Thursday, September 07, 2006

Something to think about...

I read a couple of interesting articles over the past few days.

The first was about a virtual economy. For example, in the online game Second Life, where in-game currency can be legally exchanged for real currency, around $500,000 dollars (and yes, that’s a half million REAL US dollars) are spent every day.

Basically, lots of real money being spent on things that don’t exist in the real world.

Of course, ‘real’ is a subjective term. For example, a piece of clothing, jewelery or even a car in Second Life ‘doesn’t exist’ in exactly the same way those MP3’s you pay a dollar a pop for don’t exist.

I know that sounds wacky. You’re thinking ‘Of course MP3’s exist! I listen to them on my iPod all the time!’ Yes, that’s true, but what you’re actually paying for is ones and zeros stored on a server somewhere. In that case, physically, anything you buy in a game like Second Life is just as real as those MP3s…just another form of digital entertainment.

Now, the important thing to understand is that some people make their real-life living in this game. The ‘virtual economy’ isn’t a theory or something that might happen…it’s something that is happening…and it’s thriving. In a game where a house can be bought for $6 real dollars, the fact that a half million is spent each day is staggering.

This leads me to the subject of the second article.

Now the second article, which I am about to talk about, is pure science fiction. Just in case you think I’ve suddenly started popping crazy pills, I don’t think this will ever happen…but it’s a very interesting idea.

Here’s the deal. Look how far computer technology has advanced over the past two decades. Hell, look how far it’s advanced in just the past few years!

The idea is that eventually we’ll have a way of interacting with our computers that is far beyond keyboard, mouse and screen.

So what does this mean for virtual worlds and virtual economies?

Let’s talk about Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality was a great idea, except for the fact that it was about two or three decades ahead of its time. When it came out, it was essentially a heavy, unwieldy headset plugged into a Pentium 75. The idea was great, but the technology just didn’t exist to support it.

Today you can buy an LCD headset that looks like you’re looking at a 40” TV screen that weighs only a couple of ounces. There are games today that have single characters made up of more polygons than there were in entire games just 5 years ago.

If we’ve advanced that far in realism in just a few years…where will we be in 50 years, or a hundred?

Now, speaking to the gamers out there…how much would you like to play your favorite first person shooter, only with a full 3D headset, and a replica gun that you hold and aim like you would a regular gun?

The word here is immersion.

So let’s fast forward a few decades into the future, and imagine we’ve arrived at a time when Virtual Reality has moved forward to the point where you can see, hear, touch smell and taste the virtual world…a virtual world that is almost, or maybe even completely indistinguishable from the real world.

So here’s the thing. In the real world, we have a guy. Let’s call him Bob. Bob lives in a crappy one bedroomed apartment, is balding, overweight and has a lazy eye.

In the game world, however, he’s a 6”5 foot Adonis, who lives in a sprawling mansion by the side of a lake.

You see, that’s the thing with a virtual world, everyone can live like a king. Land doesn’t have to cost much, because it’s pretty much infinite in a virtual world. You also don’t have to pay for materials to actually build anything. You’re limited by your imagination.

Of course, the actual computer etc has to be paid for, but here’s where things change from what we have today.

Bob actually lives and works in the virtual world. His job is there, and his friends are there. It’s not like today, where buying land etc in a virtual world like Second Life is a luxury. Bob doesn’t have to worry about buying a nice house, because he lives in the virtual world. His crappy 1 bed roomed apartment is just a place he visits a couple hours every day to eat, shower and sleep.

(Just to fill a hole in this scenario, let’s just say that he buys his food from a store in the game world, and it’s delivered by robots.)

This is when we really start to blur the line between what’s real and what isn’t.

Say Bob meets Agnes. In real life she’s 4 foot tall, has a full beard and severe BO. She’s also got one of the best personalities of anyone you’ll ever meet. Of course, in the game world, she looks like a Miss World contestant.

They meet in the game world, fall in love and get married. They’ve never met in RL, but can you say that their relationship isn’t ‘real’? Isn’t it the feelings behind a relationship what makes it real?

For example, Sunny and I met online. We talked on the phone, sent emails and talked via video-conferencing. So here’s the question, can you say we didn’t really talk, because our voices went over a phoneline instead of through the air? Before we met in person, could you say we weren’t really friends because we’d only communicated over the phone and through the internet?

