Home' Technology Review : July August 2007 Contents 10 FROM THE EDITOR
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW /
From the Editor
A Virtually New Web
The collision of virtual reality and mapping brings excitement to cyberspace
As I write, my meat is earthbound in Tanzania, at the
Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Global
2007 conference, but my avatar, Xan Hazlitt---pic-
tured above---freely roams the virtual world of Second Life.
Like many technologists my age, I rst encountered
the idea of virtual worlds in William Gibson s 1984 clas-
sic of "cyberpunk" science ction, Neuromancer. I was at
boarding school in England, and it was an exeat we ek-
end (that is, vacation). The British boys had gone home to
their families, and the foreign students were marooned in
the school s houses. But I was neither homesick nor lonely,
because on the previous day the school s bookshop had
delivered a brand-new, hardbound copy of Gibson s novel.
I remember my excitement when I read how Case, a
"cowboy" or criminal hacker, jacked into the matrix after a
long, chemically imposed exile from cyberspace, his "dis-
tanceless home": "Inner eye opening to the stepped scar-
let pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority
burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of
America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral
arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach."
Wow! I thought. Now that was poetry!
My interest in what Gibson memorably called the "con-
sensual hallucination" of cyberspace was in amed by two
later books: Neal Stephenson s 1992 cyberpunk novel
Snow Crash and David Geler nter s 1991 Mirror Worlds: Or
the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox ... How It
Will Happen and What It Will Mean. (Gelernter, a profes-
sor of computer science at Yale University, writes in this
month s essay about why he believes humans will never
build a fully conscious arti cial intelligence; see page 62.)
In fact, the cyberpunks and Gelernter were imagin-
ing two related phenomena. The rst is that of the virtual
world, a shared, 3-D environment where people and orga-
nizations communicate---an environment that is related to
our own world but is ctive. By contrast, Gelernter s term
"mirror worlds" conveyed the idea of geographically accu-
rate software models of real terrestrial places.
My juvenile enthusiasm for virtual and mirror worlds
was shared by the pioneers of the Internet. Almost all early
descriptions of the Net make some appeal to the glam-
our of a social, 3-D cyberspace. And yet until recently, nei-
ther virtual worlds nor mirror worlds existed outside the
heated imagination of science ction writers and futurists.
For years, attempts to create virtual and mirror worlds
were fr ustrated. When I was the editor of Red Herring
magazine in the 1990s, we promoted a new standard
called the virtual-reality markup language that was to have
given programmers and website designers the means to
bring a third dimension to the Internet. ("VRML: The
LSD of the Internet!" the May 1996 cover of Red Herring
exclaimed.) But nothing came of such early technologies.
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 mir ror world Google Earth, which is only two
years old, has been downloaded 250 million times.
Mere numbers, however, do not convey the beauty, rich-
ness, 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 infor mation. 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 con-
nections necessary to explore virtual and mirror worlds.
Storage and processing have become cheap enough to let
companies readily purchase the ser vers necessary to ren-
der virtual and mirror worlds in complex detail.
But there s another, more interesting explanation for
the growth of Second Life and Google Earth: the compa-
nies that created them understood that virtual and mirror
worlds are social environments. The most important func-
tion of such worlds is communication and personal expres-
sion. Therefore, Linden Lab and Google gave control to
users, preser ving for themselves only the godlike task of
maintaining their universes. Second Life avatars can build
whatever buildings, clothes, or ora 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," p. 38). 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. Jason Pontin
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