October 9, 2008 By Chandler Harris
Photo: British Foreign Secretary David Miliband takes part in a press conference hosted in the virtual world of Second Life. The event marked the end of a vital meeting of the world's Small Island States last year.
Last April, avatars gathered at the virtual world re-creation of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunication and the Internet to listen to a presentation about the future of virtual worlds. Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, spoke simultaneously in Washington and the virtual world of Second Life about the evolution, culture and future of virtual worlds such as Second Life, Zwinky and There.
It was the first ever Congressional hearing simulcast in an Internet-based virtual world, according to Markey. Those present, both in the real world and a virtual world, included members of congress and the avatars of journalists, online advocates and academics, as well as the avatars of several federal government representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"In time, virtual worlds will become ever more commonplace and millions of Americans will inhabit such worlds for parts of their day -- for communications, for business, for education, for health care, for cultural interests," Mackey said in his opening statement.
The educational hearing signified a growing interest in government agencies to utilize the opportunities available in virtual worlds not limited to conferences. In 2007 the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds was formed, consisting of a group of U.S. federal government agencies and contractors interested in exploring the use of virtual worlds in government, sharing best practices and policies, creating shared repositories, and networking. In the past year the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds has grown from a handful of agencies to more than 100.
Members of the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds include the U.S. Department of Defense, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, NASA, and the NOAA. Other U.S. government agencies that have virtual world facilities in Second Life include the National Institutes of Health and its National Library of Medicine (NLM), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. House of Representatives. Other U.S. government agencies interested in virtual worlds include the National Defense University that is building a 600-seat auditorium above an island in a virtual world; the Air Force who is considering prototyping a virtual base; the Transportation Department who is constructing a world with IBM, and the Department of Homeland Security.
NOAA has the most complex Second Life facility of all government agencies, located on SciLands, a "mini-continent and user community" in Second Life that has more than 20 science and technology related organizations including government agencies, universities and museums. At the NOAA Second Life facility, visitors can experience a hurricane from the wings of a research aircraft, which integrates real hurricane footage with a virtual experience. Visitors can also stand on a beach during a tsunami, elevate through the atmosphere on a weather balloon, see a virtual glacier, or ride underwater on a NOAA submarine.
"A lot of science is hard to digest and virtual worlds give us this new bag of tricks when it comes to storytelling," said Eric Hackathorn, program manager for NOAA's virtual world program. "Virtual worlds bring to life our mission story that is perhaps more appealing than other mechanisms."
The primary purpose of the NOAA virtual world facility is education outreach to the general public, Hackathorn said. Last Earth Day, a general talk on climate change was conducted at the NOAA virtual world facility, with a virtual power point presentation and video clips on a virtual movie screen. While an attendee from Belgium had trouble interpreting the dialogue, a virtual attendee helped translate.
The NASA virtual world, called Explorer Island,