Well let me answer that question for you. That ‘virtual’ relationship was real enough to make me move 3500 miles across the ocean to marry her. I loved Sunny before I’d ever met her in real life.

If that can happen with the technology we have today…what of the future?

If a simulation is so real, you can’t distinguish it from reality, does it become real? If I feel like I’m sitting on a sun-baked beach, feeling the sun on my face, smelling the sea air, feeling the sand under my feet and tasting the cocktail I’m drinking, does it matter that the beach only exists physically as ones and zeros on a server somewhere?

Basically, what we end up with is a kind of voluntary ‘Matrix’…and it’s both a scary and attractive option at the same time.

Imagine this, you have a choice. You can either continue living in the real world, or you can live in a computer generated fantasy where all your dreams come true. Everyone looks like a model, everyone can live where they want to and have anything they want. You’d still have to work, but as I’ve already said…it costs a lot more to build a house than program one.

Pollution? Doesn’t exist. Gridlock trying to get to work? Fly like Superman or instantly teleport like Star-Trek. Don’t like the way you look? Change it!

The over all question in this argument is what actually constitutes ‘real’? People pay for movies and music online, and all they’re getting for their money is images on a screen, or sounds reproduced by speakers. Yet we accept movies and music as ‘real’.

As a starling example of this…is money ‘real’?

Of course it is, but here’s an interesting fact for you…less than 20% of the money in the American economy actually exists in paper or coin form. The other 80% exists only as numbers on computer systems.

Put it this way, when you buy something in a store with a credit card, your bank doesn’t open up a vault, take out the required amount of money and physically take it to the store. All that happens is that some numbers in one computer file are taken and added to numbers in another computer file.

Basically, money is a fantasy, and like pretty much everything in the world, it’s only valuable because we’ve decided it is. It’s like gold. Gold is one of the most useless metals on the planet. It’s far too heavy, and far too soft to have any applications other than decoration…but it’s rare and it’s a pretty color, so we’ve decided that it’s valuable.

So, if you can buy a house in a game world, interact with other real people who you can see and touch…it could be argued that the only real difference between this world and a virtual world is where the stimulus is coming from.

To sum up, if you can create a virtual world that is so convincing that it’s indistinguishable from reality…does it become real.

To steal completely from the matrix movie (while paraphrasing a little):

“…What is real? If you mean what you can touch, taste and smell, that’s just electrical impulses being interpreted by your brain…”

At risk of laboring the point, if all reality is just electrical impulses coming from your sensory organs and being interpreted by your brain…does it really matter where those electrical impulses come from?

So I’ll end today with a question.

In this scenario, where you have a choice between living in the ‘real’ world, or living in a Matrix like world, where you can do pretty much whatever you want…which world would you choose to live in?


mistyforeverlost said...

Real World. Only because I can't stand the notion that although we think we can do whatever we want, really we can't and that is how the matrix would be. We would think we could but the program would dictate otherwise.

Now, in the real world we can do whatever we want and there is free choice involved. Even if that free choice has negative outcomes.

Here's a Matrix problem that always confounded me. When they built the matrix, you would think they would have programed all evil and bad choices out of it. As if the people would have known any different. It was a program after all and they could only live what they were programed to do.

Paulius said...

Obviously, I think everyone would choose to live in the real world...but the virtual world would be a fun place to visit!

Oh, and you went a did it now...give me a second while I put on my nerd hat...

According to the movie, the first matrix was a perfect world, but the people rejected it and it Agent Smith said "Some thought we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I think humans define their existence through suffering"

You also missed that the absolute main theme of the movie was 'choice'. The Matrix and the machine designers expected us to act like them, like machines, but we can't live without choice...thus Neo was created (as he can choose to do with the matrix as he see's fit) to 'balance the equation'.

I feel a new post coming on...

Anonymous said...

---From OzzyC---
I think everyone would theoretically stay in the real world. But if the opportunity actually presented itself, I suspect a LOT of people would go virtual.

BTW, I posted a response to your blogger update question on my site.

MC Etcher said...

I'd have to share time between both worlds. As exciting as the matrix-world would be, 'real' reality will always have an edge.

The part I will appreciate most is when I can upload my consciousness to live on after I die, to exist as an avatar and download into robot bodies or cloned human and/or other animal templates for some occasional fun in the real world.