One of the developments in technology I find most fascinating is a virtual reality (VR) platform called Second Life. You can view it here: http://secondlife.com/?lang=en-US (Note that if you click on the introductory video and keep watching it actually scrolls through five short video clips that give you a feel for what it’s about.)
One way to think of Second Life (a shallow interpretation) is as a video game that people create themselves, in contrast to the out-of-the-box video games people buy for their kids, or themselves, on Xbox or Playstation, etc. which, no matter how detailed and well executed they may be, tend to revolve around a character moving through a landscape experiencing various adventures pre-determined by the game’s designers.
In Second Life, people create their own characters (“avatars”) and move through landscapes built buy themselves and other participants.
Before you stop reading and think I’m writing about video games, Second Life is not a video game: it’s an alternate reality, a VR world in which people can, literally, live a “second life.” The implications of this are huge for society, and policymakers and the general public haven’t even begun to think through the benefits, challenges and impacts of where this is heading. Second Life is already having, very much under the radar, impacts that will amaze you if you haven’t been following this underrated story.
We have to first apply a discount at this time for the fact that the graphics for Second Life are currently, while “decent” enough for most people’s purposes, nothing like they’re going to be in a few years. At the moment they’re a bit cartoonish (although they’re already light years better than they were only a couple of years ago when I first looked into this.) for perspective it’s worth remembering that less than two decades ago computer games were completely flat and minimalist. (Think Pac Man or Donkey Kong.) Now the video games that my kids play typically include full-motion video action and highly detailed characters and costumes that move about in three-dimensional space, exploring vast wildernesses where you can enter and walk around inside most buildings. (A friend of mine in his fifties recently told me of being moved by climbing some distant mountains that had little to do with the game he was playing, and watching a beautiful virtual sunrise. He sounded like someone who had just returned from a vacation, which I suppose, in a sense, he had.)
We have to think forward a few years, when computing power will have increased and Second Life will be in high definition, its movements fluid, the textures of characters and costumes and the environment completely believable; just like the latest animated films, every hair on someone’s head will move naturally in the breeze, and you’ll see everything reflected properly in a drop of dew on someone’s skin.
With that in mind, here are some facts about Second Life that should get us all thinking.
People are meeting in Second Life, with their encounters in that VR realm sometimes translating into relationships in the real world. The TV show W5 profiled people in one episode who had extra-marital affairs in Second Life, and eventually left their spouses to move in with and marry their lovers from the digital space. (One woman found out about her husband’s affair when she noticed a female avatar wearing a wedding band; he confessed he had “married” this woman in cyberspace. The marriage in the real world ended soon after.)
I once went on a date with a young school teacher who I met online (I think it was through Plenty of Fish) who told me about a Second Life relationship she’d had with a man who lived in (the real) Florida. She broke it off when she found the man having an affair with another woman. She caught him by shrinking her avatar to the size of small dot and sitting unnoticed on his desk from which she eavesdropped on a conversation he had with another Second Life person. (We, um, never had a second date.)
A news story went global a couple of years ago when Second Life minted its first millionaire. I don’t mean a pretend millionaire in the VR world — I mean a real millionaire with real money. Turns out that in the subculture of Second Life, certain built-up destinations become highly prized. One fellow built an elaborate island that a lot of people visited and wanted in on. Second Life has its own currency that people buy with credit cards, which they can later cash in again for money in the real world. When this guy auctioned off parcels of land on his sought-after island, enough people bought that he earned a million dollars worth of credits. (That’s a million in US greenbacks.)
Sex and money are perhaps the most obvious things people would seek in a virtual world, in addition to various adventures. (You could, for instance, live out your fantasy of being a jaguar-headed woman with large boobs who can fly, but I digress…) But what about political upheaval? Turns out that Second Life has become hugely popular in countries where free speech is repressed. Many muslims living in undemocratic theocracies are apparently gathering in virtual mosques in Second Life where they can freely discuss politics and religion, or anything they please. In fact, one story made the mainstream news when muslim players asked for a determination from their religious leaders as to whether prayers called from minarets in Second Life count as real prayers, i.e., if your avatar gets down and prays, does it count as real prayer? (Apparently the determination was that it counts, as long as someone is really calling out the prayers online and it’s not some recorded program.)
