BT futurologist Lesley Gavin looks ahead to a time when real and virtual worlds mix as easily as making a mobile phone call.
The virtual and the actual world could merge in the future
Social networking sites are essentially communication spaces where you can see and talk to friends, but in a slightly different way than you would face to face, or by email or text.
The fact that these sites have become increasingly popular suggests that this "slightly different" way of communicating fills some purpose or need that we have. They give us an extra awareness of our friends and of the context or mood they are in.
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They allow us to choose whether or not to interact with them at that moment or later.
In parallel, we've seen enormous interest in 3D virtual environments as communication and meeting spaces, Second Life is just one example, where people have fun creating avatars, developing role play and spending virtual money.
It's also interesting that as users become older (the original virtual world users are now in their early twenties) we are seeing a trend for real world mega-clubs such as Oceana, offering numerous different themed environments under one roof.
These are places where you can dress up and role play in a real world environment. Virtual worlds are great for meeting lots of people from around the world while sitting in your favourite comfy armchair at home.
However they don't yet meet the asynchronous communication requirement we have as provided by Facebook, Bebo and Myspace.
In the future these environments are likely to merge. Interfaces will improve, and more specifically, personalised applications will be built on top of them.
Virtual worlds will also become integrated with real environments. Buildings or public spaces may offer virtual world counterparts.
Perhaps the local cinema will offer the latest sci-fi world, or historic sites will offer us worlds where we can go back in time.
Rather than view virtual worlds on devices, in the future you could use active contact lenses .
These would of course allow you to see the real world - but you could adjust them to see the virtual world, or a mixture of the two.
For example, you may be walking along the street and get a call from someone in a virtual world, and instead of talking on your mobile phone, you instantaneously switch into the mixed reality environment.
Alongside these developments we will have fully networked homes with embedded sensors. These sensors will capture movement and speech, so that when you are travelling, and away from loved ones you could pop in your virtual contact lenses and step into your very own virtual home world.
In an instant you could be on your sofa with your kids watching Tracey Beaker. Of course as soon as your child hits teenage years you are going to be unlikely to find them, as they will be wearing some T-shirt that interferes with the houses motion capture system.
And what of the skills our children are learning in these 3D worlds? Role play means that duality is commonplace and easy to deal with.
Multi-channel communication is another skill that is becoming highly developed, as is cross cultural understanding within these truly global environments.
As new technologies integrate more closely into our real lives I'm interested in the developing social norms that go alongside this.
It is now illegal to use a mobile phone whilst driving - it is recognised that our mind is at least partially in another world, a different communication space.
People on mobile phones often walk a bit strangely, sometimes pacing up and down the pavement without fully realising what they are doing.
With increased use of mobile, alternate worlds this will increase. What will our pavements be like when people start waving or hugging their virtual friends?
The next stage for virtual worlds is embedded intelligence. For example, in some worlds you can create 'bots'.
These are avatars you can programme by adding behaviours or giving them tasks.
My friend has created one that follows her around the virtual world complimenting her - 'Barbara, you're looking great today' - a great boost to her confidence.
In the future these bots will be able to collect information for you, store it and process it. Perhaps your bot will go round the world making friends, so when you are next online there are a whole host of interesting people for you to meet.
As these worlds become more familiar and sophisticated, we are likely to use them as communication spaces for work as well as play, perhaps to collaborate with remote workers or encourage new kinds of creativity.
A fully functioning, easily accessible, intelligent, well hosted, knowledge based global communication space would be a great invention.
But hang on, wasn't that the Holodeck?