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The Reality of Second Life

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Scientific meetings have always been a great place to connect with your colleagues and exchange ideas. But as travel expenses keep increasing, costs will limit the number of scientists able to attend. In the future, how can researchers get together en masse without breaking the bank?

One way to save money is to travel by an alternate route. Instead of traveling through real clouds, you can travel through the virtual ones. Meetings in Second Life may give you a chance to visit with colleagues, attend poster sessions, and go to talks — all without ever having to eat airplane food or suffer through a security screening.

Second Life is an Internet-based virtual world, where users fashion avatars to represent themselves. Through these avatars, users can take part in group meetings, lectures, or even conferences.

Second Life science conferences, courses, and events are still unusual, in more ways than one, but they are starting to become more routine. More than 20 organizations related to science and technology now have a presence in Second Life. These include the National Library of Medicine, NOAA, NASA, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the American Chemical Society, and others. Astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists from NASA have community meetings in Second Life. Science Friday has a weekly show. The Sci Foo lecture series has poster sessions and, last summer, hosted a talk by representatives from personal genomics company 23andMe. Last fall, I even gave a poster talk in Second Life, as part of the same lecture series (Sci Foo Lives On).

Still, plenty of my colleagues view Second Life as a kind of video game without a point. They do not understand why anyone would want to go there, especially to attend a conference or talk. If it were always a matter of choice, and I had the funding and time to fly to a lovely place for a conference with great food, wine, and a good band, I'd take the physical trip without question. But if my grant funding were limited and I wanted to include more people from my lab, I'd consider attending in Second Life.

No doubt you're wondering, though, if it's just about funding, why not rely on virtual Web conferences or webinars? Simply put, there are some things that you can do at a Second Life meeting that wouldn't be as easy in the physical world. How many health conferences can boast a walk-through of a middle cerebral artery? Still, even the possibility of walking through a cell or standing next to a three-dimensional molecule wouldn't entice me to visit Second Life just for fun.

What makes Second Life more appealing (and scary) to me is that it feels real. When I give or listen to a webinar, I know very little about the people on the other end of the line. They could be reading their e-mail, texting a friend, or off loading a gel. When I gave my presentation in Second Life, I could see and interact with the other avatars. It had a very different feeling. On the one hand, visiting Second Life made my heart pound. I've never been so nervous during a presentation. On the other hand, it was much more exciting, and I liked it. There's a feedback quality in Second Life that isn't equaled by other kinds of online experience. There aren't many conference opportunities in Second Life as yet, but I think the time will come. You may end up there whether you planned it or not.

A trip to Second Life

Second Life can be an intimidating place to visit, especially if you're planning to attend or give a talk. Before traveling to the official event, it's nice to visit on your own and get used to moving around and controlling your avatar. Go to the website (www.secondlife.com), download the free software, and make yourself an account. You'll find yourself on an introductory island where you can outfit your avatar and choose your body, hair, and other features. There are also some things to practice doing, like walking, flying, and grabbing a torch.

Once you have an account and an avatar, you go directly to certain points by using surls. An "SURL" is like a Web address except that clicking one takes you to a place in Second Life instead of to a Web page. You can also search for places by name in Second Life and teleport to get to them. I recommend visiting Second Nature Island first. You can wander around, look at the posters, and practice with your avatar without feeling too silly. I don't know when people normally visit these areas, but these spots were always empty when I visited.

When you get to Second Nature Island, you might notice the poster area. If a live presentation is happening, you'll see all kinds of avatars standing around the poster and someone presenting. At other times, you'll most likely have the poster area all to yourself. You can look at any poster presentation by clicking it. The pages load slowly sometimes, but you do get to see the presentations. You may notice that some of the posters have bells on the lawn in front of the poster. The bells are used to send a message to the owner of the poster.

After you've looked at a few posters, wander on over to Genome Island. One of the things you'll find is a gallery of chromosomes. The chromosomes look like a set of different sized croquet wickets, but if you click one of these, some text will pop up and tell you about whatever gene is located close by.

I can't help feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland when I visit Second Life. Objects are always offering to give me note cards that I can keep or discard. One of the fun places on Second Nature Island looked like a kindergarten play area. But no — this setting was built by a pharmaceutical science group at the University of Michigan. The poster boards offered to give me a URL and took me to a place where I could learn about the lab and their graduate program. Now there's an interesting way to find future grad students: recruit them in Second Life!

It's not clear how many groups are going to make the leap to holding conferences or talks in Second Life, but the number is certainly increasing. Alternative places are appearing as well, like Croquet (www.opencroquet.org) and this last summer, there was a science conference in World of Warcraft. It's worth a visit, just to see what all the fuss is about.

Sandra Porter, PhD, is the director of education at Geospiza. Her blog is located at scienceblogs.com/digitalbio.