Online worlds are just a taste of how we could one day be building our own environments.
Virtual reality, or VR, is an old idea, a natural and obvious evolution of simulator technology invented originally in the defence sector for R&D and training, and later extensively developed in every sector for design and visualisation.
In the early 1980s, as digital computers took over from analogue ones and defence researchers discovered that they could add many more frills to their simulations, the entertainment potential of virtual worlds became obvious, many years before the term 'virtual reality' came into common use. Today, pilots routinely practise difficult and potentially dangerous manoeuvres in expensive and sophisticated simulators - fully immersive replica cockpits equipped with high-quality displays and hydraulic rams that can simulate much of the appearance and physical feel of the real world.
The simulators get as close as possible to replicating the actual situation short of physically harming the occupants. Similarly expensive outlays are used throughout industry and the military for a wide variety of purposes. However, domestic entertainment and small business VR still lags far behind even 1980s simulators. It is too costly and inconvenient to rip up a living room and equip it with hydraulic platforms, wrap--around displays or complex rigs, so domestic games tend to use 2D computer or TV displays, with vibrating handsets, and rely on the imagination of the player to bridge the reality gap. And, although disappointing for those of us who fantasised throughout the 1990s about VR's vast potential, this represents a reasonable compromise, given today's technology base.
Thankfully though, technology develops quickly. Early VR headsets incorporated displays in front of each eye to produce a partially immersive environment as a low-cost alternative to a fully 3D display-lined room. The main problem with this was the weight of the headset itself and the need for the user to move his or her head rather than just the eyes when wanting to look around.
The near future will bring lightweight glasses incorporating lasers that write images straight onto the retina to produce very high resolutions. These will be followed by contact lense equivalents.
With such displays and today's motion-sensing Nintendo Wii-type interfaces, it is obvious that VR could achieve much more of its potential. Although there would be a good market for enhanced websites or more immersive gameplay, the far bigger and more important application of VR comes from its uses in converging the real and virtual worlds.
Since 'pure' VR is so well known, let's look instead at this convergence, which results in augmented reality (simple graphics and data addition into the field of view) and, more importantly, duality - having environments that are both real and virtual.
In combination with image recognition for fine-tuning, accurate positioning systems such as Galileo will allow a computer to calculate exactly the image to overlay on a person's field of view. Data support via ubiquitous wireless broadband connectivity will be enabled by spectrum liberation, already in the pipeline. This leads to a huge market for the digital overlays providing the virtual side of duality.
Dual architecture will allow buildings to appear differently to everyone, improving the toolkits available to marketers trying to attract diverse customer groups by making malls and parks far more visually interesting. Computer games could be nicely blended into a shopping experience, and walls could be made electronically transparent, allowing interested customers to see customised special offers even before they go into a shop. The real world will become just a foundation layer, on which countless valuable overlays can be built, mapping with varying degrees onto the physical foundations.
Virtual worlds and the many overlays will need to be designed, and, once designed, interacted with. We will need a range of 3D interfaces for creation, navigation and use. Some of this already exists through games technology. The Nintendo Wii has blended real-world activity into games particularly well, but the player is still confined to the living room. Dual environments will offer such 3D interaction everywhere.
The Wii uses proprietary gadgets to track the 3D movements of the player, but there are many alternative implementations, ensuring future competition. A simple stick with a reflector on each end together with a simple LED / receiver array to provide the positioning field would perform similarly. A third or fourth reflector would allow almost any shape of tool to be created.
Stick and skin
If the ends of a stick can be tracked, it is possible to emulate a gun, steering wheel, a paintbrush, chisel, or tennis racket, just as well as a Wii handheld device. It is not necessary to have sensors or gyros in the stick to do most things. A stick-based interface would be ideal for creation of virtual worlds. A simple wave of a hand can create a wall, or paint it. A user could even write in thin air, making physical keyboards redundant.
Even the stick becomes redundant in the far future when we get active skin, the ability to print circuitry and components onto and into the skin surface. Sensors, transmitters, nerve stimulators and infrared reflectors, printed on our fingertips, will allow highly intricate, full sensory interaction with no need to carry any other tools.
As Web tools become easier to use, a virtuous circle will come into play. The more people create and use virtual worlds, the bigger the market for good tools and platforms, the better the worlds will become, and the more people will want to use them, enhancing the market further until many are creating and using a wide variety of virtual environments for all kinds of activities.
