Life is a desire to build this incredibly fascinating, incredibly rich version of the Metaverse, the one that has been the vision of science fiction authors for 30 years and of computer engineers for 20.”
I have come to understand this desire. In the course of my research for this story, I bought land in Second Life, built a house, filled it with furniture, bought and razed the adjoining land, lifted my house a hundred meters into the sky to get it out of the way, and began work on a bigger house [SLurl]. I was also befriended by dozens of Second Life residents, several of whom I now know better than my real neighbors. Most were delighted to hear about my story, to tell me how they’re spending their second lives, and to show me their own creations, including a hot-dog-shaped airplane and an animated Tibetan prayer wheel.
This, then, is how the Metaverse will take shape: through the imaginations of the programmers, merchants, artists, activists, and networkers who are already moving there. If these part-time émigrés from reality want embellishments like running water or six sunsets a day, they’ll code their universes that way. The rest of us may smile at their whimsy–but we will take up, and come to depend upon, the serious tools that underlie their play. And if the world we create together is less lonely and less unpredictable than the one we have now, we’ll have made a good start.
Wade Roush is a Technology Review contributing editor.