Alternative Existence in Parallel Worlds

Through their avatars, visitors to Second Life can get down and boogie at their favourite club - Copyright 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Through their avatars, visitors to Second Life can get down and boogie at their favourite club – © 2006, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 1 | Jan. 4, 2007

By Brian Lamb
Manager, Emerging Technologies & Digital Content, Office of Learning Technology

Right now on the web the most rapid growth, the most innovation, and the most buzz concerns the emergence of three-dimensional immersive environments for online activity. These parallel worlds, populated by virtual avatars representing human beings in the physical world, are home to activities and interactions that a short time ago might only have been imagined in science fiction.

Immersive worlds are largely a by-product of the massively multiplayer online games that allow thousands to play inside a dizzying array of virtual environments. Perhaps the best known of these is Vivendi Universal’s World of Warcraft, in which players adopt the roles of warriors or hunters questing for virtual gold and power in an atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Improved personal computing power and the growth of high-speed Internet access has resulted in exploding popularity for these rich 3-D spaces.

Second Life is a 3-D world that extends the concept of immersive environments beyond gaming. As its name suggests, Second Life is a user-created world defined by the activities of its “residents” within a virtual “meta-verse” developed and made publicly available by a California company, Linden Labs. Each user creates a personal avatar by choosing amongst hundreds of settings and options, and most of the environment is built by the residents themselves. Second Life has its own internal economy, and its own currency, known as Linden Dollars, which may be used to purchase “land” or goods and services from other residents. Purchases may range from stylish clothing needed to make a dashing impression to a “Complete Storm System” that allows users to summon rain, hail and lightning from the digital sky.

Boosters of Second Life suggest that the range of virtual business opportunities is comparable to that in the real world. Design firms that specialize in creating stunning structures and landscapes are collecting sizable fees in both real and Linden Dollars, and residents are making real-life livings in virtual professions serving as wedding planners, casino operators, real estate speculators, advertisers and private detectives. Second Life has already proven to be a popular outlet for musical performances, with real world music acts staging shows themselves and others creating virtual tributes for popular acts such as U2.

As the technology improves in its power to engage, researchers and educators are increasingly exploring the use of virtual worlds. The University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Arts Instructional Support & Information Technology (ISIT) unit has been building a Second Life island campus, named Buchanan, after the Faculty’s main building. The island draws inspiration from features of the UBC campus such as the Rose Garden, the Clock Tower, and the Chan Centre, with spaces filled with ancient works that support Professor Marvin Cohodas’s art history courses. And the Masters of Digital Media Program, a collaboration between UBC, Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr Institute and BCIT, will also be staging course activities in a Second Life campus when it opens on the Great Northern Way Campus in September 2007.

Given the continued advances in technology and infrastructure, and the stunning growth in environments such as Second Life, immersive virtual worlds may well be the next big thing in online culture.

For more information on Second Life projects at UBC, visit a blog on ISIT’s virtual campus at, or the Masters of Digital Media blog at