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March 5, 2008
Metaverse U - Virtual Worlds, Technology and You

By Paul Philleo

A wise saying goes something along the lines of, “It’s sometimes wiser to look for the right questions than the right answers.”

The Metaverse U Conference, which was held over the February 16-17 weekend on the Stanford University campus, generally followed that philosophy. This was a mash-up conference bringing together academics from Stanford and other universities, veterans of the game development scene, Web 2.0 adherents and everyone else in between who might have a stake,voice or idea about the present and future of the metaverse.

In all, most of the voices who shared their vision at this event had something meaningful to add to the discussion of virtual worlds, metadata and metaplaces. We’re going to distill it to the speakers who covered topics who may most impact your virtual worlds experiences in the gaming context.

We’ll start off in the deep end of the pool with Mike Liebhold, a senior researcher for the Institute for the Future, explored augmented reality in his “Blended Realities – A Work in Progress” presentation. Liebhold delved into the specifics of location-based technologies and the role they play with blending virtual worlds with reality.

Right now, the technology just isn’t there for incredibly accurate positioning with GPS or Wi-Fi, limited to 5-20 meters around us. By 2015, however, Liebhold predicts measurement accuracy will be narrowed down to under 1 meter in real-time. As data can be more exactly pin-pointed, more data-rich applications will be possible. In fact, GeoRSS allows web developers to use a customized coding language to pinpoint data using physical coordinate systems, like longitude and latitude. For example, it’s already possible using GeoRSS to locate the subject of a game blogger’s RSS feed. If he or she is watching a LAN tournament and posting about it, it may be possible to tag the location with pictures and a link back to the article, using a tool like Google Maps. In one month of using GeoRSS, one million photos were geo-coded to a map.

Companies like KnowledgeWhere are already using GPS technology in simple online multiplayer gaming in the mobile space. With increasing accuracy and data mash-ups, location-based gaming experiences should expand beyond the basic Pong-style experiences offered now.

On the entertainment side of the virtual worlds realm, Liebhold discussed a next-gen application on the market in private beta testing, the futuristically-named Planet 9 Raygun. This particular application allows users to interface and track each other in 3D environments, using a web interface, phone connections and avatars, with real-world locations as the playground.

“To me this (meta data overlay in the real world) implies an enormous opportunity for both games and sports,” Liebhold stated.

While “the sensor technology is not precise enough yet”, as Liebhold laments, there are other test bed projects for metadata overlapping with real world information on the fringe of the entertainment and gaming space. Nokia’s Mobile Augmented Reality Applications project is attempting to demonstrate that with a camera-enabled mobile phone you can use the lens as a positioning and locating device, which according to the project’s website “uses accelerometers in all three axes to determine orientation, a tilt compensated compass for heading, and GPS for positioning”. The viewfinder screen then represents the camera data and can overlay information about those real-world objects on the screen.

There are risks, of course, to exposing people’s privacy through reality augmentation, Liebhold mentioned as a cautionary note. In China, there’s a governmental plan to tag and track, as many real-world objects in China in virtual space, which has the very real potential to be used to squelch freedom rather than broaden it.

Liebhold, enthusiastic and optimistic, believes we’re due for a breakthrough “very soon” in virtual worlds and augmented reality. Perhaps, then, it may even be a game that shows us how real-world data and virtual world data can intersect?

Mike Liebhold enthusiastically explaining metaverse possibilities of the future

Planet 9 Raygun visualized in the presentation

Fielding questions from the audience


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