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Today, the virtual world of Linden Lab’s Second Life, which was launched in 2003, has seven million registered users, 30,000 to 40,000 of whom are online at any one time. The mirror world Google Earth, which is only two years old, has been downloaded 250 million times.

Mere numbers, however, do not convey the beauty, richness, and social complexity of today’s virtual and mirror worlds. Nearly everything that human beings can do, they do in Second Life. Dozens of companies, including IBM and Sony Ericsson, are doing business there. And Google Earth has become much more than a hawk’s-eye view of the globe. Call up any spot where humans live, and the visitor to the mirror world will see a multitude of layers of interesting or useful information. Second Life and Google Earth have many of the features of Gibson’s matrix.

So what changed? First, technology. Most computer users now have the graphics cards and broadband connections necessary to explore virtual and mirror worlds. Storage and processing have become cheap enough to let companies readily purchase the servers necessary to render virtual and mirror worlds in complex detail.

But there’s another, more interesting explanation for the growth of Second Life and Google Earth: the companies that created them understood that virtual and mirror worlds are social environments. The most important function of such worlds is communication and personal expression. Therefore, Linden Lab and Google gave control to users, preserving for themselves only the godlike task of maintaining their universes. Second Life avatars can build whatever buildings, clothes, or flora they wish. Anyone willing to learn the open standards of geocomputing can tag information to locations in Google Earth.

In this issue, contributing editor Wade Roush explores how virtual and mirror worlds will merge into what’s been called the Metaverse (see “Second Earth”). The Metaverse, he writes, “will look like the real earth, and it will … [function] as the agora, laboratory, and gateway for almost every type of information-based pursuit.” Do you agree? Write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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