Virtual Worlds

Tuesday 17 May 2011

BCS, 1st Floor, The Davidson Building, 5 Southampton Street, London, WC2E 7HA

6.00pm for 6.30pm start.

Jane Chandler, Associate Dean (Students) Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of Portsmouth.


Jane works for the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries at University of Portsmouth. They’ve been using Second Life for a number of years to for teaching. The computing students use it to develop things - e.g. HCI students can use it for mocking up user interfaces.

A showcase of educational tools has been developed for the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Information and Computer Science. At the moment, Jane is working with the University of Portsmouth Centre for Healthcare Modelling and Informatics on a Telecare showcase for SEHTA to demonstrate how telemedicine and related approaches can impact the workplace and home.

Also nearing completion is a virtual court-room for the forensic IT students for them to develop their skills in presenting evidence in court. Stage two is developing tools to help students to interview each other as expert witnesses.

Today’s aim is to explore the questions: What are virtual worlds? How can they be used in business?

Virtual worlds

There are lots;

  • Second Life
  • Open Wonderland
  • OpenSim
  • ReactionGrid
  • Twinity
  • Active Worlds
  • Habbo Hotel
  • ...

World of Warcraft is similar to a VW, but it is restricted because it is a game.

Implementations of VW inside the firewall are becoming available. This helps with business confidentiality.

Interoperability between different VW systems is increasing (see Hypergrid Adventurers’ Club). The situation today is a little bit like the “walled garden” model of the WWW about ten years ago. No-one originally anticipated the breakdown of these walls. What is developing is a little bit like a 3D version of the Web. Objects and information start to be movable between different systems.

Second Life is still the leader. It uses a metaphor of “islands” to organise the virtual space.

What is a Virtual World?

There is a surprisingly long history of these virtual reality spaces. Victorian panoramas can be seen in a number of museums - they were a way of immersing visitors in the experience of being in a physical situation, such as a famous battle (the earliest known example comes from 1787). Dipity has put together a time line on the web.

Today, all the virtual worlds anyone is excited about are computer-based. The Star Trek “holodeck” made many viewers familiar with the idea of an alternative world.

Attributes of VWs:

  • Rich, graphical, 3D environment
  • Real people represented by “avatars”
  • User-created content
  • Combinations of chat, IM, voice communication
  • Possibly audio and video streaming
  • May have links with the “traditional” web


  • Icon or stick-figure representing the user
  • Customisable to a user’s preferences and to express mood etc.
  • ( A temporary manifestation or aspect of a continuing entity

In earlier times, letters of introduction were used as a temporary partial representation of a figure of authority. Other kinds of temporary manifestations include:

  • A letter, signature
  • An envoy or delegate
  • Letter of introduction
  • Voice on the phone
  • Bank note
  • A photograph or painting
  • An e-mail
  • Your presence in a virtual learning environment (posts in chat rooms, ...)

In some ways, these avatar figures can get in the way because they usually don’t resemble the real person. Once you have got beyond this, they help to make the experience more immersive.

Mark Meadows (I, Avatar) observed that an avatar is

  • An interactive social representation of a user
  • A character in  a game in which you can affect the plot
  • A social creature dancing on the border between fact and fiction
  • A role we inhabit

How often do the people at your work or your home see every aspect of you and your life? What you show is selected based on the purpose of your presence at an event.

Second Life

This is highly representative of all virtual worlds. It’s the one in which Jane has done most of her work.

  • Not a game - no rules, no prizes
  • User created and defined content
  • You choose what “you” look like
  • You choose what you do

Used for:

  • Business (IBM is a major user)
  • Holding meetings (easier and less costly than flying to meetings)
  • Social and entertainment
  • Simulations - inaccessible or dangerous places, for example
  • Education
  • Religious events

Entertainment and consumer goods companies have been very big in this space. However, many have drifted out again. What remains is healthcare organisations, universities and quite a lot of corporations that use virtual worlds internally.

How to use a VW

  • Create an account
  • Install the software (some can run entirely inside web browsers)
  • Check your firewall requirements (SL has some strange port requirements)
  • Start using it

How it appears

Second Life has released Version 2 earlier this year, which makes the user experience much more similar to logging into a web site. It’s free for most purposes. You only need to pay to set up your own island.

There’s a very flexible Avatar Editor, so you can choose to look like your real-world person or a Transformer.

