Back from the Virtual World

Back from the Virtual World

I'M BACK FROM A FEW WEEKS IN THE virtual world. To properly research the "Sizing Up Second Life" article in this issue, I signed on, created an avatar and set off exploring. I was immediately struck by the helpfulness and patience of people I encountered. And I could fly. What better way to get around an island than to leap into the air and zoom off? In the end I came away excited at the potential that the simulation holds not just for education but also for collaboration, social interaction, product design, and marketing.

What impressed me was the variety of people who were also exploring the virtual world. Over the course of my journey, I met a graphic designer from South Africa, a student from Germany, a self-described "green activist" from South Carolina, a priest from Massachusetts, and teachers from all over. Several of us have kept in contact, helping each other out by passing along information about our latest discoveries: "Have you seen..." "Make sure you visit..."

We were all interested in learning what the fuss was about, and what the possibilities were. I have to say it was eye-opening. Second Life has a vibrant economy, based on "Linden dollars," which can be converted to U.S. dollars. It has its own newspapers and magazines, a police force, shopping malls, and live concert venues. And there are dozens of classes and workshops devoted to teaching and learning in the "sim" or simulation.

What impressed me was the variety of people I met who were also exploring the virtual world.

A striking example of how the virtual world can put a new twist on education is called Virtual Starry Night, a gallery showing of works by Vincent Van Gogh. The sim was created by Tressis, a new media concepts and marketing firm based in the Netherlands. Many of the artist's most famous paintings are reproduced in high resolution on the gallery's walls, accompanied by detailed note cards that put the works in context to the times and to Van Gogh's personal troubles.

What sets it apart from a typical gallery visit is that you can actually enter the paintings and experience them from different perspectives. For me, a fan of the Dutch artist, this was a revelation. Among other things, being able to move around in a painting helped explain why Van Gogh arranged objects the way he did. View a well-known painting, like "The Bedroom," from a different angle and its careful composition-not to mention its vibrancy-is destroyed.

Fred Bos, concept director of Virtual Starry Night and CEO of Tressis, told me that was the plan from the start. "We were wondering what the added value would be. The 3D aspect is what came to mind right away in the first brainstorm we had."

The project was started as a way to discover the possibilities of virtual worlds. "We wanted to at least have enough understanding of it to enter the market at some point if we felt like it," Bos says. "Virtual Starry Night, however, became a huge success, so we decided to keep it up and running. Currently we are looking into ways to expand the activities, such as adding 3D works of other painters."

Second Life and other 3D virtual worlds have a huge potential, Bos says. "In many ways, they add more value to standard educational tools than just a museum visit. The experience is much more intense. One of the great advantages we have is the opportunity to bring paintings from all around the world together at one place."

So now I'm back. Was it worth it? Yes. Will I return to Second Life? Probably-the thrill of discovery is still strong. But I really do miss flying.

<em>Write to Tim Goral at tgoral@universitybusiness.com.</em>


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