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Living in a Virtual World

Living in a Virtual World

By Matt Gibson

Since the publication of Neal Stephenson’s landmark SF novel Snow Crash, people have been trying to recreate his “Metaverse”, the interactive virtual world described in the book.

The Metaverse replaces the Internet. You log in, and become a three-dimensional model of your own self, wandering around just like in real life. Instead of going to a company’s website, you walk down to their virtual headquarters. To give someone a phone number, you hand them a virtual business card.

"You're strongly advised not to run around naked in "public", although there are several nudists' groups."
Second Life, created by Linden Research, Inc, is probably the closest anyone has come to realising the Metaverse. After downloading some free software, you pick yourself a new name and dive into the virtual Second Life world. There you can meet anyone else who’s playing the game at the same time, literally bumping into them if you’re not careful.

Some experiences for beginners are very familiar; others are anything but. As well as picking your virtual clothes (you’re strongly advised not to run around naked in “public”, although there are several virtual nudists’ groups), you get to adjust your entire appearance, from the size of your feet to the angle of your nose. And while walking about feels quite natural, flying can take some time to get used to.

So, what’s Second Life for? It’s not a game. There are no dragons to slay, and no concept of “winning”. The point of Second Life is to build an online community in a way that’s never been seen before. People can interact more realistically: gathering together in an arena for a concert; looking at paintings in a gallery; sitting in a Zen garden to listen to a virtual monk (see picture below). People can buy land, join clubs, or just set off to explore a world that’s getting bigger all the time.
continued below... 

It’s not just private citizens, though, but companies who are coming to Second Life. Retailers are selling both virtual and real goods, from Second Life startups making T-shirts for people to wear in the shared hallucination, to multinationals like IBM, which holds client conferences on private islands. Turn up to the Second Life Pontiac dealership and you can go for a virtual test-drive in any of their range of cars.

"the SLLA want to overthrow the Linden Research oligarchy and institute democracy."
In September last year, Penguin Books UK announced that they would be establishing a presence in Second Life. Their first move? The virtual publication of one of their most popular novels: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Yes, you can now read a virtual copy of a book that inspired a universe within the virtual universe it inspired, and my head hurts.

Second Life also has a dark side. Researchers from Nottingham University Business School are currently looking into the problem of bullying in the virtual world. Newer, more vulnerable residents have been shot at, physically thrown around, and had their houses fall victim to virtual arsonists. Second Life bullies can use new techniques which aren’t possible in real life, like creating noisy virtual objects that follow people around to intimidate them.

On a larger scale, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Second Life presence, an island formed in the shape of the company’s logo, was recently bombed by virtual vandals, destroying an amphitheatre and other features.

Earlier bombings in Second Life include attacks on retail stores by The Second Life Liberation Army. The SLLA is a “national liberation movement working towards establishing citizens’ rights within Second Life.” Uneasy walking around in a world where God could just turn off the gravity if He felt like it, the SLLA want to overthrow the Linden Research oligarchy and institute democracy.

Is this taking virtual life too seriously? Perhaps. The parody
website Get a First Life” pokes fun at Second Life users. “Go outside,” it urges. “Membership is free.”

Author Matt meditates in a virtual Zen garden

More virtual shenanigans:

Copping a virtual feel
Playing the cyber field
PCs: our new best friends?
Play Sim City for real

Images courtesy of Second Life.

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11 Aug 2011
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