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When Virtual Reality Becomes Too Real

The time may be fast approaching when the creativity and imagination of computer programmers and the digital media industry, along with the entrepreneurial urge to become the “next” Google, crosses what may now only be an imaginary line of prudent security.

In the real (physical) world, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that al Qaeda and its clones might have been closely watching the response and reaction of the New York City emergency responders, police and fire departments when Adam Gadhan (or Azzam the American as he is also known) triggered the scurry of activity and ramping up of security with the threat of a dirty bomb this past summer. That was a very real threat and it was responded to in kind. However, it is also hard to question that it could easily have been used as a simulation by terrorists to observe our responses.

Only a few years ago it was said that the sometimes obsessive use of video games by the kids might actually be the early joystick training for the future pilots and electronic warriors of today (and the future). Then, it was all about dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

It is in that parallel and virtual world though, that the question needs to be raised and discussed about how the digital revolution (and we are still truly in the infancy of this new media or tool) is changing not only the ways in which we communicate with each other via the Internet, but also in the ways it can be utilized for nefarious purposes. We already know that al Qaeda and their clones have used the Internet both for propaganda as well as training.

A few months ago, my colleague Michael Tanji raised some eyebrows when he brought to the surface the potential that the parallel world of Second Life might be used to elevate terrorism training. This was also covered in one of our Daily Briefing Item: Second Life Facilitating Terror?

Legal experts claim that the lax operating and security environment in the virtual world of Second Life could serve as a haven for activity that could support terrorists.

Certainly there were arguments that Second Life wasn’t intended or wasn’t being used for those purposes. In fact, one commenter suggested that the original post was “alarmist tripe.” In response, Michael wrote:

That you cannot operate with a specific level of granularity in SL is not the point: SL is more “real” than the more widely accessible online sources of training and indoctrination, and that can make a significant difference. True, SL is not an FPS environment, but it is much more realistic in the sense that you are dealing with “people.” You are not prepared to be a cop because you read true crime novels and you are not prepared to be a terrorist if you merely read Jihadist web sites; you have to interact with experts and you have to practice. Practicing in the real world tends to get you caught and FPSs are just games.

In turn, I made the observation that “I’ve only heard of Second Life, and never actually seen it. But the point is that virtualization of any aspect of life can be dangerous. Offering a virtual reality setting to program scenarios bears scrutiny.”

To that, Michael added that Second Life was already being used as a teaching and learning vehicle.

There have also been a number of recent discussions about Google Earth and its possible use of it as a tool for terrorist purposes. So what does all of this lead up to? Well, a couple of months ago I read an article in the MIT Technology Review about a company named Everyscape that was working to create a virtual version of the real world. Although the site will launch this fall under the shadow of mapping giant Google Earth, Everyscape's cofounders say that users will find the company's look and feel quite different. "We're working on a human experience," CEO Jim Schoonmaker says. "Google has built a superhuman experience."

The intention of the website is to provide a virtual immersion for the user into the space being explored. Currently, this is limited to one of Everyscape’s photorealistic virtual environments corresponding to parts of San Francisco, Boston, and New York City, Miami and Aspen Colorado. You can see an animation of MIT’s Infinite Corridor, built using the technology behind Everyscape here.

I know that it is not intended to be a tool for terrorism, and the owners of Everyscape would probably object to the characterization, but one’s imagination does not have to roam very far to translate a virtual tour of an environment to gain a familiarity with the surroundings, either as a tourist or a possible terrorist, without ever leaving one's satellite connected laptop computer in a cave in Afghanistan. Or is it Pakistan? Or some other city, whether in Europe, Asia or North America. You can see another example of an Everyscape virtual city demonstration by clicking on this link or on one of the other links provided. It should not be too hard to imagine, especially as Everyscape and probably others like it improve and expand, that these virtual immersions "could" be an example of virtual reality blending with the physical world.