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The Virtual Society

Another force that could affect computing significantly is networked gaming, both wired and wireless. Online games are just hitting their stride, providing interaction on a scale no other system does, says Eric Zimmerman, cofounder of networked-game maker gameLab. The idea of connecting gamers in remote locations isn’t new: in 1985 Lucasfilm created Habitat, an online gaming world that ultimately hosted thousands of users connecting from modem-linked Commodore 64s. Wider commercial success for this format has come more recently, most notably with Electronic Arts’ Ultima Online in 1997 and Sony’s EverQuest in 1999. Hordes of new games like these have opened their virtual worlds to players internationally since then. At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of gamers are meeting online in these 3-D fantasy worlds complete with their own species, economies and laws.

An online game system of this sort joins the graphically intensive demands of entertainment software with issues like scalability-maintaining high-quality service whether one person or tens of thousands of people are connected-that are more often associated with business systems. Yee, who led the development of  EverQuest while at Sony, notes that although its system demands are not as strict as a financial network’s, people invest a lot of time in developing characters, and what is stored on the EverQuest server has real value (EverQuest and Ultima Online characters often sell for more than $1,000 on eBay). “You need a high degree of reliability,” he says.

Some of the technologies that went into building such systems are starting to make the transition to remote communication, education and videoconferencing. Microsoft’s Drucker has worked on fashioning networked virtual worlds that let bone marrow transplant patients at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle-in isolation due to their weakened immune systems-play games, chat, even share virtual presents with their families and friends. Other efforts aim to bring networked game technologies to bear on education. “Games are very compelling; they can be addictive,” says Drucker. “And if we can harness that addiction for education purposes, then you’re going to have a wonderful synergy.” In one Microsoft project, gamelike simulations are being used to help children with mild autism develop better social skills. And Drucker hopes teachers who know education but not programming may soon be able to use software originally designed to simplify the creation of massively multiplayer games to  create networked virtual worlds to help demonstrate complicated concepts.

Videoconferencing applications are a bit further out, but Drucker and his Microsoft colleague Robertson say online worlds may influence the future of this field as well. A virtual conference using avatars or other graphical representations of participants would use less bandwidth than real-time video. Video interpretation technology could then be used to simulate participants’ facial expressions. Virtual meetings could also solve the so-called gaze problem: a participant looking at her computer screen is always staring in the same direction, while in actual meetings, people tend to look at whoever is speaking. Avatars could be directed to look at the speaker automatically. “All of that gets you closer to face-to-face interactions,” says Robertson.
The work in education and videoconferencing focuses mainly on fixed, wired networks. But wireless systems are also benefiting from game technology. Cybiko’s personal digital assistants join a screen, tiny keyboard, gaming controls and local radio-frequency wireless networking. Kids can download and play games (alone or with friends up to 100 or so meters away), send instant messages and use the digital-assistant features to schedule activities.

All of this is designed to get users interacting. Cybiko’s slogan is “stop playing with yourself.” And its kind of wireless networked gaming is making its way to other personal digital assistants, like Palm and Windows Pocket PC devices. Cybiko also recently teamed up with Nortel Networks and Motorola to offer downloads of its games onto some Motorola phones. Indeed, video games are a major factor in motivating cell phone makers to add color screens and make other improvements in their displays, maintains Cybiko founder and CEO David Yang. There are other incentives as well-multimedia applications like surfing the Web and storing and sending photos. But, Yang says, “Games will be a big part of that, maybe more than 50 percent of all multimedia experiences.” He also says that ad hoc local wireless networks of the sort formed by Cybiko handhelds could beat out mobile networks like Bluetooth and 802.11b for low-cost, low-power, short-range communications.

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