December 14, 2008

The Future of the Internet III

Scenario 5: The Evolution of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

Prediction and Reactions

PREDICTION:  Many lives are touched by the use of augmented reality or spent interacting in artificial spaces. In 2020, virtual worlds, mirror worlds, and augmented reality are popular network formats, thanks to the rapid evolution of natural, intuitive technology interfaces and personalized information overlays. To be fully connected, advanced organizations and individuals must have a presence in the “metaverse” and/or the “geoWeb.” Most well-equipped Internet users will spend some part of their waking hoursat work and at playat least partially linked to augmentations of the real world or alternate worlds. This lifestyle involves seamless transitions between artificial reality, virtual reality, and the status formerly known as “real life.” 

Expert Respondents’ Reactions (N=578)
Mostly Agree  55%
Mostly Disagree  30%
Did Not Respond  15%

All Respondents’ Reactions (N=1,196)
Mostly Agree  56%
Mostly Disagree  31%
Did Not Respond  13%
Note:  Since results are based on a nonrandom sample, a margin of error cannot be computed. The “prediction” was composed to elicit responses and is not a formal forecast.

Respondents were presented with a brief set of information outlining the status quo of the issue 2007 that prefaced this scenario. It read:

While most current Internet interaction is found in the user-generated content and social networks of Web 2.0, the 3-D Web-computing ecosystem is developing quickly. Augmented reality enables the enhancement of real-world information through the use and confluence of the Internet, RFID, GPS, smart-tag networks and portable/wearable information technology. 3-D environments, which are just beginning to be more efficient and accessible, offer ideal design spaces for social and economic experimentation, rapid-prototyping and customized and decentralized production. Every item in the physical world is being mapped, tagged, and databased, as humans build mirror worlds (data-enhanced virtual models of the “real” physical world, also known as digital Earth systems or the geoWeb), and innovate in new, virtual worlds (Second Life, Cyworld, World of Warcraft). MIT’s Fall 2007 Emerging Technologies conference had a headline session titled “Second Earth: Second Life, Google Earth, and the Future of the Metaverse,” with the explanation: “Social virtual worlds such as Second Life and mapping tools such as Google Earth are beginning to overlap, perhaps foreshadowing the advent of an immersive, 3-D ‘metaverse.'” A 2007 Gartner study estimated 80% of all active Internet users will have virtual selves by the end of 2011.

Overview of Respondents’ Reactions

A modest majority of respondents agreed with the idea that time spent leveraging augmented and virtual reality for various uses will continue to grow; some noted that by 2020 augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will have reached the point that reality itself will be blurred. Many projected that this will enhance the world, providing new opportunities for conferencing, teaching, and 3-D modeling. Some added that breakthroughs to come may bring significant change, including fusion with other developments, such as genetic engineering. Some respondents fear negative ramifications, including possible new extensions of the digital divide, an increase in violence and obesity, and the potential for addiction or overload. Because of this, some respondents noted that people may begin to “opt out” of using AR and VR tools. Many of those who disagreed with the scenario said VR will not reach the scenario’s level of acceptance or sophistication by 2020 or indicated its primary users will “still be geeks and gamers.”

More than half of the respondents mostly agreed with this scenario while just under a third disagreed. “Our beloved mobile handsets (no longer ‘phones’) will make seamless traveling within electronic circles of our own creation eminently possible,” wrote Susan Crawford, OneWebDay founder and ICANN board member. “We won’t see the difference between RL [real life] and other life—our presence will be felt whether we’re there or not. It already is.”

Nicholas Carr, author of “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google,” noted, “By 2020, the virtual world will have blended with the physical world; to speak of them as separate spheres will seem anachronistic.”

Jamais Cascio, a co-author of the “Metaverse Roadmap Overview,” a report on the potential futures of VR, AR, and the geoWeb that was released in 2007, commented, “The striking aspect of this scenario is that, for these everyday inhabitants of the metaverse, this is real life. We in the present don’t think of ourselves as living in ‘cyberspace,’ even though people of a decade previous would have termed it such. Of the various forms of the metaverse, however, the majority of activity will take place in blended or augmented-reality spaces, not in distinct virtual/alternative world spaces.”

