Cyberpunk Review » Snow Crash’s Metaverse A Reality in 10 - 20 Years

June 23, 2007

Snow Crash’s Metaverse A Reality in 10 - 20 Years

 Google Earth-Second Life Mashup Screencap


Every now and then, two great ingredients come together to create something magical. The latest “peanut butter and jelly” moment comes from two powerhouses in Web 2.0: Google Earth and Second Life. Arguably the second-most popular and influential work cyberpunk, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, has fueled a generation of virtual worlds developers, who have continually strived to achieve the vision laid out in this wonderful story. Now it looks like that possibility is on track to arrive in a reality near you.


Question: What do you get when you combine Google Earth with Second Life?
Answer: The Snow Crash Metaverse!


The MIT Technology Review has a wonderful article, titled, “The World Wide Web will soon be absorbed into the World Wide Sim: an environment combining elements of Second Life and Google Earth.” It describes how these two, when combined with “mobile augmented reality” tools will create a transformative environment that allows people to simultaneously interact with those around them in reality, and those geospacially around them virtually.


…within 10 to 20 years–roughly the same time it took for the Web to become what it is now–something much bigger than either of these alternatives may emerge: a true Metaverse. In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, a classic of the dystopian “cyberpunk” genre, the Metaverse was a planet-size virtual city that could hold up to 120 million avatars, each representing someone in search of entertainment, trade, or social contact. The Metaverse that’s really on the way, some experts believe, will resemble Stephenson’s vision, but with many alterations. It will look like the real earth, and it will support even more users than the Snow Crash cyberworld, functioning as the agora, labo­ratory, and gateway for almost every type of information-based pursuit. It will be accessible both in its immersive, virtual-reality form and through peepholes like the screen of your cell phone as you make your way through the real world. And like the Web today, it will become “the standard way in which we think of life online,” to quote from the Metaverse Roadmap, a forecast published this spring by an informal group of entrepreneurs, media producers, academics, and analysts (Cascio among them).


Imagine a scene in San Francisco, where you want to have a meeting with two associates at a local coffee shop, but at the last minute, you decide that three others need to participate. They can log into Second Life, and then show up in the coffee shop virtually. You and your friends have special glasses and sound devices that allow you to see and hear them as if they were literally at the coffee shop. By overlaying detailed maps onto a Second Life sim, and then tying them together with augmented reality sensors scattered about the locale, people will be able to simultaneously live in both virtual and real events, tied to the same geographic location. The possibilities are endless.




In the field, technicians or soldiers may get 2-D slices of the most critical information through wireless handheld devices or heads-up displays; in operations centers, managers or military commanders will dive into full 3-D sensoriums to visualize their domains. “Augmented reality and sensor nets will blend right into virtual worlds,” predicts ­Linden Lab’s Ondrejka. “That’s when the line between the real world and its virtual representations will start blurring.”

I asked David Gelernter why we’d need the Metaverse or even mirror worlds, with all the added complications of navigating in three dimensions, when the time-tested format of the flat page has brought us so far on the Web. “That’s exactly like asking why we need Web browsers when we already have Gopher, or why we need Fortran when assembly language works perfectly well,” he replied.

The current Web might be capable of presenting all the real-time spatial data expected to flow into the Metaverse, Gelernter elaborates, but it wouldn’t be pretty. And it would keep us locked into a painfully mixed and inaccurate meta­phor for our information environment–with “pages” that we “mark up” and collect into “sites” that we “go to” by means of a “locator” (the L in URL)–when a much more natural one is available. “The perception of the Web as geography is meaningless–it’s a random graph,” Gelernter says. “But I know my physical surroundings. I have a general feel for the world. This is what humans are built for, and this is the way they will want to deal with their computers.”


We all know the web itself will once again morph into something completely different. Geospatial positioning is intuitive for structuring our reality, so why not use it to structure cyberspace? And yeah, this certainly brings us on track to move ever closer toward a post-human society. When smart phones are passé and augmented reality devices become the norm, our cultural patterns of interaction will again shift in counter-intuitive ways. When combined with transformations to our bodies we see with prosthetics research, and transformations of machines with robots and AI advances, our society may look very different far sooner than we think.

This post has been filed under Cyberpunked living, News as Cyberpunk by SFAM.


June 23, 2007

Nobody Fugazi said:

While the vision is nice - if they keep looking so far ahead, they will continue to trip over their shoelaces.

d_b said:

Every time someone mentions Second Life being the incarnation of the Metaverse, I ask that anyone truly interested please look at:

It won’t make sense at first, or if it does, you’ll think “what’s the big deal?” Please look at it again. And then again. Open Croquet is very, very important and under-appreciated technology that deserves more attention.

Open Croquet is future. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. :)

Mr. Roboto said:

I’d say this mashup is a great idea, except for two things:

1) Second Life - Lately, their “cool factor” has faded. With them being open source, there’ going to be some major competition, like d_b’s Open Croquet.

