I've been fascinated for many years by the emergence of virtual worlds. Their attractiveness is obvious to anyone who has read a work of fiction and imagined themselves in that world, either alongside the heroes or off exploring new spaces. Paper and dice role-playing games (such as D&D or Transhuman Space) offered an approximation of virtual existence, but did so through descriptive language (and, often, little lead wizards, goblins and the like). As personal computers grew to have powerful visual capacities and global network connections, however, the opportunity arose to create immersive alternative worlds that could be experienced by anyone, regardless of imagination.
Today's virtual worlds (whether massively-multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft, or online communities, like Second Life) are sophisticated enough to have developed a variety of emergent behaviors, from unexpected game environment events to nuanced social and economic behavior. Future virtual worlds promise more complex experiences and expressive interfaces -- but what are we going to do with all of that power? Will tomorrow's virtual worlds still be about killing things and taking their stuff?
The Acceleration Studies Foundation wanted to find out, and has set up what promises to be a pretty remarkable event: the Metaverse Roadmap Project. Taking its name from the online world in Neal Stephenson's novel Snowcrash, the Metaverse Roadmap Project will explore the potential development of both virtual world technology and virtual world society over the next ten years. The conference will take place May 5th and 6th -- and I am one of the participants. Other attendees include people like Raph Koster, Edward Castranova and Joi Ito, along with folks from the game industry, academia, and the media. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing my old WorldChanging colleague Ethan Zuckerman at the event.
My own thoughts on where the metaverse is heading are still evolving, but some early indicators of what I'm thinking about can be found in a few of my later posts at WC. In The Open Future: Living in Multiple Worlds, I look at the combination of virtual environments, augmented reality and simulations as decision-support tools for an increasingly complex world. In Making the Virtual Real, Virtual Complimentary Currencies, and The Open Future: Spirits in the Material World, I talk about the potential overlap of virtual environments and material fabrication technologies.
In short, I increasingly see virtual worlds not as alternative environments but as augmentation to our physical existence. We'll soon be living in a "mash-up" of the real world and virtual worlds; arguably, some of us already are. Like so many of the 1990s predictions about the evolution of the Internet, the idea that multi-user environments lead to isolation and detatchment from reality turned out to be 180° wrong.
The risk is that we'll back into this augmentation, and will be stuck with the virtual world equivalent of QWERTY -- technological standards and habituated user behaviors that were once functional, but now serve more as roadblocks to efficient use of new technologies. Incompatible identity rules, interfaces built more for killing dragons than interacting with colleagues, and closed, proprietary systems requiring the reinvention of the wheel over and over again all threaten to lead us to a world of virtual/augmented life that is far clumsier and harder to use than it needs to be.
My goal for the Metaverse Roadmap Project meeting, then, is not to identify the winning technologies and companies for the next ten years, but to identify the kinds of approaches and strategies for building virtual environments that stand the greatest chance of making us all winners.