Adrian Schofield, manager of the applied research unit at Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering in South Africa, responded, “Much will depend on the ability of the hardware and power sources to keep pace with the software that enables the metaverse/geoWeb. It also remains to be seen if the proliferation of wireless has a negative impact on the human body.”

Clay Shirky, author of the book “Here Comes Everybody” and a professor in the Interactive Technologies Program at New York University, sees success for augmented reality, not for virtual worlds. “Augmented reality is in many ways the opposite of virtual worlds,” he wrote. “Fusion of data and physical space will succeed, VR alternatives to it will not.”

Jerry Michalski, founder and president of Sociate, a technology consulting firm, commented, “I see worlds like Second Life as of very limited interest. However, gaming environments from Webkinz to World of Warcraft are extremely popular and teach more valuable lessons than the early generations of single-player video games. Also, the tagging and instrumentation of the world as an augmented reality will soon find some useful applications, making it increasingly common.”

Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, predicted, “The transition will be driven by gaming, but I hope to see scientific and educational spillovers.”

Bryan Trogdon, president of First Semantic, a company working to leverage the Semantic Web, wrote, “Wall-sized televisions supporting blazing-fast data transfers, voice recognition and a fully realized semantic Web will blur the lines between real and virtual. This ‘Teleliving’ will fundamentally change the way we shop, work, learn, and live.”

Barry Chudakov, principal with the Chudakov Company, commented, “David Gelernter saw this coming a decade ago and much of what he wrote in ‘Mirror Worlds’ will be commonplace by 2020. We are augmenting our ability to see and imagine our world; we are literally walking into the mirror and exploring the reflection. This has huge implications for what we see there and how we see ourselves when we’re in these mirror worlds. In most of human history we have not had simulations to describe and invent ourselves other than texts and two-dimensional representations. These mirror worlds are multi-dimensional experiences with profound implications for education, medicine, and social interaction. ‘Real life’ as we know it is over. Soon when anyone mentions reality, the first question we will ask is, ‘Which reality are you referring to?’ We will choose our realities, and in each reality there will be truths germane to that reality, and so we will choose our truth as well.”

Jason Stoddard, managing partner at Centric/Agency of Change, predicted, “Augmented reality will become nearly the de facto interface standard by 2020, with 2-D and 3-D overlays over real-world objects providing rich information, context, entertainment, and (yes) promotions and offers. At the same time, a metaverse (especially when presented in an augmented-reality-overlay environment) provides compelling ways to facilitate teamwork and collaboration while reducing overall travel budgets.”

Those who disagreed often shared the point of view expressed by Joanna Sharpe, senior marketing manager for Microsoft, who wrote, “I don’t think most well-equipped Internet users will spend some part of their waking hours, at work and at play, linked to augmented, virtual-reality worlds. A smaller subset of the well-equipped Internet users will spend time as outlined in this question but it’s going to be a smaller percentage of Internet users, 5-10 percent, tops, not most.”

AR, VR, and GeoWeb Will Enhance Our Lives; Blurring Will Eliminate Distinctions

Many of the respondents who mostly agreed with this scenario said it will offer positives that will benefit people in some way. Fred Hapgood, technology author and consultant, noted that the lack of regulation thus far in virtual worlds is an attractive feature. “If you want to throw a rock concert online you don’t have to post bonds, buy insurance, rent portable toilets, and so on,” he explained. “There are no closing costs associated with buying virtual real estate. As time goes on and the thicket of regulation in the physical world gets denser, this feature will become more and more important.”

Cliff Figallo, social innovator and original member of the first online community, The WELL, now of AdaptLocal.org, wrote, “Virtual worlds will help local communities plan their adaptation to the impacts of climate change.” Jill O’Neill, communication director for the National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services and author of the Infotoday blog, commented, “This will happen on the basis of economics and any forthcoming fuel shortages. It is easier (and far less costly in terms of time and money) to have people interact in a virtual world rather than have them traipse around the world.”

