School of (Second) Life

An online virtual universe becomes a tool for real-world training in the business of design.

Moa Andrén, a fourth-year architecture student at the Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, has already built her own theater. It appears to be quite simple, just three rows of seats facing a stage dominated by a large screen. But there is much more. The whole structure floats, and during performances the set design changes depending on where you sit. The theater is located in Second Life, a thriving virtual world with its own real estate, economy, and social structure, developed by the San Francisco–based company Linden Lab.

Millions of people have already signed up, and educators have taken note. More than 200 universities have bought islands in Second Life, and architecture schools are beginning to see its value as a teaching tool: to help students hone their business skills and to facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration. “You can do urban planning, create a space and see how people interact with it, and run scripts to track where people go,” says John Lester, Linden Lab’s academic program manager. “Students have free reign to create things they never would have imagined.”

Rodney Collins, an instructor at the University of Houston’s architecture school, gave his students the simple task of making money—Linden ­dollars—from their Second Life creations. In the process many found that they had to hire laborers in the online community to help with the projects, ranging from building a nightclub to designing clothes. The results should sound familiar to architects practicing in the real world. “The ones that did traditional architecture found that it is not a great way of making money,” Collins says. “The most successful projects were those that sold shoes.”

At Montana State University, students benefit from the almost instantaneous feedback they can get on a project, says Terry Beaubois, director of the school’s Creative Research Lab, who is teaching his second class in Second Life. “A student can think of a project at ten in the morning, have it built by eleven, and walk the whole class through it,” he says.

The relationship between Second Life and real life has driven projects by many of Tor Lindstrand’s students in Stockholm. Andrén’s theater, for example, doesn’t just exist in the virtual world; it also involved collaboration with a local dance space. Together they produced a performance in her Sec­ond Life theater that was projected onto several screens in an actual performance space, where an audience gathered to watch. Online participants saw projections of the real-world attendees; and as the virtual audience moved around, they changed the performance in both places. “The hardest thing is to have the courage and knowledge to stretch beyond what we normally do,” Andrén says. “This is a way to see things differently.”

But it’s also a way to teach practical skills, according to Lindstrand. Andrén had to learn how to manage a project, collaborate with a dance company, and organize an event. “Those things are super difficult to do in an academic environment,” Lindstrand says. “We are using this virtual tool to make the project more real than it would be with any real-world tool.”

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