Virtual reality is becoming more real every day. We're still light years away from the "Metaverse" virtual worlds from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash -- but several technology behemoths are taking baby steps in that direction as we speak.

"Second Life" proprietor Linden Labs and Big Blue IBM (NYSE:IBM) just showed that the massive Second Life world can connect to IBM's OpenSim servers. This could be the beginning of open standards that would connect every conceivable virtual reality network to each other, much the same way we move transparently between servers and networks on today's Internet.

Create just one avatar (virtual alter ego) and move from your private network to some million-user disco party, then straight into a virtual business meeting on secure servers hosted by Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), IBM, or Akamai (NASDAQ:AKAM). It'd be a much richer environment than today's World Wide Web, with something closer to personal interaction, and very different from the current melange of virtual worlds that simply can't talk to one another.

At the same time, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) also released its own 3-D virtual world tool, Lively. Through a browser plugin, users connect to virtual rooms published on a Web page. It isn't a window into a huge world like Second Life or Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ:ATVI) World Of Warcraft, but a more intimate way to share smaller spaces. Nonetheless, it's a new entry point into virtual worlds, and it is easy to imagine these rooms connecting through the open standards IBM envisions to larger environments. With Google's considerable online reach, this could be the gateway drug that gets the masses hooked on the virtual experience, before moving on to the heavy stuff.

Call it virtual insanity if you want, but virtual reality is starting to look useful for more than just fun and games. If Stephenson is right, it could be the way to have a social life before too long. Expect the online business world to change as these pixelated face-to-face situations move into the mainstream. IBM and Google are smart to stay on the bleeding edge of this development, but keep en eye out for the next generation of virtual startups, too. The Fool will keep you posted.

Further Foolishness:

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.