Virtual Worlds Case Study:
When a resident of Second Life visits an island, he or she expects to be intrigued and entertained, possibly even engaged in a learning experience. She may not expect to be utterly riveted by the content and the interaction to the point that she starts to return to the site each time an event is announced, fully expecting to have her sensibilities outraged, her intellect piqued, and her emotions pushed to the boiling point. If she visited the University of Delawareâ€™s island during the Spring of 2008, though, thatâ€™s exactly what she would encounter, in the collegeâ€™s aptly named speaker series, â€œBoiling Point: The International Politics of Climate Change.â€
Being controversial is nothing new for the University of Delaware. Founded in 1738, three of the original ten class members went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. The University of Delaware’s virtual world in Second Life reflects the university’s rich tradition of influential thinkers, scholars, statesmen, and scientists, and its well-known programs in engineering, marine and aquatic science, international relations, art conservation, and more.
Mashup of the real Memorial Hall and its Second Life version designed by NMC Virtual Worlds. Image by Alan Levine
When the visitor arrives on the University of Delaware island, the first impression is one of tradition blended with innovative, forward-looking technology. The Georgian architecture, with its deep red bricks, bright white porticos and expansive colonnades, gives one a sense of making contact with some of the great ideas of one’s time. While the design elements of the virtual world reinforce tradition, they also convey the message that this is a place where discourse on the important matters of the day is routine. The brick walkways and meeting areas, reminiscent of the “Mentor’s Circle” at the real-life University of Delaware Newark (Delaware) campus, invite visitors to linger and engage in conversation.
While it is possibleâ€”and the landscaping renders it even delightfulâ€”to access all buildings by walking (or flying), useful maps allow the visitor to teleport directly to various buildings and sites.
The main building on campus is a red brick Georgian building surrounded by cherry trees in full blossom and the subtle sounds of chirping birds. Its auditorium is an excellent space for events, including concerts, lectures, and presentations. A large flat screen allows audience members to watch films, slides, and other presentations.
To the side is an airy, light-filled art gallery, with gray-white walls and hardwood floors. The Spring 2008 exhibit on display is focused on “Die Brucke,” an art movement represented by a German group of painters and printmakers who worked from from 1905 to 1913 and who were closely associated with the development of Expressionism. The work of one of the most well-known artists of Die Brucke, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), is on display. The works of art have the energy and freedom of expression of outsider art, even as they slough off the influences of what came before. The work of this group has always been considered visionary, reactionary, and idealistic, imbued as it is with the belief that one can liberate oneself from the negative political, economic, and aesthetic structures of the past. Closely allied with futurism, and perhaps more than a little indebted to the philosophy of the fin-de-siecle anarchists, the art communicates rupture, optimism, honesty, and change. For visitors to the Second Life museum, the experience can be an exhilarating one as it suggests that the human mind is not ineluctably shackled to the mindsets and ideas of the past.
Pathways and Views
Gazing out the bright gallery windows provides a view of the Atlantic Ocean. The scene encourages the visitor to walk outside and down the pathways leading to stadiums and meeting areas. Along the way are announcements for lectures; currently featured is “Boiling Point: International Politics of Climate Change,” a series of lectures held every Wednesday at 7:30 pm in real life (RL), and simultaneously made available in SL.
Attending an event in the stadium is a dramatic experience, not only because the stadium is positioned over the ocean, but also because the events provide interaction between individuals in SL as well as with those in a real-world setting.
As the visitor crosses the pathway into the open-air stadium and takes a seat, she immediately sees numerous presentation screens. They surround the stadium, and provide places for announcements, art, and displays. The facilitator stands in the center area and helps visitors take their seats and become comfortable using the streaming media offered in the space.
High overhead is a large cube, where visitors watch and listen to real-world presentations projected onto the screens. As the event begins, visitors in SL interact with each other, making spontaneous introductions. Far overhead, the screens start to light up, and streaming media from an auditorium in real life appears. To get a better look, a few participants have flown up so that they can see the screens at eye level. It’s not necessary, since one’s camera controls allow one to approach the screens on many levels, but some prefer to be physically close to the screens. As the introductions are done and the speaker comes on, a few participants make comments in the text chat. Others take snapshots and send photos to friends and acquaintances; still others have opened up notepads and are preparing to take notes on the lecture.
After the presentation is finished, the moderator asks for questions and answers. This is possibly the most exciting part of the evening. Questions are not restricted to those participating in the real-world session; those in the SL auditorium also have that opportunity. Questions are sent via chat to the SL moderator, who then passes them on to the technical liaison and then to the real-world moderator. It is a thrill to hear the moderator on the presentation screen ask the question and explain it has come from the Second Life audience. Although it is common to send emails to radio and television broadcasts, the Second Life experience has a completely different feel, primarily because one is interacting in such a tangible way with the environment via one’s avatar.
The questions are answered, the location of the archived podcast is disseminated. While one might expect everyone to simply teleport to another island, what happens is something entirely different. The participants in Second Life stay afterâ€”15 or 20 minutesâ€”and exchange ideas and impressions. In the case of a recent presentation by John Hofmeister, the president of Shell Oil Company, the responses range from surprise at his open and diplomatic manner, to discussions about what he did not say and suggestions about how to encourage him to answer the tough questions. Finally, after discussing the issues a bit more and signing up for notices for future events, the SL attendees moved on to other activities.
The University of Delaware offers a Sea Grant college program in conjunction with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The program, which involves learning about marine and aquatic science, has a tradition of involving not only students and scientists, but also community members. The Second Life world offers the same kind of engagement, as the visitor is able to walk along the beach, along the dunes, into the water, and even along the ocean floor, where it is possible to walk through underwater forests of kelp, sit on rocks to observe activities, and to wander around and approach anemones, jellyfish, sea turtles, striped fish, and more.
The beach sports a host of meeting points, including shacks, piers, and towers. The experience is so refreshing, with saturated colors, soothing surf, and colorful, interactive elements, that one can almost smell the salt air and feel the spray. The openness of the design creates possibilities for interacting with participants, engaging in interactive presentations and learning about recent developments in coastal sciences.
Future plans involve building a research vessel which is modeled after a real-life analog. Also, there are plans to hold courses in the underwater classroom, which will facilitate the discussion of coastal and marine biology topics.
Visit the University of Delaware in Second Life — there is even more than meets the eye. Explore the island to find hidden pathways that lead to a mystery to be solved!