Screen grabbers – crime hits the digital frontier

As a teenager is arrested for stealing pixels, Victor Keegan reports in The Guardian on the rise of the 3-D ‘virtual worlds’ that could transform the way we work, play, shop and communicateA 17-year-old Dutch teenager was arrested this week on suspicion of stealing furniture worth £2,800 from a hotel room. Four other teenagers were also questioned about the offence. It is believed they moved the stolen furniture into their own hotel rooms. Such a minor incident might not have merited a paragraph in the local paper had it not been for one extraordinary detail of the case: the crime happened not in real life but in a “virtual” hotel in the three-dimensional world Habbo Hotel, a children’s game that only exists on the internet.

The most dramatic example is happening now in China, where a consortium of government and private capital is investing $30bn in a 100 square kilometre site – that’s around six miles by six miles – to build the Beijing Cyber Recreation Project. Among other things this will house the infrastructure (computer server farms, electricity, online banking links, transport logistics etc) to host nine or 10 virtual worlds, each of which will be capable of supporting over 150m avatars. The Chinese are not constructing virtual worlds for fun; they are deadly serious. Although online games will be part of the mix, the underlying strategy is strictly economic: to boost the profits from the country’s booming industrial base.At present a Chinese manufacturer selling a shirt might only get $1 despite the fact that it might sell in London for $20. But if buyers from around the globe can be lured into virtual malls (think Amazon in three dimensions) they can buy direct from the Chinese manufacturer at a cheaper price, capturing all the wholesaling, retailing and delivery profits for China. If China’s approach is successful – and applied to more goods, from toys to cars or computers – western economies could face serious problems. At the moment they are managing to survive the collapse of manufacturing partly because low-cost Chinese goods means they enjoy low inflation while retaining the bulk of the value-added generated by the goods as they travel to customers from Chinese factories. If they lose that, there is nothing obvious left to take its place.

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