Meet the metaverse, your new digital home

Tech pundits have seen the future, in which a full-time data flow surrounds you wherever you go.

The Internet in 2016 will be an all-encompassing digital playground where people will be immersed in an always-on flood of digital information, whether wandering through physical spaces or diving into virtual worlds.

That was the general picture painted in a draft report obtained by CNET News.com that summarizes the conclusions of several dozen pundits who met at the first Metaverse Roadmap Summit last May to prognosticate the "pathway to the 3D Web."

Within 10 years, the report suggests, people may wear glasses that record everything around them. They will likely see little distinction between their real-world social lives and their interactions in digital, 3D virtual worlds. And they'll increasingly turn to services like an enhanced Google Earth that are able to present data on what's happening anywhere, at any time, as it unfolds.

"This ubiquitous cloud of information is like electricity to children of the 20th century: essentially universal, expected and conspicuous only in its absence."
--Metaverse Roadmap draft report

The report, compiled by the Accelerating Studies Foundation--a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering change in information gathering and communications--offers the first comprehensive look at the predictions of leaders from academia, video game companies, virtual-world publishers, geospatial engineering departments and the media who gathered for two days at SRI International in Palo Alto, Calif.

"What happens," the draft report's introduction asks, "when video games meet Web 2.0? When virtual worlds meet geospatial maps of the planet? When simulations get real, and life and business go virtual? When you use a virtual Earth to navigate the physical Earth, and your avatar becomes your online agent? What happens is the metaverse."

Metaverse is a term used broadly to describe everything from 3D virtual worlds to immersive digital geospatial environments. The term was first used by author Neal Stephenson in his groundbreaking novel, Snow Crash.

But now, the Metaverse Roadmap team--primarily futurist Jerry Paffendorf and project manager Bridget Agabra, as well as the report's author, Jamais Cascio--has used the word to take the broad prognostications of the summit participants and break them down into four main scenarios, dubbed augmented reality, lifelogging, virtual worlds and mirror worlds.

The scenarios imagined in the report--based on discussions at the summit, as well as online conversations before and afterward--are meant to showcase likely outcomes of metaverse technologies, and how they can benefit society and business.

Augmented reality is technology, the report says, that's immersive, location-aware and self-tracking. It essentially allows users to get instant data about places and things digitally at any time.

Lifelogging is defined as "the deployment of augmentation technologies (that) focuses more on communication, memory and the observation of other people than on examining and controlling the physical environment," according to the draft report. Essentially, this means that people would use technology to record just about everything going on around them--a kind of always-on blogging in 3D.

"Virtual-world systems will allow a great deal of a community's economic and social life to be carried out" in "areas or disciplines where the physical world and the metaverse remain distinct," the report suggests, and yet where "issues of identity, role and human-human interaction will remain at the forefront."

The last scenario imagines mirror worlds, which, according to the report, will be like Google Earth--digital renderings of geography--but with advanced technologies used to add high degrees of context to "virtual models of reality." Like Google Earth, mirror worlds will present images of the world, potentially layered with much more detailed and timely information.

Next week, the draft report is set to be distributed to summit participants, who will have about seven days to make comments. Then, Paffendorf will take a last crack at the document before making it publicly available--ideally by the end of April, he said.

"The most important thing we did," Paffendorf said, "is create the (concept of the four distinct scenarios). It's the scaffolding that defines the space. And it will be fun to plug in all the companies and technologies."

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Paffendorf said his main goal with the report is to "connect the four areas together and try to make them make sense as mutually reinforcing."

One of the more noteworthy aspects of the report is the section on lifelogging, which focuses on the many ways and technologies people will use to effectively broadcast vast segments of their life to friends and the general public. The report suggests the use of wearable systems with recording capabilities and digital displays that allow people to constantly track the sights and sounds around them--and to share that input with others.

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