Science in Virtual Worlds

On Tuesday evening, I was invited to speak on the panel at the Science in Virtual Worlds event at the Apple Store in Regent Street, the first Royal Institution event with Nature Network London.

It was an excellent turn out, with standing room only by the time it kicked off, and Dave Taylor from the National Physical Laboratory started the evening off with a survey on who in the audience had been into Second Life. Probably about a fifth of the audience had, which is far higher than any event I have ever attended before, but I think still small considering the amount of recent publicity. Dave introduced Second Life with a very interesting whistle-stop tour of the state of science within Second Life, covering all the highlights including the International Spaceflight Museum, the NASA CoLab HQ and the NOAA island with interactive tsunami, glacier and hurricane exhibits. Dave also looked to the future, introducing the virtual continent of SciLands and Imperial College’s work on a virtual hospital for their medical school.

The second panelist was Aleks Krotoski, Guardian columnist, digital strategy consultant and PhD student amongst other things. Her PhD concerns social networks in cyberspace, and her subject for the evening was entirely new to me: the ethics of conducting social science research in virtual worlds and online environments. She raised all sorts of interesting questions about privacy, online identities, the association between real identities and avatars and asked to what degree is it OK to pretend to be something you’re not in the interests of research? In the real world, people-observation is not very difficult: just sit in a cafe and keep your ears open. In virtual worlds, some of the barriers are removed and curious residents will soon begin to ask you about yourself. When is it OK to lie, to what degree will revealing the truth influence the behaviour you are trying to observe, and what can you do with the information you receive? Unsurprisingly there are no easy answers, but it was a very interesting discussion of an issue of which I think many of us remain blissful unaware.

I concluded the talks by talking a little about Second Nature and attempting to see the future of science in virtual worlds by looking at some of the biggest current success stories and where they might lead. The Virtual Hallucinations house drew much interest as always and the Ecosystem Working Group’s attempts to create a stable, “living” ecosystem in Second Life sparked an interesting discussion on diagnostics in virtual worlds.

There was a lot of good discussion in the Q&A sessions which continued after the end of the event, highlighting the collaboration potential of virtual worlds as a crucial aspect for scientific research, but I’m sure this is a subject we’ve barely scratched the surface of. Were you at the Apple Store? I’d love to hear your views on the event itself, or any thoughts on the use of virtual worlds in science: are we wasting our time? Are we going to change the world? Is Second Life going to turn the whole world into a giant lab with secrecy a thing of the past? Answers on a postcard, in the comments or to the Nature Network Second Life group

Overall a very enjoyable and thought-provoking evening: thanks very much to Jonathan from the RI for organising it and Paul Carr for chairing. Further coverage of the event in The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian podcast


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