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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Prototype Development in SecondLife

Haleakala National Park on Horseback
Data mining with volumetric displays aka The Holodeck

In William Gibson's science fiction thriller, Count Zero, his characters regularly don powerful headsets and jack in to special decks in order to enter a virtual reality. Gibson described this advanced type of volumetric display way back in 1986. This was long before the film series The Matrix was produced but long after television viewers were treated to Star Trek's holodeck.

Japanese viewers and other aficionados of animé animation techniques quickly recognized the similarities between The Matrix films and their beloved animé. Star Trek fans must certainly have appreciated the advances in special effects since the days when Captain Kirk utilized the holodeck on the Enterprise. More recently, movie audiences have witnessed important characters attending conferences in a holographic form, in the movie Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

Up until now most people assumed that the capability of mining a database in virtual reality would remain restricted for many years to the realm of military application science and perhaps labs at Stanford University or MIT. However, an early taste of this experience is now available by combining the use of an inexpensive headset display with an account at SecondLife. As soon as the first search engine opens up a facility in a Second Life community the race will begin. It is quite possible an early version of this experience has already appeared in SecondLife. Certainly you can already go into a storefront and search for products so the advent of a visual search engine cannot be far behind.

The potential uses for virtual reality search capabilities are endless but one purpose deserves special mention. Individuals suffering from a variety of physical handicaps will now have even greater opportunities to succeed in the worlds beyond those their handicaps currently restrict them to. Using voice commands and a headset, it is quite easy to believe that a quadriplegic may find gainful employment in many fields currently beyond their limitations. It is all a matter of training and making the technology available to a user group typically facing significant financial as well as physical restrictions.

The first business to actively facilitate the integration of the handicapped audience into virtual worlds will certainly reap benefits far beyond their initial expectations. Growing up in a family of pilots, military and airline, this author listened to more than a few discussions about the benefits of using flight simulators. Modern flight simulators have become very sophisticated tools. No airline or military pilot is permitted to fly the actual aircraft without spending the required amount of time in the flight simulator designed for that model. Oil tanker captains are required to spend time in ship simulators. The time is now ripe for the introduction of simulators in a wide range of applications beyond the military, aviation, or maritime industry.

Retail store designers are now able to test new retail store layouts with live participants in SecondLife. When explored to the fullest, the concept of beta testing, familiar to computer application developers for decades, can now be carried to many new levels, as soon as advances in virtual worlds are made. New car, truck, train, boat, and spaceship models can be safely tested out by large numbers of the general public, instead of just a few people back at the proving grounds. Virtual tours of new and existing homes have been available for years, in a fashion. But how many new home developers have tested actual new home models in SecondLife, prior to construction of the first prototype?

On the subject of prototypes, what new inventions have yet to be conceived, all for the lack of an affordable tool for creating and sharing the prototype? Of course you may need to sign a confidentiality agreement before I will let you enter my virtual test lab. What will all this do to the time it takes to get a new product to the store shelves, albeit with some guarantee of success in the marketplace?

To be continued...

NOTE: This is the third installment in the series that began with Will Google Become God? The next article is Virtual Reality in SecondLife and Beyond

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