Rolston has already had plenty of experience building such separate worlds. Some of Forterra’s simulations are “geotypical”–plausible imitations of generic landscapes and urban environments–and others are “geospecific,” reproducing actual places such as the entrances to Baghdad’s battered Green Zone. The worlds of the Metaverse will be much more diverse but still bridgeable, Rolston predicts. “Portions of this 3-D Internet will be anchored to the real planet and will involve real-world activities, and others will not be,” he says. “People will move freely between representations of the real world and representations of synthetic fantasy worlds, and feel equally comfortable in both.”
For people who haven’t spent much time in a 3-D world, of course, it’s hard to imagine feeling comfortable in either. But such environments may soon be as unavoidable as the Web itself: according to technology research firm Gartner, current trends suggest that 80 percent of active Internet users and Fortune 500 companies will participate in Second Life or some competing virtual world by the end of 2011. And if you take a few months to explore Second Life, as I have done recently, you may begin to understand why many people have begun to think of it as a true second home–and why 3-D worlds are a better medium for many types of communication than the old 2-D Internet.
To begin with, Second Life is beautiful–wholly unlike the Metaverse one might imagine from reading Snow Crash. It has rolling grass-covered hills and snowy mountains, lush tropical jungles, tall pines that sway gently in the breeze, and Romanesque fountains with musically tinkling water. Linden Lab thoughtfully arranges a gorgeous golden-orange sunset every four hours.
A beautiful environment, however, isn’t enough to make a virtual world compelling. Single-player puzzle worlds such as Myst provided riveting 3-D graphics as long ago as the early 1990s, but these worlds were utterly lonely, leaving users with no reason to return after all the puzzles had been solved. Part of Second Life’s appeal, by contrast, is that it’s always crowded with thousands of other people. If you want company, just head for a clump of green dots on the Second Life world map–that’s where you’ll find people gathering for concerts, lectures, competitions, shopping, museum-going, and dancing. “Second Life is best viewed as a communication technology, just like the telephone,” says Cory Ondrejka, Linden Lab’s chief technology officer. “Except that you don’t communicate by voice; you communicate by shared experience.” And unlike the telephone system, Second Life is free (unless you want to own land, which means upgrading to premium membership for $9.95 per month).
Second Life residents also communicate through the buildings and other objects they create. Using built-in 3-D modeling tools, any resident can create something simple, like a flowerpot or a crude hut. But the revered wizards of the community are those who can quickly conjure basic building blocks called “prims” and reshape and combine them into complex objects, from charm bracelets and evening gowns to airplanes and office buildings. Alyssa LaRoche, creator of the NOAA weather map, is one of these builder-wizards. She started creating things as soon as she joined Second Life in January 2004, and by April 2006 she had quit her day job as an IT consultant in the financial-services industry to start a Second Life design agency called Aimee Weber Studio (after her avatar’s name). Business has been so brisk that LaRoche now employs four other full-time modelers and 19 contractors. “I’m certainly making more money than I made at my job as a consultant,” she says. Her agency recently finished an entire island of oceanographic and meteorological exhibits for NOAA, including a glacier, a submarine tour of a tropical reef, and an airplane ride through a hurricane [video] [SLurl].
NOAA commissioned its island as a kind of educational amusement park, a Weather World. But other parts of Second Life are more businesslike. Dozens of companies, including IBM [SLurl], Sony Ericsson [SLurl], and American Apparel [video] [SLurl], have bought land in the virtual world, and most have already built storefronts or headquarters where their employees’ avatars can do business. In March, for example, Coldwell Banker opened a Second Life real-estate brokerage where new residents can tour model virtual homes and make purchases at below-market rates [video] [SLurl]. In 2006, Starwood Hotels used Second Life as a virtual testing ground for a new chain of real-world hotels, called Aloft. The company constructed a prototype where visitors could walk the grounds, swim in the pool, relax in the lobby, and inspect the guest rooms [video] [SLurl]. It’s incorporating suggestions from Second Lifers into the design of the first real Aloft hotel, set to open in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, in 2008 [YouTube video].