Jane showed an example of using a virtual space designed in SL to mock-up the interior of an HBOS branch and test it out on users. Car companies have used it to let customers make their own customisations of vehicles in order to find out what they want.

Areas you “own” are quite strongly controlled by you - you can set limits on what people can do in your space.

Entrepreneurial Uses

  • Small businesses
  • Buying and selling land in the virtual space (a bit like domain-name trading)
  • Buying and selling objects created in Second Life
  • Content creation
  • Entertainment
    • Rock groups have even performed concerts in the virtual space
    • There are even night clubs in the virtual worlds (though Linden Labs does censor content that is pornographic - some of it is available only to people who turn off filters or who are over 18)
    • Art galleries
  • Education - the education islands tend to be clustered together

Content Creation

Basically everything in SL is made of cubes. They can be manipulated in all sorts of ways - manipulation (twist, form, cut...), scripting, texturing... People have made cake shops and all sorts of other things. You can also import objects designed in CAD packages, textures from TIFF files etc.

The scripting language is quite powerful - e.g. you can create a “slideshow viewer” quite easily.

Educational Uses

  • Art, software, dance, photography exhibitions - particularly sculpture, which can be very onerous to create in real life
  • Simulations of situations, real buildings, events...
  • Classes: lectures, tutorials, treasure hunts (repeat as often as the student wants)
    • Language learning
  • Libraries and Museums
    • E.g. Spaceport Alpha contains models of virtually all rockets and space vehicles that have ever been launched
  • Risky or expensive experiences
    • Running a business
    • Investigate other cultures
    • Find out what happens inside a tornado or a tsunami
  • Real places
    • Places, e.g. Morocco
    • Buildings, e.g. Sistine Chapel
  • Experience what it’s like to suffer from various illnesses, e.g. schizophrenia, or be a character in the Canterbury Tales
  • Training - e.g. disaster response simulation
  • Other simulations, e.g. Solar Systems

Harvard Law School has a number of teaching rooms. Virtual classrooms can be anywhere - favourite locations include a woodland clearing. A traditional-looking meeting room is more boring, but at least everyone knows the conventions. You can script objects to display tool-tips to tell you what they are for, though.

In a science island, you can go inside molecules, breed domestic virtual animals and extract DNA from plants.

There is also a virtual Darfur to let you know what the experience of being in a refugee camp is like.

Connections with the Internet

Interoperability is becoming better. Streaming content as well as web pages.


  • Visual graphical interface - but not nearly as good as the latest games, which have very realistic surface rendering and physics engines. The user-created and dynamic content is much more difficult to render efficiently - but it is getting better.
  • Sense of presence / immersion - it does pull people in. A group of avatars do behave with each other like real people. Even if the avatar doesn’t resemble the real person, it tells you something about them, just like their clothes in real life. Studies have shown that the sense of presence evaporates if the fidelity of the simulation is too good - this is known as “uncanny valley”.
  • Software often free
  • May be run behind a firewall
  • May be run from a USB stick
  • Free content including business tools and teaching tools
  • Wide range of protections and controls available
  • Avatar-tracking is possible for areas and materials (avoids the sense of loneliness when you’re in an area that is currently not being visited by anyone else)
  • Integration with other environments - particularly the WWW, Skype
  • Business & industry supported (e.g. for video conferencing, collaborative content creation, showing each other things on own computers)
  • Available worldwide and linked to the Internet
  • Predominantly English based, but automated translation tools are available in SL


  • Need reasonably powerful hardware and broadband
  • Some users may need initial support to become accustomed to the interface
  • Software upgrade cycle
  • Can be fussy about graphics cards
  • External backups of content can be difficult (used to be impossible)
  • Moving stuff to other VW environments can still be difficult
  • Adaptability for users with physical impairments


  • Face-to-face virtual meetings
  • Gain experience at minimal cost
  • Mechanisms for building simulations
  • Augmented reality
    • Wii controller linked to SL was very successful
  • Micro payments


  • Hardware requirements increasing all the time
  • Time lag between remote users
  • Free software and accounts may come to an end
  • Another platform might win out
  • Dislike of the environment (habitual gamers particularly)
  • Negative publicity
    • Marriage break-ups caused by virtual friendships
  • Collapse of provider


At the end of Q1, 2011 nearly 8Bn Linden dollars were held by SL users - conversion rate is L$253.2 to US$1.

Jane’s presentation contains links to a number of video clips to stimulate more ideas.

There is also a bibliography.