Sunday, February 21, 2010

Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual

I have authored a chapter of a new book from Springer entitled Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual edited by William Sims Bainbridge:

Virtual worlds are persistent online computer-generated environments where people can interact, whether for work or play, in a manner comparable to the real world. The most popular current example is World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online game with eleven million subscribers. However, other virtual worlds, notably Second Life, are not games at all but internet-based collaboration contexts in which people can create virtual objects, simulated architecture, and working groups.

This book brings together an international team of highly accomplished authors to examine the phenomena of virtual worlds, using a range of theories and methodologies to discover the principles that are making virtual worlds increasingly popular, and which are establishing them as a major sector of human-centred computing.

My chapter (Chapter 22, p. 279) is entitled Future Evolution of Virtual Worlds as Communication Environments. I begin the chapter by analyzing the history, technologies and some interesting current developments in VR worlds -- interesting how, when I was correcting the proofs only a few months after having written the text, I had the impression that much of the content was already obsolete, or at least should be re-written. This is a very fast moving sector. Some excerpts:


[Virtual worlds] can already be used as a telepresence and telecollaboration option much better, and much more immersive, than videoconferencing or other traditional forms of remote collaboration.If videoconferencing is one step below a critical threshold for suspension of disbelief, Second Life is already one step above. The evolution of VR will provide next generation telework platforms, which will really enable, and empower, global communities. Thus, its social and political importance will be huge. Further evolution of VR and other emerging technologies will result in science-fiction-like scenarios, from instant telepathic communication to full transcendence of biological constrains...

Wandering in a synthetic universe generated by bits changing value in computer circuitry and traveling on communication links, metaverse residents can see and talk to each other, attend dance parties and work meetings, build their own virtual dreams, and explore the dreams of other users. Stephenson’s vision is beginning to take off, and this is a good example of the often very important role of good science fiction literature in shaping our actual reality...

Before its adoption by the gaming sector, VR technology had been developed by and used for the military and industrial simulation sectors. It can be said that most modern computer gaming technologies originated as spinoffs of military applications and simulation projects for the construction, oil, or air transport industries, not to mention space. Today, the trend seems reversed: New technology breakthroughs are generated by the gaming industry first, and then find their way to military and industrial applications. It is not surprising that smart young people are attracted by the computer gaming industry: in the words of Rudy Rucker: “Academia hasn’t quite caught on to the fact that computer games represent the convergence and the flowering of the most ambitious frontier efforts of the old twentieth-century computer science: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and artificial life.” A well-known example of modern consumer level VR is the popular virtual world Second Life (SL). Rather than a computer game, Second Life can be considered as a platform where “residents” collaborate at building a virtual world with the tools provided by the system....


Then I move to the future of virtual worlds and discuss a few ongoing developments in software, such as the P2P Open Croquet technology used in the upcoming "metaverse browser" Open Cobalt and the business oriented 3D virtual videoconferencing and collaboration environment Teleplace, and interface hardware:

There is also a trend toward more and more sophisticated and immersive user interfaces. With much better graphics and VR glasses able to simulate a deep spherical field of view around the user, virtual reality will begin to feel much more real. There is also an emerging trend toward the development of neural interfaces, that is, Brain to Computer Interfaces (BCI) able to read or write information directly from and to a user’s brain. Science fiction? Transhumanist wishful thinking? No, science fact: prototype BCI devices are already available since a few years. The first applications of neural interfacing have been in the medical field, where the best-known examples are the breakthroughs of Cyberkinetics, whose technology used in medical pilot projects has permitted severely disabled patients interacting with computers by thought. Now, this technology is finding its way to the consumer market, and companies like Emotiv Systems and Neurosky are preparing the launch of the first neural interface devices for computer gaming....


It is difficult to predict short term developments in this fast moving sector, but I think the trends are clear for the long term, and the results will be truly mind boggling. We are beginning to build immersive virtual worlds with always better visuals, physics and AI, and we are beginning to build immersive interface devices able to link directly to the brain. What can the end result be? Well:

So, we will soon be able to think our way in virtual worlds. If a computer can read information from our brains, it won’t be long before it can also write information directly to our brains, and write it very fast: two-way neural interfaces that will make computer screens and headsets obsolete, a Second Life that goes directly to the brain bypassing the eyes, with today’s Instant Messaging replaced by direct telepathic communication between minds. And when our virtual environments will contain artificial intelligences, perhaps smarter than us, we will be able to communicate with them at the speed of thought. For the medium- and long-term future, probably within the first half of the century, it is to be expected that advances in neurotechnology will permit developing direct interfaces to the brain that can bypass sensorial channels to make VR environments directly accessible to the brain. This will permit creating fully immersive VR environments with full sensorial stimulation, indistinguishable from physical reality. Let’s call things by their name: These first baby steps to neural interfacing for consumers will lead to the ultimate transhumanist Holy Grail: mind uploading, the transfer of human consciousness out of the brain into much higher performance supports, where we will be able to interact and merge with each other and our AI mind children (Moravec 1988).