Call it a game, call it a communications platform, call it what you will. Whatever you call it, the on-line virtual universe known as Second Life, or SL, is growing fast, supported by intense media interest, including a sympathetic tour-guide-style article by Wired Magazine last week, not to mention coverage in Playboy.
On 18 October, the number of SL "residents" reached one million. As I write less than a week later, it is just touching 1.1 million. This is still a lot less than the biggest massively multiple on-line role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft, but it is rapid growth indeed, and more importantly SL is something quite different: a universe in which you can appear pretty much as yourself, or some kind of idealised or otherwise modified version of yourself, or in any other form you like (of whatever age, sex, species, or planetary origin). You can role-play in a myriad of different ways, or you can simply prowl around the highroads, gardens, beaches, shopping malls, and back alleys of SL like a high-tech tourist, interacting pretty much as the real you (my own modus operandi, though I don't actually advertise my real-life name). It is endlessly adaptable for business and conferencing, as well as for an infinite number of games, or simply as a very fancy chat-room with colour, sound, and motion. In fact, it's whatever you want to make of it.
Actually - and here, I dare say, is a reality check - SL has experienced plenty of problems in sustaining its performance in the face of such a rate of growth plus the attacks of malicious hackers. Also, it is still quite primitive compared to the richly immersive virtual realities imagined in cyberpunk-style science fiction. There's a long way to go.
Nonetheless, SL in its current form is surely the precursor to more convincingly immersive forms of VR that will increasingly become available as computer power continues to grow exponentially, and as modern communications media converge. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that highly convincing interaction in virtual reality universes will become commonplace over the next decade or so, as has already happened with the internet. We, the technologically rich, are likely to experience the impression of continuity between our interactions with others in the network of virtual realities - the emerging "metaverse" if you will - and those in our forreal, flesh-and-blood reality. Again, the ubiquity of e-mail and the World Wide Web provides a model of how quickly and comprehensively things can change.
The opportunities and the problems are endless. This new phase of integration with our technological products won't come without costs, but it is still exciting. All being well, I'll live long enough to see how it all works out through the first half of the twenty-first century, and I'm damn glad to be living at a time of such momentous change.