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Science thrives in virtual worlds

Second Life residents Desdemona Enfield and Curious George work on a virtual-reality visualization that classifies stars, galaxies and quasars according to their colors, brightness, distance and morphology.
Second Life residents Desdemona Enfield and Curious George work on a virtual-reality visualization that classifies stars, galaxies and quasars according to their colors, brightness, distance and morphology.Courtesy of George Djorgovski

Does the virtual-reality world known as Second Life have anything to offer for real-world scientists? Absolutely — and a trailblazing researcher says the payoffs are sure to increase when the Internet goes 3-D.

"We are really meant to interact in 3-D, with other people and with information," Caltech astronomer George Djorgovski, director of the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics, told me today during an interview in Second Life. "Because this works so well with the human perception system, as soon as there is an easy and 'good enough' 3-D approach, people will switch en masse."

Djorgovski will talk about the past, present and future of virtual worlds on "Virtually Speaking Science," a talk show that's simulcast in Second Life and on the Web via BlogTalkRadio. I'm one of the co-hosts of the hourlong show, which airs on Sunday at 7 p.m. SLT/PT (10 p.m. ET).

Virtual worlds have been around for decades, if you count immersive gaming environments such as World of Warcraft. But jacking into virtual reality still isn't exactly a mainstream phenomenon. Some might be scared off by the fact that online worlds can offer havens for cyber-sex and other virtual vices. Others might see Second Life as downright clunky, compared with the photorealistic, hyper-responsive graphics of present-day video games or the all-consuming interaction available through Facebook or Twitter.

But when it comes to scientific collaboration and outreach, Djorgovski thinks Second Life is a thick slice of awesome.

"This technology is already basically a killer app," he told me. "Even with its crappy graphics and user interface, it already works astonishingly well. And that's only going to get a lot better."

Djorgovski joined Second Life three years ago, and today his avatar ("Curious George") seems totally comfortable in the world. (I, on the other hand, still walk over chairs, even though I've been an occasional Second Lifer for four years.) The Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics presents a series of professional seminars, workshops and popular talks in Second Life, including a couple that I've presented. In addition, Djorgovski regularly meets with scientific collaborators in Second Life to work on his real-world research, which focuses on galaxy formation and evolution, quasars, sky surveys and data visualization.

"Even if they're in Pasadena, we meet in Second Life," Djorgovski said of his colleagues. "We prefer doing that over Skype, even if it's just one-on-one. It feels better."

Why is that? Djorgovski points to a couple of analyses suggesting that immersive telepresence is more engaging than phone or video conferencing — partly because multiple senses (hearing, sight, kinesthetics) are in play, and partly because there's more of a sense of inhabiting 3-D space. But those advantages apply to any type of virtual-reality interaction. Djorgovski goes on to say that scientific applications in particular can be more fruitful because you can immerse yourself in your own data.

The road to virtual worlds

That's why he took up residence in Second Life to begin with. Djorgovski has long been interested in finding better ways to work with massive databases, such as the Palomar Digital Sky Survey he worked on back in the 1990s. "With sky surveys, we suddenly had so much informational wealth that it was actually irresponsible not to make the data public," he said.

Djorgovski played a part in articulating the concept of a "Virtual Observatory" that could be used by astronomers as well as the general public — a concept that gave rise to the National Science Foundation's National Virtual Observatory as well as Google Sky and Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope. (Microsoft is a partner in the joint venture.)

Djorgovski's not the only one interested in 21st-century tools for handling large data sets. "There is a worldwide community of aficionados of what is variously called e-Science, informational science or cyberinfrastructure," he said. "I would say there are about 1,000 researchers worldwide, and it's very much the start of an S-curve."

He compares the current situation to the situation that faced scientists in the 19th century, when the field of statistics was developed to handle kilobytes' worth of data. Djorgovski believes a new set of tools will be needed to cope with terabytes, petabytes and exabytes. "That's exactly what led me into this virtual-reality business," he said.

In a 2008 posting to the Cosmic Variance blog, Djorgovski describes how a couple of research papers written by Piet Hut, a stellar-dynamics expert at the Institute for Advanced Study, pointed him toward Second Life. "I was very skeptical ... until I tried it," Djorgovski told me. "Then I became a convert."

Today, Djorgovski's little corner of virtual property contains one 3-D simulation that charts categories of stars, galaxies and quasars, and another that lets you fiddle with gravity in triple-star systems.

Djorgovski said virtual worlds can offer opportunities for budding scientists as well as the professionals. "I can totally see that this would be a very powerful way to provide experimental experience to students who don't have access to a real lab," Djorgovski said. "Maybe it's not 100 percent fidelity, but if it's 90 percent, that's still better than zero."

You'll find plenty of virtual experiments in SploLand, the Second Life science center operated by San Francisco's Exploratorium.  "We're using it as an extension of our exhibit space, to do things for our online visitors that we can't do in the real world," Rob Rothfarb, the Exploratorium's project director for online engagement, told me today.

For example, Second Life visitors can shoot themselves out of a virtual cannon to learn about Newtonian orbital mechanics, visit the center of the big bang, or sit on top of an atom to feel the jiggles of Brownian motion.

They can also gather together in cyberspace to witness live events such as a total lunar eclipse. "In those cases, we're creating extensions of our public programs," Rothfarb said. "We're able to share exciting images, along with commentary from scientists, and we're creating a context for conversation among people who come there from all over the world."

Just last week, SploLand was the venue for the Exploratorium's Second Life celebration of Pi Day, the science-centered holiday that celebrates 3.14 as well as Albert Einstein's birthday.

Djorgovski said such events show that virtual worlds can make a valulable contribution to science education. "It's actually very impressive what goes on in the education community," he said. "We're thinking, 'OK, obviously what's happening is that people who can't come to Caltech or the Exploratorium can do this here in Second Life.'"

The future of virtual worlds

So what's next? Djorgovski said Second Life is still too limited to handle the kinds of high-data applications that scientists will require in the years ahead. He pointed to his own stellar-classification simulation and said, "If I were to put in another 12,000 data points here, it might crash the server."

The future may well lie in open-source virtual environments, created using tools such as OpenSim. Djorgovski can easily imagine an immersive 3-D version of Facebook, for example, or an interface that displays websites as objects in virtual 3-D space rather than as rectangles on a 2-D screen.

"To my mind, really, it has to be a full immersive 3-D version that draws upon content that's already on the Internet," he said. "Humanity's information content is all on the Internet now. We use it to access all kinds of information, to access each other, to access entertainment. That's not going to change. Whoever builds 3-D, immersive, virtual-reality environments will pretty much have to do it in a way that is entirely compatible with the mainstream cyberspace that we're using. It can be a year. It can be 10 years. But I'm confident that someday it will happen. I wouldn't be surprised if the immersive 3-D Web will be as fundamentally transformative as the Web itself."

What do you think? Weigh in with your comments below, and be sure to tune in to "Virtually Speaking Science" on Sunday. And if you miss the live show for some reason, never fear: It'll be made available as a downloadable podcast next week. 

More about virtual reality:

My co-host on "Virtually Speaking Science" is Robin Snelsonof the Space Studies Institute. Check out these links for podcasts from previous shows:

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