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This version of the story contains additional content that was not published in the print edition of the magazine. This bonus content appears in special boxes found throughout the story. The print version of the story can be found here.

A thunderhead towers at knee level, throwing tiny lightning bolts at my shoes. I’m standing–rather, my avatar is standing–astride a giant map [SLurl] of the continental United States, and southern Illinois, at my feet, is evidently getting a good April shower.

The weather is nicer on the East Coast: I can see pillowy cumulus clouds floating over Boston and New York, a few virtual meters away. I turn around and look west toward Nevada. There isn’t a raindrop in sight, of course; the region’s eight-year drought is expected to go on indefinitely, thanks to global warming. But I notice something odd, and I walk over to investigate.

The red polka dots over Phoenix and Los Angeles indicate a hot day, as I would expect. But the dot over the North Las Vegas airport is deep-freeze blue. That can’t be right. My house is only 30 kilometers from the airport, and I’ve had the air conditioner running all day.

“Any clue why this dot is blue?” I ask the avatar operating the weather map’s controls. The character’s name, inside the virtual world called Second Life, is Zazen Manbi; he has a pleasant face and well-kept chestnut hair, and the oval spectacles perched on his nose give him a look that’s half academic, half John Lennon. The man controlling Manbi is Jeffrey Corbin, a research assistant in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Denver.

“Let me check something,” Manbi/Corbin responds. “I can reset the map–sometimes it gets stuck.” He presses a button, and fresh data rushes in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s network of airport weather stations. The clouds over the East shift slightly. Los Angeles goes orange, meaning it’s cooled off a bit. But there’s still a spot of indigo over Vegas.

“I guess it’s feeling blue,” he jokes.

The map I am standing on belongs to NOAA, and it covers a 12-by-20-meter square of lawn on a large virtual island sustained entirely by servers and software at San Francisco-based Linden Lab, which launched Second Life in 2003. (On the map’s scale, my avatar is about 500 kilometers tall, which makes Illinois about three paces across.) Corbin, who’s on a personal mission to incorporate 3-D tools like this one into the science curriculum at Denver, paid ­Linden Lab for the island so that he could assemble exhibits demonstrating to the faculty how such tools might be used pedagogically. “Every student at DU is required to have a laptop,” he says. “But how many of them are just messaging one another in class?” A few more science students might learn something if they could walk inside a weather map, he reasons.

Corbin’s got plenty to show off: just west of the map is a virtual planetarium, a giant glass box housing a giant white sphere that in turn houses a giant orrery illustrating the ­geometry of solar eclipses. And he’s not the only one to offer such attractions. Just to the south, on an adjoining island, is the International Spaceflight Museum [video] [SLurl], where visitors can fly alongside life-size rockets, from the huge Apollo-era Saturn V to a prototype of the Ares V, one of the launch vehicles NASA hopes to use to send Americans back to the moon.

Second Life, which started out four years ago as a 1-square-kilometer patch with 500 residents, has grown into almost 600 square kilometers of territory spread over three minicontinents, with 6.9 million registered users and 30,000 to 40,000 residents online at any moment. It’s a world with birdsong, rippling water, shopping malls, property taxes, and realistic physics. And life inside is almost as varied as it is outside. “I help out new citizens, I rent some houses on some spare land I have, I socialize,” says a longtime Second Lifer whose avatar goes by the name Alan Cyr. “I dance far better than I do in real life. I watch sunsets and sunrises, go swimming, exploring, riding my Second Life Segway. I do a lot of random stuff.”

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Tagged: Communications

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