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A whole new world

It is estimated that 80% of active internet users will live a virtual life within the next three years. Virtual worlds are not only for kids who play video games - the future is here. Our government and universities already are moving into these universes. Should you go virtual? What will it mean to you if you do?

If you have ever dreamed of working with a NASA scientist, flying through a hurricane, or getting a front row seat to a State Department event - now, you "virtually" can thanks to the creation of virtual worlds. "I think it's important for government agencies to be appropriately engaged in this technology," said Bill May with the US Department of State, Public Diplomacy IT Office.

Using websites such as Entropia Universe and Second Life, people create digital versions of themselves called avatars that can do just about anything a person can do in real life. The State Department is one of several federal agencies now conducting business or holding events on the cutting edge for all the world to see. "We're really looking at engaging in mutual understanding, developing understanding between the American people and peoples of other countries," said May.

May says cyberspace is the perfect place to break down barriers, and the government recently sponsored a global jazz concert where musicians from countries such as Mexico, Australia and Germany participated simultaneously - while in their own countries.

It isn't only the United States going virtual. Sweden was among the first to create a virtual embassy - a replica of its "real life" building in Washington, D.C.. "It's an area where you can communicate with Swedes, about Sweden and, hopefully, we'll tell the world about Sweden in good ways for this project," said Karl Peterson with the Swedish Institute in a virtual interview. China also is currently building a world in Entropia Universe. "Provided it happens, then we will be well positioned to look at what to do to in order to engage in public diplomacy with the Chinese people," said May.

Virtual technology also is breaking barriers in education as nearly 100 colleges and universities have their own campuses or areas called "islands" on Second Life. "The virtual campus has allowed literally thousands of people from all over the world to walk the sidewalks of Ohio University without even having to be here," said Christopher Keesey with Ohio University.

Educators say that this technology is improving distance learning by allowing students and educators around the globe to collaborate, and one art student says it has gained him priceless international exposure. "I had a great experience one time with a professor from Italy who came through and just talked to me briefly about my installation and then came back with her class later," said Ohio University Graduate Student Jeff Lovett.

Whether it's education, public diplomacy, or social gatherings, many professionals see the value of the virtual world. "A large number of folks have these online constructive, professional, interpersonal relationships that are all online - just as strong as any that they have in real life," said May. "This is something that I think we need to recognize and work with versus trying to ignore."

Along with the State Department, NASA, NOAA, and the National Library of Medicine Library are all up and running in second life. The State Department says the EPA is working on a world of its own, and the at some branches of the military are exploring the technology for training purposes.

Ohio University will launch a virtual world certification program next year to help people become experts in using the technology. The university is the first in the country to offer the program.

http://www.secondlife.com

http://www.entropiauniverse.com

To view a list of colleges and universities that can be found in Second Life:

http://simteach.com/wiki/index.php?title=Institutions_and_Organizations_in_SL

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