Michael Liebhold from the Institute for the Future is less interested in virtual worlds, than laying a metaverse on top of the real universe. His dream is the “Star Trek Tricorder” model – step anywhere in the world and get cultural, political, historical, economic and social information about that place.
This idea suggests moving away from the “console view of the world”, assuming that the “world computer” is a handheld, mobile device. This device helps you discover the informational labels that have been put onto the physical world. This layered cartographic data is a web attached to physical places and physical objects, which allows you to access those layers of data when you’re in the world, looking at a store, a building or a natural vista.
This new hypermedia is made from web objects – pages, soundfiles, videofiles – that are geocoded with latitude, longitude and elevation data. It could be accessible to a variety of devices – smart phones, automobile dashboards, body extensions – but these devices need to know where you are. GPS is a great start, but it doesn’t work in buildings, or in urban canyons. Your phone knows where you are – triangulating between cell towers to tell medical emergency services your precise location – but it won’t tell you, even if you ask the network very nicely. But a new possibility is that you could triangulate the location of a Wifi device based on pingtime to various base stations – Placelab has released a toolkit that allows you to determine location based on the location of known Wifi basestations.
To move towards this new world, we need two other things – really good map data – either entered in new, open source formats or converted from old, closed formats, and geocoded information, either newly created or converted from the legacy, pre-geocoded web. GeoRSS is one of the likely formats for this new data – a simple coordinate system that can point to anything connected to the web:
< georss :point >45.256 -71.92< /georss >
Finding this data isn’t going to be easy – there’s no Google for spacial data, and there’s no metadata currently available for much of the information that exists.
But huge steps are being made – there’s an open source version of Google Earth – WorldWind – and both Google Earth and WWML have cubic cartography markup languages, useful for building 3D objects that render realistically in those browers. And with 2D maps, hackers are creating amazing geographic mashups, which help visualize voting patterns, environmental issues and land ownership – a project in Mumbai helped discover that a piece of land that was supposed to be a public park and had been used for private development.
As users get better at creating geocoded content, there’s the possibility that users start “creating spacial memory”, building paths through the world that are annotated with the cultural memory of the people from that place.
There are also lots of commercial applications to layering information on top of the physical world. Having data about the microclimes in a field makes it possible to customize your planting and harvesting to maximize yield. Having data about where a web user is through geolocating via wifi lets you deliver highly targeted ads to those users… which may be what Google is relying on in providing free Wifi in San Francisco. RFID tagging can add a layer of information on created spaces – warehouses, stores and labs – that can make business more efficient.
Michael’s fantasy is a world where we drape fantasy worlds across the real world – pervasive games and locative art that allow people to play using city streets as the gameboard. Geocaching is a simple example of this, and new live-action games, like the PacMan game, PacManhattan, which turned the East Village into a live action game.
For folks interested in this world of the geographic web, he recommends a del.icio.us feed – starhill_blend – which tries to keep track of the dozens of intersecting topics that surround the geographic web.