Peter Yellowlees, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, has been teaching about schizophrenia for 20 years, but says that he was never really able to explain to his students just how their patients suffer. So he went online, downloaded some free software and entered Second Life. This is a “metaverse” (ie, metaphysical universe), a three-dimensional world whose users, or “residents”, can create and be anything they want. Mr Yellowlees created hallucinations. A resident might walk through a virtual hospital ward, and a picture on the wall would suddenly flash the word “shitface”. The floor might fall away, leaving the person to walk on stepping stones above the clouds. An in-world television set would change from showing an actual speech by Bob Hawke, Australia's former prime minister, into Mr Hawke shouting, “Go and kill yourself, you wretch!” A reflection in a mirror might have bleeding eyes and die.
When Mr Yellowlees invited, as part of a trial, Second Life's public into the ward, 73% of the visitors said afterwards that it “improved [their] understanding of schizophrenia.” Mr Yellowlees then went further. (...) He gives his students “avatars”, or online personas, so they can attend his lectures inside Second Life and then experience hallucinations. “It's so powerful that some get quite upset,” says Mr Yellowlees. Second Life, as Mr Yellowlees illustrates, is not a game.
Second Life is also attracting the attention of corporations and advertisers from the real world hoping to attract the metaverse's residents. Publishers now organise book launches and readings in Second Life. The BBC has rented an island, where it holds music festivals and parties. Sun Microsystems is preparing to hold in-world press conferences, featuring avatars of its top executives. (...) Mark Warner, a former governor of Virginia who is considered a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2008, recently became the first politician to give an interview in Second Life. His avatar (also named Mark Warner) flew into a virtual town hall and sat down with Hamlet Au, a full-time reporter in Second Life. “This is my first virtual appearance,” Mr Warner joked, “I'm feeling a little disembodied.” (...) Henry Jenkins, a professor of media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks that Second Life deserves credit as “a world of hypotheticals and thought experiments.”
In the picture above, the Warner avatar speaking to the virtual public (left) and real-life Mark Warner steering it (from ForwardTogether via Au's blog). Meanwhile, Newsweek has a story on "Living a virtual life" discussing the other successful synthetic world - a game this time - World of Warcraft (see previous posts on WOW). Several blogs "cover" Second Life, including Au's New World Notes, SecondLife Insider and Business Communicators of SL.