According to John Battelle's Searchblog, Google is making a 3D online version of San Francisco, or at least the outside of the buildings, as photographed from trucks in the streets. Massive simulations used to be the preserve of the "military-entertainment-industrial-complex"; perhaps we should add 'search engine' to the list. Uses for the technology are not quite clear: possibly the most realistic 'Yellow Pages' ever. But how often will Google update it? And what use is a virtual world if I can't have an avatar inside it?
How about this (even though it may seem a bit 'off-the-wall')? I'm sure that it won't be long (5-10 years) before small, 'cheap' (£50K-£100) civilian satellites will have the imaging capabilities of current military spy satellites and cheap (£1000-£2500) desktop computers to correct for the imaging anomolies caused by the atmosphere. It would be possible for small companies, or even a group of amateurs clubbing together, to put together an automated, open-source mapping/earth-imaging system. That would break the current military/government monopoly on mapping. (My guess is that I am probably more likely to err on the high side of the above estimates.)
Mark's comment set me thinking. The trouble with maps is that they are static representations of past reality, and they are not interactive. Enter the simulation!
The technology already exists to 'map' reality on a lot of details, eg:
- surveillance cameras, which can recognise car number plates (happening now in London) or faces (due to happen soon?)
- we already carry 'tags' with us now - eg mobile phones, RFIDs in our shopping bags, etc.
At the moment these are only networked historically, on a one-off basis (ie the Police can get telephone company records, surveillance videos, etc., and retrace the movements of suspects).
But most of the technology is already available to produce a living map, not only telling you where I am, but showing me being there. Feasible now in a limited space, eg an airport or a supermarket/ mall?
You could use this for spying on your citizens, or to schedule scarce resources such as parking spaces.
The scarcest resource of all is time. My supermarket could buy a few robots, and one could physically walk round the mall for me, following the map of RFIDs, buying what I need, and meeting me when I arrive with my purchases paid for and in a bag. If in doubt it could consult me, showing me its TV imagery ("Which of these fish/ ties do you prefer?") - but otherwise it could get on with things on its own.
With a VR helmet I could see the sights as they "really are". I could find anything or anyone quickly, saving time spent looking. The map would be 'better' than the reality; with only the reality, I wouldn't know that someone I wanted to meet was in the next street.
This is either a Utopia or a nightmare, but I agree with Mark that most of the technology is already here, and some of it within the grasp of corporations (eg Google) or individuals. As with Concorde or manned flights to the moon, the constraint is the cost. We did those things in the 60s and 70s, but we don't any more because it was too expensive for what we got back.
We also have to recognise that 'reality' is itself a scarce resource. It doesn't appear so because there isn't an alternative - for the moment. But if I could really go "cyber-shopping" and "cyber-sightseeing", instead of physically visting the mall or monument, how would these options be priced/ regulated?
Would 'cyber-sightseeing' be simulation or reality? There have been several films, in recent years, that dealt with 'uploading' experiences directly into people's brains. A bit far-fetched, but Ray Kurzweil believes that immortality is 'just an engineering problem'. He has suggested that by about 2019, we'll have desktop PCs that will be capable of 'downloading' our brains into. Then would come the challenge of uploading. [See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Kurzweil and ]http://wired-vig.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,66585,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_3]