The Metaverse: Mirror Worlds and Augmented Reality

originally posted on Concept Hub

Guest Post by Timothy Moenk

Two weeks ago I wrote about two Metaverse scenarios explored in the Metaverse Roadmap project. I’m excited to say that the Metaverse Roadmap Overview document has been released into the wild! You can download it from here (it’s in pdf format). For those of you interested in a good read on the intersection of social media with 3d virtual worlds, mapping technologies, and the era of ubiquitous mobile devices, I highly recommend checking it out!

This week, I’ll be discussing the remaining two scenarios: Mirror Worlds, and Augmented Reality.

Mirror Worlds

A book called Mirror Worlds was written by David Gelernter in the early nineties that outlined the potential of computer simulations of our natural environments and the planet Earth itself. Fast forward a decade and a half, and we have a very clear example of what he was talking about in the form of Google Earth. Because of Web 2.0, the increasing preponderance of satellite imagery, and a number of other factors, maps are becoming more than abstract visualizations of space, but very tangible and malleable communications mediums. We now have the ability to infinitely annotate the physical world with data including text, photographs, video, and three-dimensional models. This can be done behind a computer, or on the ground at the actual physical locations via mobile devices. While there is a lot of discussion and hype about the Virtual WorldMetaverse scenario right now, the disruptive technology behind the Mirror Worlds scenario will have a much greater societal impact.

Most of the major pieces of the Mirror World scenario are already in place. Our mobile devices are beginning to become geospatially aware and it’s only a matter of time before most mobile phones are equipped with gps capabilities. Google Earth/Maps is a cornerstone technology that is enabling these developments to move forward, and Google is taking leadership in developing open standards for embedding geospatial data throughout the web. Here are some examples of the impact that Mirror Worlds are beginning to have today:

Yahoo’s Flickr photosharing service has a feature that enables you to geotag your photographs. Essentially, this allows you to put your photographs on the world map in the exact spot they were taken. This is a very powerful tool for citizen journalism, and it’s only going to get easier and faster. With gps enabled mobile devices, geotagging will happen automatically. Uploading also occurs on the spot, which means Yahoo’s world map will be constantly populated with real-time photographs taken by people across the world.

Google Earth has been absolutely indispensable for nonprofits, government organizations, and scientists. Whereas similar technology has been available to them for years, it’s been extremely expensive and wasn’t nearly as collaborative as what is available now due to the nature of open software standards and social media. The ability to collect data, visualize it, and compare it to other data geospatially is becoming affordable to even the smallest of organizations.  The impact that Google Earth has had on our ability to deal with natural disasters, educate on global issues, etc has led Google to recently announce a new initiative called Google Earth Outreach. The main objective of this program is to give support to the nonprofit community so they can maximize the potential of Google Earth to accomplish their global (and local!!!) missions. I highly recommend checking out this page to explore different examples of how Google Earth is being used to make a social impact.

Combined with social media, place becomes a powerful way to communicate. Using the Flickr example from before, each photograph becomes a conversation thread for that location. Imagine walking past a restaurant and pulling out your mobile device (without pressing a button) to see which of your friends have been there before, and also if anyone has written any reviews. It’s not so far-fetched that people might even leave digital messages for you at specific locations. This is already happening amongst early adopters, and will likely become commonplace nearly overnight (especially amongst the youth) when gps enabled devices to reach ubiquity.

Commercially, Mirror Worlds are largely untapped. The largest developments there so far lie in basic advertising around locations, but there is huge potential to tap into the social aspect of Mirror Worlds to present how brands relate to people and places within society. Being able to appropriately build relationships with people around key places and times will take marketing to a whole new level!

Augmented Reality

This scenario is in some ways a bit more futuristic than the Virtual Worlds, Lifelogging, and Mirror Worlds Scenarios, and represents a blending of elements from each into the physical world. In fact, some of the examples of Mirror Worlds I’ve given above are also examples of Augmentation.

One popular vision of Augmented Reality lies in utilizing heads-up displays to visually overlay 3d data over our perception of the physical environment. (Think what the Terminator sees when he looks at the world!) For the most part, I don’t see people in the mainstream wearing goggles for this type of application. At first glance, this is a niche technology for industrial purposes. However, there is work currently being done to embed this type of technology into our car windshields. Combined with mapping technology, our paths will be projected out in front of us (in a similar style to Google Street View) within the next decade or two.

The most important aspect of Augmentation is really about understanding context. Our environments are full of information, but most of this information isn’t digital yet. As we increasingly use smart devices that connect to the web and introduce sensors such as RFID and teens with camera phones into our environments, there will be much more information for us to work with and contextualize. As the web becomes something that is all around us rather then something just inside the computer screen, the goal behind Augmented Reality is to make it easy to understand and visualize all this information at the appropriate times.

One of the most powerful examples of Augmentation that is often overlooked is the friend’s list on social networking sites. This form of Augmentation makes it easy for us to see not only our relationships but the relationships between other people in the network. As members of our network interact with each other, we can then visually gauge the quality of those relationships as well. By having all this data out there in a way that we can understand, we’re also beginning to interact with each other in new ways. In much the same way, as our environments become even more connected to the web and our mobile devices more capable, we will begin to interact with our environments in new and more intelligent ways.