Mirror Worlds: Good News For Developers, Architects and Lawyers – They Really Are Making More Real Estate!

Originally Published 2010

By Gary L. Cole AIA, Esq.

Online virtual worlds, also called metaverses, have been around for some time now, all the while growing in complexity and sophistication, first in gaming and then as online 3D social networking sites. But the majority of these are fantasy worlds – like the well-known role-playing game World of Warcraft for sword-swinging gamers, and Second Life (SL) – a metaverse where social interaction between avatars, not troll bashing, is the primary objective.

Freed of annoyances like structural engineering and material specifications, building and zoning codes, weather and oh, yes – gravity – anyone willing to shell out a few Second Life Lindens (SL’s virtual currency), can purchase virtual real estate on Second Life and build a house, a commercial building, a Harvard lecture hall, a floating museum – just about anything. And businesses are taking note as quite a few corporations and educational institutions have opened virtual operations in Second Life and extended their marketing to the virtual world.

But as imaginative constructs, fantasy virtual worlds will probably be limited . . . to pretty much what they are now – fun, a little business and education maybe, but mostly a pleasant distraction. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Enter now the mirror world – a virtual replication of an actual world – not a fantasy world. While Second Life members have reproduced certain real world buildings within its servers, mirror worlds take it even further and replicate actual cities. And these cities are populated with avatars – 3D virtual representations of their users (or who their users want to be) who walk, talk and fly about with other avatars, any one of whom might be a real person sitting at their keyboard on the other side of the world, or your neighbor next door.

One of the best of these mirror worlds is Berlin-based Metaversum GmbH’s Twinity which currently features mirror versions of Singapore, London and Berlin – with more cities in the works. After creating an account and downloading their software, Twinity members can beam their avatars to just outside Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate as it looks today – or, back to 1989 as it looked before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or teleport to London and stroll around Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square (no virtual pigeons that I could see). The visuals are very good and the sense of place real within the limitations of today’s computer technology – and we all know how long that stands still.

So how are mirror worlds different from fantasy virtual world games and social networking sites in terms of business and revenue generation? Well, in order to mirror a real world convincingly, they will require an immersive quality and a level of detail and rendering generally absent from fantasy virtual worlds; and, because they mimic the real world, they have potential real world business applications – and problems – that may require real world architects, lawyers and other professionals to address to reach their true potential as legitimate alternates or augmentations to the real business world.

As an architect, I see market possibilities for architects to guide the development of mirror cities as planners and by informing them with the sort of imagination and attention to visual details required of real cities to make the immersive experience more and more convincing. Understanding how to visually represent real construction means knowing how to actually build it – or, in the case of historic properties – how they were built using the ancient design vocabularies and traditional materials, and, properly depicting how those materials have aged. Who can document existing structures properly; who can plan the mirror cities convincingly; and how do you even write specifications for the virtual construction of actual buildings to provide meaningful guides for programmers? Well, who better than architects? And to preservationists and archeologists: how about virtually rebuilding lost buildings or cities?

Reproducing say, Chicago’s Millennium Park would require understanding how the park was planned as a whole and put together as a real construct – from Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion to the silver bean to the flowerbeds and everything else in between. Add those weird Orwellian faces to the mirror Crown Fountain, drop in a few hundred muddy virtual urchins to play in the water and you have part of a mirror city.

Or how about smaller mirror worlds – something less than a whole city? Maybe a developer client wants approval to build his new mixed-use project, but the local zoning commissioners just can’t wrap their heads around it? No problem, create enough of a mirror world to show real-world context and drop the proposed buildings onto the virtual site. Then just teleport in with the commissioners’ avatars and start the walking and talking tour. Far more effective than (and cooler) than color-coded 2D/3D drawings or even models. Maybe work in the 3D BIM model too while you’re at it. Or how about a mirror retail development of an actual shopping center to enhance the online shopping experience via avatar shoppers? Keyboard traffic is as good as foot traffic if it generates sales.

As an attorney, I see the obvious intellectual property rights issues with copying real buildings in the mirror world – even though those “buildings” are just collections of 1s and 0s in servers somewhere. Building owners are sensitive to a myriad of concerns regarding the management of their properties and snarky mirror city developers who transform a real world high-rise condo into a mirror city brothel might find themselves shaking hands with the owner’s process server and responding to innovative real world legal claims.

I see issues with real estate developers who contract for the construction of virtual buildings to lease or sell actual ones – and delays or shoddy execution of the metaverse ruins deals and well-timed marketing plans. Or, a virtual building contractor files for bankruptcy but still retains the rights to the memory in the server space that the real-word developer needs to install his virtual building within the mirror city. How about the legal and political implications of restricted access to mirror world public spaces for political rallies and protests – Constitutional issues, maybe? Or how about licensing the intellectual property – the mirror city files – to game designers or movie productions? I can think of at least four movies that used CG versions of Chicago in the last few years. (To my attorney readers: I’m shooting from the hip here, but just let your imaginations run awhile and then circle back with me – you’ll see).

The most obvious problem right now for any mirror world to be a perfect reflection of the actual one is technical – a function of user memory/power and online bandwidth limit the immersive quality of mirror worlds to something a bit more like animation than photorealism at the moment. But it’s early in the industry and assuming bandwidths, processing power and memory continue to increase to meet the market’s increasing demand, this will evolve and immersive environments will become quite a bit more mirror-like – perhaps even achieving the ultimate goal of a holodeck one day….?

Until metaverse imagination and real-world technology come into alignment, and until architects, designers, real estate developers and other business-drivers start to take notice, mirror worlds will probably struggle with the real world concerns and expectations of venture capital investors and potential returns.

But it’ll happen – they money is there. After all, the revenue streams of mirror world real estate are not that different from real dirt: buy, sell and lease property – albeit virtual property – and that’s before adding in the advertising and licensing potential. And with traditional bricks and mortar construction industry stagnant, maybe the time is ripe for a new kind of city to emerge – a mirror city which isn’t threatened so easily by economic casualty.

And here’s a suggestion for everyone who jetted to Copenhagen for the U.N. Climate Change Conference last week aboard commercial airliners or their private Gulfstreams: stop complaining about the carbon other people are emitting and spend some money to build a green mirror version of your favorite city and have the conference online next time. No travel required – no carbon footprint.

It’ll probably be cheaper, have fewer demonstrations, be more effective and the only CO2 being emitted…..well, you get the point.

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