This leads to some science fiction kinds of scenarios that are now possible in the real world. For instance, just as muslims can freely associate in Second Life mosques to discuss political freedom, so can al-Qaeda operatives (or members of other terrorist organizations) plotting attacks. Think about it: terrorists face a real challenge communicating with one another, with security forces around the world monitoring cell phone conversations and conventional internet websites and chat rooms. (Remember how Osama Bin Laden was tracked down because a courier regularly visited his compound in Pakistan.) How much easier it would be to create an avatar and meet with other organization members from around the world in secluded Second Life environments! I have absolutely no doubt that the CIA has personnel wandering the realm of Second Life right now, looking to detect exactly these kinds of conversations. Imagine, spies and police from the real world now have to engage in cloak-and-dagger espionage in a built digital environment! And Second Life creates an excellent system for moving funds around and laundering money.
If you think that’s far fetched, CTV news ran a program segment about concerns in Britain about pedophiles molesting children in Second Life’s virtual world. Challenging legal issues are erupting around this, including whether such fantasies lived out in Second Life constitute a real, prosecutable crime.
Companies like Coca-Cola and others have already figured out marketing and advertising opportunities in Second Life, and have paid real cash for billboard space on busy locations in Second Life communities. If it’s a matter of attracting eyeballs to your brand or logo, what does it matter if the thousands of people who see it are in the real world or a virtual one? (I imagine companies are already paying for “product placement” in Second Life, as they already do in movies; if they aren’t, they soon will be.)
Some predictions and observations
While Second Life may be the first online system to seriously create a parallel virtual world, it likely won’t be the last. Revenues in the video gaming industry already surpass those of Hollywood and the film industry. Some of those billions will soon be invested in other open-concept virtual worlds where people can create avatars and live out various fantasies, either exciting or banal. I think the current obsession with first-person shooter video games is going to wear off, and even if it doesn’t there’s an enormous appetite and market for a different kind of virtual reality experience with far-reaching implications for life in the real world.
Here are a few of my thoughts about where this all is headed and the benefits or challenges that will be presented.
As I alluded to earlier, the Second Life experience will really take off when the graphics become better, as the conventional video game industry invents technology to push things further and further. Second Life’s players already include tens of millions of people world wide, and that was achieved with relatively cartoonish graphics. Imagine what it’ll be like when people can put on wrap-around VR glasses or helmets and have a fully immersive experience in a full-motion high-definition environment?
This may be more a matter or months than years away.
Developers of the Wi system have already combined video game graphics with physical motion in the real world to allow players to hit a golf ball or wield a sword, etc. Imagine that kind of technology combined with a body suit fitted with sensors (Second Skin?), an idea that has already been experimented with.
Jumping ahead, it’s easy to imagine — and I’d say inevitable — people having all kinds of interactive adventures and experiences from the safety and comfort of the easy chairs. The possibilities are limitless, but a few that come to my mind are things like:
— Join other crew members on a virtual space station orbiting Earth, experiencing weightlessness, looking down on our beautiful planet (and maybe engaging in some zero gravity sex!). How about a trip to the moon? Or the furthest reaches of the universe?
— Wander the streets of Athens in the 5th Century BC and talk with Aristotle or Plato. Or visit Rome in the time of Julius Ceasar, or Egypt in the time of the pharaohs. The cities and temples could be reproduced in historically-accurate super detail. Imagine the benefits for students: instead of just reading about them in books or sitting through a dry lecture, students could visit these places and talk with historic characters, watch the battle of Gettysburg, or reach out and touch hieroglyphs (and have them translated into their native language). Instead of building their own Second Life worlds from scratch, it may be that game developers will pay to simply plug their highly-crafted realms into Second Life’s existing system for a fee, and toll visitors. Universities could be big customers, and development partners.
— On the dark side, one can imagine people building brothels in Second Life, perhaps charging clients for sexual encounters with their particularly well-executed characters. Of course, that’s a limited way of thinking about it. It’s as likely that people will want to be the men or women providing the service, as well as those paying for it. And in a virtual world, there’s nothing to stop a man from experiencing being a woman, and a woman being a man. Or another creature (Okay, I’ll stop!)