2) Google, as in Google Earth - “G” has expressed interest in controlling the world’s information, including everyone’s personal info. (Here’s an article about “G’s” ways to get into your head.) Do we really want this satanic megacorp’s tentacles invading the metaverse/Internet/cyberspace?

June 24, 2007

Rasputin said:


I’m no futurologist or even a die-hard cyberpunk fan nor a computer scientist, but the idea is very stimulating. I think that with all of the cool stuff that can be done online to date (video-blogs etc.) they are (hopefully) just the beginning. In Japan there is a known psychological phenomnenon named “hikikomori” in which teenagers lock themselves in their room for months or even years without contacting the world except via the web. Think about how this technology can help them. We strive to bring hikikomori back to reality- and it’s hard. What will happen when we decide to join them in their reality?

Damn, now I regret not ordering Snow Crash on my latest Amazon purchase.

2Karl said:

have you actually PLAYED Second Life anyone? Are you aware of the plethora of terrible, terrible people that inhabit that world? While the idea of the metaverse is very alluring, Second Life is nothing but a meeting place for horrendous people to live out their hideous fantasies without being caught.

I signed up to see what the fuss was about and within 30 minutes a man had emailed me a photogrph of his erect penis, along with his phone number, and requested that I call him up and talk filth at him while he ejaculated for me live on a webcam.

Is that REALLY what we want to be dealing with on a day to day basis?

On a more serious note, I believe there really must exist a definite cut off from the information world of the web and the real world. By inventing these realistic metaphors and becoming absorbed into them when in fact we are merely seeking information leads to the danger of disconnection from the real world. It’s bad enough now with young people more copmfortable texting than talking face to face. I’m starting to ramble now, the headaches are coming back.

Thanks for listening.

Rasputin said:

2Karl I have played (although I can’t refer to it as a game) Second Life. Maybe it’s because my PC is a bit slow but I wasn;t impressed. The idea is awesome, no doubt, I’m really excited about the whole MMORPG phenomenon for example, though I’m not a player, and sure, every coind has 2 sides. I’ve read about a case that occured in some Asian country in which one dude stolea virtual sword from his friend’s account at an MMORPG game, and the friend, the victim, took a knife and killed him :)

SFAM said:

Just a note on the actual software choices (Google Earth and Second Life) - like any other product category leader, it will be amazing if either or both of these applications still hold the top position 10 years from now. More interesting is the combination of these two technologies than the actual companies currently leading the chase.

June 25, 2007

Illusive Mind said:

Peanut Butter and Jelly moment! hahah.

I don’t really doubt that this type of merger will take place, nor do I doubt that it won’t be much like Snowcrash’s metaverse at all.

One thing Stephenson didn’t get right (and there isn’t just one thing of course!) is that the metaverse won’t be built by a handful of programmers with hearts of gold.
It will be built, maintiained and utilized to serve one primary master (all others being secondary):


L1zrdking said:

Second life can be cool as hell if you know where to go (away from the crazies) a friend of mine actually makes a living (a good one at that) scripting and working on his own territory. Its all post-apocalyptic themed and quite cool. Plus, you do need a nice pc too REALLY appreciate it.

SFAM said:

Illusive Mind, who knows - perhaps in ten years we’ll have an open source version of the Metaverse, similar to Stephenson’s model. It is still a possibility, however small.

Siluro said:

SFAM you should check out that new anime series Dennou Coil. The world there (near-future Earth) is very similar to the Metaverse you’re describing and the authors have some really cool concepts at work. It may be targeted at the younger audiences, but is actually quite complex and intriguing stuff, and I think you’ll like it. The quality of the animation doesn’t hurt either :)
If you don’t approve of fansubs, you can always wait couple of years till this gets licensed of course, but anyway:
p.s. that was great essay on the matrix there. respect for being able to see things most people tend to be blind for ;)

2Karl said:

Rasputin, having worked on the development of several MMORPGs over the past 18 months, I am perhaps a little jaded, but honestly they are mostly glorified chat rooms. Second Life is not even a good example of an MMO game, simply because there’s no GAME there. It simple serves to make the socially inept even more isolated from the rest of the world.

SFAM said:

2Karl, give that article a read. You must admit that a combination of virtual space layered on top of real locations, where participants in both real and virtual worlds could have situational awareness of the other world would create something more than just a chat room, right?

SFAM said:

Hi Siluro, I haven’t heard of Dennou Coil yet. I’ll definitely give it a go. Thanks for the heads up!

Ginattix said:

Secon Life is expenisve sh1t X-D

June 26, 2007

Illusive Mind said:

I guess I’m just cynical and jaded eh?
The funny thing is, I had envisioned a similar version of ‘augmented reality’ in the novel I’m writing. I think it’s probably a little more realistic than a total VR immersion.

