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"This is a whole new frontier of education," says Doherty. "We are the pioneers of this field. It's great to get together once a week and say, 'Guess what I just discovered?'"
For Corbin, it's a geeky dream come true. With the help and encouragement of Amme, he'd begun building the Science School as a virtual ode to his lost Colorado Science Center ("If I can't have one in real life, damn it, I'll have one in Second Life"). Now he found himself part of a powerful science partnership, one that had the potential to get video-game-obsessed kids back into science.
"My enthusiasm has been ridiculous on this," he says. "A lot of people thought I was out of my mind, that I was nuts. It was all I talked about." In SciLands, there were just so many interesting people for him to meet, so many cool things to build — so many accomplishments he could achieve. Soon he was spending fifteen hours a day in the game and he blew through his 401(k) paying for the habit, spending roughly $15,000 to $20,000 on a fancy computer system and digital video camera to stream movies into the Science School and $3,000 on virtual land and upkeep (Amme threw in about $2,000 of his own).
And it didn't stop when Corbin turned off the computer: "I dreamed about Second Life in the first few months because I was spending so much time in there."
Corbin and Amme aren't the only Colorado scientists immersing themselves in SciLands. Recently, a spiffily dressed digital fellow named Hackshaven Harford gave me a tour of the twelve SciLands islands maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Boulder-based Earth System Research Laboratory.
As with Exploratorium Island, some of the most popular exhibits at NOAA's outpost — which has a real-world budget in the six figures — involve wanton destruction or natural disasters. Harford, the avatar for Eric Hackathorn, who manages NOAA's virtual-world program, escorts me to a tranquil beach lined with bungalows and palm trees. I follow him into the watery depths, where the ocean floor begins to rumble and undulate — to the unexpected tune of '80s dance song "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)." "It's not very realistic, but it's good for a dance floor," jokes Harford, bobbing up and down.
The demonstration is accurate enough to get the exhibit's safety-themed point across: If the sea floor starts acting like this in real life, time to get out of the water. We do, but unwisely stay on the beach as the water's edge suddenly drops away, exposing a wide stretch of seabed and a stranded fish flopping about. We soon discover that this was a bad idea. A roaring tsunami bears down upon us, inundating the shoreline and leaving behind a wasteland of strewn wreckage. In a flash, however, the digital bungalows are back on the screen, the trees re-grown and the sea once again serene.
"Faster than FEMA," quips Harford.
Next we fly off toward the horizon, until a giant floating globe appears. This is the beginning stage of Hackathorn's plan to create an in-game, three-dimensional model of Google Earth, the hyper-detailed satellite-imagery mapping program. The result could be the weather map to end all weather maps. College students will be able to watch as clouds pile up against the Rocky Mountains. Virtual briefing rooms could be set up here, with officials watching hurricanes track across the globe and planning evacuation and recovery efforts accordingly.
That's not all, says Harford. Imagine, he says, being able to have an avatar walk through a virtual Boulder on this virtual globe. "Imagine a virtual world where you could meet your friend on a virtual Pearl Street and go into a virtual store and try on and buy virtual clothes, and then the real version would be shipped to you." It's not as far-fetched as it sounds; many suggest this could be the next generation of the Internet.
If that's the case, scientists working in Second Life and other virtual worlds will have a leg up. "NOAA sees this as an investment in the future," Hackathorn says. "Maybe it's Second Life, maybe it's another platform, but five, ten years from now, we could be talking about photorealistic environments, avatars that can flow with you from one world to the next, the blurring of the web and virtual worlds into the metaverse."
Hackathorn credits true believers like Corbin with helping spread this gospel — no matter the cost. "Jeff's working hard to get Denver University on board as well as different organizations around Denver," says Hackathorn. "He has hand-carried the non-believers down there into this virtual world, many times at his personal expense."
Impressive as it may look, the Science School's nascent nuclear reactor gets low marks on security. "Here we are in the reactor," reports Manbi as we float straight through the power plant's domed roof, without a single warning siren wailing in alarm. We're surrounded by pipes, walkways and machinery — all of it a bit imposing.
"Can students make it go critical?" I ask, eyeing the foreboding fuel rods. "Will you be able to cause a Chernobyl?"