Talk in Second Life

By Sean Carroll | November 1, 2008 5:42 pm

Ten or fifteen years from now, virtual worlds will be as prevalent as web pages are today. I remember fifteen years ago when I had just set up my first web page and was trying to explain to my friends that this was going to be really big. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t very convincing. “The other day I found a web page that you can use to order a pizza to be delivered!” “You know, we already have a technology to do that — it’s called a phone.”

Likewise, I don’t have an especially clear picture of how virtual worlds will be put to use in the years to come. Right now, by far the leading presence in the game is Second Life, which remains clearly marked by the signs of geekdom which tend to characterize early incarnations of technological advances — for example, you have to choose a pseudonym for your avatar, the surname of which must come from a list of more-or-less goofy selections. And, admittedly, the most popular activities seem to be roleplaying and cybersex. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But the scientific community is catching on. Rob Knop, erstwhile astronomer and science blogger, now works for Linden Labs, creators of Second Life. Organizations like the Exploratorium have set up bases in SL, and one ambitious fan of the Large Hadron Collider built a mock-up of the ATLAS detector. At the research level, astronomers have set up the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics, which uses SL and other virtual worlds for a number of different activities — collaboration meetings, data visualization, outreach, etc. Piet Hut of the Institute for Advanced Study, who founded the group, has posted a few papers on the arxiv about how he envisions the possibilities, e.g.:

Virtual Laboratories and Virtual Worlds
Piet Hut (IAS, Princeton)

All of which is preamble to mentioning that Rob has invited me to give a popular talk in Second Life, which (I think) will be happening next Saturday, November 8, at 10 a.m. Pacific time. So if you regret not being able to come to my arrow of time talk in so-called “real life,” here is your chance to hear it. It’ll be taking place at the Galaxy Dome at Spaceport Bravo — that’s a Second Life URL, or SLURL; if you have already signed up, just click that link to appear at that location in-world (as they say). It looks something like this:

Chances are that you don’t have your own Second Life identity, but here’s your excuse to join up and spend a couple of hours this weekend building your avatar and buying clothes. There’s no need to spend any money at all if you don’t want to, but if you do, there is a real economy with its own currency and a variable exchange rate with US dollars. (Just like real life, fashion choices for women vastly outnumber those for men. Unlike real life, you get to buy your skin and hair, or even your shape — or just modify the default stuff you are created with.) Here’s a useful startup guide, if you don’t mind receiving instructions from a mermaid.

Look forward to seeing you Saturday. Or rather, Seamus Tomorrow does.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Technology
  • ObsessiveMathsFreak

    Bring an umbrella. There may be flying genitals.

  • chemicalscum

    I am still stuck in the Gutenberg universe of hypertext. I must be growing old. I understand IBM executives like VP Bob Sutor use Second Life to carry out business in. His avatar appears in a muscle T, jeans and shades. No blue suit here, IBM has also developed its own version of Second Life for internal use on its intranet. Yes I must be growing old – eh?

  • Jonathan Vos Post

    I used the AT&T videophone at the 1963-1964 World’s Fair, and expected it to be in common use within a decade. I was wrong. No pojnt in manufacturing them unless enough people will buy one. No point in buying one unless enough people with whom you want to communicate have one. Network effects.

    Same kind of chicken and egg problem with 3-D on the web, until Second Life. Why make a 3-D browser capability unless there’s compelling 3-D content? Why make 3-D content until enough people have 3-D browser capability? VRML did not do it. Note that Google Chrome has really good 3-D video capability. The future is already here, as Bruce Sterling pointed out, just not uniformly distributed.

  • Ben Lillie

    Dang it, Sean. You just ruined my years-long track record of not signing up for Second Life.

  • radar

    Your post that it’s mostly roleplaying and cybersex does a huge disservice to the many artists, musicians, machinima creators, and other content creators who use SL as a canvas for performing their works. It also shows that you find what you look for, quite frankly.

