This blog has been very quiet for a long time. There are several reasons for this, most of which are positive: I have not had many boring or negative results to write blog posts about, I have been busy writing manuscripts about the positive results instead, and I have moved to Copenhagen where I am busy starting my own research group at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research. There is also one more reason for the absence of blog posts from me: I have spent a lot of time experimenting with Second Life, and that is the topic of this blog post.
I first got interested in Second Life when I heard that Nature Publishing Group was setting up a virtual conference center called Elucian Islands. In the beginning I felt very alone on Elucian Islands. There was a good reason for that – I was alone most of the time. My view on Second Life was thus that it was pretty (see images below) but rather useless.
I obviously took a look at the SciFoo presentations (seen in the background of the image above) and the other scientific displays at Elucian Islands and elsewhere in Second Life. However, these mostly reinforced my negative view of Second Life being fairly useless, since almost everything I saw was already being served better by dedicated resources. For example, slide shows are much more conveniently viewed and shared in SlideShare than in Second Life, and 3D protein structures can be examined and analyzed better in programs such as PyMOL.
Over at FriendFeed, Jean-Claude Bradley fought a brave fight trying to convince me that Second Life is in fact useful for science. His key point was that Second Life is all about interacting with people, so I should try to go to some scientific events in Second Life. Sadly, there are still not many such events, and although they have changed my view on Second Life, they have also shown that there are many problems that remain to be solved.
The first virtual seminar I went to was “Cancer, Cell Cycle, and Check Points” organized by Digi S Lab. This was a perfect match since I work on cell-cycle regulation myself. The seminar consisted of two excellent presentations given by Letizia Cito from Sbarro Health Research Organization and Fayamdria Foley from the American Cancer Society.
Whereas the presentations were great, the seminar also illustrated several of the problems that need to be overcome before virtual conferences in Second Life are ready for prime time. When the first talk started, I could not see any of the slides. Restarting my Second Life client did not solve the problem, nor did a reboot of my computer. After giving up solving the problem, the entire region in which the seminar took place suddenly crashed causing speakers and participants to all be logged out. When it came back online after some minutes and everyone had found their way back, I could suddenly see the slides. Even then, however, they took so long to appear on my screen that the presenter had typically explained half of what was on a slide by the time I could see the slide. I see this as a major problem that must be solved before Second Life conferences can work properly – it must be possible to change slides without a noticeable delay.
The second event I went to was the “ESRC Complexity Research Seminar in Second Life” that took place at Elucian Islands. This seminar was very different from the one described above in that it was not a purely virtual seminar; instead it was a video feed from a real-world seminar that was being transmitted into Second Life. Think of it as a virtual overflow room – the image below shows the people who had gathered shortly before the event started.
Sadly, this event was marred by technical problems. The sound stream was of such poor quality that the Second Life participants could barely understand a word of what the speakers were saying, and the video stream was of too low quality to be able to read their slides. I do not want to dwell on this but just note that good quality microphones and cameras are a prerequisite for streaming events into Second Life.
The third event I went to was the “Virtual Conference on Climate Change and CO2 Storage“, which again took place at Elucian Islands. This was again a mixed event taking place both in the real world and in Second Life. The presentations were excellent and important lessons had been learned from the previous events. The microphones worked perfectly this time, and the video feed had been abandoned in favor of showing a copy of the actual slides in Second Life, which greatly improved the readability.
In addition to these events, Elucian Islands now also runs regular events such as the weekly Nature Podcast event where a fairly large group of people gather to listen to the latest podcast shortly after it has been released (image from Joanna Scott’s blog).
Regular events are crucial in SL because they bring people together in the same place at the same time. The need for people to be online at the same time is in my view one of the major drawbacks of Second Life compared to other tools that researchers can use for social networking. In my view Second Life should thus not be seen as competing with tools like FriendFeed or Twitter, which you can read when you feel like it, but rather as virtual reality alternative to video conferences. I think that Nature Publishing Group is on the right track with this, and I hope that the few remaining technical hurdles will be overcome in the near future.
Full disclosure: I have been working with the staff from Nature Publishing Group trying to solve technical challenges on Elucian Islands.