A number of survey participants said in their responses that virtual worlds will revolutionize training and education—all forms of knowledge sharing. Debbie Murray, associate director of the University of Kentucky’s health education extension office, noted, “Many of our problems can be solved inexpensively by being able to simulate real-world conditions and manipulate those conditions to arrive at projected outcomes.” Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, founder of THINK-Health, responded, “The metaverse and augmented reality will have a transformational impact on health and health care.” And Peter Kim, a senior analyst for Forrester Research specializing in e-strategy and management, wrote, “Educational applications of virtual reality will prove to be highly valuable. Individuals will be able to learn in new ways and improve their physical beings through virtual experimentation.”

Tze-Meng Tan of Multimedia Development Corporation in Malaysia, a director at OpenSOS, responded, “The virtual world removes all barriers of human limitation; you can be anyone you want to be instead of being bound by physical and material limitations. That allows people to be who they naturally are, freed of any perception they may have of themselves based on their ‘real life’—it is the power of removing the barriers of your own perception of yourself.”

Beth Hespe, vice president for Garfield Group Public Relations, predicted, “The notion of a mirror or virtual world will be replaced by another version where both are merged. They will not be separate. It will hard to define where your real self and virtual self end as GPS/LBS [global-positioning system/location-based services] functionality are merged into devices of all kinds.”

Some wrote that people online will blend real-life and virtual applications. Gbenga Sesan, an Internet-for-development consultant for Paradigm Initiative in Nigeria, commented, “The difference between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ is becoming less obvious/important. By 2020, anyone without a search result through Google may be assumed dead (or to be using a pseudo name because even dead people will have information at least on Wikipedia). Real life in 2020 will not be very different from what was known in 2007 as ‘virtual life’!”

“Is the future of the Web 3-D and integrated with the real world? Of course it is,” wrote Alexander Halavais, professor and social informatics researcher at Quinnipiac University. An anonymous respondent wrote, “Interface design in general is moving toward the metaverse, which means that everyone who interacts with a computer will encounter augmented reality.” And another wrote, “Just as e-mail today augments other forms of communications, artificial spaces will augment real spaces.” Jim Witte, a professor at Clemson University who researches Second Life and the differences between online and offline society, responded, “Mobile devices will act as the means to access and seamlessly bridge artificial and virtual worlds and maintain a sense of blended reality.”

Some People Say They Are Already Augmenting Reality and Living in VR

Many respondents noted that the transition to individuals’ cultivation of more life experiences online has already begun. “Augmented reality and artificial spaces are apt terms and they’re already blended into our noisy environment nearly everywhere; it’s bound to get more cluttered,” wrote David Allen, Ph.D., Temple University.

Josh Quittner, longtime technology writer and executive editor of Fortune Magazine, added, “As computing power increases and our ability to render lifelike (and dreamlike) graphics matures, more believable forms of virtual worlds will take hold. While current iterations of virtual worlds (Second Life, etc.) still have enormous room to grow, a whole generation of children is growing up on Club Penguin and Webkinz. They will continue to socialize in more sophisticated virtual worlds as those worlds evolve.”

Maz Hardey, a social analyst and blogger completing a doctorate funded by the Economic Social Research Council in the UK, wrote that the divisions now seen—with men spending more time than women in Second Life and women spending more time than men on social networks such as MySpace and Bebo—may change. “By 2020, the scenario could be that there are more sophisticated technologies that make such ‘virtual’ realities compelling to both men and women Internet users. Moreover, these ‘life worlds’ are likely to be accessed not just through a computer, but other devices that cut down on the ‘interface’ and ‘user’ divergences. If this is the case, then a presence in a ‘metaverse’ may in turn respond to the ‘real’ digital presence that an individual already shares across SNSs. However, it is unlikely that these will take the place of ‘real’ connections. What is likely—as we are seeing now—is that the intersection of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ will be outdated.”

