Second Life's Whitmyre Island is a virtual replica of Whitmyre Hall, home of IUP's Cook Honors College. Two CHC students created the island to share the Honors College living-learning environment with people across the globe.
By Theresa Hoffmann
I never really knew anything about Second Life until I sat down with Katharine Uvick and she showed me what it’s all about. She logged on and her avatar, a blocky robot, appeared on the screen in front of a backdrop of a green lawn and cloudless blue sky. She flew to Whitmyre Island.
Robot Katharine walked up the front stairs of a virtual Whitmyre Hall. I had to do a double take. Was I looking at a photograph of the real building? No. This was definitely a digital copy. A closer look revealed pixilation like in any other video game. What I was looking at was an exact, 3D replica of our beloved Whitmyre Hall, home of the Cook Honors College. The robot opened the front door and walked in. Again I was shocked to see how meticulously Michael and his associate, Erin O’Brien, had recreated the building. The Great Hall looked almost exactly the same as in real life. There was a playable piano in the Piano Room. The paintings hanging in the virtual Philosophy Room were the same as those in the real classroom. I was speechless.
Katharine maneuvers her avatar back outside to show me how to build things. There are all kinds of “prims” to choose from. Katharine pulls a cylindrical prism out of thin air and starts manipulating its dimensions. She makes it silver and metallic and shows it to me from all angles. Then, as quickly as she made it appear, she makes it vanish. Katharine points out that her robot is made entirely of “prims.” She also explains that using SL will become even more exciting in the near future, as the virtual world will soon be updated. The hope is for the uploading capabilities of SL to be improved so that users can create, “not just avatars, but all sorts of objects, from furniture to buildings,” with more sophisticated tools in programs such as Maya and then upload them for use in SL. The whole look and feel of SL will become more clean-cut and slick. Once the updates go into effect, users may forget they’re not actually sitting in the Philosophy Lounge in real life. As if that doesn’t happen already.
The environment on Whitmyre Island is, naturally, also modeled after the real Whitmyre Hall. There’s a huge sign outside that lists the rules of Whitmyre Island, among other things, they ask users to be quiet and productive and not to disrupt each other. Katharine explains her role as security for the island: there are security beacons all around, just like on IUP’s campus, that users can activate if someone else is breaking the rules or other wise being bothersome. “If someone is breaking the rules, I can remove them from the island.” Katharine hasn’t been fully trained yet, but among her responsibilities are cleaning up if users leave Whitmyre Island cluttered with their creations, make sure users are being respectful to each other, and that everyone is being peaceful and productive. Katharine tells of an incident when a user built a gun and shot at other users’ avatars on Whitmyre Island: “I’ve never kicked [out] anyone personally, but Michael Daniel [one of the creators of Whitmyre Island] had to kick [out] a female avatar.” Luckily, shots fired in cyberspace don’t harm users in real life.
As her robot avatar flew around cyberspace, Katharine explained to me that the whole point of creating Crimson Island, IUP’s SL property, in 2007 was to create a place where education could go beyond the boundaries of real life. Archaeology students can check out a virtual Mayan ruin, and CHC students, Katharine suggests, can visit the Great Hall from a thousand miles away while studying abroad. “I’m pretty sure that Whitmyre Island has hosted events and lecturers before,” says Katharine of her hopes to increase the CHC’s use of SL in this capacity. According to Katharine, this means students can have meetings for their Honors Core classes online, and even students who are home for the weekend can attend. For a school that values teamwork, SL might just be the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Katharine and Michael are ready to aid any new users in getting started. According to Katharine, it’s not that hard, “it’s all about getting used to the interface,” as it is with any other computer program. When a new user first logs onto SL, he/she is put on what Katharine calls “newbie island,” with a bunch of other new users. This is where he/she builds and names an avatar and learns how to navigate the virtual world.
Katharine is currently recruiting some of her friends to help with the project. There are, after all, an awful lot of responsibilities for only two people, especially if use of SL picks up as hoped. Someone will have to be in charge of organizing events such as virtual overnighters. “As I see it, the biggest advantage of Second Life is the fact that users can meet virtually from any location, whether it be different parts of campus or different parts of the country—as long as they have an Internet connection. One possibility that could come from this advantage could be for Honors College overnighters or open houses. What if students who could not physically come to the HC visited virtually, with the image of their avatars and the chat box projected on the big screen of the Great Hall? While there are some technical details and logistics to work out, I believe it would at least give these students, unable to attend [in real life], a taste of the Honors College.” Katharine has so much on her plate already; virtual event organizer is not necessarily something she’d like to add to her job description.
I know I’m ready to try SL just as soon as I get a decent chunk of free time to create my avatar. That’s the part I’m really looking forward to: building crazy things that could never exist in the real world. According to Katharine, Whitmyre Island is actually the ideal environment for such endeavors. Many SL users who aren’t CHC or even IUP students go to Whitmyre Island to build things because it’s just a great place in cyberspace to go and be productive. Sounds an awful lot like the real Whitmyre Hall to me.
More information about Whitmyre Island
How to get started in Second Life
IUP Magazine feature about Crimson Island