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Science
by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty

Visit the Metaverse and Change Your Mind

IN THE 1992 novel Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson, a character named Hiro Protagonist uses his computer to enter a virtual world called the Metaverse. Hiro enters this world as an avatar, a computer representation of himself. In a virtual nightclub named the Black Sun, he watches as the club owner Da5id opens a "hypercard," which infects not only Da5id's computer system with a virus but also the brain of the person behind Da5id. The computer virus appears as a computer screen full of white noise or snow. Viewing this snow destroys a human brain.

As an astute reader of fantasy and science fiction, you know better than to dismiss this as pure fiction. As you may know, there is a version of the Metaverse available right now. It's called Second Life.

Working with other Exploratorium staff, Paul has built the 'Splo, an Exploratorium-like museum in this world. (Pat has spent time in Second Life, but has been a bit too preoccupied with her First Life, also known as the Real World, to spend any time working on the 'Splo.) In the 'Splo are several exhibits that will change your brain. In this column, we'll tell you a bit about the real Metaverse of Second Life, then we'll discuss how experiences in this virtual world can change the real you in the real world.

INTRODUCING SECOND LIFE

Second Life is a massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG, for those who prefer the acronym). Visiting the world of Second Life is free; just go to www.secondlife.com, where you can download an application onto your computer. (Of course you will need a powerful computer to handle the computing needs of this Second Life. It's a whole 'nother world, after all.)

Getting into the world of Second Life is like getting into a novel. You have to make an investment before the story begins to make sense and provides you with a payback. In a novel, you must learn about the characters, which are creations of the novelist. In Second Life, you must create yourself.

First, you design your avatar. You can choose from some prefab avatars or design one yourself by choosing from 100 different values for 80-plus different variables describing your avatar's appearance—from your avatar's height to the thickness of its lips. You can make the avatar like you, or not like you. The choice is yours.

After you enter Second Life, you can hire a plastic surgeon (or learn to be one yourself) and become anything you like. In Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson got it right when he said that an avatar could be a "gorilla, a dragon, or a giant talking penis." (Of these choices, Paul has occasionally been a dragon. Pat just runs around as a guy in tie-dyed pants. She really should pay more attention to her wardrobe!)

Once you have designed your body you are no better off than the Terminator who arrived in the world naked. You'll need clothing. Free clothing is available in Second Life. (Where do you think those tie-dyed pants came from?) There is also clothing available for sale for Linden dollars, the currency of Second Life. Linden Dollars can be traded for real dollars ($1 = 250 Linden Dollars in March 2007) . If you want to buy nice clothes, you'll need to spend some money. After becoming an avatar and getting dressed, you'll need to learn to walk, to look around, to chat with others, and to fly!

There is a whole world to explore, completely created by its inhabitants. Unlike computer games in which a few people create an experience for you, everyone in Second Life has the ability to create experiences for everyone else. These experiences range from fun to dumb.

Paul's initial experiences in creating experience in Second Life highlight the similarities and the differences between an experience in a real museum, in a museum on the web, and in a virtual museum.

THE MUSEUM, THE WEB, AND THE METAVERSE

On March 29, 2006, the Exploratorium brought live video of a total solar eclipse to residents of the Metaverse—that is, Second Life. And in the process, we learned a thing or two.

Let's start by saying that the experience of observing a total solar eclipse is not to be missed. But when the moon eclipses the sun, only the people who happen to be standing on a narrow slice of the Earth averaging a hundred miles wide and a thousand miles long can experience totality.

In March 2006, that narrow slice included Turkey, and the Exploratorium sent a team to cover the event. Paul was the on-site host for the Exploratorium's coverage of the solar eclipse. He stood in an ancient Roman theater in the Turkish town of Side (pronounced see-day) and narrated the eclipse events as the Exploratorium streamed the event live to thousands of visitors at museums around the world, to millions of viewers on the web, and to a hundred viewers in the Metaverse. Consider how these experiences differed from each other.

Paul reports his experience of the real eclipse as follows. During the partial eclipse leading up to totality the light went dim even though there were no clouds in the sky. As totality began, the midday sky went dark and the air became cold. The sun was replaced by a black blob with the ghostly white arms of the solar corona spreading out from the blackness. Even though Paul is a scientist and he knew what was going on, he reports that the hair on his back rose up. On a primal level, he knew that the sun should not vanish from the clear sky. Seeing a total solar eclipse, Paul says, was an amazing experience that changed his perception of the universe. As the first rays of the returning sun peeked through valleys on the Moon to end the eclipse, the audience in the Roman amphitheater cheered.

