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Mapping a path for the 3D Web

Influential tech figures meet to outline the so-called metaverse--a Net dominated by 3D, social spaces and economies.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--With the spread of online games, virtual worlds and services like Google Earth and MySpace.com, people may soon be spending more time, communicating more and shopping more in complex 3D Web environments.

That's why several dozen of the most influential figures in video game design, geospatial engineering, high-tech research, software development, social networking, telecommunications and other fields gathered here Friday and Saturday for the first Metaverse Roadmap Summit.

The event, held at the SRI International and produced by the Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF), was the initial step toward what organizers and attendees alike hope will be a coherent path to the so-called metaverse--an Internet dominated by 3D technology, social spaces and economies.

As such, the invite-only group spent the two days in a series of talks, small breakout discussions and group presentations--all in the pursuit of consensus about what the metaverse, or some would say 3D Web, will look like in 10 years.

In the end, organizers will sift through hours of recordings of the various discussions and plan to produce a public document by the end of the summer that will lay out what they believe were the overriding conclusions and directions of the event. First, though, attendees will pore over two drafts of the document in the coming months to weigh in on the organizers' take on the so-called road map.

Ultimately, the ASF hopes to produce regular small Metaverse Roadmap gatherings, as well as full summits at least every two years.

In the meantime, the organizers have their work cut out for them because agreement about the metaverse of 2016 was hard to find.

While many took issue with the basic premise that an overriding 3D Web will be in place within 10 years, it was clear that most in attendance relished mixing it up as part of an august group that included Microsoft's Robert Scoble, former Sony Online Entertainment chief creative officer Raph Koster, PARC researcher Bob Moore, online game pioneer Randy Farmer, There.com founder and currently IMVU CEO Will Harvey, and CNET Networks editor at large Esther Dyson.

"I thought we were going to focus a bit more on virtual worlds because when I hear the term metaverse, I hear 3D virtual worlds. And we ended up talking about virtual worlds as well as augmented reality, which to me is kind of separate technology in its vision," Moore said. But "it was good to get this group of people together because it is a group with a lot of common interests. And so I think it's good to get the group as a network together."

Several times Friday and Saturday, participants went off in groups of six or so to brainstorm various questions about the future of the metaverse. Primrily, the questions revolved around specifically what the metaverse of 2016 will look like and about what the chief research and development challenges might be in the interim.

After each breakout session, the groups returned to an auditorium to present their thoughts.

One of the questions asked most frequently throughout the event was whether an overriding metaverse of 2016 will be commercially owned or open source. There was little agreement about that, but it was clear that the companies seen as most likely to provide the tools for a single metaverse upon which many 3D, social applications could be built are Microsoft and Google.

In part, Google was seen as more likely because of its development of Google Earth and its recent purchase of the maker of the 3D modeling software, Sketchup.

But some felt that Microsoft could make a major play to become the metaverse provider and that it may well seek to buy something like the open-ended virtual world "Second Life" as a precursor to a larger play in the field.

Still, as the groups reported back, it seemed that few had reached clear visions of what the metaverse of 2016 will be, despite agreement that most people will be spending far more time in 3D, virtual environments than they do today. In addition, there was a general consensus that--as mobile devices become more sophisticated--the 3D Web would become much more the province of such devices and far less of the kinds of desktop or laptop computers we know today.

During one break in the schedule Saturday, two members of the team producing Croquet, an open-source software platform designed for creating collaborative, multiple-user online applications, showed off their software. And as word spread about the demo, nearly everyone in attendance suddenly scrambled to watch.

Quickly, about 30 people gathered in a tight semi-circle around the two Croquet team members as they showed off the software's ability to let people move in and out of rich virtual spaces easily and with little of the lag and complicated user-interface of virtual worlds like "Second Life."

The demonstration was one of the highlights of a day filled with engrossing conversations, but short on tangible progress toward the road map everyone had come to create.

To some, the format of the event presented hard challenges to achieving the stated goals. But some felt that organizers had gotten it right.

"I'm not necessarily a huge believer in central planning of technological and cultural advances," said Corey Bridges, co-founder of the Multiverse Network, a sponsor of the event. "But happily, that's not what we're doing here. We are identifying areas to explore. We're seeing mountains in the distance and saying, 'There's something there, someone should go investigate it.'"

Bridges also applauded the makeup of the group that had come to the event.

"I think this was a wonderfully diverse and cantankerous group," Bridges said. "I was a little worried that we might get a bunch of starry-eyed people who weren't grounded...(But) we have all learned to temper our enthusiasm with our level-headedness and that is serving us well."

He also cited comments Dyson made as mirroring the feelings many at the event had.

"Esther Dyson wonderfully stood up during the introductions," Bridges said, "and said she has not drunk the Kool-Aid but she was here to see what the flavor of the Kool-Aid was."

Indeed, Dyson said she was somewhat skeptical of what such an event could produce, but added it really depended in large part on how people can work through the problems that they perceive stand in the way of the goals.

"The connections people made here I'm sure will lead to people doing interesting things in collaboration," said Dyson, who writes Release 1.0 for CNET, the publisher of News.com. "But we're not coming together to promulgate a standard. We're trying to get a common vocabulary, a common understanding."

And in the end, that's what the event's organizers were really after.

"I feel that people came and engaged, and that part of it was extremeley successful," said Bridget Agabra, the Metaverse Roadmap's project manager. "Now the hard work begins again. But this is fun because it's content and ideas...When you see the magic (participants) were doing, the magic they were making with their minds, that was brain food for me."