Virtual worlds – what a concept, eh? If you haven’t yet visited a virtual world to have a look around, I urge you to give it a try. What’s more, I strongly encourage you to go in with someone knowledgeable. The first time I went into Second Life, I went in alone, and have to admit that I wasn’t impressed. The technical requirements were steep, the avatars all had a flat, paperdoll quality, and the interface was far from intuitve. But worst of all, I just wasn’t sure I understood what the point was. Why would anyone go to all this trouble?
A year later, I gave it another try. But this time, with a knowledgeable friend. It only took about an hour, following her around from place to place, talking with other avatars she knew, and getting a short tutorial on how to build, that I started to grasp the possibilities. It wasn’t just all the things you could do there (build, shop, listen to music, learn, attend plays, look at art, dance) but it was the people you could meet. For me, it was other educators – from all over the world – whom I would never meet in other way. Creative, resourceful, and inspiring teachers who were keenly interested in figuring out how the unique affordances of SL could be applied to the challenges of teaching and learning.
I still feel a bit disoriented when I’m there, I will confess. For example, time just flies by. I go “in-world” and, before I know it, an hour has passed. It’s a combination of each new place you visit leading you to something else you want to see, or someone else you want to talk with but there’s also the complete immersion of it all. It feels as if you’re diving into a deep pool. In fact, it does remind me a bit of exploring the underwater world as a SCUBA diver. There’s a funny feeling that you don’t really belong – that you’re a visitor in a strange and exotic land.
So, what’s going on in there? New information was recently released on the economy of SL. In total, since it began in 2002, Second Life residents have transacted over $1 billion dollars worth of virtual goods and virtual services over the span of a billion hours in a world that boasts two billion square meters of virtual land. In 2008, $100 million US dollars worth of Lindens (273 Linden Dollars $ = $1 US dollar) were bought and sold on the Lindex. The in-world economy grew 94% year-over-year from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009. That’s pretty impressive, but even more impressive to me is that the transactions that make up this economy are mostly micro-transactions, averaging in the $1 – $5 range.
Here’s more…approximately 1,250 text-based messages are sent every second in SL. 195 different countries are represented and the SL viewer is available in 10 languages. More than 18 billion minutes of voice chat have been used in SL, since voice was introduced in 2007. And users create more than 250,000 new virtual items every day. There are now more than 270 terabytes of content in SL.
And what does all of that content look like? Buildings, art work, clothes, animals, simulations, rockets, boats, and castles. An accurate replica of the Sistine Chapel (pictured here), a recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, a fly-through tour of a breathing lung, the Great Wall of China, a real-time weather simluator, a ride-able Newton’s cannonball, a virtual Africa, a replica of the HMS Beagle, an underwater park…just to name a few.
For my part, I’ve been concentrating on my building skills (learning how to build out of prims – the legos of SL and script them with behaviors and responses), meeting avatars from all over the world, and coming up with ideas for biology learning activties. In June, I helped to organize a continuing medical education event – using the virtual world as a forum for practicing physicians to meet and extend their knowledge. I built a mid-air activity where students can get a feeling for the electron transport chain by “reducing” as they “fall” from plaform to platform (pictured here). I’ve just completed a cell structure activity where students can move giant cell organelles into even more giant plant and animal cell frames and, in the process, learn about the relationships between the organelles and how cells are put together. I’ve got so much more to learn but I’m coming along.
The thing I keep thinking, as I roam the Second Life grid, is that, regardless of whether or not Second Life survives into the future, I have no doubt that virtual worlds will. It seems inevitable to me that worlds like these will be the way we plot our course through the internet and its vast resources. That avatars, representing us, will be our agents, our representatives, as we navigate the electronic world and reach out to each other.
And if you’d like to come see for yourself, send me a note and I’ll give you a tour.