    There’s so much more that that. Oh, and by the way.. there’s no doubt prostitution in your home town, right? Is that what you focus on? Or do you enjoy the interesting and wholesome activities that also exist there?

  • Baska Babenco

    Well they have been saying Second Life is the future of the internet for some time now. It is an immersive world yes and may be the future of chat rooms and social networking but lacks the speed and functionality of everyday browsing.

    I can’t see any time in the near future where people will be logging on to second life just to get the days news.

    As for cyber sex, well, humans are humans and I think it goes to show you what humans would really want to do in a “perfect world” look good, live well and engage in as much pleasure as they can.

  • Sili

    But will there be any cephalopods in the audience?

    Also – flying penes are the least of your worries.

  • Jahar Aabye

    It’s also worth checking out the Spaceport Alpha and Spaceport Bravo regions even before (or after) the talk. Spaceport Alpha has a giant display of rocketry throughout history, from Goddard to the Ares V. The Saturn V was too big and had to be moved over to Spaceport Bravo, but it is (as far as I know) 100% scale and the only place where you can see the full-sized Saturn V stacked vertically on a launchpad (the only places where you can see it in Real Life have it set horizontally, for reasons which will become obvious when you get a feel for its size at Spaceport Bravo). Fortunately in SecondLife, avatars can fly, otherwise it would be a long walk up the steps.

    Spaceport Alpha also has a rideable Gemini-Titan rocket that takes you up to a space exhibit that includes the Space Shuttle docked at the ISS and exhibits on all of the planets. The Mars exhibit is especially interesting, as it offers a chance to take a trip to a mockup of the Martian surface.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    We might as well throw down the gauntlet and admit where this may be going. I suspect that 50 years from now the major nodes on the internet-virtual world will not be machines which push electrons through silicon, but neural tissue which runs action potentials — in other words brains. The growing speed of virtual digital production and what I see as a growing interface of these devices with our senses suggests that it will not be terribly long before the neural-cyber interface starts to take shape. I also think people will be lining up begging for it as well.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • John R Ramsden

    Sean wrote: “There’s no need to spend any money at all if you don’t want to”

    Never played Second Life, but if I can ambush the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men in the forest and pinch a chest of gold, I’ll kit myself out with some clothes and a gilrfriend and be in the front row.

  • Bobby

    I thought VRML was dead. If virtual worlds are this crappy, the future sucks.

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  • John Branch

    I’ll try to be there, Sean. Glad to hear about this. Your guess–

    “Chances are that you don’t have your own Second Life identity”

    –was probably good, but in my case not correct. I’m coming up on my first SL birthday, as Darkling Nightfire. I may invite Seamus Tomorrow to accept me as a friend in SL, just so I can say I have a physicist as a friend there.

  • Adrienne

    …and don’t forget folks! The International Year of Astronomy 2009 will have an island in Second Life (in The SciLands, catty-corner to Explorer Island, next to the new MICA island) coming in a few weeks! Check out for updates!

    (sorry for the shameless plug)

    Adrienne (Ourania Fizgig)

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  • Leila

    Okay maybe Im the oldest Second Lifer here… SL D.O.B. 10/19/2006
    What to expect… lots of idiots wanting to steer you in the wrong direction or wanting free sex from you and even more fantastic people willing to lend a hand. My first piece of advice is learn how to build… thats where the money and the artistic venue is in the game …otherwise plant yourself on a strippers pole and prepare to rot. If you want to build or create clothing or skins you need photoshop or some equivaliant. If you just want to join to chat your going to have to club or join groups that match your interests but if you do that for god sake dont show up looking like a newbie. There unfortunately is an elitist quality to the game regarding your look and your age. Way around it? Tell them this is your alt and you joined in 2004. lol But then dont ask any questions.;-) Word of warning… Second Life can be addictive… Im not joking, BEWARE!


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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