Almost Like Being There
By ColmSmyth on Dec 02, 2004
If you ask most people what virtual reality is, they will probably think of something like the scene in the movie Disclosure where Michael Douglas interacts with documents in a virtual filing cabinet and gets help from a guardian angel. The hallmarks of this view of virtual reality are that the user wears special hardware that translates physical body movements into direct analogues in a computer-generated environment; conversely the hardware enables the user to experience sight, sound and (limited) touch from that environment.
Another view of virtual reality comes from online gaming, which is primarily the multi-player first-person shooters and the MUDs (multi-user dimensions). The user interacts with a regular game console or desktop computer and the simulated environment supports a stylised way for users to interact (either virtual combat or "role playing").I'd like to offer an alternative to these limited worlds which I call the Adaptive Themed World. The internet hosts a practical infinity of documents and services that use a variety of technologies and styles to convey information. It is possible to adapt this information and the interactions that the internet supports (blogging, IM, e-mail, video-conferencing, shared photos, search engines, etc.) into a form that can be experienced within a virtual world; I call this medium transcoding as it reuses and adapts information (text, audio, video, multi-media) in one medium for use in another. This is in some ways the opposite of the concept of a game avatar; instead of translating the user's appearance into a form that suits a given virtual world, an Adaptive World translates portions of the "real" internet into a form that suits a particular virtual world theme.
As far as I know, no multi-player game has offered the experience of Imperial Rome as shown in the movie Gladiator but I'll use this as an example of how an Adaptive World using such a theme would work.Walking in the Forum, you would have an opportunity to:
- see and hear about goods for sale from traders (as usual, advertising would in part drive the revenue that would fun a free virtual world); the goods could be spoken about, shown on wall hangings, or have in-world 3D representations (the user could choose to have the representation shown in it's literal form (say a large flatscreen television) or translated into a form that suited the world (say a painting or an animated mural))
- listen to public speakers on a variety of issues (blogs or journals, spoken by the author's avatar, either as text or using speech-to-text translation); the avatar could be chosen by the author or by the viewing public
- engage in debates
- go to the temple to request help from the 'gods' (support or intervention by game administrators)
- play games; board games such as Calculi (checkers), Terni Lapilli (tic-tac-toe), Tabula (backgammon), Latrunculi (chess)
- listen to music (MP3 streams that are 'played' by a in-game band of musicians) or watch a play ( video stream rendered as a 2d plane on a stage, or as a cube in a forum)
The key part of an adaptive world based in part on medium transcoding is that it reuses live or static information that is available on the "regular" internet (as html or RSS or multimedia streams), but it renders it into a form that suits a specific virtual world. The rendering is in part chosen by the world designers, and in part by the user.What is the added value of this experience? All of the users who participate in a themed virtual reality share some common interest and choose to experience the internet in this form. Even while listening to music or watching a video stream, they have a sense of doing so with other people across the world. And it has the possibility to support advertising and existing internet content, which helps to fund the virtual world, perhaps even enabling it to be completely free.
Ancient Rome may be a boring environment for many (it doesn't do much for me, though it's an interesting thought experiment). But this is just one alternative; the options are literally endless:
- experience the Internet from within an environment based on The Matrix; the internet competes with TV and movies, so this is a way to extend the movie association; such an environment would almost certainly be free (or perhaps require a subscription that gives other value, such as DVDs at a reduced price, or t-shirts, etc.); the opportunities for in-game advertising that matches the theme of the world are absolutely huge; this benefits both users (who get a custom experience in a virtual world they choose) and advertisers (who are looking for new media to reach a market with many more entertainment options; the movie does not need a technical or science fiction feel; it could equally be a rom-com or a soap or a thriller
- it's possible to create such environments based around any brand or image; how about a virtual bar? You can appear to have a vodka martini (shaken naturally), while at home you drink say extra-cold Guinness poured from a can, or vice-versa. Now that would add a new dimension (oops, bad pun) to chat rooms. Naturally environments should have rating schemes to give users the right content to meet their age and accessibility needs.
- you know those games that require dance mats? you could create a virtual disco, populated in part by (licensed) avatars of musicians or movie stars or just your friends. A dance mat also has some pretty interesting potential as a "virtual reality" tool. How about online kick-boxing? This requires a more advanced mat that can extrapolate the actual move from foot direction and changes in weight distribution, and it would be seriously enhanced by wearing simple sensors on your extremeties, maybe based on short-range RFID)
- and as for existing online games - they are just begging to made into themed environments from which to experience and share the internet
- the transition from users coding raw HTML to using HTML-editing tools and now to application-specific tools (blogging, photo-sharing, etc.) has already happened; MSN Spaces (now in beta) offers users a limited kind of portal for sharing content (blog, photos); now, what if you as a user could create a real personal space (a building, an apartment or a cabin say, in a virtual location you choose or build), not using a complex 3D tool, but by choosing much larger building blocks, with smart theme-aware surface matching and intelligent 3D interactive objects (like a major upgrade to Oop! in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs)
But wouldn't such a virtual environment be prohibitively expensive to create for a single movie or a brand? I don't think so. The trend towards movie sequels and more importantly the increased use of digital special effects (or even completely computer-generated scenes) will provide the necessary imagery and sounds to create the online environment. All that is required is the right kind of game/environment engine, and the publishing tools to enable existing digital assets to be re-purposed in an online virtual reality. What about open spaces, created and maintained by the intelligence and enthusiasm of individuals? Wikipedia and open-source software shows that this is not just possible but inevitable.