Thursday, January 24, 2008

Virtual Agencies

OK, well not exactly agencies, but representations of what they do, at least. Lacking their own synthetic world, a number of agencies have created space in Second Life, the best known of dozens of public virtual worlds. It's not an ideal place for agencies to do actual work because it's not secure and it suffers from anarchic behavior and a lack of laws and rules. Nonetheless, it's an increasingly important place to have a presence and to learn how to work in. I'll write more about synthetic worlds in the future--I believe they will be the next Web--but for now, here's a newsy introduction that was published today here.

NASA wants to do more than just seek new worlds, it wants to create one. The day after Valentine’s Day, the space agency hopes to receive a pile of five-page proposals detailing how it should go about creating a synthetic online world and a multiplayer game within it. The goal is to lure more youngsters into the science technology, engineering and math professions NASA needs in order to achieve its lofty plan to return to the Moon to build a spacecraft to carry humans to Mars.

In its Jan. 16 request for information, NASA seeks the input of organizations that already operate immersive synthetic environments that would be interested in partnering to develop a new online world and educational role-playing game.

“A high quality synthetic gaming environment is a vital element of NASA’s educational cyberstructure,” according to the RFI. “This new synthetic world would be a collaborative work and meeting space as well as a game space of a kind familiar to increasing numbers of American students. Games and challenges in the [massively multiplayer online educational game] would engage students in a way that is both familiar and comfortable for them.”

It won’t be NASA’s first foray into the synthetic universe. The agency already has a presence in the best known of dozens of virtual worlds, Second Life. NASA’s “island” in Second Life houses a virtual CoLab, a digital version of a program begun at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Sac Francisco to allow collaboration between NASA and individuals in support of space missions.

Other federal agencies also have outposts in Second Life. Perhaps the best known is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Meterora, where visitors can ride a submarine, view tsunami demonstrations, ride a weather balloon and a hurricane hunter plane and interact with a real-time 3-D weather map of the United States.

The Crawford Auditorium on NOAA’s island hosted the virtual version of the first gathering of the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds, “Exploring Virtual Worlds,” in November, held live at the national Defense University in Washington (175 people attended in the real world, 182 in NOAA’s auditorium). The Centers for Disease Control, which has had a Second Life presence since 2006, also was on hand.

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