Microsoft's Craig Mundie has dismissed the potential of "synthetic virtual worlds" like Second Life, saying that the potential for immersive environments will be likely realized through 3D tools that capture and model the real world.
Mundie, who oversees research and long-term strategy for Microsoft, devoted a significant portion of his "Rethinking Computing" presentation at MIT's Emerging Technology conference to what he called the "Spatial Web," a blend of 3D, video, and location-aware technologies.
At the centre of several of his demos was Photosynth, a Microsoft software tool that can create 3D models using 2D photographs taken with an ordinary digital camera.
In one brief demo he showed how a small, camera-equipped robot could be used to model a large room. In another, he showed a 3D model of a commercial district in Seattle that had been created with Photosynth, and demonstrated how a virtual visitor could come to the district using the Internet, enter an art shop in the area, and examine and buy a virtual sculpture that had also been "photosynthed" by the shop clerks or the artist.
Mundie noted that Microsoft is counting on the creation of a 3D "parallel universe" modelled with tools like Photosynth.
However, he dismissed the potential of social virtual worlds that include user-modelled objects.
"Many people are familiar with Second Life, which is a synthetic virtual world that people came quite enamoured with," Mundie said.
"Our view was that there was a fairly limited audience who was willing to deal with the construction of avatars and operating in that virtual space."
Another location-based visual technology demonstrated by Mundie had a lot in common with the "augmented reality" vision that Ray Kurzweil and other futurists have described.
He showed how a Sony hand-held computer could display live video overlaid with information about shops and other addresses in the field of view. Mundie predicted that the required processing power for such an application would be available in mobile phones within two years.
The host of the conference, Technology Review Editor in Chief Jason Pontin, pointed to the impressive demos and noted that Microsoft Research has had a reputation of being a "graveyard of good ideas."
Mundie (pictured below) responded that his group had a "lot more effective transfer than you see with the naked eye," adding that for many Microsoft tools and features, researchers "have to do some incubation in order to make it more tangible and then figure out how to productize it."