Fun With Virtual World Cartography

OK, where to start. Let me start with where the screenshot was taken. It was taken at Rumsey Maps, which includes a huge 3D map of Yosemite Valley, as well as a bunch of other cool examples of cartography.

Maybe I should now start at the beginning. I was researching for an upcoming blog article and came across a fact that Second Life has over 1800 square kilometers in land. (I originally thought it was around 1000, but I was looking at old statistics). There are however reports that the amount of land is dropping rapidly because of the change in open space policy.

Anyways, I got into yet another discussion about the difference between There.com and Second Life, and this land issue came up. There.com actually resides on a 3D planet sized sphere slightly smaller than planet earth. It is possibly the largest 3D object in virtual space navigable by virtual avatars. It has even been circumnavigated, taking weeks to complete. The question always comes up, how much actual land is there in There’s globe? Turns out the answer is 630 square kilometers, plus or minus 20, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The next question usually is, how does all this compare to the real world?

It was about then that I discovered this entertaining video called A Geophysical Survey of World of Warcraft

Now this video awoken the geek in me, and all this talk about the relative land mass in There.com and Second Life, and that got me started on a pretty cool project.

The end result being this map. A scale map of Second Life, There, World of Warcraft, and Oahu:

Click picture for full size version. Its about a megabyte big, so feel free to copy and distribute it elsewhere so as not to kill my bandwidth. The relative scale is 14 pixels = 1km.

According to Linden Labs figures, the total land in Second Life is just over 1,800 sq. km. Oahu is around 1,500 sq km. So when you measure all the Second Life regions,  they a little bit bigger than Oahu.

To figure out There.com land area, I took the scale map of There, selected all the water and made it black, then inverted the selection and made the land white. I went around the map making sure I did not have any stray odd pixels to mess up the calculation. I also remeasured known distances to make sure my scale was correct. I then used a histogram function to find out how many pixels were black and how many were white. Of the 14,256,222 pixels, 122,883 were white. Divide that by 196 (14×14) = 627 km sq. There is stuff in There missing from the map (Saja, Snowman Island, and Coke Island), plus possible errors to my methodology, hence the plus or minus 20 km sq. part.

In scaling all the maps, I used multiple methods as well. The second life client, used to tell you the total distance from where you are to your destination, it doesn’t anymore. But, I found a way around that by finding the “grid position” of the region I am on in the debug tools then going to a region on the far left and the far right and finding how many regions across it is and multiplying by 256 to get meters, and divide 1000 to get kilometers. The regions charted at slurl.com (which is the map I used) is 186km across and 110km top to bottom.

I did the scale work in There years ago on my web site. Two prominent dots on the map, the white mountain on Comet and the tiny island of Egypt are 225 km apart.

WoW was based on work done on this link, confirmed in the video above.

Then I needed a real world island to use as a comparison. Ireland was way too big when I scaled it, Manhattan was way too small (about the same size as WoW). The big island of Hawaii fit but covered most of the map, and then decided to use the most populated and more famous island of Oahu.

And there you have a method, as accurate as I can make it, of comparing the relative size of three prominent 3D worlds with the real world.

Virtual World Philosophy: Escape From Reality

Online gaming is not my only interest. In the real world I have been lately interested in the phenomenon of “Peak Oil” and the eventual deleterious affects it will have on society in the near future. I don’t talk about it much on this site/blog, because the focus here is on online entertainment in general and 3D virtual worlds in particular. If you want a good breakdown on peak oil, there is this site.

My interest in this essay though is speculation about what will happen to online virtual world gaming in the event of a global economic depression which a peak oil generated energy crisis is very likely to cause. I am making an assumption that an energy crisis will have little effect on server farm maintenance or internet infrastructure, since the energy crisis’s biggest effect will be on transportation and real world mobility, and virtual world infrastructure is largely stationary.

Lets start at the beginning with the popular speculative fiction novel that started the whole metaverse craze to begin with: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In this book, the United States has essentially collapsed and taken over by corporations. Most of the population is dirt poor and living in squalor, the main character (conveniently named Hiro Protagonist) lives in a storage locker. Parallel to this horrible real world is a virtual world paradise called The Metaverse, where Hiro has a modest mansion in an exclusive neighborhood of hackers near the busiest section of the grid.

Snow Crash is fiction of course, but it leads to an interesting question: How well can virtual getaways help us deal with real world stress? People have been using television, video games, etc. to relieve stress for years. Online gaming and virtual worlds are new to the equation, but those players involved find online gaming more immersive, and as a consequence more stress relieving than more passive entertainment.

We already know the consequences of too much TV or too much video games, so its important to keep all of this in proper balance. Online gaming worlds are still mostly just diversion entertainment and can be overused at the expense of ones real life.

But lets get back to the future real life bad times. A real world energy crisis will have a negative effect on everyone. Conservation will be the key: Smaller, more energy efficient housing, less long distance travel, living closer to work and shopping centers, mass transit, etc. The real world “lifestyle” will be on the decline for all, and if that does not cause a lot of real world stress, it will at the very least cause a lot of real world disappointment.

Can virtual success in online gaming relieve the real world disappointment enough to keep us sane? I’m not the only one who thinks about this sometimes. Here is a few choice quotes from the “Metaverse Roadmap Overview

The virtual worlds scenario imagines broad future participation in virtual space commons. Many new forms of association will emerge that are presently cost-prohibitive in physical space, and VWs may outcompete physical space for many traditional social, economic, and political functions. In the 20 year scenario, they may become primary tools (with video and text secondary) for learning many aspects of history, for acquiring new skills, for job assessment, and for many of our most cost-effective and productive forms of collaboration.

