What are Virtual Worlds?

The capability of virtual worlds has expanded considerably in the past few years, with enormous development in building tools, climate simulators, physics engines, and the overall capability of these platforms to simulate reality. Gartner Research, Inc. has estimated that by 2011, 80% of Internet users will have an avatar in a virtual world, and hundreds of platforms to allow those avatars places to interact are already available or in development. Virtually every higher education institution has some sort of work going in around virtual spaces, and in just one platform alone, Linden Lab’s Second Life®, thousands of educational projects and experiments are actively underway. Early projects that drew heavily on real-world forms and practices gradually have given way to more experimental ventures that take advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by virtual worlds and other immersive digital environments. Now we are seeing increased use of these spaces for truly immersive forms of learning and for a level of collaboration that is erasing traditional boundaries and borders rapidly. The technology that supports virtual worlds is advancing at a rapid rate, paving the way for more realistic environments, connections between different platforms, and new ways to enter and use virtual spaces. As participation and development both continue to increase, these environments are becoming ever more interesting spaces with obvious potential for teaching, learning, and creative expression.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the museums you know best?

  • Virtual worlds are intrinsically highly social spaces, whose 3D characteristics lend themselves far more readily to the museum experience than ever did the 2D wallpapers of the World Wide Web.
I would argue that holds true just as much for art museums, natural history, or local historical museums as for science or technology museums. In each case their specific mandates make their 3d screen debuts equally as well whether they are custodians of unique art or interesting in framing scientific issues or historical narratives. The sense of 'walking round' the gallery, taken together with the social interaction between avatars sharing the same vantage point is far closer to a typical museum experience than the web page metaphor ever was.
Virtual worlds offer museum visitors the opportunity to experience activities not possible in the real world as well as a space for international educational collaborations and workshops. - phyllis.hecht phyllis.hecht May 2, 2010

The unique affordances of virtual worlds for learning purposes are many: a) they allow you to mimic scientific processes in an hour, day, or few days that take millenia in the real world (e.g. fossilization); b) they allow learners to explore, manipulate, destroy, excavate virtual artifacts and specimens in a risk-free environment; c) they often can reach hundreds of thousands of users--folks that otherwise would not have access to your collection; d) vws can facilitate collaboration among learners through time, in a way that is not always possible through on-site learning- elizabeth.babcock elizabeth.babcock May 2, 2010

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • I feel that the Gartner Research, Inc. link is now outdated as at a glance from Google Trends for Second Life http://www.google.com/trends?q=second+life shows. While at the time of the Gartner Report (2007) Second Life was at its peak, it has long since left its hype high and has fallen deep into its long tail. For museums, SL was never a long term solution anyway, as the prohibition of under 18 year olds goes against the museum mission of open access for all. If a family or school group can not enter SL, then the museum has no business even being there. Having said this, new 3D platforms are emerging and new solutions are just around the corner; browser-based virtual worlds and Open Sim solutions. In this case SL has a critical role for the museum as a platform where museums can learn how to act in this kind of arena and get their water wings as we all once needed to do in the early 1990's.
  • - susan.hazan susan.hazan
  • I agree with Susan that virtual worlds will progress beyond Second Life to those with less of a learning curve, easier access, and open to a broader audience. Perhaps missing from the above description is an emphasis on the real-time aspect of virtual worlds for learning, collaboration, and social interaction. The Tech Museum for instance gathers people from around the world to experiment and prototype exhibitions in real-time in SL. My online classes, which include students from around the world, are able to enjoy museum field trips together in Second Life. - phyllis.hecht phyllis.hecht May 2, 2010
  • Utilization of some virtual world exhibitions and spaces can be lower than hoped/desired; costs for creating and maintaining virtual worlds can be excessive, especially for the graphics-intensive 3D worlds; making smart choices between social networks, online gaming and virtual worlds can be tricky---not every learning objective requires a virtual world; accuracy and realism can be more important for some projects than others, and can help dictate choice of type of virtual world; partnerships with established virtual world providers can be cost effective and leverage the strengths of each partner organization. - elizabeth.babcock elizabeth.babcock May 2, 2010

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on education and interpretation in museums?

  • While the WWW version of a museum never competed with the physical museum, the virtual world certainly can compete with 2D legacy solutions; webinars, virtual tours for the single user, database-driven online collections.

The activities that the museum can explore in a virtual world include all of the previous with added potential for:
Guided tours
Gallery talks

Basically almost any kind of social activity a museum might wish to host in its physical space
The Exploratorium has used Second Life to great advantage, offering avatars tours of the universe and other experiential activities that leverage the capabilities of a 3D environment – things not possible in the physical space of the museum. I think that virtual worlds can be a great training ground for our future museum professionals for activities such as learning to interpret objects or prototyping exhibitions. - phyllis.hecht phyllis.hecht May 2, 2010

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen's, Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden is an excellent example of a Second Life Museum in Second Life. This museum is located on its own island which hosts an impressive replica of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen's Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden. This sim has been fully authorized by the mother institution who remind us how 'the locations of many famous masterpieces, such as Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” or Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” have been transposed to this beautifully modeled museum, and have been reconstructed, true to scale to includes all of the 750 masterpieces in the permanent exhibition'.

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem created a sim of the Shrine of the Book in SL in tandem with a 3-day conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls. While the physical conference brought together 120 specialists from all over the world to the museum campus to discuss the latest in manuscript research, the Shrine of the Book sim in SL hosted a webcast of the 3-day lectures and an alternative platform to stage further interaction and live discussion.
- susan.hazan susan.hazan Apr 30, 2010

The Tech Museum: http://thetechvirtual.org/ - phyllis.hecht phyllis.hecht May 2, 2010

**The Field Museum's virtual coral reef on Whyville at http://reef.whyville.net; also I Dig Zambia and I Dig Tanzania using Second Life--virtual paleontology excavations.- elizabeth.babcock elizabeth.babcock May 2, 2010

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