How will our future virtual worlds look?

How will our virtual worlds look? There’s no shortage of options, many of them detailed in the pages of science fiction novels for the past few decades.

Will we have a single sprawling universe, perhaps something like Second Life in which we control increasingly lifelike avatars around digital spaces similar to the real world?

In his novel, Ready Player One, Ernest Cline envisages a series of zones, each populated with planets featuring a variety of landscapes from cities and rolling fields to barren vector-graphic representations.

Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in the book Snow Crash (as if anyone here hasn’t read it) has the entire virtual space constructed along the 65,536km-length of a hundred-metre-wide road.

Given that the most immediate adoption of the technology will be among gamers, it’s likely that a large number of disparate territories will exist before anything interconnected emerges.

This could leave us with a patchwork of constructs with little in common, from polygonal vistas to richly rendered science fiction and fantasy realms.

But how will our presence in these spaces be managed, will we look the same regardless of where we spawn? And by what means will we travel between them, through mundane methods like walking and driving, or teleportation at the touch of a button?

Industry’s capacity for monetising any new tech will probably lead to the concept of virtual real estate, much like ownership of online domains as it currently exists. And as these will appear as physical spaces, anyone with the ability to code will likely make a killing in architectural and interior design.

In an awesome (and I mean that in the literal sense) presentation earlier this month, Oculus and Facebook revealed their vision. Mark Zuckerberg’s Rift visit to a virtual hangout with Michael Booth and Lucy Bradshaw, of FB’s social VR team, was a fine example of what might be achieved.

In the absence of neural connection with a virtual space, social presence is perhaps the most important element in making the experience fully immersive. Our capacity for interacting with others, whether real people or digital constructs, depends greatly on our ability to read non-verbal cues, so how our avatars operate is vitally important.

I honestly think this – alongside credible environments, sense of agency, and physical feedback (haptic or otherwise) – will ultimately determine how successful our virtual experiences are.

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