In the Exploratorium and in museums around the world, thousands of people watched monitors displaying the images sent by the Exploratorium eclipse crew. As the last crescent of the Sun vanished and the image showed the ghostly solar corona, audiences in these museums went quiet, then cheered as they first saw the coronal rays emerging from the sun—and finally erupted in discussion with their neighbors. They asked questions of the museum staff and listened as other people asked questions.

Millions of viewers on the Web watched the Exploratorium's live video of the eclipse. (http://www.exploratorium.edu/eclipse/2006/index.html). People sitting by themselves or viewing with friends and family watched the images on their own computer. Using internet search services, people could look for answers to questions.

For the first time during this eclipse the Exploratorium also brought the eclipse into the Metaverse of Second Life. More than a hundred avatars sat in a three-dimensional recreation of the Roman amphitheater to watch the eclipse happen live, and to hear the eclipse program presented by the Exploratorium. (To see the amphitheater in Second Life, visit Kula 4. The Second Life coordinates are 245,252,29. The coordinates are in meters; the Metaverse is metric.)

Just like the audiences in museums, the avatars in Second Life clapped and cheered and danced as totality began. (Some of them flew around or flapped their wings as well!) Then they turned and began talking with each other just like the people at the museums.

These avatars came from all over the world to sit next to each other to watch and discuss the eclipse. An avatar representing a person in Finland sat next to an avatar from someone in Japan. These people could talk about the shape of the spectacular helmet streamers in the corona. They used English for their conversation (although Second Life does have a translator like the Babel fish that Arthur Dent slips into his ear in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).

The avatars had access to scientists in Second Life. If people had questions about what they were seeing, they could ask their questions and get them answered immediately. They had two choices for asking questions: they could shout them out publicly so that everyone could hear the question and answer, or they could send their question as a private instant message. The avatars who watched the eclipse in Second Life stayed for an average of one hour apiece. It was immediately apparent to Paul that the virtual world provided a social aspect that was present in the museum experience but missing from most Web sites and that it provided a venue to experiment with new forms of science education.

BUILDING THE 'SPLO

Inspired by the ability to explore a three-dimensional virtual world with social interactions, Paul decided to build a science museum similar to the Exploratorium in Second Life. This museum, named the 'Splo, opened its doors on April 1, 2006, an appropriate day for a museum of science, art, and humor. If you have never visited the Exploratorium or a neighborhood hands-on museum, you can now sample the experience in a virtual world and hopefully be inspired to make a visit in the real world. You can even visit the virtual museum with friends who are half the world away.

The 'Splo is housed in an old warehouse built by the great Second Life builder Aimee Weber, whose avatar sports blue butterfly wings. Once a nightclub, the building makes a fine science museum. Its location in Second Life is Midnight City (175,60,26), an island in Second Life where it is always night. Dogs bark, sirens blare, and if you walk in the street, you will be hit by cars. The city includes a movie theater where you can actually watch movies, many stores where you can buy clothing, weapons, and dance animations, and now, a science museum.

A museum in a virtual world presents interesting new possibilities. At the Exploratorium, when we wanted people to observe an illusion that changes when flipped upside down, we mounted the image on a wall so that it can be rotated. In one well-known illusion, for example, an image of lunar craters becomes, when flipped upside down, an image of domes.

A virtual museum offers more interesting possibilities. Instead of flipping the image, you can mount the image on the wall and then flip the visitor upside down! The craters still change into domes. The experience of being flipped upside down to view an illusion is so unique that people exclaim to their friends and start a discussion of what they are seeing that does not end until their friends have flipped upside down to view the illusion themselves.

Second Life also makes it possible to simulate—and warp—real world physics. Avatars at the 'Splo can encounter molecules that are as big as they are. These molecules can move in three dimensions to show how scientists model their behavior. For example, the 'Splo has a carbon dioxide molecule modeled as three spheres with the carbon positioned between the two oxygens. The model can be made to move by bending or by having the carbon molecule shuttle back and forth on the line between the two oxygen molecules to show two of the ways that carbon dioxide gas can absorb infrared radiation, which leads to the greenhouse effect.

At the opposite end of the size spectrum, Second Life contains an accurate model of the Earth Moon system. A model of Earth one meter in diameter is thirty meters away from a Moon that's one-quarter meter in diameter. Your avatar can walk from the Earth to the small, distant Moon. Do it and you will truly appreciate why eclipses are rare.