Military applications currently in use were mentioned by several respondents. “We are in the last generation of human fighter pilots,” wrote Dick Davies, a partner at Project Management and Control Inc. and a past president of the Association of Information Technology Professionals. “Already, drones in Iraq are piloted in San Diego. What will improve is the ability of the artificial spaces to control physical reality, to expand our reach more effectively in many aspects of the physical universe.

Many Note That Communication Is Just Being Refined

There are varying definitions of virtual reality, and even augmented reality can be seen as different things to different people. Much of the variety in responses was due to varying definitions of the terminology. Some people consider cave paintings, books, and television to be forms of virtual reality, and they see most Web 2.0 relationships as already representing VR. Some people define VR as more of an out-of-body immersion than one gets when using these “old technologies” or new ones such as Facebook (with profile photos serving as avatars) or Second Life (with its cartoonish renderings of avatars). A number of respondents noted that people in technologically advantaged areas of the world are already exploiting AR and VR, and more will likely participate as the tools are made easier to use.

“Ever since we could communicate beyond the reach of face-to-face, ‘virtual’ worlds and relations have existed,” Hamish MacEwan, a consultant at Open ICT in New Zealand, pointed out. “A map is not the territory and a letter is not the person. We have always had multiple facades, for most, most common, work, home and play. The extension into more immersive ‘unreal’ worlds is going to happen.”

“Using the Internet to find out how to get from here to there was near-miraculous when it first started happening a decade ago,” wrote Howard Rheingold, author of “Virtual Reality” and “Virtual Communities.” “Now it’s part of daily life for hundreds of millions of people. And just as location-aware, mobile navigation systems are used by relatively affluent enthusiasts today, it won’t be many years before cheap toys know where they are. Mashups, simulations, virtual worlds, geotagging, and applications that don’t seem possible today will just be part of the environment, like dialtone.”

Breakthroughs Will Change How We Live

Some respondents were optimistic that technological development and the improvement of user interfaces will allow many to enjoy opportunities offered in AR and VR settings. “The browser that we know will be replaced by a 3-D platform and Internet will become a 3-D environment where people will ‘live’ more than surf,” wrote Fernando Barrio, senior lecturer and programme leader for the MA in E-business regulation at London Metropolitan University.

Steve Goldstein, an ICANN board member who is retired from the US National Science Foundation, where his job in the 1990s was to diffuse the Internet internationally, predicted, “My intuition tells me that the evolution will be strongly influenced by fusion with other developments such as genetic engineering, creation of artificial life forms (through a merger of genetic engineering and microelectronics, for example), global warming. (Will it force humankind indoors more and lead to more isolated and/or speculative existences, and how might that affect augmented reality evolution?)”

Fadi Salem, a researcher of e-government at the Dubai School of Government, foresees the need for new laws and standards. “Long before 2020, many businesses will make presence in the ‘metaverse’ mandatory for employees. Many governments will have a regulation system in place for such presence by then.”

Vancouver-based technology reporter C.R. Roberts anticipates social adjustments will have to be made in response to the 2020 scenario. “In a reaction to the virtual world,” he wrote, “entrepreneurs will establish ‘virt-free’ zones where reality is not augmented. In various heavily connected areas, there will be sanctuaries (hotels, restaurants, bars, summer camps, vehicles) which people may visit to separate themselves from adhesion or other realities.”

Some respondents see major developments to come in the realm encompassed by this scenario, and chose to look out beyond 2020. “I can envisage whole segments of society virtually cocooned in their virtual existence,” predicted Robert Eller of Concept Omega, a media marketing and communication company. “Fully body-suited, fluids and nourishment being fed or removed, and more or less hardwired into the interface. Whilst this may not be a reality in 2020 I do believe that this will be a possible reality extending to downloading one’s conscious self to one’s cyborg counterpart. This will in effect mean immortality. The present steps into the ‘second’ life are only a beginning and whilst this may not be mainstream, there will be a large niche group getting their interactive fix this way.”

