Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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1/23/2007
07:05 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Interview With Science-Fiction Writer Charles Stross About Virtual Worlds

This research into virtual worlds and online gaming is taking me to some weird places. So to speak. Today, I'm totally jazzed because I got to interview one of my favorite writers, Charles Stross, a science-fiction author, former tech journalist, programmer, and veteran of two dot-coms. I talked to Charlie about his upcoming novel, Halting State, set 12 years in the future, in a world where virtual worlds have become mainstream.

This research into virtual worlds and online gaming is taking me to some weird places. So to speak. Today, I'm totally jazzed because I got to interview one of my favorite writers, Charles Stross, a science-fiction author, former tech journalist, programmer, and veteran of two dot-coms. I talked to Charlie about his upcoming novel, Halting State, set 12 years in the future, in a world where virtual worlds have become mainstream.

It's the story of a group of people investigating a robbery inside a World of Warcraft-like game. A bunch of monsters break into a bank and steal all the loot that all the player-avatars are storing there. The reason this is deemed worthy of a real-world investigation is that the company that runs the bank is a company that provides infrastructure for several online games, and they're in the middle of their IPO. Of course, this being a Charles Stross novel, nothing is what it seems.

Charlie sent me the manuscript as an RTF file in December; I loaded it onto my Palm Treo 650 and read it over Christmas week, during downtime while visiting my wife's family in Ohio. I read the last half of the novel in four or five hours on our last night, in the place my in-laws had set up for me to sleep -- a mattress in their finished basement. I lay on the floor in a dark room, lit only by the screen of the Treo and by the occasional flickers of the gas-powered, remote-control-operated fireplace.

Halting State is a clever, funny, and well-written work. It's the novel Carl Hiaasen would write 12 years from now, if Hiaassen lived in and wrote about in Edinburgh, Scotland. Charlie lives in Edinburgh and most of the novel is set there.

The novel comes out in October. Watch for it.

I'm still skeptical about my own thesis: That virtual worlds are becoming mainstream. I don't want to be one of those journalists who foolishly gets suckered into hyping dumb trends. And yet, I keep finding evidence that the thesis is right -- virtual worlds really are becoming mainstream. Charlie provides the latest factoid in support of the thesis: He says one-tenth of one percent of the population of the entire world has logged in to World of Warcraft.

In his novel and in our conversation, Stross doesn't draw much distinction between virtual worlds that you go "into" -- like Second Life and World of Warcraft -- and technology that's sometimes called "reality overlay."

Reality overlay (Charlie didn't use that phrase) works like this: You walk around wearing eyeglasses that have wee small computer displays built into them. As you're walking along, you're getting constant updates through those displays about the world around you. Charlie uses the example of police who can look around them and see the crime rates and criminal backgrounds of the people and places they're walking or driving through.

We're already taking the first baby steps in that direction, with our current generation of smartphones. I have Google Maps on my Treo; I can be standing on a street corner in a strange city and locate businesses around me simply by typing in my location. Soon, as phones become GPS-enabled, I won't have to type in my address.

"Rather than logging on to the computers and going into cyberspace, cyberspace will come out of the computers and be all around us," Stross said.

For my other blog posts about virtual worlds, visit http://del.icio.us/mwagner/virtualworlds+informationweek.

And for information I've gathered from all over the net about virtual worlds, visit http://del.icio.us/mwagner/virtualworlds

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