Paul is also planning to bring a model to Second Life that will allow him to teach special relativity by slowing down the speed of light to one meter per second.

CHANGE YOUR BRAIN

And now it is time to show you that things you experience in Second Life can change your brain. Since optical illusions are easy to build, they are among the first exhibits in the 'Splo. One of these illusions is a rotating spiral.

To build this exhibit, Paul first drew a black-and-white spiral, then saved it as a JPEG. He imported the image into Second Life (which was easy to do and cost only ten Linden Dollars or about 3 cents). He then used the simple building tools in Second Life to create a frame for his image. Finally he wrote a one-command computer program in Linden Scripting language to make the photo frame rotate. He did this during his first few days in Second Life.

Here's how the exhibit works. A visiting avatar moves close to the rotating spiral and the person who owns that avatar and is sitting at the computer screen stares at the spiral for twenty seconds. The person at the computer then looks at a friend's face and sees the friend's face appear to grow or shrink depending on the direction of rotation of the spiral. We could get into a discussion of why this happens—talking about the adaptation of your neurons to constant stimulation—but just now we are more interested in the relationship of reality and the Metaverse. That avatar has no neurons, but the person controlling an avatar in Second Life can look through the eyes of their avatar at an exhibit that changes the person's perception of the real world for a few seconds.

This change only lasted for a few seconds. It is a far cry from erasing a brain with a "snowcrash." But there's another illusion that has a more lasting effect. To see this illusion, which is named the McCollough effect, a viewer stares at an array of horizontal blue lines alternating with an array of vertical yellow lines for five full minutes. After this the viewer looks at an array of horizontal and vertical gray lines. The horizontal gray lines appear to be yellow.

The perception that the horizontal gray lines are yellow can last for many days! To experience this illusion on the web go to http://lite.bu.edu/vision/applets/Color/McCollough/McCollough.html, where you can see for yourself that an experience in the virtual world can make long lasting changes in your perception.

Finally, a teacher through and through, Paul notes that the process of education itself changes us all. As an example of a permanent change resulting from an experience, Paul cites the following lesson. He warns you to proceed at your own risk. This lesson can forever change your perception of the world! You can never unlearn this!

If you follow these instructions, you will see a small annoying yellow bowtie in the white spaces of every liquid crystal display monitor in your life. (Based on this description, Pat [who is willing to try almost any experiment Paul suggests] respectfully declined this one.)

Here's what you do—if you decide you want to ignore our warnings. Take a piece of white paper out into the sunlight and look at it with one eye through a pair of polarized sunglasses. Rotate the sunglasses about a line between you and the paper. You will see a rotating yellow bowtie on the paper. It's subtle, but if you rotate the sunglasses clockwise and counterclockwise, and you keep looking, you will see it.

This yellow bowtie is called Haidinger's brush and it is how human eyes see polarized light. Although it has been in front of you your whole life, you have probably never seen it before.

After you see Haidinger's brush, go indoors and look at a liquid crystal monitor showing a bright white area. Rotate your head slowly to the right and left and notice the yellow bowtie. It has always been there, but you never saw it before. And now, because you ignored the warning, you can never not see it again. Learning in real life or in the Metaverse may change your brain forever.

THE BLACK SUN

We could tell you much more about the Metaverse in Second Life, but you're probably better off exploring for yourself.

Paul has an avatar named Patio Plasma. You can often find him at the 'Splo. Pat has an avatar named Zalpha Alphabeta. You can recognize him by his tie-dyed pants, though maybe one of these days she will buy the poor guy some decent clothes.

To bring the discussion back to science fiction (the written kind, rather than the variety you live), Paul notes that he has met an avatar named Hiro Protagonist in Second Life. That individual happens to make his living building and scripting in this virtual world.

Oh, yes—and that bar where Da5id has his brain erased? There's a bar named the Black Sun in Second Life, of course. Maybe we'll see you there.

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The Exploratorium is San Francisco's museum of science, art, and human perception—where science and science fiction meet. Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty both work there. To learn more about Pat Murphy's science fiction writing, visit her website at www.brazenhus sies.net/murphy. For more on Paul Doherty's work and his latest adventures, visit www.exo.net/~pauld. For more about nanotechnology, check out the website that Pat and Paul were working on when they wrote this: http://www.nisenet.org

===THE END===

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