But aside from such diversions, the navigation tools provided by Second Life–users can fly and hover like Superman and zoom between micro and macro views of any object–make it an excellent place to investigate phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to visualize or understand. In that sense, this hideaway from the reality outside is beginning to function as an alternative lens on it. Ever wondered when the International Space Station might pass overhead? At the spaceflight museum, your avatar can fly alongside models of the station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many other satellites as they orbit a 10-meter-diameter globe in sync with real-world data from the Air Force Space Command [video] [SLurl]. Or perhaps you suspect a bad call by the line judges at Wimbledon. If so, just stroll a virtual tennis court inside Second Life and examine the paths of every serve and volley of a match in progress, reproduced by IBM in close to real time [YouTube video].
Of course, from within a virtual world like Second Life, the real world can be glimpsed only through the imperfect filters of today’s software and hardware. Barring a startling increase in the Internet bandwidth available to the average PC user or a plunge in the cost of stereoscopic virtual-reality goggles, we will continue to experience virtual worlds as mere representations of 3-D environments on our flat old computer screens. And your avatar obviously isn’t really you; it’s a cartoonish marionette awkwardly controlled by your mouse movements and keyboard commands. Moreover, at the moment, every conversation inside a virtual world must be laboriously typed out (although Linden Lab will soon add an optional voice-chat function to Second Life).
So while virtual worlds are good for basic instruction and data representation, professionals aren’t yet rushing to use them to analyze large amounts of spatial information. For that, they stick to specialized design, animation, modeling, and mapping software from companies like Autodesk and ESRI. But there’s another new genre of 3-D visualization tools that are accessible to both professionals and average Internet users: “virtual globe” programs such as Google Earth, Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, and NASA’s open-source World Wind. Virtual globes let you plot your city’s sewer system, monitor a network of environmental sensors, count up the frequent-flyer miles between New York and New Delhi, or just soar through a photorealistic 3-D model of the Grand Canyon [Google Earth location].
Even as social virtual worlds incorporate a growing amount of real-world data, virtual globes and their 2-D counterparts, Web maps, are getting more personal and immersive. Digital maps are becoming a substrate for what Di-Ann Eisnor, CEO of the mapping site Platial in Portland, OR, calls “neogeography”: an explosion of user-created content, such as travel photos and blog posts, pinned to specific locations (see “Killer Maps,” October 2005). Using Platial’s map annotation software, people have created public maps full of details about everything from the history of genocide to spots for romance. Google has now built a similar annotation feature directly into Google Maps. “The idea that maps can be emotional things to interact with is fairly new,” says Eisnor. “But I can imagine a time when the base map is just a frame of reference, and there is much more emphasis on the reviews, opinions, photos, and everything else that fits on top.”
As these two trends continue from opposite directions, it’s natural to ask what will happen when Second Life and Google Earth, or services like them, actually meet.
Because meet they will, whether or not their owners are the ones driving their integration. Both Google and Linden Lab grant access to their existing 3-D platforms through tools that let outside programmers build their own auxiliary applications, or “mashups.” And many computer professionals think the idea of a “Second Earth” mashup is so cool that it’s inevitable, whether or not it will offer any immediate way to make money. “As long as somebody can find some really strong personal gratification out of doing it, then there is a driver to make it happen,” says Jamais Cascio, a consultant who cofounded the futurist website WorldChanging.com and helps organizations plan for technological change.
The first, relatively simple step toward a Second Earth, many observers predict, will be integrating Second Life’s avatars, controls, and modeling tools into the Google Earth environment. Groups of users would then be able to walk, fly, or swim across Google’s simulated landscapes and explore intricate 3-D representations of the world’s most famous buildings. Google itself may or may not be considering such a project. “It’s interesting, and I think there are people who want to do that,” says John Hanke, director of the division of the company responsible for Google Earth. “But that’s not something where we have any announcements or immediate plans to talk about it.”