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Shuffling (Slowly) Off the Meatspace Coil

August 1, 2006

by Sean Carton


In 1982, William Gibson gave us Cyberspace, "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation...a graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system." A decade later, Neil Stephenson described the Metaverse, a "virtual-reality-based internet" of the near future.

Today we may not all be "jacking in" and flying through the Web using brain-linked interfaces, but increasing numbers of people are logging in to virtual worlds to play games, make new friends, or just hang out and chat. And advertisers, retailers, and publishers are starting to notice.

In March, massively-multiplayer online game World of Warcraft topped 6 million subscribers worldwide with annual subscription revenues in the hundreds of millions. And Second Life, a world devoted more to hanging out, flirting (or more) and building an online "homestead" has attracted over 360,000 subscribers to date, with numbers growing fairly steadily.

All these people have started to attract entrepreneurs and commercial interests who want to tap into the growing population. Late last year, Jon Jacobs (who goes by the handle "Neverdie," purchased a virtual space station on Project Entropia with the express purpose of getting rich selling virtual "real estate" in his exclusive "Club Neverdie"...a real possibility because one of the features of Project Entropia is that its virtual currency can be exchanged for actual "real world" money."

More recently, real-world retailer American Apparel launched a store on a private island in Second Life in order to sell its fashions to people who want to outfit their avatars in hip duds. While American Apparel's entry marks the first time a real-world clothing store set up shop in a virtual world, they're not the first to do it...hipster fashion design studio "Preen" has been selling clothing to avatars for years and bills itself as Second Life's "earliest successful business."

But there's no denying the growth and popularity of these worlds. While they may be niche markets now, the continued expansion of broadband and the ever-growing graphical power of new computers (mainly driven by gaming) means that a move from the flat, print-like Web of today to a three-dimensional "Metaverse" or "Cyberspace" of the future may not be all that unlikely. While many adults over 30 came to the Web later in life and cut their teeth on simple 8-bit gaming machines, the kids who are growing up today playing networked Xbox 360's and communicating via IM and MySpace may not need much of a push to go virtual.

As these worlds grow and start becoming more popular destinations, those wanting to reach the valuable demographic they represent will have to keep leaping for a constantly-raising bar of content complexity and quality. Moving from simply publishing text or pictures to dealing with fully interactive surfaces will require enlisting the services of more than just writers and designers but programmers, 3-D modelers, and scriptwriters. And considering how little TV today's students are watching, it might just mean continued employment for those displaced by the growing usage of New Media.

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