Reality Check

As millions of people flock to online alternate worlds, can government afford to be virtually nonexistent?

by / July 1, 2007 0
It was an ordinary day as far as ordinary goes in this place. I met a few people -- some looked normal and others looked, well, different. By different I mean some of them sported dragon wings, others had blue skin and some weren't human at all. I even encountered a kind of panda bear-type humanoid wearing what looked to be a leather diaper.

But the unusual is usual here in Second Life, an immense virtual world where almost anything goes. Second Life is an MMORPG -- a massive multiplayer online role playing game -- though most of its "residents" would bristle at the term "game."

More than 7 million people inhabit this rapidly expanding digital realm, fulfilling the dream of being and doing whatever they want. With a fully functional economy, media and an evolving social contract, Second Life is becoming a bona fide, albeit bizarre, alternate universe.

I recently spent a few days there for this article, and it was almost impossible to find something that wasn't odd somehow. For instance, flying and teleporting are favorite modes of transportation. There are few laws, and residents seem to live by a code of conduct rather than a long list of rules. Those who live there have built some extraordinary homes, many of which defy the laws of physics.

One of the most unexpected abilities I gained upon arriving was the power to create objects out of nothingness. Sadly my God-like capability went underutilized. The steep learning curve combined with my short visit to Second Life afforded me only enough skill to make a useless blue board.

Maximizing my time meant a lot of exploring. I visited an Second Life and reminiscent of Las Vegas. I found a skyscraper that reached into the clouds and overlooked a vast ocean. Nearby was a shopping mall floating in midair. I soared over a barren Second Life and and its owner who stood on the shore peering toward the setting sun. I even stumbled across a Reuters news bureau -- a pillar of reality in an unreal world.

The freewheeling and free market nature of Second Life is propelling the online world from obscurity to household name. Real estate can be bought and sold, merchandise of any imaginable (and unimaginable) sort can be had, and entertainment is everywhere. People's obsession with sex also is on ample display, thanks to the anonymity inherent to Second Life.

And this is just one of a growing number of virtual worlds that range from practical to utterly fantastic.


Inner Space
If governments want to be relevant in the future, they'd be well advised to start finding ways to go beyond a mere online presence and establish a virtual one. At least one government already has. Earlier this year, the Swedish government announced it would create an embassy in Second Life -- a place for virtual tourists to find information about visiting the real country.

Others also are discovering practical reasons for inhabiting the virtual world. As I walked around the Reuters building in Second Life, I ran into a fellow (well, his avatar) who heads up a tech staffing firm. We got to chatting, and he said he was exploring the possibility of establishing a virtual recruiting facility -- wisely figuring that many tech-savvy people maintained a persona in Second Life.

These two disparate examples show how a virtual world can do more than entertain. A growing number of Second Life users make a living entirely by selling virtual real estate or manufacturing virtual products.

It can be hard to wrap your head around. How does one make a product that doesn't really exist and sell it for actual money? Who would buy property that is nothing more than a collection of pixels? And who would exchange real American dollars for virtual money to be used in a virtual world, to be given to virtual people to buy virtual things?

Lots of people would. Millions of people have found value in a virtual existence, and millions more will follow suit in coming years. From virtual shopping to virtual friendships to virtual lovemaking, many people are deriving real benefits from virtual places.

The phenomenon of virtual worlds is all around us. There are hundreds of MMORPGs. For example, World of Warcraft (WoW), an expansive fantasy world of elves, wizards and warriors, boasts a population of nearly 9 million users. Other MMORPGs, such as Ultima Online, Everquest, and World War II Online bring hundreds of thousands more users to the virtual table.

Other virtual worlds are designed for more practical tasks. Take Microsoft's Virtual Earth. Instead of creating a fantasy world, Microsoft is building a virtual replica of the world we exist in now. Earlier this year, at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference in San Diego, Calif., Microsoft Virtual Earth general manager John Curlander presented a compelling look at the future of realistic virtual worlds. Curlander showed videos of fully rendered cities, including Philadelphia and New York. The cities were presented from an immersive, three-dimensional perspective. Some 50,000 structures, complete with accurate exteriors, made it feel as if the real Philly was up on the projector screen.

