Songs of Distant Earth
Will the Web be absorbed into the World Wide Sim: an immersive, 3-D visual environment that combines elements of social virtual worlds? What happens when the virtual and real worlds collide? The MIT Technology Review notes that it the virtual world already exists and it is growing.
Second Life, which started out four years ago as a 1-square-kilometer patch with 500 residents, has grown into almost 600 square kilometers of territory spread over three minicontinents, with 6.9 million registered users and 30,000 to 40,000 residents online at any moment. It's a world with birdsong, rippling water, shopping malls, property taxes, and realistic physics. And life inside is almost as varied as it is outside. "I help out new citizens, I rent some houses on some spare land I have, I socialize," says a longtime Second Lifer whose avatar goes by the name Alan Cyr. "I dance far better than I do in real life. I watch sunsets and sunrises, go swimming, exploring, riding my Second Life Segway. I do a lot of random stuff."
But aside from such diversions, the navigation tools provided by Second Life--users can fly and hover like Superman and zoom between micro and macro views of any object--make it an excellent place to investigate phenomena that would otherwise be difficult to visualize or understand. In that sense, this hideaway from the reality outside is beginning to function as an alternative lens on it. Ever wondered when the International Space Station might pass overhead? At the spaceflight museum, your avatar can fly alongside models of the station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many other satellites as they orbit a 10-meter-diameter globe in sync with real-world data from the Air Force Space Command
The article goes on to describe the commercial and social logic behind the construction of a Second Earth. Anyone who works online is already aware of the subtle merging of the real and virtual worlds, although it takes place in a desultory fashion. We "roam" the world with our video conferencing, IM, VOIP and email. Very often we don't even use our true pictures or names, relying instead on avatars and aliases to hide our "true" identity. The office too has lost its physical anchor. We deposit our working documents online where they are always available to us -- and whoever we want to share them with. Our office is where we are connected. But when connectivity becomes ubiquitous then our office is where we can enter our virtual world.
While the real world will never go away, it is easy to see why some people would like to fly, if only on their displays, besides spaceships, float on the winds and exchange poetry with a beautiful virtual girl on a lawn of ever green. The sick, the old, the ugly, the halt and the outcast. All the lonely people here do they all belong.