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For incoming freshmen, choosing which dorm to request can be daunting, given the idiosyncrasies of MIT’s residential communities. Phillip Long, associate director of MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, thought it might help if prospective students could experience those cultural differences in an online environment like Second Life, Linden Lab’s popular virtual world, where in a typical month nearly a million “residents” use avatars–3‑D representations of themselves–to explore simulated landscapes, conduct business, and socialize. So last spring, Long launched the Second Life Student Design Competition, inviting contestants to represent MIT’s living spaces as customizable modular “pods,” grouped into “clusters” that reflect something of the dorms’ spirit and culture.

One of the two winning designs is a vertical structure by Team Sociable (a.k.a. Drew Harry and Dietmar Offenhuber, both grad students in the Sociable Media Group at the Media Lab). It lets users select their pods’ color, decorate the insides with favorite images, and connect their pods to those of up to four close friends, creating a visual representation of a friend list. “We wanted to make a space where you could express your taste but also show how you’re connected to other people,” Harry says.

The other winning project, by the undergraduate Team Furrichzeit, features a hexagonal spiral of triangular rooms.

The teams split a $500 prize from the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Long hopes to have students in two dorms test the teams’ projects in Second Life so that one day, the ability to “live” in virtual dorms will help new students choose their real homes on campus.

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Credit: Drew Harry and Dietmar Offenhuber

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