The Web is now beginning to host an immersive 3D sensory environment that combines elements of social and virtual worlds such as Second Life with increasingly dense geographical mapping applications using Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth.
Representations of the earth’s natural and urban environments can create increasingly detailed mirror worlds or models of reality. Combined with virtual worlds, they represent an emerging Metaverse of realised virtual earths, projected to have an increasing impact on business and society.
Such meshing of the virtual and real is already standard within Second Life, using repesentations of the social realities with which humans can interact- for example- a virtual Planetarium, a walk-in weather map and an International Spaceflight Museum where visitors can fly alongside life-size NASA rockets- all driven by real world data streaming technologies.
Users can routinely create avatars that hover and zoom over a world with computer generated human clones and scenery, social facilities, urban infrastructure and services, including shopping with real convertible currency.
Such virtual earths are also becoming increasingly common in consumer computer games utilising the enormous power of today's inexpensive graphic processors.
This increasingly immersive Virtual Metaverse will soon be accessible in 3D hologram form and on mobile media and will also be capable of integrating with augmented reality- a third stream of enhanced reality.
Augmented reality is created by integrating or mixing real objects and natural spaces with layers of associated computer-generated images and designs; so that in the future real, virtual and augmented scenarios can be seamlessly combined.
An architect for example could visualise the impact of a virtual building overlaid on a real landscape or perform a virtual tour around a planned or existing building with a client. Auto designers will see how small changes would affect an existing car body design or surgeons the effects of cosmetic surgery on a real patient. At a simpler level, coffee or pizza shop fronts captured in the Google Street application are already being linked to videos and images of the shop's internal experience as well as Google maps.
Such integrated real, virtual and mirror worlds will offer a major creative challenge for the future enterprise- providing the opportunity to amplify its tactical and strategic competitive reach, better manage global resources through logistical virtual simulations and explore novel and radical marketing scenarios. At this point in time business has been slow to realise this potential as marketing and planning departments play catchup with the more mature consumer virtual experience.
Eventually there will be many different second earths in our future- within an expanding virtual Metaverse. Businesses are already utilising virtual worlds for simulation and promotional purposes and in the future will develop and control their own cyber worlds. Over time these will overlap, merge, spawn and evolve into a seamless surreal metaverse with unlimited potential for both the enterprise and humanity.