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Getting a second life

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August 9, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Kiyup Ingraham was all set to lead a group of Middlebury College staff and students through the virtual world of Second Life recently, when the teleportation system crashed, leaving him stranded on a dance floor in Vienna. This happens sometimes, he said. Pretty soon, they’d be up and flying again.

In real life, Ingraham goes by the name Joe Antonioli and is an educational technology specialist at the college. Since last week he has been running a series of workshops to train students and tech staff in Second Life, an Internet-based virtual world where users can socialize, share digital creations and even buy and sell things for real money.

Second Life is unlike any computer game. It has 8.5 million “residents” from 100 real world countries, though only about 35,000 are logged in at any given time. Everything in the world has been created by users. It has its own currency, the Linden Dollar, named after Linden Lab, the company that launched the virtual world in 2003. Residents can exchange real-world U.S. dollars for Linden dollars at a rate of about 1-to-265.

With so much momentum behind Second Life, several colleges and universities have taken a serious interest in joining in. Among them is Middlebury College.

“There seem to be quite a few higher ed organizations building a presence in Second Life, so I’m making sure we’re prepared for it when it comes up,” Antonioli said.

But what are colleges and universities actually doing in the virtual world? Antonioli, as Ingraham, took his students on a tour to find out.

First, they created avatars, the animated characters that represent Second Life users, called residents. They chose new names, body types, hair color and clothes. They were free to grow a raccoon tail or change their gender, as well.

Using their newly minted avatars, which fidgeted on their own, the workshop participants began exploring Second Life’s orientation island. They found they could fly and talk to people around them. And when the system recovered, they discovered they could teleport.

Antonioli invited the new avatars to join him on an island owned by Stanford University where film students showcase their work.

Linden Lab sells virtual islands in the Second Life world for $1,675 each, with monthly upkeep fees of $295, though academic institutions and nonprofits receive a 50 percent discount. An island is essentially a server where an organization can store information.

On Stanford’s island the avatars stood beneath an enormous list of movies, then made their way to ornate theaters where they could sit with an audience as they watched the films.

As an educational tool, Antonioli said, the opportunities in Second Life are endless.

Case Western Reserve University in Ohio has a mock campus on Second Life where prospective students can go on guided tours, Indiana’s Ball State University offers “in-world” English classes and a student from Norwich University created a Second Life School of Architecture where residents can study digital design and build virtual structures.

According to Ripton resident Bryan Alexander, a researcher for the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE), Second Life’s educational opportunities can be split into two categories.

Students can either explore 3-D representations of inaccessible objects “such as Mayan temples, enormous molecules, the center of a hurricane or a fleet of Cold War-era rockets,” he wrote in an e-mail. Or they can interact virtually with other students, faculty and staff who aren’t physically present.

For Alexander, the richest educational potential in Second Life lies in creatively adapting to the new medium, not trying to reproduce the physical setting of traditional learning spaces. He gave the example of an engineering student studying pulleys.

“Rather than, say, recreating a physics lab, it’s better to (to go to Second Life and) build multiple pulleys of large size and diverse character, so students can explore them,” he said.

As far as Middlebury College is concerned, Antonioli can envision a Second Life campus geared toward students in the language schools. Different areas could be designated to certain languages and students could visit to orient themselves, chat with alumni and share work.

But even without an island of its own, Middlebury students are studying Second Life as a kind of social experiment.

In a real life class at the college last spring, Antonioli teamed up with film and media culture professor Jason Mittell, using Second Life to explore the social and cultural impacts of virtual worlds. Students created avatars, navigated the world and wrote about their experiences.

One student made a documentary film exploring the evolution of Second Life into a commercialized marketplace.

“It’s free. There’s no reason that you have to go there to make money. But that’s what’s happened,” Mittell said.

The student interviewed people who work as virtual strippers, making real money by exposing their avatars. Did they feel they were being exploited, commoditized?

“I think there are potential uses in art and design application, and computer science faculty could certainly use it to understand the coding of it,” Mittell said. “Disciplines like sociology could use it as a platform for research.”

Though he values its educational potential as a “sandbox to meet in, to play in,” and plans to use it in class again next year, Mittell isn’t an avid Second Life user. He prefers games, he said.

“One of the critiques of Second Life has been it’s boring because there’s nothing to do there. You can do whatever you want, but there’s no structure. I much prefer a game that tells me this is what you’re supposed to do and then I do it, rather than an open platform.”

But Second Life was never intended to be a game, he said, it was supposed to be an operating system. As such, Antonioli believes it could represent the direction in which the Internet is headed.

“I’m predicting that this is going to be the way we browse the Web in the future,” he said. “It may not be exactly like this, but this is kind of the way it’s going to evolve. It’s going to be a 3-D environment, rather than text. Instead of visiting a Web site, you’re walking through a store and seeing what they have to sell.”

Mittell is a bit more skeptical.

“I can’t imagine it’s going to be as ubiquitous as Web browsers,” he said. “But it could be. 15 years ago people didn’t think they would want to see pretty pictures when they find something online. People just wanted text. So it’s very hard to predict the future of technology. I don’t even try.” 

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