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Virtual Worlds and Real Dreams

Virtual Worlds and Real Dreams

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Published by Ian Fichtenbaum
A review of how the real and virtual are blending together to bring ubiquity to the world
A review of how the real and virtual are blending together to bring ubiquity to the world

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Published by: Ian Fichtenbaum on Mar 28, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Virtual Worlds and Real Dreams 
Poor Mr. Falcone. What started as a glorious dream a wirelessnetwork spanning from sea to sea fashioned out of someunderused spectrum is now rapidly disintegrating into a melee ofclaims, counterclaims, unforeseen technical barriers, FCC actionsand an unending series of embarrassing newspaper headlines.What a mess.Whatever the fate of Falcone’s Lightsquared dreams, fund orfortune, you can be sure we and a whole lot of other watchers willbe studying the history and the aftermath of this spectacle anddrawing lessons for future moguls. Some will note the cavalierattitude to market incumbents while others will note the close tieswith government regulators. All sorts of wonderful things canhappen when one aligns themselves with a major governmentmandate, in this case rapid deployment of mobile and ruralbroadband, unless of course an even more powerful governmentconstituency has different priorities. Still others will cite the highlifestyle and risk-taking attitude for the plunging lows as much as forthe soaring heights. Sometimes the risks are so large you just needa believing billionaire to make it happen – or not.Less talked about will be role of the one piece of the story that wasso critical that its criticalness was often just assumed - GPS. It hasbecome so pervasive, so crucial to the modern world, that even thefirst hint that the Lightsquared network would interfere with it, evena tiny bit, was enough to cause serious concern by everyoneinvolved. So many applications – automotive, agriculture, aviation,military, logistics and many others – depend on it that in retrospect,it is hard to see how any group, no matter how powerful, could havegone up against it and won. GPS and its associated positioning andnavigation applications singlehandedly beat out wireless spectrumshortages, national broadband plans and billion dollar hedge funds.One lesson we can draw from this story is that the need to knowwhere you are and how to get to where you’re going can often bemuch more important than being able to communicate from whereyou are. History records that it was the compass and the astrolabethat discovered continents and conquered the oceans, long beforethe telegraph and radio were but a glint in an inventor’s eye.Mapmaking and surveying were arts at least hundreds of yearsLess talked aboutwill be role of theone piece of thestory that was socritical that itscriticalness wasoften just assumed- GPS
…it was thecompass and theastrolabe thatdiscoveredcontinents andconquered theoceans, longbefore thetelegraph andradio
older than any Pony Express. Now, not just GPS satellites, butdigital roadmaps, satellite images, triangulation from cellular basestations and wifi hotspots, even 360 degree fully immersivestreetview images help people, businesses and things find theirway. Surely, as the multitude and economic importance ofapplications increase, the demand for precision, resolution andtimeliness will only get more intense.Some of this demand will be met through improved GPS orcompetitors to GPS (such as the Russian GLONASS or theChinese Compass-Beidou) or by any number of GPS augmentationsystems. Higher resolution and more timely images of the Earth willlikely be met by larger and more capable constellations of imagingsatellites and airborne platforms. Still other demand, such as forplaces, street layouts and people locations, will come from thecrowd, the lively cacophony of user-created content that hasexploded data generation. Never in human history has more of ourenvironment been so precisely tracked, recorded and virtualized asit is now, all for want of knowing “Where am I?”.In “Information superhighways get streetwise” (January 2010), wepostulated that the virtualization of the real world, implemented inpart by Google StreetView and others, would be just as valuable ifnot more so than the many virtual worlds that are served up byonline games and social networks. We thought this because, asmuch as our attention is increasingly being diverted online, wenever will and cannot replace the real world as a place where weinteract, meet-up, experience and conduct commerce. What we willhave instead is a melding of the real and the virtual, wherevirtualizations are being used to support interaction in the realworld. At first this means location-based services, such asFoursquare and Facebook Places. Then there is augmented reality,where we use mobile devices to superimpose virtual entities andinformation over the real world. Some have more esoteric butpractical ideas, such as identifying physical addresses with virtualidentifiers and establishing hyper-local geographic social networks.Having virtualized the real world for our benefit, there’s no reasonnot to flip things around and use the full array of data processingand sensor technology to let unmanned systems go wherever wewish autonomously. While easy enough in a virtual world, wherethere are no constraints on where you can go and what you can do,the real world is trickier. Physics, geography and weather, not tomention city streets, buildings and even legal boundaries and trafficHigher resolutionand more timelyimages of theEarth will likely bemet by larger andmore capableconstellations ofimaging satellitesand airborneplatforms
Having virtualizedthe real world forour benefit, there’sno reason not toflip thingsaround…
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