Memosphere2009. 7. 7. 14:57

Virtual cities at your fingertips

You have visited the Eiffel Tower.  What did you do before you climbed the Tower? You took pictures of the Tower with other tourists. Why? Because you wanted to photograph your brief encounter with one of the most famous historic monuments in the world. (For the purpose of my question, it doesn't matter whether you visited the one in Paris or  another in Las Vegas.) In other words, your knowledge about the Tower preceded your eventual experience of it.  

In fact, it is not just the Eiffel Tower or other tourist attractions that we've got to know them before we actually visited the place and touched them. To an ordinary soul with a decent access to the popular media, the knowledge about anything in the world is mostly acquired from the indirect contact with the various media outlets over their life time. Come to think of it, it might have taken a sheer will and the great leap of faith for many to believe in what the media tell you the world looks like. 

If you can accept nothing as real but you've actually watched, touched and walked through, the world as you know it would be a conceptual space borne out of the barrage of the news and information force-fed by the media. After all, no matter how busy you were traveling the four corners of the world, you will still have missed the infinite wonders of the life the rest of the world can show you.   

As Marshall McLuhan, the visionary media thinker sums up, the real message of the print is nationalism. The print technology--and mass distribution network affiliated with it--contributed greatly to the birth of the nation state as we know it today. Before some scribes recorded, stored and mass-disseminated the printed news on a regular schedule, average Joe could not escape the limited confinement of his vicinity in the real world and transcend the barriers of space and time across thousands of miles. 

Again, your knowledge preceded your actual experience of it. The perceived community in your brain named "nation," in that sense, is simply a concept or a virtual space, not unlike Cyberspace. Long before William Gibson introduced us to the groundbreaking idea in 1984 with 'Neuromancer,' his legendary science fiction novel, the modern mass media pushed us over the realm of virtual community, one after another in the form of a state, a nation or sometimes the world. Isn't it amazing then what is taken for granted and seemingly plain obvious, such as a nation and the world, is simply a byproduct of the relentless exposure to the popular media? 

To most people that cannot afford extensive travels, the perceived world in their head is a rough approximation of the real world. It is a virtual space or a media-generated dream world, imprinted over their life by the various media outlets.  As Morpheus sums up brilliantly in the Matrix, the world as you know it is nothing but a cluster of electric signals force-fed by the media, and then interpreted by your brain. 

Funny thing is, once the images of the world are imprinted in our brain, they will in turn direct us to behave in ways that we would rebuild the world according to the political and cultural lines projected on the Earth. If you have any doubt, just check out the popular NASA satellite picture that shows the worldwide distribution of urban lights, especially those sprinkled on the Korean Peninsula. Once imprinted with a media-generated world view, we will project the same images on the real world again, re-shaping the Earth according to the vision endowed to us. 

Each new media invented so far has brought us to a renewed understanding of the world and another; the print gave us the nation state and the television gave us the global village. And the Internet has brought us to a new frontier that is Cyberspace. 

“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions”; William Gibson defined Cyberspace in 'Neuromancer' as yet another etherial human space.  As with the print and the television, the Internet gave birth another virtual space; Cyberspace, however,  has quickly evolved to a world as tangible and realistic as any other. Think of the multi-million dollar domain wars in 1990s fought over the rights of various high profile Web, and all those petty cyber squatters. 

Dentsu, the top advertising house in Tokyo, has paid Linden Lab 10 million yens in 2007, for instance, for 85 hectares of land in Second Life to build Virtual Tokyo. Dentsu was aiming to recoup the investment by “lining up over 30 blue chip companies to build their presence in the commercial estate of Virtual Tokyo,” after attracting over 3 million Japanese to the popular metaverse, according to the report by Financial Times. I have yet to hear any positive update about the fate of the online city since the global financial crisis hit Japan, but Virtual Tokyo will be remembered in the history as another example of the media-generated virtual space quickly gaining its real world tangibility and significance. 

As fascinating as it sounds, Cyberspace has its own drawback—it is a single layered virtual space. If somebody is squatting on a desired online location before you get there, you have to acquire it to claim a legitimate ownership over the space. That is why we saw countless cases of domain battles back in the heyday of the dot-com era. 

We have a new medium in place, however, that multiple layers can co-exist at the same time and in the same space, where prospective landlords can claim multiple ownership according to the intended design of their target space. Geeks named it the “augmented reality,” but my favorite moniker for the new media space is “memo-sphere.” 

GPS sensor, electronic compass and wireless internet connection; these are three essential elements required for a spontaneous formation of the memo-sphere. It would be easier to understand the concept if you picture yourself walking along the corridors of the Louvre Museum wearing a headset issued from the ticket booth. As you walk along one masterpiece and another, RFID tag behind them will wake up your receiver and trigger a series of recorded description corresponding to each artwork. It would be like you are swimming along a stream of info-sphere running through the corners of the Louvre Museum. 

If the receiver replays the same narration but recorded in seven different languages, one could say there are seven layers of info-sphere interwoven together in the Louvre Museum, switched on and off according to your choice of the language. Or think of the GPS navigation terminal in your car. Depending on the choice of your navigation software, competing service brands will offer you a road map festooned with various useful information. But what if the navigation software is intelligent enough to recognize your demographic, geographic and, yes, psychographic data? 

The navigation terminal can choose from the matrix of thousands of combinations of age, sex and taste. Literally,  city roadways will transform itself on the screens of the terminal according to a map that best corresponds with your implicit desires and requirements, superimposing a personalized memo-sphere on the physical street. For the same roadway, thousands of differing memo-spheres are being materialized here. 

Dentsu might have wished that citizens of Virtual Tokyo would let loose their hidden alter egos and do all the eccentric stuff that will make this metaverse a fun place, brimming with unbridled energy. 

Those weirdos and virtual funs should not necessarily have been locked up in Virtual Tokyo, however. A fascinating memo-sphere will be materialized if Dentsu decides to superimpose Virtual Tokyo on the Real Tokyo by capitalizing on a suite of latest location-aware mobile devices including Apple's iPhone 3GS. 

The coveted cyber items you have just won last night are up for grab for the mobile warriors in Tokyo, as you approach the corresponding locations in Shinjuku or Ginza. The heated Cyber battle in Virtual Tokyo permeates into the streets of the Real Tokyo, turning a seemingly plain Tokyo street to an unlikely arena for the treasure hunt or clever marketing ploy.

Unlike Cyberspace that allows for only one tenant per location or occasion, the memo-sphere will be generous enough to accommodate thousands of contesting service brands in a single space. Sky is the limit; the range of possible memo-sphere scenarios will go as far as your imagination allows. 

The memo-sphere will let you see the world as you have never seen before. I promise. 

*What follows is a transcript of my presentation for Open Web Asia Conference '08 held in Seoul. Below you can find the full presentation slides.

SNS in Memosphere
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