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Google tools to power virtual worlds

New technology will let virtual-world designers incorporate Google's 3D Warehouse models, as well as terrain from Google Earth. Images: Virtual worlds via Google

Get ready for online games set in your favorite Google Earth locations.

Virtual-worlds platform developer Multiverse Network is set to announce a partnership Tuesday that will allow anyone to create a new online interactive 3D environment with just about any model from Google's online repository of 3D models, its 3D Warehouse, as well as terrain from Google Earth.

The idea is simple: Multiverse's technology--which gives game developers tools to design custom virtual worlds--will let those designers pick and choose from most of the millions of 3D models created using Google's 3D software tool SketchUp, and to import pieces of terrain, as defined by entering specific longitude and latitude data, from Google Earth.

If you want to build a virtual world centered on, say, downtown San Francisco, you could use the new technology to create the area itself and populate it with the digital versions of real-world buildings that have been created and uploaded to the 3D Warehouse.

"The goal is to grab things from the 3D Warehouse when looking at things in Google Earth and then make an instant multiverse world," said Multiverse co-founder Corey Bridges. "What we've done is provide a more streamlined interface for using (Google's technology) as a virtual-world production tool."

Until now, incorporating this kind of information from Google has mostly been the province of fantasy. For some time, Multiverse has made it possible to upload some SketchUp models into a virtual world created using its platform. But the technology the company plans to announce Tuesday, informally called "Architectural Wonders," brings the concept to much more well-rounded fruition, and answers what some people have been crying out for as obvious and necessary technology integration.

"Google's mission statement is to make all the world's information universally available and useful," said Jerry Paffendorf, co-author of the Metaverse Roadmap and co-founder of a stealth start-up called Wello Horld. "So I would say this (is about) making all the world universally available and useful, and that's why this is so fascinating."

For Paffendorf, one of the most vocal proponents of a 3D massively multiplayer environment based on Google Earth and SketchUp information, Multiverse's innovation is nothing short of groundbreaking.

He said he's particularly excited and hopeful that the Architectural Wonders project will allow virtual-world designers to incorporate not just models and terrain from Google Earth, but also much of the metadata that makes it so powerful: the personal notations and photographs that millions of users have added to it.

Of course, Multiverse's project is not the only one that has sprung up to make use of this data. Google is , a beta test of which may or may not be under way at Arizona State University.

Another project is SceneCaster, a new technology unveiled at last week's Demo conference that allows anyone to make 3D "scenes" incorporating models from the 3D Warehouse that can then be attached to blogs or Facebook pages or even to Flickr.

Both SceneCaster and Multiverse's Architectural Wonders projects will be shown at the Virtual Worlds conference, which starts Wednesday in San Jose, Calif.

But because not much is known about Google's stealth project and since SceneCaster does not appear to be a massively multiplayer experience, Multiverse's Architectural Wonders efforts may well prove to be the first publicly available attempt to bring vast amounts of data and models Google is making freely accessible into a working virtual world.

For now, the technology is in its very early iterations. A demonstration seen exclusively last week by CNET revealed what is still fairly rudimentary technology, featuring a single avatar wandering around a largely barren terrain. However, as the avatar moved, it eventually arrived in an area where it was able to move easily among models of structures like the Empire State Building, the St. Louis arch and Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Twin Towers.

Multiverse also showed its tool for selecting terrain grabbed from Google Earth. It appears to be a simple design that will make it easy for designers creating virtual worlds using Multiverse's platform to quickly enter geographic data and then to import whatever territory is defined directly into their new 3D environment.

Multiverse's technology has reached the point where it can support as many as 1,000 users per server, meaning any virtual world built using its platform and incorporating the Google Earth and 3D Warehouse models could see hundreds or even thousands of users running around inside it.

And while some might wonder why anyone would want to spend time in a virtual New York when they could be in the real place, Paffendorf, who lives in Brooklyn, has an answer.

"Simply put, if you're not there, you don't have that option," he said. "I would go exploring Brooklyn like that, for sure, to see what I'm missing."