18 January 2007

There is a There There

I had occasion to use Second Life in anger the other night, by which I mean I made a serious, business-related use of it. Taking up the kind invitation of the splendidly-named Gizzy Electricteeth (SL name, of course), I went to visit IBM's recreation of the Australian Open, which I had written about earlier (and which Gizzy had spotted).

As I had surmised when reading about it, this is an impressive virtual construction, not just for what it is, but mostly for what it portends. The ability to capture a ball's path in real time, and then recreate it in Second Life - and a rapidly-moving ball at that - means that other, more sedate sports like football and cricket will be even easier to reproduce in this way.

As a result, fans of those sports (I'm told there are one or two) will not only be able to watch matches as they happen, but also replay them, watching from different angles. They could even join in - for example, taking the viewpoint of the umpire/referee, or one of the players (even I found myself "playing" tennis, with balls careering towards me at high velocity - and magically being returned).

I think this alone makes IBM's work important, because it may well be enough of a hook to get couch potatoes off their sofas and staggering towards their PCs (until, of course, somebody produces set-top boxes for TVs specifically designed for Second Life.)

But impressive as all this work was - knocked up in less than a month by a small and clearly dedicated team including said Gizzy - what really struck me most was something quite different. This was the fact that I was engaged in this immersive experience while I sat at my computer, late at night in a wintry London, as Gizzy sat at her computer, mid-morning in Australia, in the summer, and while both of us "met" in that somewhere land we call Second Life.

Whereas my previous experiences of SL have been purely of an exploratory kind - and hence retained an element of being "there" only in a shallow, unengaged sense - my visit to the IBM site, which involved me being myself, a journalist asking questions, as I do in ordinary life, was far truer, far more real. Not because of where I was, or what I saw, but because of what I was doing, which was a seamless extension of my life in another place that was neither here nor there, but simply was.

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