Virtual virtues

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am

Virtual-reality worlds contain plenty of real-world-style stupidity, in particular the kind of 'Dude, wassup?' dialogues that stutter along in chatrooms and make you want to strangle someone. Meanwhile, any second you may be distracted by one of the bizarre random visions that define the VR sphere. Picture a wolf or angel, say, descending in a shower of stars.

But the sudden theatrical entries are an attraction. So, too, are the shimmering environs that cut such

a contrast with the monocultural landscapes that masquerade as countryside these days. Adding to the allure, VR worlds tweak and defy the laws of physics. VR-world builder Miriam English recounts how once, when investigating a 'literally unlimited' virtual world developed by a Swedish boffin, she balanced her coffee cup on the 'up arrow'. English then disappeared to go shopping for real-world goods.

'When I returned, the cup was still flying over endless hills toward the horizon,' English says, proving that VR worlds host miracles as amazing as any you might find in a religious fairytale. But VR is no longer just a theatre of the weird and wonderful. Increasingly, it's catching the eye of business. The likes of Toyota, the BBC and American bank Wells Fargo use it to stage promotions. Speculators buy and sell land within its borders too. You can even use VR to hold business meetings, which may speed the demise of the bricks-and-mortar office. It's getting harder to justify commuting to work when you can arrive in an impeccably clean, computer-generated office in a flash after flying through a wall or two like a ghost.

You may feel less compulsion to go to real-world shops too, given that the virtual realm contains a wealth of digital goods. You can invest in everything from currencies to avatars, scenery items and land. For more information, fire up Eyes on Mogs (www.eyeonmogs.

com), a shopping search engine for virtual goods, which highlights its reserves of World of Warcraft gold among other dazzling commodities.

'VR has always had great potential for shopping,' English says, adding that it has never been realised. Maybe it should be because shoplifting is impossible in VR. Better yet, nobody can break or soil goods. Nor can anyone hold up staff at gunpoint. What's more, floor space can be vast yet cost mere cents.

All this makes you wonder why VR has yet to take commerce by storm or stealth. For one thing, despite how much motorists whinge, petrol remains cheap, so people still have few qualms about driving to destinations. For another, VR still has a fringe reputation - most people still see it as weird and wishy-washy. Worse, it brings to mind the old universe, where start-ups went bust because they sold nothing tangible.

The final hitch is that VR demands a nippy internet connection, because downloading the world of your choice may take an eternity, depending on factors

such as the depth of texture. Once your world has fully materialised, your computer must have plenty of oomph to things keep moving. If it is less than lightning fast, your avatar may founder and freeze, which is infuriating. You may even experience one of those paralysingly clunky, so-last-century events known as a 'crash'.

Even so, VR may yet make it to prime time. As English points out, when the telephone debuted, it was a niche device pitched at men and the business community. Then women got their hands on it and the market exploded.