Everyday Science

How could we create a virtual world with technology?
Answered by Meredith Bower and HowStuffWorks
  •  Meredith Bower

    Meredith Bower

  • HowStuffWorks


  1. Some people just don't "get" the virtual worlds of Second Life and similar massive online environments. These people aren't necessarily luddites; they simply prefer to keep their heads in the real world. And even to tech-savvy Internet warriors, the idea of a completely virtual world may seem incomprehensible. What would it look like? How would it feel? And what effect would it have on the real world? When you look at the advances constantly being made in technology, it becomes apparent that we are closer to building convincing and useful virtual worlds than many of us realize.

    Maybe you've played one of the games in SimCity series, using a computer to design and simulate life in a virtual population center. If you have a talent for games like this, you may also have a talent that can be applied to the real world. The annual Future City Competition, hosted as part of National Engineers' Week, provides middle-schoolers the opportunity to design complex simulations of a proposed city of tomorrow, first using the virtual environment provided by SimCity 4 software to build their city, then actually translating their virtual designs into physical models in three dimensions. The stated goal of the competition is to pique the interest of middle school students in engineering, technology, science and math. It's conceivable that the ideas the kids have today will eventually be part of life in the future. In the 2011 challenge, contestants were tasked with designing a product or system to improve the quality of life for sick, injured or disabled people. The winning team created a city focused on helping people with type 2 diabetes [source: Future City].

    In the same way that virtual modeling could help us design better cities, virtual augmentation could help make existing cities more user-friendly, so to speak. The idea of a virtual city is not too far-fetched. The University of Southern California offers the community a geospatial social networking Web portal -- in other words, real-time data overlaid on Google-style maps. Dubbed iCampus, the technology is a hybrid of the real and virtual worlds, enabling users to see and avoid traffic problems, determine the exact location of the campus-wide tram, find out what pedestrian routes to avoid due to recent crime and locate a place along their route to get a bite to eat. Developers believe it won't be long before this technology will be applied to entire cities [source: USC].

    A dance club in Second Life
    A dance club in Second Life (Second Life)

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  2. The real world isn't always a fun place. In fact, it's often not a fun place. We look to technology for so much else in daily life -- why shouldn't we just use it to create a virtual world?

    Some might argue we've already managed to do it. Persistent online worlds like "Second Life" and games like "World of Warcraft" have virtual environments, economies and even some political structure. The players of those games are as absorbed in the created worlds as are most people in the real one. Such worlds, however, aren't quite "virtual": We still must experience these worlds through a user interface on a computer, giving us some distance from the world itself. Similarly, while engineers are also developing "augmented reality" systems that overlay a virtual layer of information on top of our physical perception of the world, we still have to use devices like special glasses or smartphones to access the data and see the virtual layer placed on top of our reality.

    So while these limitations might suggest a truly virtual world is a ways off -- and it probably is -- we can rest assured that, as with most things, someone is working on it. It's worth noting, though, that as virtual technology develops, there is more to gain from it than mere fun, games and staring at a restaurant and accessing its menu from a pair of special glasses. Virtual environments can help us with our perception of reality itself. Observing humanity from an objective point of view is impossible because we're, well, human. However, scientists are experimenting with creating virtual worlds in order to better understand reality. Subjects immersed in these virtual worlds follow their rules, adapt to the environments and even experience emotional reactions to virtual stimuli -- even though they're fully aware that they're participating in a simulation. Developments in augmented reality, for their part, can improve our perception of a situation by offering up access to additional data.

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