In the stronger version of this scenario, VWs capture most, if not all, current forms of digital interaction, from entertainment to work to education to shopping to dating, even email and operating systems, though the 3D aspects may remain minimally used in the latter contexts. Youth raised in such conditions might live increasingly Spartan lives in the physical world, and rich, exotic lives in virtual space—lives they perceive as more empowering, creative and “real” than their physical existence, in the ways that count most.

New identities, new social experiences.

Aided by VW interoperability, an individual may easily access a far broader set of experiences in digital settings than she or he could in the physical world, as well as a vastly larger social network. …

In a more limited version of the scenario, VWs become popular for a few social and professional interactions, and as an interface in certain social contexts, but end up filling a circumscribed role similar to that of present-day televisions, home game consoles, or personal computers. Much of what people do today in the physical world continues with little input from virtual worlds. This limited scenario came primarily from non-technologists, who thought cultural conservatism and economic barriers would be major roadblocks to the stronger vision.

Experience ha taught me that the “stronger” version is far more likely, especially when you expand the virtual world definition to include MMORPGs. Social virtual worlds are not for everybody, as witnessed by the 10% retention rate in Second Life, but “rich exotic lives in virtual space” applies just as much to a level 80 druid in WoW as it does to a mansion owner in Second Life.

One of my first blog entries on this board was about the advent of the “Virtual Third Place“. A small but growing crowd is substituting online destinations for social gatherings instead of traditional neighborhood pubs, clubs, and coffee houses. Business executives are going on WoW raids together rather than golfing together.

Not only are people seeing it as more enjoyable, they are recognizing it is also more economical, especially as gas prices rise.

As travel costs go up, virtual meetings, even whole virtual work places are going to be more and more common. All of this predicted in Snow Crash way before it became a reality.

Welcome to the new reality, with many parts virtual.

Virtual World Philosophy: The Uncanny Valley

Most popular online worlds

So lately I have been having fun with Windlight, and focusing on how real Second Life is looking lately, but have not bothered to ask, “Is this a good thing?”

Above is a montage of screenshots from some of the most popular online communities on the web. World of Warcraft = 10 million subscribers, IMVU = 20 million accounts, HabboHotel = 90 Million accounts, 8 million monthly active users, WeeWorld = 21 million accounts, Runescape = 5 million monthly active users, Club Penguin = 17 Million Accounts, 4 million monthly active users (sources GigaOM, KZero).

What do they all have in common? None are designed to look “real”. They all purposely have a cartoon look to them. According to a recent NWN blog, this is a significant fact:

There’s little evidence of mass demand for an intensely immersive 3D virtual world; instead, indications suggest the market shrinks in inverse proportion to increasing immersiveness.

There’s several worthwhile observations you can make. First, none of them feature next gen, top-of-the-line 3D graphics. (WoW is 3D, but developed with graphics that run fairly well on older computers; also, the visuals are not realistic.) Besides Warcraft, however, none of these top MMOs are 3D at all; rather, they’re 2.5D. And while one hopes that 2.5D-based MMOs will whet the market’s interest in a more immersive, graphically rich virtual world, the exact opposite seems to be the case. (The still-popular Habbo Hotel was launched in 2000, and the cartoonish graphics are basically the same.)

Only after you drop down several million users do you start to see MMOs and virtual worlds incorporating next gen graphics that require high-end 3D cards for optimal viewing– Lord of the Rings Online at about one million subscribers, Age of Conan at about 750,000 subscribers… and Second Life at some 550,000 monthly active users.

Why is this happening? Here we enter the realm of speculation, but it seems that most people experience sensory overload with too much immersion; instead of being drawn into the intensity of the simulation, they’re repelled by it.

Before going into some of my objections to this idea, let me point out some other evidence to support it. Take for example the world of 3D animated films which I have written about. The most realistic looking 3D animated films have been Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, Advent Children, and Beowulf. Not one of these have managed any real success at the box office, at least compared to the more cartoonish fare such as The Incredibles, the Shrek films, or Ratatouille. The more realistic films have an unfortunate creepiness to them that makes them seem weird and turns people off.

There is a theory in robotics about this effect called “The Uncanny Valley“. From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

One then has to wonder if it is possible for there to be a natural detraction to video games whose graphics are too real looking, and is this why Second Life may never reach Habbo Hotel like numbers?

I believe it is possible for games to become too real, but I am definitely not convinced Second Life comes close to that mark. I am also not convinced it is the reason it is less popular than the above named games.

Maybe some Playstation 3 games are getting too real looking. Maybe that is why the Wii is more popular? No, lets face it the real reason Wii is more popular is the innovative controllers.

World of Warcraft is cartoonish compared to more realistic Guild Wars, but it is more popular due to better marketing, the Blizzard name, and WoW has more immersive gameplay. There is more cartoonish compared to Second Life, and yet Second Life is the bigger of the two, for similar reasons.

The most popular online games are not popular because they are less realistic, they are popular because they have been around longer, or are marketed to kids (a huge market for the 2D worlds), or they are free or very inexpensive to play.

Take a look at the best selling stuff in There, IMVU, and SL: the more realistic stuff consistently sells better, because it looks better. QED

The ultimate point is this: Realism is not an important goal in a sucessful virtual world, or any computer game for that matter. Players appreciate realism up to a point, but if the realism comes at the expense of some players with older or less powerful computers, its not worth it.