Thursday, October 06, 2005

Virtual Worlds

There are really only two things that inspire me without fail. One is space travel. The other is virtual worlds. Since they're both advanced forms of escapism, perhaps that says something unflattering about me. But, hey, I am who I am. At least until I become the owner of a space hotel or build myself an interesting new avatar.

I always get excited reading about virtual worlds. There's such potential there.

Unlike most people who play in virtual worlds, I'm not interested in gaming in a virtual world. The only real purpose of a virtual world is to facilitate communication. Games are a particular message, a particular language. I'm interested in all languages, not just that one.

All communication mediums do this. Air, books, telephone, the web. They all allow humans to communicate with one another at various distances and delays and privacy levels. Each supports different basic language tenets.

The web, predecessor of virtual worlds, allows for wide-ranging communcation, be it email or web page. Unfortunately, these communications are high cost and low bandwidth. You can spend more effort for higher bandwidth, but it requires the person on the other end to be willing to spend more effort as well: every picture you include, every sound, every frame of video comes with a price attached that the average user will suffer. This is especially true since each person has different communication expectations from the web: some people are happy to have full video. Others don't even want pictures.

The thing is, the web is engineered to communicate in the same nameless, faceless way that books and, to a lesser extent, telephones do. The things we take as communication are not simply the words in a message: words in a message are a distant last place in our minds.

Our minds are geared towards faces, body language, intonation, appearance. Moreover, we don't limit our data gathering to people: walking into a building, flying, smelling food. We collect information with all our senses, and a simple string of words is, perhaps, the least intrinsically interesting method of doing so. Moreover, it's limited, since it doesn't take advantage of our senses.

We gain a shocking amount of data from our full senses, especially sight and sound. See and hear a car crash, you'll feel the rush of adrenaline even if you weren't in the crash and don't know who was. On the other hand, read "the car crashed!" and - nothing. No emotion at all.

The strength of a virtual world is in re-aligning communication with our natural, full-bandwidth capabilities. What we communicate is largely irrelevant, but how we communicate gets ever closer to the way people actually perceive things.

It's not limited to our natural methods of communication, either. Knowing that people collect information from hundreds of sources, virtual worlds allow you to use those channels for communication even though you cannot do so in real life. Choose your avatar's appearance. Build a building in a day. Twist reality as you wish to communicate with the people around you.

Choose how difficult it is to communicate carefully. Usually, speed is sacrificed for range. In reality, saying "let's go get coffee" is a tiny effort. In a game, saying "let's go get coffee" is several seconds of typing and it comes out without any nuance. Shortcut keys could be bound, but this means you're stuck saying whatever your shortcut keys say.

The only real way around this is allowing vocal communication, but that's not very good, since most people's avatars don't closely match their voice. 12-year-old Jimmy doesn't make a very impressive Troll as he squeeks, "let's kill something!" So, in a game where avatars are critical, you'd require some high-tech vocoding that kept the emotion and message while changing the underlying message of "who you are".

Similarly, in Second Life you can build avatars and buildings. You can even instantly change avatars and buildings by simply selecting a different set-up. But that's a pre-programmed change. What if you decide you want to show Gloria a beautiful forest scene? Unless you had something perfectly suitable already in your inventory, you'd have to spend hours and hours building one. That's a lot of effort.

How that could be accelerated is beyond me. But make no mistake: it will be. That's a method of communicating, and as we go on all methods of communication will become faster, sleeker, and more robust.

Until the virtual world allows for faster, more robust expressions than the real world.

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