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TECH TALK: Next-Generation Networks: Mirror Worlds (Part 2)

August 19th, 2005 · No Comments

Over the past decade, we have been spending an increasing amount of our time in so-called cyberspace. Companies and individuals have created virtual representations of their products and services. Our communications have also moved to conversing with identities (email IDs, IM monickers, SMSing to mobile numbers) rather than directly with people. David Gelernters idea of Mirror Worlds takes this to its logical conclusion: we will have a parallel world that we will increasingly inhabit which is a copy of the real world. Today, maps can provide us the spatial copy. But they do not give us the real-time component. That is where a mix of next-generation mobiles, sensors and user-generated content will come in and embellish the other world. So, Mirror Worlds are microcosms of all that we see around us as updated as the real world that they resemble. These Mirror Worlds are accessible to us through screens on the devices we have our mobiles, computers, and perhaps, networked TVs.

Steven Johnson wrote about Mirror Worlds in Discover in May 2003:

In a true mirror world, data would be mapped onto recognizable shapes from real life. For instance, to find information on a local hospital, you would locate the building on a computerized map and click on it with an “inspector” tool. Within seconds, the big-picture data about the facility would come into focus: number of patients and doctors, annual budget, how many patients died in operating rooms last year, and more. If you were looking for more specific informationsay you were considering giving birth at the hospitalyou could zoom in to the obstetrics department, where you would see data on such subjects as successful births, premature babies, and stillborns. Information about how the hospital connects to the wider citywhat Gelernter calls topsightcould be had by zooming out.

Another key feature of Gelernter’s vision is what he calls narrative information systems. The data in a mirror world are time-based: The mortality rate at a hospital varies from month to month and from year to year, and a mirror world would record those changes. So with any variableor combination of variablesyou could reverse the data stream to see past conditions. This is a tool not only for making sense of the past but also for predicting the future: If you’re in the middle of an economic downturn and you’re thinking of moving to a new neighborhood, you might like to see how the real estate values fared during previous recessions. With a mirror world, you would select a neighborhood (or a city block, if you wanted that much detail) with the inspector tool and shuttle the data stream to 1990 or the mid-1970s or the late 1920s, as though you were rewinding a VHS tape.

“My life, like your life, is a series of events in time, with a past, present, and future,” Gelernter says, sitting in a conference room in the New Haven offices of Mirror Worlds Inc., the software company he cofounded. “And that’s the way my software ought to look. The mirror worlds approach to organizing information is based on reality, as opposed to an engineer’s or a computer scientist’s fantasy. I don’t want my personal life to be stored in an arbitrary UNIX file tree; I want it to be life-shapedthe shape of the way I live it.”

Mobiles and next-generation networks are what will make all this possible. For the first time in human history, we have a device that is part of our body it travels with us everywhere. It is a two-day device in the sense that it has both eyes and ears, along with an output mechanism. We also have increasingly ubiquitous networks. What has been missing are the applications to leverage this emerging new order.


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