No one knows yet how to bring Second Life-like avatars directly into Google Earth, but researchers at Intel have demonstrated one possible approach. In late 2006, they created a primitive video game, called Mars Sucks, that challenges Google Earth users to search out and destroy Martian invaders using clues to the locations of their spaceships. The core of the game is a KML layer with special scripts that communicate with both the usual Google Earth content servers and a separate game server that controls elements such as the clues, cockpit graphics, and explosions. Using the same technique, it might be possible to superimpose avatars on the Google Earth environment without having to change anything about the program itself.
Avatars of a sort can already travel through Google Earth thanks to Unype, a mashup using the free voice-over-IP program Skype. Developed by New York software consultant Murat Aktihanoglu, Unype helps geography hounds logged in to Skype synchronize their copies of Google Earth so that they’re viewing the same locations and layers. Unype can insert crude, nonanimated avatars, which the users can build themselves in the Collada format.
“I don’t think it’s the ultimate realization of the Metaverse vision,” says Google’s Hanke. “It’s interesting to see people trying to bring these threads together.”
From these threads, indeed, an entire tapestry of 3-D services is faintly taking shape. The mature Metaverse won’t have a single killer app, say Gelernter and other observers, any more than the Web does.
Certainly, it will enable new kinds of data analysis and remote collaboration, with potentially life-saving results. “As soon as you look at the NOAA weather map in Second Life, you say, ‘Okay, what if we did the same thing using flu pandemic data?’” says Ondrejka. “You could get together the CDC and the country’s 50 leading epidemiologists, and they could have their huge supercomputer-driven infection model running. They’d get insights they couldn’t get just by reading reports.” It’s not an outlandish scenario: epidemiology has already come to Google Earth, courtesy of systems-biology graduate student Andrew Hill and colleagues at the University of Colorado, who published a KML file in April with a grim animated time line showing how the most virulent strains of avian flu jumped from species to species and country to country between 1996 and 2006 [Google Earth link].
Virtual tourism is another application whose audience seems certain to expand. Already, the National Geographic and Discovery networks offer Google Earth layers pegging multimedia files to exotic locations such as the Gombe forest in Tanzania, where researchers at the Jane Goodall Institute continue to study colonies of chimpanzees [Google Earth link]. More is possible. “What I want to do one day is represent the Grand Canyon or a national park with such fidelity that you could essentially go there and plan your whole trip,” says Michael Wilson, CEO of Makena Technologies, the company that operates the virtual world There. “Or what if you could model a Europe where the sea level is 10 feet higher than it is today, or walk around the Alaskan north and see the glaciers and the Bering Strait the way they were 10 years ago? Then perceptions around global warming might change.”
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.