The technology bottlenecks holding virtual environments back will be engineered away. With contact lenses and tiny cameras to see and record the world, earpieces and microphones for audio, active skin to build it, touch it, and manipulate it, the world around us will be packed with virtual functionality, with no need for any visible gadgetry at all.
Of course, the VR vision has been around a long time and we already have the basic languages (such as VRML - virtual reality markup language) to describe it to our computers so that any device can interact meaningfully with any world. As with other languages, functionality can be gradually built and refined over the software generations. But culture has to evolve too. Looking at current virtual environments, such as 'Second Life', it is clear that people need a world that relates closely to the one they understand. Flying and teleportation are among very few basic differences between current virtual worlds and the real one.
Of course, that doesn't need to be the case - a computer could build any world imaginable and many that aren't, such as hyper-dimensional ones. People need time to adapt, and even if software can make the jump quickly, culture can only evolve slowly. So we have to accept that for many years, we will only be scratching the surface of the possibilities offered by virtual environments.
It took at least two decades of desktop computing to begin the migration away from filing cabinets and folders for organising documents. It will take decades to move virtual reality away from conventional architectural models. So we will have to put up with inherited concepts such as shopping baskets and checkouts for a good while yet.
People already use avatars, (computer representations of themselves), and they will easily adapt to overlaying these in dual environments. So we might see passers-by as they want to be seen by us, or possibly as we want to see them. Such imaging rights issues will be important.
Who has the right to determine how one should be seen? Should it be possible to make everyone look like supermodels? Should it be necessary to permit people to represent themselves in unpleasant or confrontational ways? Certainly, as avatars become more culturally important, we will see the introduction of digital mirrors, which will help people to customise their virtual appearance and decide how they want to be seen in the various meetings in the day ahead.
Perhaps more interestingly, we might see active makeup in the same time-frame, so that virtual appearance can become real through makeup that behaves as a computer display (for example, using self organising particles and EM fields to diffract light in various patterns). Children will no doubt jump at the chance to adopt kaleidoscopic makeup that flashes irritatingly, just as image-conscious businesspeople might adopt a dynamic appearance that varies by location and context, looking neutral on the bus, businesslike in the office and seductive at dinner.
Dual appearance will be a marketer's dream, allowing every group to be targeted in the best possible way. But some establishments don't want to attract everyone, and even want to deter some. It is likely - in a world where most buildings use garish virtual overlays - that invisibility will become fashionable. A barely noticeable doorway could lead to the city's coolest nightclub, seen by no one except the 'right' people.
Virtual worlds will have lots of non-human inhabitants. Virtual plants and animals will be used for decoration and to add interest. We will also see a large population of beings with artificial intelligence (AIs), and these are far more important. Some will be welcome, such as characters from computer games we are involved in, or agents representing friends, or street entertainers. But undoubtedly, some will be virtual sales staff, market researchers, charity collectors, police and traffic wardens.
The business and social potential for such duality is obvious, but much of the market comes from protecting us from those bits of it that we don't want. Digital bubbles will be created that allow a trickle of wanted information through and shield us from most of the marketing junk and other people's unwanted intrusions into our own view.
Related to this are the other large markets for context determination, trust brokering, and personal profiling. Companies that can do these well will become very valuable. At every layer of virtual environment technology there will also be large markets - platforms, comms, processing and storage, sensor networks, urban positioning systems, interfaces and, of course, all the visual creativity layers. And once all those foundation layers exist, people will want to enhance their use for socialisation and doing business, more layers still.
It is these final markets that are more difficult to predict. How will people interact with each other if they can choose what and whom to see, and alter their appearance? What social and business tricks will be developed to fool us into accepting undesirable intrusions? And what of power in such a world? The Web is only just starting to be used as a political platform. Politically, we will still only be Web infants when it all goes virtual. Some people and their AI supporters will fill the power vacuum, but we can barely imagine how they will build and wield power on such platforms.
It is certain, however, that the ability to be everywhere simultaneously, in an infinite variety of visual forms, addressing each constituent face-to-face with the right language, the right appearance, the right points, the right arguments and with perfectly tweaked body language will be a much more powerful political weapon than any TV appearance.