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Second Life moves closer to prime time

March 2, 2010

Last week Second Life released a public beta version of the software used to enter their virtual world. “Viewer 2” is a huge step towards broader acceptance of virtual world technology.

Notre Dame is three years into an exploration of virtual worlds as a tool for teaching and learning. In the process, we have developed a number of “proof of concept” projects on the island of Sophia in Second Life. Our results are not as advanced those of some other institutions, but we believe we have developed a good understanding of the opportunities and challenges afforded by this technology.

One of the main challenges in Second Life is the clunky interface. Viewer 2 borrows interface elements from browsers and other familiar apps to make the user experience more intuitive for new “residents.”

Users are being encouraged to use the new software now, even though it’s technically still in beta. The plan is to officially move away from the old version over the summer.

My experience has led me to this conclusion: virtual worlds are not ready for prime time. Second Life is usable today in a number of situations, but it will still be a while before the system is widely implemented in higher education. One of the remaining barriers is down time; the servers frequently have to restart for repairs or maintenance. There is also no easy, inexpensive way to build objects outside of Second Life and import them.

The New Media Consortium is doing its best to encourage development in Second Life. NMC recently conducted a Two-Minute Survey on What’s Happening in Virtual Worlds, where the learning curve was cited as the major barrier to adoption.

Viewer 2 goes a long way toward bringing this technology into the mainstream, and that’s good. I am still excited about its long-term potential in the area of immersive games and simulations. There are other promising developments in the are of virtual worlds, like the OpenSim project, but none are as far advanced as Second Life.

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