Summary: Life is becoming more digital and the digital is becoming more alive. On one hand we have the rapid rise of Second Life and other virtual worlds. On the other we are beginning to annotate our planet with digital information, via technologies like Google Earth.
Second Life on the plane and next to me was a man in his late fifties, named John. As it turns out, like me John was a graduate of Lehigh University. He was class of 1967, while I was 1994. He'd never heard about Second Life, but when I explained to him the concept he had a good laugh and then asked: "So is this for those who did not quite make it in the First Life?" No, I replied, this is quite different - it's a whole new world. What happened next was probably even more surprising than the fact that we went to the same school. John said to me:I was reading a feature about
"You know it would be really cool if the airlines conducted computerized tours of the places that we are flying over. It could be powered by GPS and we could see a mix of maps and videos about all these places."
I thought that was a neat idea. But what struck me even more is the fact that it came from (nearly) 60 year old civil engineer. At that moment I no longer had doubts - our future is digital. Digital Life and Life Digital are going to be two parallel paths that we will take over the next decade. Both of them will mix Life and Digital to challenge and change the way we think about ourselves and our world.
What is Digital Life?
For the purpose of this post, we define Digital Life as a collective of the virtual world technologies that are bringing life to the digital realm. All of them create environments where participants live in a digital form. These worlds mix the real and imaginary, they both follow and break the laws of physics. They have concepts of markets and money. They have cities and islands. Most importantly, they are unique venues for innovation and self-expression.
Second Life - Your Best Digital Life Now
Linden Labs' creation Second Life is currently the leader in the Digital Life space. With close to 8 million inhabitants, Second Life has received much media attention in the blogosphere and mainstream press. It is appealing because of its rich design, which elegantly blends real world-like features with fantasy and game elements. But Second Life is very different from virtual world video games - because it is not a quest. You are not chasing anything and nothing is chasing you. The core of Second Life is social.
As in real life, you can walk around and talk to people. You can drive cars, climb stairs and even purchase things - most importantly, you can buy land. Commerce is one of the secret sauces in Second Life, since (as the song goes) money makes the world go around. The official currency of Second Life is Linden dollars, which is convertible to and from the dollar - so any user can participate. Together these social and commercial aspects of Second Life make the world realistic and engaging.
But the characters in Second Life are unmistakably digital. Since you can fly with a touch of a button, geographical boundaries are inconsequential. You have a complete map of the world; people have tooltips with names above their heads; pointers, posters and advertisements are all based on rich media. There is really nothing like this in our physical world. This collective digital experience is unusual and exciting, stimulating and thought-provoking.
There is little doubt that worlds like Second Life are going to be increasingly more engrossing. At the end of the spectrum of possibilities, we can imagine wearable technologies that enable total submersion into a virtual world. This is not happening anytime soon, because of the complexity involved in mimicking human sensory experience. In the mean time, virtual worlds will take smaller steps - like adding voice communication and trying to scale to the increasing demand.
What is Life Digital?
Google Earth - a detailed 3D visualization of the Earth.The second focus of this post is what I will call Life Digital - a set of technologies that aims to put a digital mesh on top of our reality. Futuristically speaking, we are talking about magic glasses that overlay digital information on top of real-world scenes as you walk around. The closest modern version of this technology is
Even though Google Earth is a simulation, one of its main functions is to augment geographical information with digital information. In a way, you can think of the program as tagging each place on Earth with all sorts of relevant information.
The precursor of this technology was destination software, like Vindigo, which brought restaurant reviews, movie guides and destination reviews first to PDA's and later to cell phones. Using this technology, you could punch in an address and a kind of cuisine - and get a list of restaurants in response. The difference now is that information is tied to exact physical coordinates and there is much more of it - the world wide web!
But where these technologies become really interesting is when you combine them with cameras inside cell phones. Imagine going out to your back yard, pointing to a tree and asking: What kind of tree is this? or imagine walking around in a new city, pointing to a building and getting its complete history.
Tagging and annotating our physical world with digital tags and other kind of digital information will make our world much richer. Perhaps the device that is capable of creating this experience today is the much hyped iPhone. It certainly has all the ingredients to make it happen - it is the matter of connecting the dots.
Life is becoming more digital and digital is becoming more alive. On one hand we have the rapid rise of Second Life and other virtual worlds. On the other we are beginning to annotate our planet with digital information, via technologies like Google Earth. In both cases digital information is breaking geographical boundaries and overcoming the limitations imposed by our physical world. Flying in second life has the same affect as linking a Wikipedia entry to the Grand Canyon as rendered in Google Earth.
Information is being unleashed and re-shuffled. We are beginning to look at information from literally a 1000 foot view. And everything is becoming increasingly more connected. This is both very exciting and a bit unnerving. We are accelerating into our digital future from all directions - pushing digital towards life and pushing life towards digital.
Do you agree that this is happening? Please share your experiences with virtual worlds and annotated reality.