Futurology blog: what’s the next trend that’ll disrupt our world, financially, socially or just pointlessly?

Friday, 5 September 2008

More than a Second Life: an independent Virtual You

Today we can all have a second life if we want. Just sign up to World of Warcraft, Everquest, Second Life, etc. then romp around in a fantasy online landscape, killing dragons, shopping for shoes, or simply flirting with your fellow fantasists.

Thing is, your second life has no independence. Virtual worlds are still just a kind of playground, made more interesting by leaving your real identity at the gate. You still have to be there in real time: you can’t live your real life and your second life simultaneously.

Or could you?

For a more vicarious experience, imagine a virtual world where your virtual alter-ego interacted with that world – and its other virtual citizens – totally independently. The only control you’d have over your VU (virtual you) would be in setting up its initial physical characteristics, personality traits and values.

So you could predispose your VU towards beauty or strength, zaniness or earnestness, altruism or selfishness and so on. Perhaps you could spend some time conversing with the site’s AI speechbot to transfer some of your own conversational style. Maybe you could even give your VU some kind of mission: “search for your father”, “fight evil” or “lead others”.

Then you’d send your VU off into the virtual world, to interact with its other citizens. There’s presumably be some kind of economy and recreational opportunities. Chance encounters could turn into friendships or enmities, which could turn to group allegiances which in turn could result in feuds or territorial disputes. Characters may be able to learn from other characters or exchange useful characteristics with them.

(There’s been some interesting work on allowing robots to evolve new behavioural “rules” through chance meetings: that could be applied here.)

You’d get on with your normal life while your VU got on with his/hers. You could check in on them anytime you like, of course, you could even have alerts sent to you when your VU had done anything interesting – like crash their car or start a family. Then you could play back any encounters or activities for your vicarious entertainment (or not, as the case may be).

It’d be kind of like sending a real child out into the world. Some anxiety, some disappointments, but plenty of elation, and hopefully, plenty of humour. It would be up to the creators of the virtual world to ensure that there’s always plenty of “plot” going on (nothing like an earthquake or escaped rhinoceros to stir things up), but if people can spend their lives watching soap operas and Big Brother, I suspect that VUs could become an addictive form of entertainment.

Want to explore the concept further?

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