Most structures in the Second Life universe, of course, lack any serious business purpose. But that doesn’t mean they have no relation to the real world. One of Second Life’s most trafficked places is a detailed re-creation of downtown Dublin [video] [SLurl]. The main draw: the Blarney Stone Irish pub, where there is live music most nights, piped in from real performance spaces via the Internet. A short teleport-hop away from virtual Dublin is virtual Amsterdam, where the canals, the houseboats, and even the alleyways of the red-light district have been textured with photographs from the real Amsterdam to lend authenticity [video] [SLurl].
This reimagining of the real world can go only so far, given current limitations on the growth of Linden Lab’s server farm, the amount of bandwidth available to stream data to users, and the power of the graphics card in the average PC. According to Ondrejka, Linden Lab must purchase and install more than 120 servers every week to keep up with all the new members pouring into Second Life, who increase the computational load by creating new objects and demanding their own slices of land. Each server at Linden Lab supports one to four “regions,” 65,536-square-meter chunks of the Second Life environment–establishing the base topography, storing and rendering all inanimate objects, animating avatars, running scripts, and the like. This architecture is what makes it next to impossible to imagine re-creating a full-scale earth within Second Life, even at a low level of detail. At one region per server, simulating just the 29.2 percent of the planet’s surface that’s dry land would require 2.3 billion servers and 150 dedicated nuclear power plants to keep them running. It’s the kind of system that “doesn’t scale well,” to use the jargon of information technology.
But then, Linden Lab’s engineers never designed Second Life’s back end to scale that way. Says Ondrejka, “We’re not interested in 100 percent veracity or a true representation of static reality.”
And they don’t have to be. As it turns out, simulations need not be convincing to be enveloping. “It’s not an issue of engaging the eyes and the hands, but rather of engaging the heart and the mind,” says Corey Bridges, executive producer at the Multiverse Network, which sells a standardized virtual-world platform that developers can tailor to their own needs. “If you can form a connection with someone, even just with a mouse and a keyboard and a video screen, whether it’s in Second Life or World of Warcraft, that is far more powerful than even the best virtual-reality simulation.”
Personal connections may be what a lot of people want, but going by the numbers, Google Earth is far more popular than any other type of virtual world, including the big role-playing worlds like Lineage II (which has 14 million subscribers) and World of Warcraft (more than 8 million). By the spring of 2007, less than two years after it was launched, Google Earth had already been downloaded more than 250 million times.
Google Earth and its lesser-known imitator, Microsoft Virtual Earth, owe their existence to a convergence in the early 2000s of several trends, including a drop in the price of satellite and aerial imagery, the more widespread availability of topographical and other geographical information collected by national governments around the world, the standardization of 3-D modeling technologies originally developed for video games, and the spread of consumer PCs with graphics cards capable of 3-D hardware acceleration. But the programs’ philosophical roots go back much further than that. John Hanke, who developed the original software behind Google Earth at a small company called Keyhole (which Google acquired in 2004), says that Snow Crash’s description of a 3-D program called Earth–“a globe about the size of a grapefruit, a perfectly detailed rendition of Planet Earth”–was part of his inspiration.