In a follow-up interview, Curlander discussed some of the ways governments might use Virtual Earth.

"The data quality is high enough that it meets a large percentage of the applications that an urban planner or any city user would need," he said. "They won't need to have custom flights done to collect their data. They won't need to have custom processing done to create their products. They can simply access the Virtual Earth databases through our viewer and get most of what they need from that -- if not all. Potentially it's a huge savings for cities to be able to access these kinds of databases and not have to commission them themselves."

While not as enchanting as Second Life, urban planning is vital to the well-being of a community. Additionally emergency response, homeland security and even tourism could reap benefits from Virtual Earth.

"We have a lot of inquiries from cities -- police departments, fire departments and so on about the data and using the models," Curlander said. "With accurate, detailed 3-D models of cities, that's a valuable asset for emergency responders."

Microsoft's goals for Virtual Earth are lofty. The company wants to render all major population centers in exquisite detail. In fact, Curlander said the plan is to distinguish one brownstone home from another. Having this level of detail could, for example, help firefighters find the best avenues to rescue a trapped victim.

"I think if you talk to emergency responders, they would say having that kind of detailed knowledge would be incredibly valuable -- including knowing where the windows are and other kinds of structures that might impede a vehicle from getting close to the building," Curlander said and, in a nod to Second Life, added, "What we're building is the 'first life' -- we're building the real-world framework."

That real-world framework will, for now, take some tremendous computing muscle -- a fact Curlander readily admits. But he said there are plans to host some of the burden so users can realize the power of a highly detailed, 3-D world.

"We're planning to process the data as a service and make the finished product available to the government," he said. "We're trying to free the government from having this big infrastructure that's required for geospatial data."


Reel World
For more than a century, movies have served as a virtual world. With cinema, however, your stay in the virtual world is unchanging and brief. And once it has been experienced, that world gradually loses whatever power it possessed that compelled you to visit it. But movies today employ a technology that may further blur the line between the real and virtual worlds.

Motion capture technology is rapidly becoming a staple in film production. Though its roots can be traced back to military experiments, motion capture truly came into its own thanks to a creepy little fellow named Gollum. Gollum is Frodo Baggins' infamous antagonist in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In director Peter Jackson's film version of the famous book, Gollum was created using motion capture technology. The actor and voice behind Gollum, Andy Serkis, was fitted with numerous sensors that recorded his physical movements. These movements were then processed using high-end software to generate a skeletal figure that perfectly replicated Serkis' actions. Next, the computer-generated skeleton was transformed by the digital visual effects team at Wellington, New Zealand-based Weta Digital to create the character of Gollum. Since Weta's breakthrough in producing an extremely lifelike character, motion capture has grown ever more commonplace in moviemaking.

Now, motion capture experts are speculating about the possibilities beyond film. For example, professional athletes' movements are being captured routinely. This is usually done for one of two reasons -- either to study how the body moves in order to treat or prevent injury or, on the lighter side, to make sports video games more realistic by assigning a player's actual movements to his or her digital counterpart.

Ron Brinkmann is a digital visual effects expert who founded a company called Nothing Real. Prior to being acquired by Apple in 2002, Nothing Real created Shake, one of the leading visual effects and digital compositing software applications. Now with Apple, Brinkmann explained how motion capture technology can be useful for tasks like traffic and crowd control. For example, if a transportation department needs to visualize a busy downtown intersection, motion capture can help create a virtual world where pedestrians and automobiles move just as they would in reality.

"It allows you to understand in much more detail how people interact," he said. "It becomes a more accurate simulation because it's no longer just this sphere or this simplified block that represent a human interacting, it's somebody who has arms and legs and you can put in rules -- if there are too many legs in the same place people fall down, people can push off of each other."

