August 29, 2007

Profs Teach Using Virtual Realities

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To most people who use the online virtual world of Second Life, the character named Beyers Sellers seems like a typical virtual person. He’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he has a cottage by the beach with a boat nearby. Few would suspect that the man behind this creature is Prof. Robert Bloomfield of the Johnson School of Management.

Beyers Sellers also has a huge magic box on his virtual property that allows him to create a number of different buildings, including a one-room school house. Bloomfield plans to use such a structure this semester to host virtual lectures as part of his class, NMI501: Business and Oversight in Second Life.

Second life is one of the newest virtual worlds in which participants can assume any identity, build any physical object and make friends with anyone who they see fit.

All objects and amenities are bought using a currency called Linden dollars, which can be converted into U.S. dollars, creating a real economy in this virtual world.

Bloomfield spent the summer studying the businesses and stock exchanges in Second Life. Having witnessed scandals that eventually led to market crashes, Bloomfield has recommended solutions to help stabilize this highly laissez-faire economy.

One issue with this economy is that “there is no regulation,” Bloomfield said. “If you want to start a stock exchange, you just start it up. If you want to start a bank, and people put money in it, it’s not clear that you have to give the money back … I worked with the Second Life Exchange Commission, and we all agree on one thing: transparency is good. People need to understand the risks of investing.”

With a firm grasp of the economy of Second Life, a market that Bloomfield thinks can teach us a lot about real world business, the professor is teaching a class about where the virtual world meets the real world and its laws.

“We are looking at two main questions,” Bloomfield said. “First, what can we expect real life regulation to do [in Second Life]? And second, to the extent that real world regulation doesn’t apply, what does that mean? We are looking at questions such as if I kill a dragon and get a golden key, do I owe tax?”

While many are just beginning to discover Second Life, the Cornell Computer Science Department has been involved with the program since last fall when it purchased an “island” as a space to learn and experiment, according to Jennifer Wofford, assistant dean for educational programs in the Computing and Information Science Department.

“I realized that it’s a good learning environment because it’s both a social environment and a scripting environment,” Wofford said. “When I started [on Second Life] last fall there were 800,000 registered people. Now there are six million. There are a lot of computer science issues arising from that kind of growth. On the other hand, the scripting language is easy for novice programmers.”

Wofford thinks that Second Life presents a unique opportunity for students to explore and learn about virtual worlds, though she does not know where this new technology will lead.

“Virtual worlds are a new media — a new way of communicating,” Wofford said.

“We don’t have a goal for the program in Second Life, but we are hoping that learning and innovation will happen. It’s so new that we don’t want to dictate how to use it or impose a curriculum.”

But virtual worlds are hardly a new phenomenon for Cornell. The University has been involved with the study of virtual worlds for almost a decade, Wofford said. One example is Scicentr, a program run through Cornell which helps teenagers think critically about science and technology through the medium of virtual worlds.

The Cornell Second Life island is located next to the island inhabited by Ithaca College’s Park School of Communication. Princeton University owns six islands in Second Life, according Wofford.

Ron DiNapoli, a lecturer in the Computer Science Department, has found a creative use for Second Life in CS 213: he is holding office hours in the virtual world.

“It will be a place with a whiteboard that you can see in Second Life and the real world,” DiNapoli said. “It’s not the best representation of text on screen, but there’s an intangible feeling that that you get. It feels like you’re there with someone.”

DiNapoli does not know how long his experiment will last. So far, only three out of his approximately 40 students have asked to gain access to the Cornell island where his office hours are held.

“I don’t know what the next big thing will be,” DiNapoli said. “It might not be Second Life, but Second Life could be a precursor to a new technology that will be.”