Second Earth

from Technology & Learning

What happens when the virtual and real worlds collide?

They head in different directions, but Second Life and Google Earth are two technologies that will intersect with fascinating results.

The World Wide Web will soon be absorbed into the World Wide Sim: an immersive, 3-D visual environment that combines elements of social virtual worlds such as Second Life and mapping applications such as Google Earth.

A thunderhead towers at knee level, throwing tiny lightning bolts at my shoes. I'm standing—rather, my avatar is standing—astride a giant map of the United States, and southern Illinois, at my feet, is evidently getting a good April shower.

The map I am standing on belongs to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and it covers a 12-by-20-meter square of lawn on a large virtual island sustained entirely by servers and software at San Francisco-based Linden Lab, which launched Second Life in 2003. (On the map's scale, my avatar is about 500 kilometers tall, which makes Illinois about three paces across.)

Of course, from within a virtual world like Second Life, the real world can be glimpsed only through the imperfect filters of today's software and hardware. Barring a startling increase in the Internet bandwidth available to the average PC user or a plunge in the cost of stereoscopic virtual-reality goggles, we will continue to experience virtual worlds as mere representations of 3-D environments on our flat old computer screens.

So while virtual worlds are good for basic instruction and data representation, professionals aren't yet rushing to use them to analyze large amounts of spatial information. For that, they stick to specialized design, animation, modeling, and mapping software from companies like Autodesk and ESRI. But there's another new genre of 3-D visualization tools that are accessible to both professionals and average Internet users: "virtual globe" programs such as Google Earth, Microsoft's Virtual Earth, and NASA's open source World Wind. Virtual globes let you plot your city's sewer system, monitor a network of environmental sensors, count up the frequent-flyer miles between New York and New Delhi, or just soar through a photorealistic 3-D model of the Grand Canyon.

Even as social virtual worlds incorporate a growing amount of realworld data, virtual globes and their 2-D counterparts, Web maps, are getting more personal and immersive. Digital maps are becoming a substrate for what Di-Ann Eisnor, CEO of the mapping site Platial in Portland, Oregon, calls "neogeography": an explosion of user-created content such as travel photos and blog posts, pinned to specific locations. Using Platial's map annotation software, people have created public maps full of details about everything from the history of genocide to spots for romance. Google has now built a similar annotation feature directly into Google Maps.

As these two trends continue from opposite directions, it's natural to ask what will happen when Second Life and Google Earth, or services like them, actually meet.

Because meet they will, whether or not their owners are the ones driving their integration.

Wade Rousch is a contributing editor for Technology Review.

Excerpted from the July/August 2007 issue of MIT's Technology Review (