Agency enters Web’s cyberspace universes to attract Internet users, market health messages to new audience.
Source : By Alison Young
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
There’s a virtual world where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently helped give flu shots to more than 10,000 virtual children before a virtual flu virus was unleashed, sending the virtually sneezing to virtual clinics for treatment.
In another Internet world for adults, the CDC has a virtual headquarters and a virtual CDC employee holding health fairs.
What is one of the most respected agencies of the federal government doing dabbling in Web-based virtual worlds that are more like video games than a science symposium?
Officials at the Atlanta-based agency say they’re exploring innovative ways to educate Net-savvy people about important health issues.
The CDC has joined corporate powerhouses Toyota, IBM and American Apparel in setting up shop in these virtual worlds. The federal space agency NASA is there. So are a few members of Congress. And most importantly, millions of people are there, part of a growing audience for a new breed of marketing messages.
“We can’t always expect people to come to our Web site or use our tools directly,” Janice Nall, director of the CDC’s Division of e-Health Marketing, said this week. The CDC is one of a handful of government agencies staking a place in Web-based virtual worlds such as Second Life (www.secondlife.com) and Whyville (www.whyville.net).
“People are congregating on different spots on the Internet,” Nall said. “And we need to take our messages out there to see how they’re received.”
Virtual worlds, sometimes called “metaverses,” are sites on the Internet where a growing community of people gather, socialize, play and even participate in a virtual economy of virtual malls, real estate sales and casino gaming. Unlike the Web that you surf in a detached fashion, participants in virtual worlds create a virtual self, a computer-generated 3-D character called an avatar to interact with the world and its residents.
Such Internet worlds and interactive online games have been around for years. But as the number of people participating in some worlds has grown into the millions, businesses and others have started exploring them as a new forum for mass advertising and communication.
“Wells Fargo Bank was one of the first corporations to have its own bank in Second Life,” said Celia Pearce, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Communication and Culture who studies virtual worlds. “MTV has its own island there now where it stages concerts with streaming video or interviews with music stars. IBM has started to develop a Second Life world headquarters, as has Reuters.”
Beyond the static banner ads Web users are accustomed to seeing —- or ignoring —- virtual worlds allow for a form of interactive marketing and advertising, she said. Instead of seeing an ad about a car, in a virtual world car companies allow your avatar to build or use a brand-name car, she said.
The communication potential has also prompted a handful of federal agencies to establish pilot projects in virtual worlds such as Second Life and Whyville.
Second Life, launched in 2003, has more than 3.9 million avatar residents from around the world —- and more than 400,000 logged in within the past week, according to Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based creator of Second Life.
The average age of participants is 33, and they must have a high-speed Internet connection and a powerful computer capable of handling intensive graphics.
Corporations are being joined in the virtual world by nonprofit, government and activist groups. Sweden is building a virtual embassy. A Spanish charity has created a virtual homeless boy in Second Life. The Genocide Intervention Network has created a virtual Camp Darfur.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a whole island where visitors can ride through a hurricane on an airplane, stand on a beach and experience a tsunami.
“Think of it as Disney World meets science education,” said Eric Hackathorn, the lead architect for the Second Life project at NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab. “It provides so much more immersion than traditional Web sites do.”
NOAA spent $1,000 to purchase its island in Second Life, about $15,000 for a computer graphics contractor to develop the experience and about $150 a month in maintenance fees, Hackathorn said. “We’re not spending a lot considering the potential return,” he said. About 1,000 people visited during two weeks in January.
A year ago John Anderton, one of CDC’s associate directors of communication science, saw a video about Second Life and got hooked.
“I thought what a great opportunity for CDC to put some of its health information into a different tool to get it out to people who are participating there,” he said Wednesday.
Last year Anderton created a virtual CDC employee, naming her Hygeia Philo. Hygeia is the Greek goddess of health, whose statue is on the CDC campus. Second Life requires participants to pick from a list of last names, and Anderton chose Philo because it gave the agency’s avatar a name that means “lover of health.”
A striking cyberwoman with long, auburn hair, the CDC’s virtual employee needed more professional attire than the clothing that came with the free, standard-issue avatar.
So Anderton had Hygeia go to a virtual mall in this virtual world and purchase a tailored pinstriped business suit. The cost: about 33 cents of real money, he said. He later spent $72 to buy some virtual land in Second Life.
Anderton said he has spent less than 5 percent of his time on the Second Life project and about $75 of CDC’s money.
The virtual CDC, in place since last fall, is a modest outpost in Second Life. It’s mostly a series of wall displays that links visitors to the CDC’s real-life Web site (www.cdc.gov).
A visit to the virtual CDC on Wednesday by a virtual reporter found the site empty of other visitors.
The virtual CDC averages only about 100 visitors a month, Anderton said. In contrast, the CDC’s real-world Web site receives 8 million visits a month.
In November, Hygeia staffed a virtual CDC booth at a health expo within Second Life that drew more than 250 virtual people.
CDC’s flu-shot campaign in the virtual world of Whyville, however, caught the attention of thousands.
Whyville, launched in 1999, is a popular virtual world targeting 8- to 15-year-olds. It has 1.7 million registered “citizens” who log in to play games, learn about science and other topics, and socialize.
Last fall, CDC worked with Whyville creator Numedeon Inc. to conduct a campaign for kids’ avatars to be vaccinated against the “Why-Flu.” The effort cost CDC $2,000, said Nall, the agency’s e-Health Marketing director.
“It was an opportunity to talk with kids about science and get across the concept of vaccination as a good thing,” she said.
CDC officials said their recent exploration of health education in these virtual worlds is just part of an overall strategy to get information to the public.
While most health information is still communicated through more traditional means —- from brochures to the cdc.gov Web site —- the agency is seeking to use emerging technologies to reach new audiences, Nall said.
The agency is discussing its experiences with these initial projects and how its presence in virtual worlds can be expanded to have a greater impact.
“We have to be mindful of what’s happening in the marketplace so we can be there,” said Nall. “We’re supposed to be leading in public health. Not following.”
GETTING A VIRTUAL LIFE
What do you need?
> To participate in Second Life, you need a high-speed Internet connection and a computer that’s able to handle the world’s rich graphics. The better and faster the computer, the smoother your experience. Go to http://www.secondlife.com for specific system requirements and to download a free program that lets you create a basic avatar and access the virtual world.
> Whyville, which is targeted toward teens and preteens, is more accommodating of lesser computers. Just go to http://www.whyville.net and fill out a registration form. Parental permission is required.
What does it cost?
It’s free for basic access in both sites. But if you want to buy things —- like clothing or a new hairstyle for your avatar or a plot of land in Second Life, you need to deposit real-life cash with a credit card into a virtual world account.
Where can I learn more about federal agencies’ virtual activities?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a real-world Web site devoted to its island in Second Life. Go to www.esrl.noaa.gov/outreach/sl/ to read more and take a video tour.