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Google moves into virtual worlds

By combining satellite maps and 3-D software, Google Earth is turning into a virtual online playground.

By Chris Taylor, Business 2.0 Magazine senior editor

SAN FRANCISCO (Business 2.0 Magazine) - It's Google's world. We just live in it.

Online virtual worlds are a hot topic, as gamers spend more and more time playing online and virtual real estate turns into a real market. Now Google is getting into the business -- and if its plans come to fruition, the virtual world will never be the same. In fact, it may look more like the world we know than futurists ever imagined.

Google already has Google Earth, a 3-D mockup of the planet generated from satellite photos. But Google wants you to do more than just zoom through its virtual Earth. The company wants you to add on to it, too.

At the end of April the company released, for free, a popular 3-D modeling program it bought called SketchUp. Google is encouraging developers to use SketchUp to build 3-D layers on top of Google Earth. There's even a website Google provides called 3-D Warehouse, where you can demonstrate what you've built in Sketch Up.

Enter the metaverse
The notion that you can create objects and buildings and place them in a virtual world makes Google Earth sounds less like a mapping tool and more like a metaverse. What's a metaverse? Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson introduced the term in his seminal 1992 novel, Snow Crash. The metaverse was Stephenson's name for a virtual world where his characters play and do business. It was a black ball 1.6 times the size of Earth, with a giant street running around its equator.

In Stephenson's novel, millions of users uploaded customized "avatars," or virtual personalities, and strolled the street, entering shops and exclusive nightclubs, conversing and trading with the metaverse's other denizens. It was, in effect, a 3-D version of the web.

Online worlds like Second Life and There.com – not to mention online games like World of Warcraft, Lineage, and EverQuest -- are direct descendants of the metaverse vision. Entrepreneurs like Second Life creator Anshe Chung have demonstrated how to run very profitable businesses trading online real estate, avatars, and other virtual goods -- businesses that have no physical presence in the real world.

But as popular as they are, virtual worlds like these are hardly mainstream. They're a little hard to navigate, and a little too videogame-like for the average user. It's hard to imagine your mom running around in Second Life, let alone World of Warcraft.

Googling the planet
It is, however, pretty easy to imagine your mom downloading and using Google Earth (indeed, perhaps she already is).

You can already download user-generated layers that sit on top of Google's 3-D Earth and show you, for example, the location of celebrity houses or hiking trails or famous landmarks. One dating service has even started showing people looking for partners as a Google Earth layer.

Real estate companies have started showing off virtual versions of their buildings (for sale in the real world) on Google Earth. SketchUp allows them to build entire models of their apartments, right down to the microwave oven.

Where will it end? Google Earth general manager John Hanke has said that Google Earth was partly inspired by Snow Crash's metaverse. At a recent Silicon Valley conference, he described it as a "3-D virtual world."

A virtual Earth
The result could be that we'll soon populate a virtual version of planet Earth instead of the made-from-scratch metaverses like online games or Second Life. The main element Google Earth is missing today is avatars, but at least one observer believes those to be added soon.

"I would expect to see someone using Google Earth as a virtual social space by the end of the year," says Jerry Paffendorf, research director of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, a futurist organization.

Paffendorf isn't just sitting around waiting for the metaverse to happen, either. Last weekend he helped arrange something called the Metaverse Roadmap Summit, a gathering of programmers of virtual worlds.

The idea of the summit was to outline how we're going to get from here to the metaverse in ten years. There were major disagreements between the attendees, most notably between those who believe the Web should stay as a 2-D environment with 3-D components, and those who want the Web to become a 3-D metaverse-like environment where your avatar can call up 2-D screens if and when they need to – say, for a word-processing program.

Those in the latter camp believe, like Paffendorf, that Google Earth is the most likely candidate to become a metaverse. Just add avatars, they say, and the possibilities are endless.

Consumers could fly into the virtual New York, go shopping in a virtual Times Square, get past the velvet rope at a virtual Studio 54 and chat with an avatar dressed as Andy Warhol. They could plan their next trip to the real New York in meticulous detail, become a detective in a Gotham noir, browse an apartment for sale, or jump into a taxi and play a driving game.

There are, in short, many more opportunities in a virtual version of the real world than in an entirely fantastical world like Second Life -- or indeed Stephenson's original vision of the metaverse.

It's early days yet, but if Google Earth continues to develop as it has since its release a mere year ago, and if developers continue to build 3-D content and businesses continue to explore using layers, then the possibilities are as boundless as the planet.

By 2016, Google Earth should be a very crowded place indeed.

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