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Virtual space exploration with a twist of knowledge

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Wikiverse brings gaming techniques to online browsing

Space exploration games like No Man's Sky, Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen allow players to surf virtual galaxies, seeking out strange new worlds.

But they've also served as an inspiration for one extraordinary project, here on planet Earth. Wikiverse is a browser-based simulation of a universe made up entirely of Wikipedia articles.

More than 250,000 articles exist inside Wikiverse, each one a star in a galaxy, with proximity suggesting similarity. Galaxy clusters deal with overarching subjects like religion, sports and history, while intergalactic portal-lines link individual articles together.

Like Wikipedia's own random article service, it offers an opportunity to engage with new information, except in a way that is visually satisfying. The player uses mouse and keyboard controls to fly through the 3D universe, stopping to look at interesting stars, moving along lines that connect to other articles.

Creator Owen Cornec says Wikiverse is the third iteration of this idea, with previous versions, like WikiGalaxy, offering fewer articles and less advanced navigation techniques. But they all come from the same place: an innate sense of curiosity and a love of data visualization.

"I loved hopping from article to article on Wikipedia when I was younger, so I wanted to share this experience with others," he says. "''Oh, I didn't know that' is one of my favorite feelings, but it's something that is tougher and tougher to come by on today's social media bubble. With a few links anyone could be transported to new realms, to knowledge they would never have stumbled upon otherwise.

"It's also an interesting challenge of engineering, there were no tools available to display that much data on a web page, so I built my own. Mapping 250,000 articles with 10 million links was also fun. Finally it's a tribute to Wikipedia itself, how millions of edits and links can coalesce to form something so intricate and beautiful."

Cornec says he used the solutions provided by space exploration games for his work. "It's a little tough to describe Wikiverse as a game as there's no explicit reward for exploration. But the interface borrows much from space-faring games and that's where 3D navigation was mastered. Discovering something new is it's own reward, your curiosity is the only limit. You can lose yourself in the same sense that you fall into a rabbit hole, where time flies as one topic leads to another and another."

He says that he'd like to create a VR version one day, when that technology is further advanced. Right now, his work is dedicated to smoothing the app out so it works inside regular browsers. "One of my goals was always to push the boundaries of what can be done in a web page, blurring the boundaries between your browser and an app. We can now have fully explore-able 3D worlds without installing, downloading or updating anything, it's almost indistinguishable from a normal program when in full-screen mode."