Ten or fifteen years from now, virtual worlds will be as prevalent as web pages are today. I remember fifteen years ago when I had just set up my first web page and was trying to explain to my friends that this was going to be really big. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t very convincing. “The other day I found a web page that you can use to order a pizza to be delivered!” “You know, we already have a technology to do that — it’s called a phone.”
Likewise, I don’t have an especially clear picture of how virtual worlds will be put to use in the years to come. Right now, by far the leading presence in the game is Second Life, which remains clearly marked by the signs of geekdom which tend to characterize early incarnations of technological advances — for example, you have to choose a pseudonym for your avatar, the surname of which must come from a list of more-or-less goofy selections. And, admittedly, the most popular activities seem to be roleplaying and cybersex. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But the scientific community is catching on. Rob Knop, erstwhile astronomer and science blogger, now works for Linden Labs, creators of Second Life. Organizations like the Exploratorium have set up bases in SL, and one ambitious fan of the Large Hadron Collider built a mock-up of the ATLAS detector. At the research level, astronomers have set up the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics, which uses SL and other virtual worlds for a number of different activities — collaboration meetings, data visualization, outreach, etc. Piet Hut of the Institute for Advanced Study, who founded the group, has posted a few papers on the arxiv about how he envisions the possibilities, e.g.:
Virtual Laboratories and Virtual Worlds
Piet Hut (IAS, Princeton)
All of which is preamble to mentioning that Rob has invited me to give a popular talk in Second Life, which (I think) will be happening next Saturday, November 8, at 10 a.m. Pacific time. So if you regret not being able to come to my arrow of time talk in so-called “real life,” here is your chance to hear it. It’ll be taking place at the Galaxy Dome at Spaceport Bravo — that’s a Second Life URL, or SLURL; if you have already signed up, just click that link to appear at that location in-world (as they say). It looks something like this:
Chances are that you don’t have your own Second Life identity, but here’s your excuse to join up and spend a couple of hours this weekend building your avatar and buying clothes. There’s no need to spend any money at all if you don’t want to, but if you do, there is a real economy with its own currency and a variable exchange rate with US dollars. (Just like real life, fashion choices for women vastly outnumber those for men. Unlike real life, you get to buy your skin and hair, or even your shape — or just modify the default stuff you are created with.) Here’s a useful startup guide, if you don’t mind receiving instructions from a mermaid.
Look forward to seeing you Saturday. Or rather, Seamus Tomorrow does.