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Internet to become Matrix says MIT


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A thunderhead towers at knee level, throwing tiny lightning bolts at my shoes. I'm standing--rather, my avatar is standing--astride a giant map [sLurl] of the continental United States, and southern Illinois, at my feet, is evidently getting a good April shower.

The weather is nicer on the East Coast: I can see pillowy cumulus clouds floating over Boston and New York, a few virtual meters away. I turn around and look west toward Nevada. There isn't a raindrop in sight, of course; the region's eight-year drought is expected to go on indefinitely, thanks to global warming. But I notice something odd, and I walk over to investigate.

The red polka dots over Phoenix and Los Angeles indicate a hot day, as I would expect. But the dot over the North Las Vegas airport is deep-freeze blue. That can't be right. My house is only 30 kilometers from the airport, and I've had the air conditioner running all day.

"Any clue why this dot is blue?" I ask the avatar operating the weather map's controls. The character's name, inside the virtual world called Second Life, is Zazen Manbi; he has a pleasant face and well-kept chestnut hair, and the oval spectacles perched on his nose give him a look that's half academic, half John Lennon. The man controlling Manbi is Jeffrey Corbin, a research assistant in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Denver.

"Let me check something," Manbi/Corbin responds. "I can reset the map--sometimes it gets stuck." He presses a button, and fresh data rushes in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's network of airport weather stations. The clouds over the East shift slightly. Los Angeles goes orange, meaning it's cooled off a bit. But there's still a spot of indigo over Vegas.

"I guess it's feeling blue," he jokes.

The map I am standing on belongs to NOAA, and it covers a 12-by-20-meter square of lawn on a large virtual island sustained entirely by servers and software at San Francisco-based Linden Lab, which launched Second Life in 2003. (On the map's scale, my avatar is about 500 kilometers tall, which makes Illinois about three paces across.) Corbin, who's on a personal mission to incorporate 3-D tools like this one into the science curriculum at Denver, paid ­Linden Lab for the island so that he could assemble exhibits demonstrating to the faculty how such tools might be used pedagogically. "Every student at DU is required to have a laptop," he says. "But how many of them are just messaging one another in class?" A few more science students might learn something if they could walk inside a weather map, he reasons.

Corbin's got plenty to show off: just west of the map is a virtual planetarium, a giant glass box housing a giant white sphere that in turn houses a giant orrery illustrating the ­geometry of solar eclipses. And he's not the only one to offer such attractions. Just to the south, on an adjoining island, is the International Spaceflight Museum [sLurl], where visitors can fly alongside life-size rockets, from the huge Apollo-era Saturn V to a prototype of the Ares V, one of the launch vehicles NASA hopes to use to send Americans back to the moon.

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 [sLurl]. Or perhaps you suspect a bad call by the line judges at Wimbledon. If so, just stroll a virtual tennis court inside Second Life and examine the paths of every serve and volley of a match in progress, reproduced by IBM in close to real time.

Of course, from within a virtual world like Second Life, the real world can be glimpsed only through the imperfect filters of today's software and hardware. Barring a startling increase in the Internet bandwidth available to the average PC user or a plunge in the cost of stereoscopic virtual-reality goggles, we will continue to experience virtual worlds as mere representations of 3-D environments on our flat old computer screens. And your avatar obviously isn't really you; it's a cartoonish marionette awkwardly controlled by your mouse movements and keyboard commands. Moreover, at the moment, every conversation inside a virtual world must be laboriously typed out (although Linden Lab will soon add an optional voice-chat function to Second Life).

So while virtual worlds are good for basic instruction and data representation, professionals aren't yet rushing to use them to analyze large amounts of spatial information. For that, they stick to specialized design, animation, modeling, and mapping software from companies like Autodesk and ESRI. But there's another new genre of 3-D visualization tools that are accessible to both professionals and average Internet users: "virtual globe" programs such as Google Earth, Microsoft's Virtual Earth, and NASA's open-source World Wind. Virtual globes let you plot your city's sewer system, monitor a network of environmental sensors, count up the frequent-flyer miles between New York and New Delhi, or just soar through a photorealistic 3-D model of the Grand Canyon [Google Earth location].

Even as social virtual worlds incorporate a growing amount of real-world data, virtual globes and their 2-D counterparts, Web maps, are getting more personal and immersive. Digital maps are becoming a substrate for what Di-Ann Eisnor, CEO of the mapping site Platial in Portland, OR, calls "neogeography": an explosion of user-­created content, such as travel photos and blog posts, pinned to specific locations (see "Killer Maps," October 2005). Using Platial's map annotation software, people have created public maps full of details about everything from the history of genocide to spots for romance. Google has now built a similar annotation feature directly into Google Maps. "The idea that maps can be emotional things to interact with is fairly new," says Eisnor. "But I can imagine a time when the base map is just a frame of reference, and there is much more emphasis on the reviews, opinions, photos, and everything else that fits on top."

As these two trends continue from opposite directions, it's natural to ask what will happen when Second Life and Google Earth, or services like them, actually meet.

Because meet they will, whether or not their owners are the ones driving their integration. Both Google and Linden Lab grant access to their existing 3-D platforms through tools that let outside programmers build their own auxiliary applications, or "mashups." And many computer professionals think the idea of a "Second Earth" mashup is so cool that it's inevitable, whether or not it will offer any immediate way to make money. "As long as somebody can find some really strong personal gratification out of doing it, then there is a driver to make it happen," says Jamais Cascio, a consultant who cofounded the futurist website WorldChanging.com and helps organizations plan for technological change.


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