Havi Hoffman of the Yahoo developer network wrote, “There are niche communities where this could emerge first: aging baby boomers in affluent nursing home/robotic retirement environments interacting with dispersed friends and family via virtual reality environments that are much easier on fragile carbon systems; people [who are] pioneering settlement in hostile environments interacting socially in a virtual world created to help maintain communications while isolated in a space suit, or survival pod of some sort,  living in deep ocean or polar regions or in a space station or lunar outpost; infected people could also use virtual environments while in quarantine. I can visualize…dystopias emerging; mirror worlds being used, as in ‘Total Recall,’ by the powerful to control the behavior of the many. But I can also picture free zones, enclaves of affluence and innovation like Silicon Valley, and its counterparts around the world—still thriving, precarious as ever, and still subject to cycles of expansion and contraction. I can see metaverse/multiplayer gaming become the prevailing metaphor for workplace problem-solving. It would be nice if nation-states would duke it out in the metaverse instead of in the meatspace. Avatars, after all, are easy to replace.”

RL Isn’t Likely to Be Overtaken by VR Anytime Soon

Many respondents used the word “overrated” to describe synthetic online worlds like Second Life or described massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) as addictions or distractions. “For some reason I’ve never been able to comprehend, certain pundits can seriously propose that the wave of the future is chatting using electronic hand-puppets,” wrote Seth Finkelstein, author of the Infothought blog, writer and programmer. “Flight Simulator is not an aircraft, and typing at a screen is not an augmentation of the real world.”

“The ‘second self’ hobby has been widely overrated,” responded Geert Lovink, a professor and expert on culture, sociology, and the Internet who is based in Amsterdam. “It is pushed by a specific group of artists, academics and entrepreneurs who believe in cyberculture as some parallel universe. Most people are not interested in avatars. They have trouble enough managing their first life. What the metaverse faction refuses to see is that they operate in a niche. It is only a specific social group that is interested in this online activity. Having said that, technology, of course, is on the side of the metaverse gurus and their followers. There is more bandwidth, more storage and computer power than ever before—and it has to be utilized for something. The overcapacity will not be used by blogs or Web 2.0 applications. 3-D is the perfect industry solution and is pushed accordingly, mainly by bored manager types who do not have a first life.”

Some respondents weren’t so critical of VR worlds, but they just don’t think they will be a dominant force in 2020. Social media researcher danah boyd, of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, commented, “Predictions in this vein tend to emerge every 5-10 years. Remember VRML? Remember the days of MUDs? ‘Snow Crash’ is great science fiction, but dreadful social prediction (although lovely technology motivation). Many things will prevent us from focusing on immersive environments or 3-D engagement. At the simplest level, people don’t want to be immersive—they want to be mobile and to maintain connections with their friends, family, and loved ones when absent. Mobile supports these connections; immersive systems take them over. (And, then, there’s my way-early research on how 3-D systems will always be sex-biased because depth-cue prioritization is dependent on the levels of sex hormones in your system…in other words, there’s a reason why women get sick going into immersive environments and there’s no good way to solve it.)”

Bruce Turner, director of planning services for a U.S. regional transportation commission, pretended to have his avatar file his response to the scenario:

“Bruce Turner’s alternate self Nevadaweasel here: Bruce and I are in each other’s presence no more than 5 minutes a day, usually to respond to other proxy selves. In 2020, this will probably be the case: (1) Some will reject it altogether, first as a progressive, then a regressive movement (2) those who do participate in augmented reality will do so routinely and only a very limited group will spend as much time as the current gaming geeks. The technology that seems so cool to us today will, as it become routine, be very much accepted by the majority but play a decreasing role (time-wise) in their lives. e.g., Nevadaweasel may shop for Bruce and be his public net avatar / persona, but not become an obsession. A reality world will simply be to current WOW world like Windows is to DOS: A convenience that improves accessibility to existing functions. Anyone for a stroll through the Amazon warehouse with Nevadaweasel?”

Michael Botein, founding director of the Media Center at New York University Law School, wrote, “Second Life and related phenomena seem little more than unilateral egoistic forms of stress reduction—electronic substance abuse in a way. Unlike traditional forms of ‘acting out’ with other people, these ultimately lead towards isolation. Although some are brokers of information among people, they do not seem to promote long-term affiliations. I doubt very much that we’ll see a political or cultural revolution arising out of ‘MyPage.’”

