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Last Updated: Monday, 13 August 2007, 07:05 GMT 08:05 UK
Blurring world boundaries
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website, San Diego

Second Life screen shot
Cyberspace is associated with online worlds such as Second Life

Online worlds such as Second Life in which users create almost everything that furnishes and populates the place are harbingers of a future where the line between the real and virtual becomes almost impossible to draw.

"Cyberspace will be leaking into the real world," said science-fiction visionary Vernor Vinge during a session at the Siggraph conference that discussed whether the rise of user-generated worlds was a fad or the start of something more profound.

Already online worlds such as Second Life challenged notions of what was meant by "cyberspace", said Amy Bruckman, associate professor in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Coined by William Gibson, cyberspace has been defined as the "place" where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Increasingly it has been associated with online spaces, often games, where people go to play and socialize and are represented by an avatar.

However, said Prof Bruckman, it was becoming obvious that blogs and MySpace and Facebook pages were also in cyberspace, even though they also had strong links to the real world, because they were used to showcase events such as birthday parties, excursions or the birth of their children.

Intelligent world

Technological advances, said Mr Vinge, guaranteed that the barriers between online and offline worlds would evaporate.

"Soon, we should be able to get very high bit rates down to the last yard or fraction of an inch," he said. "[Eventually] we will be able to get them to down to individuals even if they are free standing and untethered."

Man looks at phone
Mobile phones could become a portal to another world

At the same time, said Mr Vinge, the world would start to be populated with objects bearing embedded computers.

"The natural world around us will acquire a certain amount of innate intelligence," he said. "Things will know what they are and where they are."

At first, he said, it was likely that the screens on the devices we carried, such as mobile phones, would act as windows on to the world of data starting to surround us.

Then other methods would be found to display this information - maybe initially on to spectacles and perhaps eventually by a direct link into the brain, said Mr Vinge.

The combination of fast net access and personal displays would bring about the unification of the virtual and real, he said.

In such a situation, virtual worlds would likely to be very widely used.

Some would be personal and perhaps just help someone with a task they were doing such as repairing a car or decorating a room.

World power

Other sorts of virtual worlds, he suggested, could be put to more questionable uses.

Second Life screen shot
Virtual worlds could give humans superhuman powers

"If you can have sports enhancement drugs you could certainly have that type of virtual reality to help a player," he said.

Mr Vinge suggested one situation in which a person in the real world was connected to a vast community of people who can see and hear what they experience in a remote many-to-one connection.

"You could become superhuman in terms of your access to knowledge and expertise," he said.

There was no doubt, he said, that such worlds would be built by the people that use them.

The empowerment that access to tools for creating virtual worlds gave individuals and groups was so extraordinary that preventing it from being universal made no sense, he said.

"We have six billion people in the world and hundreds of millions of people connected," he said. "That is an awesome force for production."

"It's a real source of optimism for the modern day," said Mr Vinge.

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