When Virtual Worlds Collide

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Sometimes futurists get the future right. Millions of us now commute to mass�ively multiplayer online games in worlds much like the metaverse predicted by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and the Wachowski brothers. We live vicariously through our digital avatars in lushly rendered virtual environments, building and bartering, chatting and flirting, even falling in love. The population of the computer-generated universe is increasing at a rate that rivals email's growth 15 years ago. A decade hence, you'll drop a reference to your virtual doppelg�ngers just as casually as you give out your email address today.

But virtual reality has failed to conform to forward-looking visions in one crucial respect. We don't live in the Matrix, but in the matrices. Your World of Warcraft persona can't visit a Stonehenge replica in Second Life. You can't impress an EverQuest elfin hottie with Jedi skills honed in Star Wars Galaxies. If you want to buy an Ultima scepter with Therebucks, you'll have to exit both worlds and consummate the transaction on eBay.

Because the current metaverse evolved largely out of videogames, it makes sense that it should be composed of fiefdoms - after all, you wouldn't expect a Grand Theft Auto crack dealer to drop in for a barbecue with the Sims. But there is reason to believe that the divided metaverse is merely a transi�tional phase, and that its component worlds will coalesce.

All virtual worlds require a communication protocol that lets you talk with other people, a software platform that lets you build things on top of it, and a currency that enables trade. These three elements share one thing: a gravitational pull toward a common standard. Think of the diversity of the

PC marketplace in the early 1980s: the Apple II, Radio Shack's TRS-80, IBM's PCjr, the Commodore-64, the Atari 400/800 series - they all ran different operating systems or flavors of Basic. Ten years later, however, Windows held 90 percent of the market. Email followed the same pattern. Diverse and incompatible standards - CompuServe members could only email other CompuServe members - gave way to a common platform that allowed everyone to connect.

The logic of convergence may be even stronger in the metaverse. The cost of switching from Windows to, say, Linux is just annoyance and expense: You have to buy applications and port data to the new OS. But if you view your avatar as an extension of yourself, moving from EverQuest to World of Warcraft is like volunteering for a lobotomy. You have to surrender the skills you've culti�vated, along with all your (other)worldly possessions.

Within a decade, then, the notion of separate game worlds will probably seem like a quaint artifact of the frontier days of virtual reality. You'll still be able to engage in radically different experiences - from slaying orcs to cybersex - but they'll occur within a common architecture. The question is whether the underpinnings of this unified metaverse will be a proprietary product, like Windows, or an inclusive, open standard, like email and the Web. (The Open Source Metaverse Project is currently working on such a nonproprietary platform.)

One way or another, consolidation is all but inevitable. A single, pervasive environment will emerge, uniting the separate powers of today's virtual societies. And then we really will have built the Matrix.

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