What do we mean by ‘Virtual World’?

June 15, 2007

Photosynth looks like an amazing piece of technology, but I’m not quite following Techcrunch’s logic in this post. It sounds to me as though they’re confusing a 3D environment with a virtual world. Photosynth may allow people to build a photorealistic representation of the world, so it easily goes that this is virtual but is that actually the same as what we mean by a virtual world?

The three basic rules for virtual worlds as I understood it were that it had to be persistent, social and have a dynamic economy. From Blaise’s speech it sounds like a social element in the form of tagging is planned and I guess it would be simple enough to implement chat/message functions as well. The ‘persistent’ bit would be straightforward enough, the world would be constantly changing as more people added photos to it and presumably those photos would also incorporate changes to the real environment such as grafitti, new buildings etc.

But I’m struggling a bit with the dynamic eceonomy bit. Maybe I’m being too conservative and a dynamic economy isn’t an essential component of a virtual world, or buying and selling, virtual or otherwise, could be added to the 3D representations of RL earth. Of course if in-world virtual goods were being sold there would have to be something to sell them too, avatars or 3D representations of people’s houses, businesses or flats (all sorts of issues here, but I’m not going to get caught up in that right now).

But I believe there is a fourth rule that makes a 3D space a ‘world’ and that isit needs to have some kind of mythology, in the broadest sense of the term. I came across Bob Sutor’s (IBM’s vice president of standards and opensource) blog at 3pointD, on it he is in the process of outlining 10 virtual world requirements. Although he’s only at number 4 so far, and he already agrees with me on the NPC and AI front, bt I’m also hoping he acknowledges the role of mythology.

Virtual worlds need a sense of history and ideals, they need to feel like they are more than just pretty 3D graphics and economies or they’d feel like a glorified Myspace or Ebay. Obviously this is easier for worlds  like Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft that have tight fictional boundaries, but in many ways it’s true of Second Life – it’s modelled on Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse and many of the residents view it that way. Whether mythologies exist for players of other MMOs I don’t know, and my argument hinges on that fact, but what kind of mythology would a 3D world based on photosynth have?

Would it ever acheive a status beyond that of a very accurate replication of RL earth or would it develop its own agency, a kind of alternative or counter-earth if you wish?



  1. I am surprised by people setting ‘requirements’ for virtual worlds.

    Maybe we already lead a vritual existence in our own world, or let’s say we are already alienated from our own real world, because of a digital/communication revolution that make us feel like the world is not enough.
    Indeed our sense of history and ideals has shifted a great deal.
    So why not baase a virtual world on the Photosynth technology. It seems to me to be scarily spot on actually.
    (And I would suggest the latest book by Paul Virilio, l’universite du desastre, to explore our (dis)connection with our world, and ourselves. And he talks about this in much more eloquent terms.

  2. Thanks for writing this, it was very handy and helped me quite a bit

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