We always tend to think in terms of the old technology. But when the quality of the VR experience goes up, so will the variety of scenarios that people can create for themselves, or experience from creations of others.
I believe we can never fully guess at all the possibilities from a new technology, but let me list just a few outlandish ones to get you thinking.
Imagine someone confined at home to a wheelchair or a bed, suddenly able to have a “second life” moving about freely in Second Life’s various built worlds. The kind of things envisioned in James Cameron’s film Avatar will soon be possible in environments in Second Life.
On a scary note, imagine a sociopath, a serial killer, or pedophile (or group of these) constructing secret buildings in which they can live out their most outrageous fantasies of torture, murder or sexual deviancy. Again, not with cartoonish avatars but with believable 3D characters, inhabited by real people somewhere out in cyberspace. This will pose a real challenge to policymakers and law enforcement agencies, trying to police these “virtual crimes.” On the other hand, perhaps it’s possible that acting out their hateful or sadistic fantasies in the virtual world will prevent crime in the real world. (It’s possible to imagine rapists and pedophiles, for example, volunteering for life-long incarceration in exchange for being allowed to live out their fantasies in Second Life from the safety of a prison cell.)
Just as Facebook became the de facto destination for people’s social media, and Google became the default internet search engine, Second Life may already have attained an insurmountable position as the first virtual world. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Google or another deep pockets player like Microsoft buys it for hundreds of millions of dollars. If I were either of those companies (or a major game developer), I’d look seriously at the potential of Second Life to be the Next Big Thing. Fortunes also stand to be made from manufacturing the VR glasses, helmets and body suits that will go with this, just as Burton got rich from clothing and equipment when he took snowboarding mainstream.
While we often dwell on the negative aspects of a new technology, I think the education potential of Second Life is huge. Imagine, for instance, a digital university set up by, say, Harvard, or Oxford or the London School of Economics. Classes could be attended by an unlimited number of people from around the world, including from countries where educational opportunities don’t exist, or poverty prevents talented minds from accessing higher learning. The VR realm could extend and level the knowledge playing field worldwide, much as the technology of the industrial revolution extended European civilization globally through colonization (with all the good and bad that implies).
It’s human nature to dwell on the salacious potential of Second Life (for example, to allow an ugly person to be beautiful), but there are other constructive possibilities. A physician or other healer could, for instance, manipulate another person’s body across the internet, if the patient wears a sensor-equipped suit. A therapist in a New York office could provide counseling to an abused woman or her abuser in a virtual office in Tehran. It will be like today’s internet chat rooms, but with the immersive experience of people walking around, touching one another.
All kinds of legal problems will attend the expansion of Second Life or systems like it. The virtual realm will facilitate crimes, money laundering being just one example. The very same person could have an avatar and bank accounts in several different countries, and move money in and out undetected. Is law enforcement paying attention? I hope so.
I imagine a large number of specialized businesses evolving on Second Life. As just one example, imagine a service where you can buy a permanent memorial for a deceased relative or loved one. Instead of a small stone grave marker for Fido, how about a 30 story bronze sculpture of your dead retriever, set on its own island, his life history recounted in framed photos and engraved accounts on the walls of an enormous mausoleum? Or (creepier) a house where you can visit your departed grandmother and interact with her as if she was still alive, chatting with her about what’s new in your life while she bakes bread in the kitchen, and pours you some tea?
How far this will all go remains unknown. Perhaps Second Life will evolve in a more limited way than what I’m suggesting. But I doubt it. The combination of sex, money, adventure and crime suggests to me this is going to go big once the technology evolves a little more. Maybe one day we’ll all be living in a world similar to the one portrayed in the Matrix film trilogy, our withered bodies maintained inside machines, our minds roaming a cyber world of limitless possibility. A science fiction writer would no doubt envision the day when our actual minds will be migrated into that realm, to live forever in a digital universe. But without even getting that fanciful, the very plausible, near-term possibilities of Second Life are entertaining, a bit frightening, and at the very least, interesting.