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The 3PointD World

One of the world's most popular online games, World of Warcraft hosts thousands of players connected on hundreds of servers worldwide. Its scenarios often encourage team play and the formation of "guilds"--groups of gamers who play and chat together.
One of the world's most popular online games, World of Warcraft hosts thousands of players connected on hundreds of servers worldwide. Its scenarios often encourage team play and the formation of "guilds"--groups of gamers who play and chat together.
At the intersection of 3D online worlds and Web 2.0 is a space I call Web 3pointD. That's a term that I use on my blog (3pointD.com) to refer to a loose set of technologies that are bringing a new sense of expression, presence, and place to the Internet. E-mail, instant messaging, chat, VoIP, and videoconferencing connect people with varying degrees of richness. But none of these have the power of even the simplest interactions in a virtual world. Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes was fascinated to see a group of avatars in Second Life all look in the same direction at something happening nearby. That just doesn't happen on a chat channel. And it's only the beginning.

In online games like World of Warcraft, you can watch as another player slays a fearsome enemy, you can stand by his side and help him dispatch the beast, or you can do battle with the other player yourself. Online worlds like Second Life let you pursue observation, collaboration, and interaction at a new level. There, you can attend a talk by Kurt Vonnegut or a live concert by Suzanne Vega. You and your team can build a venue to host similar talks, and track the status of the project on a virtual collaborative writeboard. Once your series launches, you can gather information about who attends, how long they stay, and what souvenirs they buy; and you can write the results to a Web site where you analyze the success or failure of your efforts, and let your audience use the information to form networks of their own.

Similar Web-based tools and 3D online spaces are beginning to converge already. Second Life users have built Web-based shopping and social networking sites that interact with the virtual world, and a group of Amazon.com employees have built an interface for browsing products on the Amazon Web site from within Second Life. At the recently opened Second Life branch of hipster clothing retailer American Apparel, you can browse and purchase products from within the virtual world in the same way. Social software, shopping sites, Web applications of various kinds, even search and wiki spaces have begun to take on three-dimensional forms and to expand the power of the Web.

As those kinds of functionality improve, the power of this new kind of three-dimensional connectivity becomes clearer. With new ways to represent information, interact with each other, and shape ourselves and the surrounding virtual world, a new set of possibilities opens up on the Internet. The final piece of the puzzle drops into place when we extend these technologies to the physical world in which we live.

Re-creations of the real world in online spaces are beginning to take shape, in the form of applications like Google Earth and services like Google Maps. Google Maps "mashups" (variants) let users get directions to a friend's house; locate movie theaters and showtimes; browse real estate listings; share photos; monitor pollution, weather, and traffic; and do much, much more. When you imagine a massively multiplayer version of such applications, a Google Earth you can not only zoom into but walk around in with other people, you begin to see the expressive capabilities of virtual worlds. New ways to represent and manipulate data, collaborate on problems, and learn about and improve the world immediately take shape.

Of course, the ultimate massively multiplayer environment is the earth itself. It, too, will become part of the metaverse as technology moves forward. Many attendees at the Metaverse Roadmap Summit envisioned a future in which the objects around us stream data to handheld devices that enable us to harness the information in ways we can scarcely envision today. As processing power, miniaturization, and display capabilities progress, we may use a pair of specialized eyeglasses or contact lenses to browse this Internet of things in full 3D.

What I'm describing is more than just a portable World Wide Web. It's a way to collect and access information that changes depending on where you go and who you're with-- whether those places and people are real or virtual. It may sound a bit sci-fi to anticipate a day when our physical selves become more closely integrated with the informational processes going on around us, but advances of the past 15 years suggest that it may be inevitable.

A lot of questions remain to be answered, and a lot of hurdles must be overcome, but none are insurmountable. As millions of people start to experience virtual worlds, technologists, legislators, and developers will have new challenges to tackle. If developed properly, these technologies will give us more control over the world around us than we've ever had before. It's not too early to start thinking about these things. The online world of the future is already here.

Special Package: Tomorrow's Technology

The Future of Your PC The Future of Robots
The Future of Cell Phones The Future of Privacy
The Future of the Web The Future of Nanotech
The Future of OSs The Future of You
The Future of Fun 100 Fearless Forecasts
Incredible Tech: Lies Ahead A Look Back
Freelance writer Mark Wallace is the editor of the Second Life Herald and writes about virtual worlds at 3pointD.com.
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