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.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
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."

'Meat' memories: how passe
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.

"If lifelogging technology becomes commonplace," the report suggests, "those who have access to complete records have a distinct advantage over those who still rely on their faulty 'meat' memories. The choice of operating without personal-memory technology could become as self-crippling as living today without a phone of any sort, or without electricity."

But not everyone bought into that scenario.

In fact, the report suggests that one agreed-upon theory is that the augmented-reality scenario--in which people walk around with technology practically embedded in them, and in which that technology provides constant data on surroundings, will be "something of a baseline world, almost inevitable, even if the other metaverse scenarios don't occur."

"To the generation brought up in an augmented-reality world," the report says, "the metaverse--this ubiquitous cloud of information--is like electricity to children of the 20th century: essentially universal, expected and conspicuous only in its absence."

One notable element of the summit, its predictions and the draft report is how quickly things change.

The summit took place last spring, before YouTube was a household word and Second Life became a media darling, and not long after Digg became the influential site it is today.

As a result, the landscape governing people's predictions has changed, even as some of the long-term forecasts came true almost overnight.

"A lot of the scenarios that people came up with at the summit--they're so quaint," Agabra said. "Someone said that (Second Life land baroness) Anshe Chung would make a million dollars by 2011."

Chung announced last fall that she'd reached millionaire status.

But one distinct issue with the report stems from a summit problem: agreement on the future direction of the metaverse was very difficult to reach, even as individuals had very strong opinions. Would the metaverse be a 3D operating system controlled by Google? Would Microsoft buy Second Life? Would virtual worlds be a major part of most people's everyday existence?

As a result, the boldness of the report's predictions don't read as all that bold.

"I thought it was a kind of nice overview of these kinds of technology spaces," said Bob Moore, a researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, who reviewed the draft report for CNET News.com. "It certainly meshes with what I know of these emerging technologies...I would consider using it as an overview for someone who was unaware of these technologies. On the other hand, I didn't think it was very provocative...I thought this was kind of conservative."

Moore added that he didn't think that was a bad thing and that if a goal of the report was to lay the groundwork for investment in the metaverse space, characterizing that space as stable and easily understandable probably makes sense.

He said he recalled that at the summit, individual participants had been much more stark in their predictions than is reflected in the report. He acknowledged, however, that the report is intended to reflect the theories of the entire group at the summit, not that of individual participants.

Corey Bridges, co-founder of Multiverse Network, a company working on a virtual-world platform and a sponsor of last year's summit, agreed that the difficulty finding common ground at the event had probably made it hard to focus on many specific forward-thinking predictions.

"Perhaps that lack of unity of vision kept the particular document from being able to coalesce a larger number of predictions," Bridges said.

He added, however, that he had faith that the report could still affect positive change.

"The Roadmap project is already hinting towards successful," Bridges said, "because it's going to spur us and others to build their versions of this."