Some respondents noted that VR worlds will not be in popular use by 2020, although they will be of use to some people. “This 2020 scenario is appealing to the geeks and the gamers among us,” wrote Susan Mernit, an independent consultant who was formerly an executive with Yahoo and America Online, “but I don’t see the seamless transitions that this posits happening this quickly—it’s elitist and too far out of the mainstream for many Americans, especially those with less free time. Having said that, I do think there are sectors of society that will use the metaverse to play and to train in disproportionate numbers—and that we will see a rise in virtual worlds as entertainment spaces outside of gaming (think sex, travel, historic simulations).”

Scott Smith, consultant, writer, futurist, and principal at Changeist LLC, based in North Carolina, predicted, “As we’ve seen with use of the Web and blogging, participation in general metaverses may decline in duration and variety after a short-term peak in usage as users seek to rebalance toward the ‘real’ and authentic and see fewer benefits in being active in metaverses. This is not to say that function- or interest-specific metaverses may not continue to flourish, based around certain applications or activities, but a mass market spending significant time in virtual worlds on a daily basis is less likely.”

Anthony Townsend, research director for the Technology Horizons Program of The Institute for the Future, wrote, “Separate, ‘virtual’ worlds will be much less important than augmented realities. The real world is a fascinating place—overlaying information and cues from digital spaces will make it even more compelling—for socializing, traveling, playing games, and working. It will still be real life [but it will be enhanced] in the sense that people who wear eyeglasses still see real life, just a refocused version of it.”

Karen Schneider, a researcher and thought-leader in the library and technology community based at the College Center for Library Automation in Tallahassee, Fla., wrote, “This might be the new TV. I’m waiting for the breakthrough reality show where I can be on some island from my living room. Well, no, I’m not really, but I’m sure it’s imminent.”

There Will Be Economic, Generational Divides; Some Will ‘Opt Out,’ Become Addicted, or Be Unproductive

As is the case with most looks at the future of a technology, some people are predicting that these developments will cause a divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and others are saying there will be people who have access to this technology who choose to opt out. “Real life remains real life,” wrote David Maher, senior vice president for law and policy for the Public Interest Registry, the Internet top-level domain registry. “Other ‘realities’ will more likely interfere with rather than augment real life.”

Brian Dunbar, an Internet manager for NASA, wrote about the digital divide: “The physical infrastructure required to make these features available to large numbers of people will restrict their widespread use to affluent sectors of developed nations.”

Or, perhaps, some suggest, while alternate realities can help people escape negative conditions, addiction to virtuality might be a future root cause of unemployment and/or withdrawal from productive society. Leonard Witt, author of the PJNet.org Weblog and an associate professor in communication at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, predicted, “These virtual environments will be used to help lift people out of mental poverty, even when their real world is immersed in physical poverty. The big next question: Will virtual worlds become the opiate of the masses?”

Many respondents see a generational divide, with younger people readily moving into the world of the scenario, while older people generally do not participate. “Today’s preadolescents are likely the oldest to experience such a fully immersed virtual reality,” responded Jade Miller, a researcher of global flows of information and culture and Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California. “Older Internet users may have virtual selves but will likely use them only sparingly, or to spy on their children.”

A number of respondents predicted that people will decide to “opt out” of the virtual and augmented opportunities available. “I believe, bottom line, that people have only one life to live, no matter how many avatars you create, and that people will weary of the virtual and yearn for the real world,” wrote Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Charles Ess, a professor of philosophy and religion and resarcher on online culture and ethics at Drury University, responded, “While it is certainly true that these expressions of CMC will become more important, it is equally true, as the current turn away from Second Life suggests, that people are also getting tired of ‘the virtual.’ I might have an augmented self in some virtual world by 2011—but my suspicion is that that ‘self’ will be a largely dressed-up version of a very mundane self that needs to check on bank balances, make appointments for a haircut or automobile inspection, etc. The genuinely pedestrian tasks of daily life will not clearly be enhanced or made better by building avatars around them. I also have a strong suspicion that as these technologies increasingly dominate our lives, there will also be a strong—perhaps overly romantic—reaction against them. People will be willing to pay real money to talk with a real person, rather than a voicemail system. And until we get more-or-less infinite bandwidth systems that include every dimension of ‘being there’ in fine detail—including smells, touch, etc., I suspect more and more people will find that they enjoy getting out of ‘The Matrix’ that already seems to increasingly dominate our lives in the developed world. (We are in love with the technologies of our enslavement, Neil Postman said in 1984. But perhaps even machine-reinforced love can only go so far?)”

