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.
It’s easy to see how a detailed mirror world might bring a tactical advantage to a large corporation, government agency, or military force–for example, by making it easier for the Wal-Marts of the future to track merchandise from factory to warehouse to retail shelf, or explore what-if scenarios such as the impact of a major storm on the supply chain. But when mirror worlds are joined by a third technology stream–what’s being called “mobile augmented reality”–they will become even more indispensable.
Mobile augmented reality is a way of using the data underlying mirror worlds without experiencing those worlds immersively. The extensive 3-D simulations in mirror worlds will, in the words of the Metaverse Roadmap, be draped over the real world and accessed locally in 2-D through location-aware mobile devices such as wireless phones. Even the screen of a GPS-enabled camera phone could serve as a temporary window into the Metaverse. Carry it with you on your next house-hunting expedition, for example, and it could connect to real-estate databases containing 3-D floor plans and information on sale prices, property taxes, and the like for every house on every block. Or point it at one of the turbines on your wind farm and see Google Earth’s virtual version of the structure, supplemented by engineering specifications, maintenance history, and a graph of hourly power output. Finnish cell-phone giant Nokia, French startup Total Immersion, and others are building prototype augmented-reality systems now and expect the big wireless carriers to take an interest soon (see “Augmented Reality” in “Emerging Technologies 2007,” March/April).
It would be far too simple to say that the Metaverse will consist of Linden Lab’s virtual world with maps, or Google’s mirror world with avatars, or some augmented-reality slice of either one. In fact, Second Life and Google Earth are likely to endure just as they are (with the usual upgrades) well into the Metaverse era. What’s coming is a larger digital environment combining elements of all these technologies–a “3-D Internet,” to use the term preferred by David Rolston, CEO of Forterra Systems, a company in San Mateo, CA, that makes immersive training simulations for the U.S. Department of Defense and other first-responder agencies. People will enter this environment using PC-based software similar to the programs that already grant access to Second Life and Google Earth. These “Metaverse browsers” will be to the 3-D Internet what Mosaic and Netscape were to the dot-com revolution–tools that both provide structure (by defining what’s possible) and enable infinite experimentation.
“There will be a bunch of different worlds, owned, controlled, and operated by different organizations,” Rolston predicts. “They will be built on different platforms, and you will have community standards about how you can connect these worlds, and open-source software that carries you between them.” The word “Metaverse” will refer to both the overarching collection of these worlds and the main port of entry to them, a sort of Grand Cyber Station that links to all other destinations. The central commons itself could be designed as a mirror world or a virtual world or some interleaving of the two: people logging in to the Metaverse might want it to look like Manhattan or the Emerald City of Oz, depending on the task at hand. But either way, partisans say, the full Metaverse will encompass thousands of individual virtual worlds and mirror worlds, each with its own special purpose. To borrow a trope from corporate networking, it will be an “interverse” connecting many local “intraverses.”