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A second alternative would be to expand the surface area of Second Life by millions of square kilometers and model the new territory on the real earth, using the same topographical data and surface imagery contained in Google Earth. (The existing parts of Second Life could remain, perhaps as an imaginary archipelago somewhere in the Pacific.) That’s a much more difficult proposition, for practical, technical reasons that I’ll get to later. And in any case, Linden Lab says it’s not interested.

But within 10 to 20 years–roughly the same time it took for the Web to become what it is now–something much bigger than either of these alternatives may emerge: a true Metaverse. In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, a classic of the dystopian “cyberpunk” genre, the Metaverse was a planet-size virtual city that could hold up to 120 million avatars, each representing someone in search of entertainment, trade, or social contact. The Metaverse that’s really on the way, some experts believe, will resemble Stephenson’s vision, but with many alterations. It will look like the real earth, and it will support even more users than the Snow Crash cyberworld, functioning as the agora, labo­ratory, and gateway for almost every type of information-based pursuit. It will be accessible both in its immersive, virtual-reality form and through peepholes like the screen of your cell phone as you make your way through the real world. And like the Web today, it will become “the standard way in which we think of life online,” to quote from the Metaverse Roadmap, a forecast published this spring by an informal group of entrepreneurs, media producers, academics, and analysts (Cascio among them).

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But don’t expect it to run any more smoothly than the real world. I called programmer and 3-D modeler Alyssa LaRoche, who created the immersive weather map for NOAA, to see if she could explain that pesky blue dot over Las Vegas. As it turns out, a networking glitch was preventing the airport weather feed from reaching the map inside Second Life. And when the map doesn’t get the data it’s expecting, the temperature dots default to blue. So Corbin was right, in a way.

While Second Life and Google Earth are commonly mentioned as likely forebears of the Metaverse, no one thinks that Linden Lab and Google will be its lone rulers. Their two systems are interesting mainly because they already have many adherents, and because they exemplify two fundamentally different streams of technology that will be essential to the Metaverse’s construction.

Second Life is a true virtual world, unconstrained by any resemblance to the real planet. What unites it and similar worlds such as There, Entropia Universe, Moove, Habbo Hotel, and Kaneva–beyond their 3-D graphics–is that they’re free-flowing, ungoverned communities shaped by the shared imaginations of their users. “Consensual hallucinations” was the term William Gibson used in his groundbreaking 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, which posited a Matrix-like cybersphere years before Snow Crash. These worlds are not games, however. Users don’t go on quests or strive to acquire more gold or magic spells; they’re far more likely to spend their time at virtual campfires, discos, and shopping malls.

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This sets these environments firmly apart from massively multiplayer 3-D gaming worlds such as Sony’s EverQuest, Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, and NCsoft’s Lineage II, which together have far more users.

Google Earth and competing programs such as Microsoft Virtual Earth, on the other hand, are more accurately described as mirror worlds–a term invented by Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter (see “Artificial Intelligence Is Lost in the Woods”) to denote geo­graphically accurate, utilitarian software models of real human environments and their workings. If they were books, virtual worlds would be fiction and mirror worlds would be nonfiction. They are microcosms: reality brought down to a size at which it can be grasped, manipulated, and rearranged, like an obsessively detailed dollhouse. And they’re used to keep track of the real world rather than to escape from it. Environmental scientists and sensor-net researchers, for example, are already feeding live data on climate conditions, pollution, and the like into Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, where the added spatial and geographical dimensions give extra context and help reveal hidden patterns.

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