Jim Lucas, Web manager for CACI, an intelligence and security solutions company, commented, “A rebound effect will occur that drives people to treasure actual human contact more.” William Winton, product manager for digital media for 1105 Government Information Group, noted, “The ‘slow-life’ movement has grown in direct response to the disassociated, amorphous, and out-of-touch societies that are emerging in the developed world. Encouraging family, friends and neighborhood, the movement seeks to restore the tangible social bonds that the Internet cannot replicate. People will discover that the ‘real-world’ for all its faults, is much more interesting than any ‘virtual world’ could ever be.” An anonymous participant wrote, “As virtual worlds become overrun with ‘real-world’ problems people will abandon their use.”

Some Say the Scenario Is Likely to Happen, and We Must Be Wary of Other Dangerous Implications

Respondents who mostly agreed sometimes concentrated their elaborations on the fears they have for such a future. “Although this appears to be almost sci-fi-like, it will only take some major cataclysmic event to reverse this trend, e.g. young people’s identities being manipulated by others to persuade them to do immoral things or even commit suicide en masse,” responded Robin Gunston, consulting futurist for Mariri Consulting, a strategic and business-planning company.

Ed Lyell, a pioneer in issues related to the Internet and education, expressed concerns about violent VR triggering negative behaviors in the real world. “Some young people are unable to separate violent acts in an artificial world from violent acts in the real world,” he wrote. “We need to ensure that more people in the world are educated in the ability to discern multiple layers or types of reality. One of my mentors was S.I. Hayakawa a leader in General Semantics. Being able to separate object and referent, to see multiple roles, layers, viewpoints without seeing any of them as absolute will become a more necessary skill.”

Joe McCarthy, principal instigator at MyStrands, and formerly a principal scientist at Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto, commented, “It’s not clear to me whether/how immersive online worlds will augment or enhance the offline world, and I fear that the time and attention consumed in such worlds will come at the expense of actions that might make the offline world a better place.”

Clement Chau, manager for the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University, predicted that adoption of virtual identities will be simple but it will raise problems. “Adopting a virtual identity will be as seamless as the adoption of a professional identity in the 20th and early 21st centuries,” he wrote. “However, we will have problems and concerns keeping our multiple virtual and real-life identities consistent. We will begin to see both positive and negative implications of such potential inconsistencies seeping into different aspects of our lives.”

Timothy McManus, a vice president with Nuance Communications, a software-technology company known for speech-recognition work, noted there are privacy implications tied to the development of most aspects presented in this scenario. “This scenario…reinforces the case for more controls on privacy and more limits on access to personal information, because people will have one or more personalities or lifestyles in a virtual world that is fundamentally different from the physical world,” he commented.

The dystopian film “The Matrix” was mentioned by a number of survey respondents. “This scenario paints a ‘Matrix’ model which is eerily true already for some people,” wrote Michael Castengera, a senior lecturer at the University of Georgia and president of Media Strategies and Tactics Inc. “Research shows that many people care as passionately about their virtual life and friends as their real-world life and friends. People are actually getting married in Second Life.  Two questions come to mind. One is—is this retreat into a virtual world, actually an escape for a limited number of people who don’t have the social skills to make it in the real world? Second is—will the global-warming, environmentally degraded real world lose its attraction (less fresh air, no singing birds, no sweet smelling flowers), thus making a virtual world more attractive or at least more acceptable?”