Clifton Snoodle arrives on the campus of Northern Illinois University bright and early to begin class. He walks into the main building where the other students are just settling in and takes a seat with them. The professor appears to be running a bit late which is somewhat unusual. Just when Snoodle and his classmates start to voice concern, Dr. Cabrera appears as a cloud and then his normal digital form begins to fully materialize. This may be the time to mention that this is a virtual lecture and the students are all actually avatars gathered in a virtual replica of NIU within the virtual environment Second Life (SL).
Second Life, or “SL,” began development by Philip Rosedale and his San Francisco-based company Linden Lab in the late 1990s. Rosedale noted a movement to digitize information, making it easier to share and to manipulate. He wanted to explore the concept of not just digitizing specific real-world items like books or medical records, but of the entire world, including people. This eventually led to the immersive virtual environment of SL, a place where mostly humanoid representations of users (avatars) can interact with each other much like people interact in the real world.
Northern Illinois University and Virtual Northern Illinois University
The residents within SL can do a wide range of activities, limited only by their imaginations. Every visit can be somewhat like a virtual vacation. In one location, there might be a single platform to stand on, surrounded by accurately-rendered representations of various planets and other celestial bodies; in another location, there might be a scenic beach with swaying palm trees and sunbathers drifting lazily in a nearby ocean-like body of water. There is also an economy within the environment which is based on a monetary unit called a Linden (Currently, $1 US = ~$260 Lindens). SL residents are able to create objects such as clothing and buildings that they legally own the rights to according to Linden Lab’s terms of service. This means that savvy residents can make profitable businesses selling in-demand items in exchange for Lindens.
Since its inception, Second Life has had significant real-world impact. One example of the commercial impact is that of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide which did market research inside Second Life for a hotel it wanted to open. The musician Ben Folds played at the virtual opening and Starwood representatives watched as users there for the event explored their virtual models. Because it is so easy in SL to alter things like the colors of walls, flooring texture, and arrangement of furniture, Starwood could make instantaneous changes and get immediate feedback, something impossible to do in the real world. Once gathered, the data were then implemented in the actual construction of the hotel.
Speaking in 2008, Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) noted that spending as little as 90 seconds in the SL environment could lead to behavioral changes outside of SL. This could be quite meaningful for the ~60,000 daily users of SL, let alone for potential users. In an experiment conducted by VHIL, it was found that participants who used more attractive avatars inside of SL got an apparent confidence boost that extended to real life. These respondents were more likely to say that they would pursue more attractive mates outside of SL. In a more recent study, researchers at the University of Kansas Department of Dietetics and Nutrition found SL to be an effective tool for weight loss maintenance. In a 20-person study, these researchers found that, when study participants engaged in effective weight loss behaviors inside SL, they were more likely to maintain those behaviors outside of SL (Peters, 2013).
In the 2009 film Surrogates (based on the graphic novel series The Surrogates), the human central nervous system can be made to remotely control robotic representations of people. Of course, this is nearly the same premise as Second Life. An interesting facet of the SL world is how it allows users to live in another skin, albeit a somewhat cartoonish one. If human beings could make this experience even more immersive by employing robots as in Surrogates, there might be some serious implications for the real world. One character in the film uses a robot surrogate that looks like a female supermodel. While the statuesque surrogate kisses and gropes a male surrogate, the female surrogate’s human source sits at home, an unkempt, obese man, festering in his own filth, perhaps so addicted to his robotic existence that he cannot leave that robotic existence for even long enough to relieve himself. This could clearly be a grave problem for maintaining a viable human race. If everyone simply lives vicariously through their robot ambassadors while their real bodies rot, human reproduction may be seriously impeded. Why should two real humans ever meet in such a reality, let alone copulate? For many people, this could represent an unthinkably horrific human future, but is it any more unthinkable than the present where extensive and unnecessary plastic surgery is the norm?
Perhaps it is good that we do not have to answer such questions just yet. However, no one can be entirely sure where technology will take humanity. If an earth like the one depicted in Surrogates is in store for humanity, it will probably be best to prepare as best possible. It seems obvious that this preparation should include a thorough study of the effect on the human mind of virtual environments like Second Life.