TechCrunch has just published about some rumors that Google is working on using Google Earth-related technology to create an application similar to Second Life or There. These ventures are some of the more successful attempts to build an alternative 3D “universe” (called a Metaverse) where you can interact with other people through the net by building avatars who represent your self in that other world. The concept of the metaverse was popularized by a science fiction book called “Snow Crash” by Neal Stepheson (a good read by the way). In fact, according to John Hanke – Director of Google Earth – scenes from that book were part of the inspiration which led to Google Earth.
TechCrunch points to a blog entry by one of the investors of Second Life that they believe “Google is working on turning Google Earth into a virtual world a la SecondLife.” TechCrunch also pointed to a Business 2.0 article last month (not sure how I missed this one) which discusses in more detail speculation that Google may move in the direction of creating a metaverse. That article correctly points out that between Google Earth and SketchUp, Google has a lot of the right technology to make this possible. One blogger has speculated Google would just buy Second Life.
There is certainly a lot of merit to the speculation Google might create a metaverse. In the 1980s, I worked on virtual reality technologies at NASA, and I’ve been a big fan of Snow Crash and the concept of a metaverse since the book was first published. There have been many attempts (I made a couple attempts myself) since the early 90s to make metaverses – and the concept is finally starting to catch on (mostly because the standard desktop can finally handle the 3D graphics required). Google Earth has already demonstrated many innovative ways to pull in diverse dynamic information from the Internet and share that in a visually appealing way. And Google has barely tapped the possibilities even with GE 4 which just came out. There are many possibilities for improving Google Earth and how we interact with it.
But, Google Earth is not a metaverse. It’s a virtual globe on steroids. However, thanks in part to GE and SketchUp, Google has the right technologies, and experience with data scalability and interfaces to make a metaverse work. For Google there could be big money (even more advertising possibilities) by providing better ways to interact with Internet information rather than just using a standard browser. Buying SecondLife? There could be some merit to that strategy, but Google could certainly develop their own platform if they chose to go this route – and marketing would not be a problem.
I’m eagerly awaiting further developments for both Google Earth/virtual globes, and what happens in the rapidly developing Metaverse market. We live in exciting times!