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Emmys 2017
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Virtually Real

On the 10th anniversary of the classic sci-fi novel Snow Crash, David Kushner probes the prescience of author Neal Stephenson

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Forget about attack of the Clones or the trailer for the Matrix sequels. In the world of geekdom, this may be a good time to appreciate the Metaverse, the virtual world first imagined 10 years ago in Neal Stephenson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. Crash chronicles the adventures of Hiro Protagonist, a pizza-delivering hacker who becomes a warrior in a computer-generated domain called the Metaverse. For the legions of far-thinking digerati who devoured the book, this vision of an immersive, communal, interactive world wasn’t just a fantasy, it was an imperative. A decade later, many are still vying to bring such a place to life. Here are some of the leading contenders:

THE SIMS ONLINE (thesimsonline.com) Billed as ”an unpredictable, alternate reality where you are both spectator and participant,” this online sequel (set to hit stores this fall) to the genre-busting PC title The Sims promises to be one of the most interesting human experiments in the history of the Net. Like its predecessor, the game lets players create ”realistic” alter egos who work, redecorate, and even do the dishes. This time, gamers will also face the ultimate challenge: social interaction. Like Hiro, players will be able to live online — bunking with roommates, forming business partnerships, and, inevitably, looking for, uh, companionship. So much for Match.com.

3Q (3q.com) In the Metaverse, who needs Botox when there are ”avatars” — visual representations of your online personas? ”If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful,” Stephenson wrote. ”If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis.” Today, a company called 3Q has created newfangled photo booths that produce instant (and creepily lifelike) three-dimensional avatars. Originally touted for players of such PC games as Counter-Strike and Quake III: Arena, the technology is now deployed in museums to let visitors explore more open-ended Metaverse-style worlds.

CYMOUSE (maui-innovative.com/content/VideoGaming.html) In Snow Crash, Hiro jacks into the Metaverse by simply strapping on a pair of goggles and earphones. In the real world, screen-projecting goggles have given gamers little more than stiff necks. But now there’s at least one novel way to navigate a virtual world: the Cymouse. Place the contraption over your skull and an infrared sensor attached to your PC translates the motion of your head into character movements or screen commands. You’ll end up looking like David Byrne in an old Talking Heads video, but your hands will be free for more important things, like doughnut scarfing.