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.