But motion capture is just that -- motion. In order to make motion realistic there has to be motivation driving the motion. That's where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. If you've ever played the popular Electronic Arts Madden Football video games, you know that the computer-controlled players seem to act with intent. In fact, Electronic Arts has one of the world's largest studios where entire teams from every professional sport come to have their motions captured. Then Electronic Arts programmers add AI to make the sports simulation more authentic -- linemen attack your quarterback, receivers know their routes, and referees run the field with seeming intelligence.

Likewise, if a city is trying to analyze why so many accidents occur at a given intersection, modeling humans would be useless if they didn't act like humans.

"The simulation can get more accurate because you can really deal with people and the way people move instead of how some idealized point moves," Brinkmann said. "That was the problem with most crowd simulations in the past; people were basically considered a dot, sphere or square, and you couldn't go to the level of detail of how they really react in terms of arms and legs."

Motion capture technology coupled with AI is poised to accelerate the already rapid growth of virtual worlds. Brinkmann said it won't be long before those with online personas can capture and import their actual movements to their virtual selves. Furthermore, he said, users will be able to program their virtual selves to speak and act just as they would in reality. He suggested a user might be able to program an avatar to interact with the online world independent of the user.

"As people build more of these online environments and want to interact inside of them, I really think you're going see tools where people can set up their avatar to behave like they do even when they're not there," he said. "So when I decide to go to bed for the night, I may have an online avatar that's running -- sort of an artificial intelligence version of myself. And I can totally see that within some reasonably short time period. You won't know -- at least not for the first few minutes -- is that really the person or is it just their avatar that's online and programmed to answer some of these questions?"

Motion is a trait highly specific to individuals. Chris Bregler, associate professor of computer science at New York University, has been researching motion capture under various circumstances. One interesting development was the discovery that people are quite adept at recognizing others based exclusively on how they move. Bregler said this "movement signature" has piqued the interest of some law enforcement agencies.

"We've had for five years now federal funding for very high-resolution sensors that track the subtleties of motion changes of different people," Brelger said. "We talked to police officers, and when they drive down the road and see somebody walking around the corner, they can already smell, 'Oh, there's something wrong with this person or it's suspicious.' Several agencies are interested if you can write software that can do that."

Bregler said motion signatures were first thoroughly studied by Swedish researcher Grunner Johanssen. In the 1970s, Johanssen conducted an experiment in which a number of subjects affixed to their bodies up to 40 lights at key movement points, such as joints, feet and hands. The subjects were put into a dark room, leaving only the lights visible. Observers were asked to identify whether the moving lights were attached to a male or a female. More than 80 percent of observers answered accurately.

Bregler is also investigating a new type of lie detector based on capturing human motions and analyzing them.  

"Some body parts will reveal you are not telling the truth, and we suspect that the similar thing is also true when you use the entire body," he said. "It's very, very hard for humans to hide the motion signature."


Virtual Reality 2.0
Motion capture alone can bring a new level of authenticity to the online worlds people inhabit today. It'll be likely that within a few years, a user will be able to create a near replica of him or herself -- sans the blood and guts. Everyone, it seems, is staking a claim in a new virtual reality. Nintendo, and Sony to a lesser extent, have made headlines with their next-generation video game controllers that capture the motions of the user. Aerospace and automobile manufacturers are rolling out elaborate virtual worlds to test their products and train end-users. The military is building virtual battlefields to train soldiers. Even medicine is on board as more surgeons hone their abilities by performing surgery in a virtual operating room.

The question is whether government is going to get into the virtual act. Every day these virtual worlds attract new visitors who live, work and play in environments that can be whatever they want them to be. And every day new worlds appear, expanding the online multiverse. From inside a Sherman tank to wizard school, from battling alien invaders to building a replica of New York City -- virtual worlds can offer just about anything. One day, users in a virtual world may want to access their government -- but will government be there?

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.