The April 11 edition of the New York Times has an article on "3D Avatars Could Put You in Two Places at Once." It's basically a puff piece for the new book Infinite Reality by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson on how the brain interacts with virtual environments.
Blascovich and Bailenson posit that we are within a few years of having meetings take place in virtual worlds versus in real space, particularly with the introduction of such consumer-grade technologies as the Microsoft Kinect and 3D without glasses, and advanced computing like IBM's "Watson."
I agree that we are getting very close to a time when virtual worlds can become a commonplace part of our experience as humans, in the same way that other communications and media have in the Information Age. But I cringe at their depiction of these spaces as merely simulations of a bland physical reality.
If the best that virtual worlds are going to provide for us is a simulation of sitting around a table and gabbing with creepy-looking human-ish avatars, than that will never be competitive with traditional video conferencing or webinars. But if virtual worlds can break us out of this "real world digitized" paradigm and offer us a richer, more engaging imagination space, where we can inhabit, move around in, and manipulate reality -- then we are talking about something.
Check out the mind-blowing images from the NPIRL (Not Possible In Real Life) Flickr group , that captures virtual spaces and interactions that would be impossible in the real world.
In education and virtual worlds, the first thing we try and do is break out of the traditional classroom design of kids in rows and one teacher in the front. It makes no sense in the virtual world -- heck, it rarely makes sense in the real world anymore.
The kids that I have worked with in virtual worlds got to role play as fossil hunters in Tanzania, interview victims on the "Night of Broken Glass" in 1938 Germany, and explore their own self-image through changing their race, gender and physical attractiveness. From a business perspective, would you rather meet with your client and a team of consultants in a grey conference room, or in a Medieval court in Arthurian armor, from the ancient ruins of Macchu Picchu or the outer rings of Saturn?
In virtual worlds we can build and be whatever we want, limited only by our imagination, technical know-how and computing power. Why limit ourselves to grey conference rooms with this limitless technology?