Second Life: over-hyped or scientifically significant?

Second Life and other virtual reality worlds may have a long way to go to fulfill their hype, but as the first baby steps toward imitating our real world in cyberspace, they're significant achievements that demand close attention.

Steve Tobak
View all articles by Steve Tobak on CBS MoneyWatch »
Steve Tobak is a consultant and former high-tech senior executive. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a management consulting and business strategy firm. Contact Steve or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
Steve Tobak
3 min read

We're constantly imitating nature.

Artificial intelligence researchers study the way babies learn to right themselves after falling down to help train robots to behave similarly.

We're still learning new things about flight dynamics and wing design from butterflies and other animals.

If you've ever carefully tiptoed across the floor to keep from disturbing someone, you're mimicking how a deer walks to avoid alerting predators to its presence.

Okay, that one's a stretch, but if you've ever watched a deer do this, it sure seems like one heck of a coincidence.

In any case, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It's also how modern science works - creating models for simple structures in order to approximate the real world. When we succeed, we learn; when we fail, we learn more. It's a painstaking process of trial and error called the scientific method.

Every year the biotechnology industry comes one step closer to learning how to cure our ills and extend the human lifespan. We have further to go than we've come, to be sure, but getting here was no easy trick. After all, biotech research is attempting nothing short of unveiling the secrets of life.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, this is the same thought process that changed my opinion about Second Life being over-hyped - an opinion many of you have recently expressed.

For the uninitiated, Second Life is an online digital world called a metaverse. People are rendered as game-like, 3D images called avatars. In the metaverse you can own property, hold business meetings and training sessions, buy and sell goods and services, dance, fly, and meet people. There's even crime.

Second Life was developed by a venture backed startup named Linden Lab. But Neal Stephenson initially described the concept of a metaverse in his groundbreaking cyber-novel Snow Crash, published in 1992.

As a lifelong sci-fi fan who read the book, I joined Second Life about a year ago. I just wanted to see what it was like. I was prepared for a half-baked environment, and in that sense, Second Life met my expectations. Overall, the experience was still a bit disappointing.

I didn't so much mind my clothes disappearing in the middle of a conversation, or looking stupid because I couldn't figure out how to sit in a chair or dance. It was the bugs, instability, and slow response time that really bogged down the experience.

After a few weeks I decided it wasn't that much fun and I didn't have any business reason to be there, at least not yet. So I gave up on Second Life and its hype for the time being.

Then I got to wondering - is there a perspective on this metaverse thing I perhaps overlooked during my initial experience?

After all, what is Second Life and others like it but a first attempt at replicating our world in virtual space? That's huge. The implications are no different from space travel, robotics, stem cell research, or any other significant advancement in science. As such, it warrants attention and scrutiny so people can learn from other's mistakes and become inspired to take the technology to the next level.

Think about it. Not that long ago there was no internet, now we depend on it. A scant nine years ago, Google's founders were having trouble getting funding for a search engine company. Now its market cap is $160 billion. Who's to say we won't find ourselves completely immersed in virtual reality worlds in ten years?

And Second Life - even in its present form - is a potentially significant development platform, not to mention a business opportunity to drive demand for internet infrastructure, processing power, memory capacity, software, gaming, and the like. I don't even want to consider the implications for pornography.

Not only is imitation the sincerest form of flattery, it's also a primary mechanism for the advancement of human civilization. Second Life may have a long way to go to fulfill its hype, but as the first baby steps toward imitating the real world in cyberspace, it demands close attention. After all, that's how we humans learn.