SFAM said:

Illusive Mind, do you mean realistic or more “near-term”? I think we’re all finding that what we used to think of as realistic changes rather significantly over time. I had the distinct honor or spending the better part of a day with Douglas Englebart, who among other things was responsible for the Mother of All Demos in 1968, where all aspects of moder computing were demonstrated, including some functionality that we are only now getting such as real-time document collaboration (truly, this is still one of the greatest sets of videos you can find on the internet). - link below as there appears to be some bad code in one of the comments which is stopping hyperlinks..

He also holds numerous patents, including the mouse, etc. Doug defines his entire life as a struggle against human factors experts, who were always working to dumb down his ideas. He claims to have thought of virtually all this stuff in the late 50s, but he couldn’t even get anyone to agree to implement any of it for almost another 10 years. He had execs from Hewlett Packard and other giants tell him to get his head out of the clouds - that there would never be more than a handful of computers in the US. Instead, he was forced to work on gas mixtures for cathode ray tubes and the like.

So this is a round-about way of saying, “who knows what realistic means 10 years from now?”

June 27, 2007

Rasputin said:

2Karl I guess it depends on the way you view the game. Only like 20 years ago people would get hooked on tetris, which is way primative compare to GTA San Andreas for example.
I happen to know several hardcore World Of Warcraft players, one of them told me that in the period when he played non-stop, he would begin to view and organize his surrounding reality as if in the game. Not sure exactly what that means, but I know that when I started playing the strategic Japanese game called Go online, I would do a simillar thing to: almost unconsciously, I group people whom I speak to into black and white figures, depending on their T shirts and start thinking how to lock them :)

I know that it’s call the tetris effect, really interesting:

BTW any Lucid Dreamers here?

July 9, 2007

2Karl said:

I’m in the minority of games players who believe that less is more. 3D evironments just bore me. They were exciting back in the days when it was really pushing the hardware to its limits, exploring new techniques, trying the best you could with the limited power available. Remember the old VR units in arcades? To me that was realism. At some point in the last 10 years, computer games became big business, and with big (perceived) financial risks involved, the need to appeal to lowest common denominator in order to maximise sales crept in. Call me elitist, but I really do miss the days when computers were inaccessible to many, when computer games were considered nerdy and when the keyboard was the primary interface device.

I want a game where I can hack a corporate mainframe by executing commands using a text console. (I have many games that allow me to do this, such as Uplink and Blue Sky, but I’d also like to be able to move away from said console in the game too).

I think the problem I have is that the closer things get to the real world, the more boring and mundane they become for me. For that reason I think that a cyberspace similar to Neuromancer’s Matrix would appeal to me more than this. Anyone ever play System Shock? The cyberspace parts of that were splendid, I think I’d like to see that expanded upon.

in summary, yes the Metaverse / google earth thing is exciting, but the words “second life” make my blood boil, mostly becasue Second Life made me painfully aware of how horrible people really are.

But remember everyone, I am jaded and cynical, the games industry takes your dreams and swallows them whole, avoid it like the plague.

July 23, 2007

Digital Dystopia said:

d_b @ 5:49 pm:
Every time someone mentions Second Life being the incarnation of the Metaverse, I ask that anyone truly interested please look at:

It won’t make sense at first, or if it does, you’ll think “what’s the big deal?” Please look at it again. And then again. Open Croquet is very, very important and under-appreciated technology that deserves more attention.

Open Croquet is future. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Very Interesting indeed, thanks for the link!

September 15, 2007

kitty_tc said:

While interesting, I don’t think the real world is a very viable location for virtual reality. Sure, it will have some applications in things like telepresence communication and virtual tourism, but beyond that I don’t see real geography as a logical way to organize much of anything.

Instead, what makes more sense is an outgrowth of our current potentially infinite list of vr chats, mmo’s, and social networking sites with more interactive interfaces. That system is already being built. And while sure, it’d be great to put everything on a maplike hub and be able to travel between locations like a city, it’s hard to imagine that the near-infinite and everchanging content of the entire web would ever be able to be ordered that way. Way too chaotic.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

May 1, 2008

Mercer said:

This is a completely false assimilation. Snow Crash’s Metaverse was “unearthly”. It defied the laws of physics and existed outside of the confines of our municipal grid structure. You can apply Google Earth’s satellite and cartographic imagery to a place that only exists in bits.

Nice thought, but, no, not really even nice. The Metaverse is fake and that’s what makes it wonderful. Too much reality in cyber-reality is a buzz kill.

May 9, 2008

resad said:


August 27, 2010

Mike at DFO Wiki said:

I can’t WAIT FOR THIS GAME TO COME OUT! This game will probably be so big since it’s using google earth!

October 16, 2010

celestial elf said:

thought you might like my machinima
i Robot in Snow Crash
A Political Sci Fi for Halloween

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