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What the intersection of virtual and physical realities can teach us about being human
This post is in response to a terrific, four-part podcast series by The Wall Street Journal exploring Second Life’s pioneering origins and rich 19-year history: https://community.secondlife.com/blogs/entry/11847-the-wall-street-journal-podcast-how-to-build-a-metaverse
The series left me wishing I could sit down and talk to its creators, Kate Linebaugh, Ryn Knutson, and Annie Winoff about how Second Life and other virtual worlds can be used to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems. Below is a summary of my message to them.
Those who know me only in print may be surprised to learn that I am a passionate advocate for and user of virtual worlds. In my 15 years in Second Life (SL), for example, I’ve worked for a wide variety of companies and organizations on everything from prototypes of banks and HIV/AIDS education to support for vets with PTSD. I’ve also taken part in conferences, hosted live events, and taught several courses.
My point is that I have imagined, built, and run many programs in Second Life so I know what's possible there. I've done work that has made me money and transformed my creative vision. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that we've just begun to scratch the surface of what's possible. Why? Because everyone from the founder to the current owners has focused on how to make money (rent land, sell virtual goods, charge membership fees) rather than on what virtual life can teach us. They assume that virtual reality should mimic physical reality and miss the fact that virtual reality offers all kinds of fascinating tools and alternatives.
The project I like to use to illustrate this point is Karuna - an island I built for the National Library of Medicine (NLM). The NLM hired me to create a place where the public could learn about HIV/AIDS. They wanted me to set up buildings that looked and functioned like their buildings in physical reality and to use PowerPoint presentations and posters to teach visitors about HIV. That approach was a complete failure. Why? Because no one wanted to visit a virtual world to learn about a deadly disease.
The solution I eventually proposed was something that couldn’t be executed in physical reality - an interactive, immersive environment that allowed participants to walk into and learn about the life of someone who lived with HIV. They could visit his home, read his journals, listen to his phone messages, and even lie on his bed to be transported into his dreams. In this way, people not only learned facts about HIV/AIDS transmission and treatment but the story of a real person who lived with HIV as well. The project debunked stereotypes and stigmas and taught empathy and compassion. It was transformative.
Click HERE to see the final video.
My point is that when you empower and value creative people to think outside the box, the work they produce will engage and motivate others and be profitable as well.
Where Virtual and Physical Collide
I have been blogging about how physical and virtual realities can enhance and inform one another for many years now, and my current work focuses on how best to harness virtual spaces to educate and motivate people to take action.
During the COVID pandemic, for example, I built the Hugs Around the World community which featured weekly live concerts where people could safely gather to support one another while enjoying good music.
Most recently, I’ve created Songs for Ukraine, which features profiles of Ukrainian musicians, live music concerts, and 3D recreations of scenes from the Ukrainian conflict. See THIS VIDEO produced by Linden Lab.
My latest project is an offshoot of Songs for Ukraine. It's called Song Flight and is a global program using music and story to connect children around the world. The goal is to help them learn from and with one another while supporting Ukrainian children displaced by the war (more to come in my next post).
Song Flight has a strong virtual element built into it simply because Second Life offers a place where individuals from around the world can meet, collaborate, and work together to help the children.
In my humble opinion, the real promise of the Metaverse is the many transformative ways it can teach us about ourselves and empower us to tackle the world's most pressing challenges.
I'd love to sit down with each of you to chat about this larger vision for the Metaverse and Second Life in particular. Let’s talk!
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