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Virtual Worlds – A Positive Report from the Chicago Tribune

Cutting edge tech makes the virtual world your oyster
by Stevenson Swanson
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

31 March 2007

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From being a flat presence on a computer screen, the Web is rapidly morphing into a three-dimensional virtual world.

Powered by such popular social-networking sites as Second Life and There.com, where users represent themselves with animated figures called avatars, virtual technology is finding a host of new applications that are likely to prove as revolutionary as the rapid rise of the Internet a decade ago.

From holding virtual training meetings with employees to visiting your doctor for a 3-D check-up or spending time in a virtual Elizabethan world to learn about Shakespeare’s plays, the possibilities for virtual technology are unpredictable but almost limitless, according to business executives, tech-savvy designers, and marketing consultants.

“This is going to be one freaky-deaky 21st century,” said Jerry Paffendorf, the “resident futurist” at the Electric Sheep Co., which designs virtual world projects for businesses. “The amount of technological change in the next 10 years is going to equal the entire last century. We’re not going to use that technology to send e-mail faster. We’re going to use it to build virtual worlds.”

As one measure of the recent explosive growth of these online worlds, Second Life has grown to more than 5 million registered users, up from 1.4 million in November. In that virtual adult playground, avatars chat, attend concerts, buy virtual cars and clothes with virtual money called Linden dollars, and even have simulated sex.

But such activities barely scratch the surface of the three-dimensional Web, according to speakers and some of the 600 attendees at the first-of-its-kind Virtual Worlds Conference, held last week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.

Robert Gehorsam, president of Forterra Systems Inc., said that with improvements in technology, virtual worlds could be used to train new employees and allow them to practice job skills. Nurses need several hundred hours of on-the-job training after they graduate from nursing school, but working such trainees into the hectic operations of a hospital can be difficult, he said.

“If you can train nurses on shift-change communication, or the right drug, you’re going to reduce the number of preventable deaths,” said Gehorsam, whose company adapts commercial game technology for the government and medical and corporate clients.

One nonprofit group that has started to tap the potential of virtual worlds is the American Cancer Society, which has held two “Relay for Life” fundraising events “in world,” as denizens of the 3-D Web refer to events in the virtual world. Second Life users made pledges for their avatars, who took part in the runs. At a cost of only $1,200 to rent space on the site, the cancer society raised more than $46,000. It hopes to realize $75,000 at this year’s relay.

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