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It's virtually serious



Computing: Virtual worlds are being put to serious real-world uses—and are starting to encounter some real-world problems

IT IS a typical example of the colonisation of a new frontier. A few intrepid explorers stake out some new, unexplored territory. Before long the first settlers move in and start to look for ways to make a quick buck. Their success attracts more settlers, and an unruly bonanza ensues; finally the policemen, lawyers and tax collectors show up. But the territory in question is not a new continent: it is the realm of cyberspace, where two developments suggest that virtual worlds are coming of age. The first is the emergence of commercial uses for virtual environments; the second is the advent of litigation and regulation.

Many of the serious uses of virtual worlds were on show at a conference held in September at Coventry University in England. Aptly, people could also take part in the conference by visiting an online re-creation of the university's Serious Games Institute, where they could chat with other participants and watch presentations. David Wortley, the institute's director, says half those attending did so this way. The focus of the conference was the application of computer-game technologies and virtual environments to real-world business problems.

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