Home' Technology Review : July August 2007 Contents 48 FEATURE STORY
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gram Skype. Developed by New York software consultant
Murat Aktihanoglu, Unype helps geography hounds logged
in to Skype synchronize their copies of Google Earth so
that they re viewing the same locations and layers. Unype
can insert crude, nonanimated avatars, which the users
can build themselves in the Collada format. "I don t think
it s the ultimate realization of the Metaverse vision," says
Google s Hanke. "It s interesting to see people trying to
bring these threads together."
From these threads, indeed, an entire tapestry of 3-D
services is faintly taking shape. The mature Metaverse won t
have a single killer app, say Gelernter and other obser vers,
any more than the Web does.
Certainly, it will enable new kinds of data analysis and
remote collaboration, with potentially life-saving results.
"As soon as you look at the NOAA weather map in Second
Life, you say, Okay, what if we did the same thing using u
pandemic data? " says Ondrejka. "You could get together
the CDC and the country s 50 leading epidemiologists, and
they could have their huge supercomputer-driven infection
model running. They d get insights they couldn t get just by
reading reports." It s not an outlandish scenario: epidemiol-
ogy has already come to Google Earth, courtesy of systems-
biology graduate student Andrew Hill and colleagues at the
University of Colorado, who published a KML le in April
with a grim animated time line showing how the most viru-
lent strains of avian u jumped from species to species and
country to country between 1996 and 2006.
Virtual tourism is another application whose audience
seems certain to expand. Already, the National Geographic
and Discovery networks o er Google Earth layers pegging
multimedia les to exotic locations such as the Gombe forest
in Tanzania, where researchers at the Jane Goodall Institute
continue to study colonies of chimpanzees. More is possible.
"What I want to do one day is represent the Grand Canyon
or a national park with such delity that you could essentially
go there and plan your whole trip," says Michael Wilson,
CEO of Makena Technologies, the company that operates
the virtual world There. "Or what if you could model a
Europe where the sea level is 10 feet higher than it is today,
or walk around the Alaskan north and see the glaciers and
the Bering Strait the way they were 10 years ago? Then per-
ceptions around global warming might change."
Such possibilities are uplifting, to be sure, but the hard-
nosed tr uth is that we don t need a Stephensonian Meta-
verse to make them happen. Remote collaboration, virtual
tourism, shopping, education, training, and the like are
already common on the Web, a vast resource that grows
faster than we can gure out how to use it. Digital globes
are gaining in delity, as cities are lled out with 3-D mod-
els and old satellite imagery is gradually replaced by newer
high-resolution shots. And today s island virtual worlds will
only get better, with more-realistic avatars and settings and
stronger connections to outside reality. A fully articulated
Metaverse, whether it s more like Snow Crash or Second
Life, would undeniably be overkill.
But many people feel a pull toward the Metaverse dream
that de es practical logic. To illustrate, Will Harvey, the
creator of There, tells a story about water.
Liquid, running, rippling water was one of the features
he and his team badly wanted to include in There. "Every
employee of the company understood that water was an
essential component that made a landscape feel like a
real place," Harvey says. And when arch rival Second Life
launched a few months before There in 2003, it was soak-
ing in animated H2O, from waterfalls to fountains to the
vast ocean surrounding its continents. "It became a stand-
ing joke that we desperately needed water," Har vey con-
tinues. "But the business side of the company understood,
correctly, that water wasn t necessary to solve the problem
of creating a place for people to socialize."
The argument wore on for months. In the end, There
got water, but it was motionless and impenetrable---"like
blue cement," Har vey says scowlingly.
The point, says Harvey, is that "if you trim the technol-
ogy down to the features you really need in order to solve a
problem, you end up with something that s a lot less than the
Metaverse. But deep inside me and inside all of the people
running There or Second Life is a desire to build this incred-
ibly fascinating, incredibly rich version of the Metaverse, the
one that has been the vision of science ction authors for 30
years and of computer engineers for 20."
I have come to understand this desire. In the course of
my research for this story, I bought land in Second Life,
built a house, lled it with furniture, bought and razed
the adjoining land, lifted my house a hundred meters into
the sky to get it out of the way, and began work on a big-
ger house. I was also befriended by dozens of Second Life
residents, several of whom I now know better than my real
neighbors. Most were delighted to hear about my story,
to tell me how they re spending their second lives, and to
show me their own creations, including a hot-dog-shaped
airplane and an animated Tibetan prayer wheel.
This, then, is how the Metaverse will take shape: through
the imaginations of the programmers, merchants, artists,
activists, and networkers who are already moving there.
If these part-time émigrés from reality want embellish-
ments like running water or six sunsets a day, they ll code
their universes that way. The rest of us may smile at their
whimsy---but we will take up, and come to depend upon,
the serious tools that underlie their play. And if the world
we create together is less lonely and less unpredictable than
the one we have now, we ll have made a good start.
Wade Roush is a Technology Review contributing editor.
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