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Just a few years ago there was a flurry of activity to create virtual digital worlds such as Linden Labs’ Second Life for interaction in spaces some call the metaverse. At that point in time, the prediction was that these worlds would far surpass Facebook and MySpace as the places that we’d want to gather and interact. The thinking was that the almost real-life interpersonal connections in these virtual worlds would cause us to congregate. The flurry of early adoption hasn’t sustained, and if anything we’re far less virtual but more constantly connected today.

The virtual reality of a metaverse requires a great deal of programming, data creation and design in order to approximate reality and become a compelling experience. The time and resources needed for such an effort is a hard thing to justify without a clear understanding of rewards, but that barrier has yet to stop almost all other Internet fads. Perhaps it’s the complexity of the user experience to date, and the chaos of the commons that’s holding the idea back. The metaverse is not an ‘if’ scenario, it’s a ‘when’ scenario and it’s interesting to think about how it will come about.

Digital Earth Momentum

All of the metaverse activity has direct ties to the geospatial concept of a Digital Earth where we will model our world more closely, incorporating science in order to continue to expand our knowledge about Earth systems, and share insights along with interactions in virtual space. The interactive 3D environments that use avatars for interaction seem to be on the wane, but that sort of interface has always been part of the Digital Earth vision.

The concept of stepping into a digital reality to interact with data and others provides a means for collaborative knowledge building. Gathering to learn and share knowledge such as a in a digital classroom or online event goes beyond the social interactions to achieve the “collaboratory” vision.

This Digital Earth dream remains relevant today, but is a long way from being realized. Geographic information explorers such as Google Earth, Microsoft Bing Maps for Enterprise, and ArcGIS Explorer explore what’s possible to extend beyond a 2D map representation, but they’re far from the realism of the vision and they lack interactive elements .

More than 140 Characters

By far the most popular social media tool right now for online interaction is Twitter. While Twitter offers quick connections to like-minded individuals, and the ability to create community links, it’s far from the rich social interaction that’s envisioned in the metaverse. The limit to 140 characters creates terse back and forth exchanges with links to outside content, but no real dialogue.

The idea of collaboratory spaces with interactions to solve problems requires a much richer user experience and exchange of materials than is available through current online tools. One recent new technology that starts to come close on interaction and idea sharing is HP’s “visual collaboration” SkyRoom. The new site allows for multiple people to work together using 3D visualization software.

The idea of sharing complex 3D models across the Internet with colleagues across the globe is a very compelling first step toward the richer idea of the metaverse. HP starts to reveal the benefits of rich, high-definition interactions that include audio, video and a design space for manipulation of 3D models between collaborators.

The kinds of complex problems that we face today require an interactive multimedia space like this. Imagine sharing rich 3D models of scientific data or models of better buildings or better infrastructure. There are barriers today for allowing even real-time model sharing within the same office. Imagine the possibilities when these barriers come down for interaction across the entire globe.

My sincere hope is that the next online collaboration and social media fad will take us in the direction of much richer interaction. Rather than constantly monitoring a stream of distracting information, it would be great to move toward more seldom but richer interaction. I’d love to experience the metaverse in my lifetime, and our planet desperately needs a collective knowledge base with rich problem-solving interactions.