Virtual Worlds as Eco Incubators

What does a virtual world have to do with making a real world businesses more eco-friendly? Potentially a lot. Here’s a cheat sheet on noteworthy green development projects in Second Life, the user-created world I’ve been writing about over the last four years on my blog and at GigaOM. [digg=]

R&D/Data Modeling Platform

In early beta, Linden Lab’s world was conceived to be a model of the real world, with weather and a working ecosystem of flora and fauna. Just before its 2003 launch, however, the company altered its focus to turn it into a user-created content platform, adding features to its internal scripting code (similar to C+) and 3D modeling tools. Its original intention to create an immersive simulation of the earth has now shifted into the hands of the ‘private sector,’ i.e. the users.

The most compelling demonstration of this is
Svarga, a self-contained island created by a British programmer, which has physics-driven rain clouds that water plants and bees that pollinate flowers. There are real educational possibilities here: it’s a simulation of the planet in action. (This is partly why NOAA and NASA have taken an active interest in SL.) Simulations can show various environmental conditions, both hypothetical and real. (It’s possible to XML data in and out Second Life, a functionality NOAA used to model national weather conditions in 3D.)

Presence and Portability

Corporations like Cisco and IBM have bought large areas in Second Life with eco benefits in mind. (There’s a great extended report on some of these efforts here and here.)

A 3D simulated space in which users interact as humanoid avatars can create a sensation of
presence that’s convincing enough that we seem to replicate our unwritten rules of eye
contact and personal space within it
. In theory, then, you can use a virtual world like SL as a cost (and emissions) saving alternative to air travel and real world meetings.

This is one reason why some companies are experimenting with virtual world job fairs, while others are holding internal corporate meetings between their far-flung offices in a kind of metaverse
. There’s already some very interesting early prototype technologies that merge 3D building in SL with 3D printers in the real world—another means of saving on transportation and portability costs, and possible business opportunities with an eco angle.

But is SL itself ecologically sustainable?

I’d be remiss not to mention a somewhat interesting debate on the power consumption of Second Life: the data for every 16 acre region of the world’s virtual land is housed on a server, with new servers added to the SL grid in proportion to new users. The power to run the servers and these worlds is immense, and destined to grow.

Inspired by game blogger Tony Walsh and doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math, writer Nick Carr estimated last year, “[Y]our average Second Life avatar consumes about as much electricity as your average Brazilian.” This provoked a fascinating extended back and forth in his post’s comments, with Linden CTO Cory Ondrejka and others weighing in.

In response to the debate SL user Markus Breuer recalculated the numbers, and came up with
considerably smaller consumption figures. He estimated that it is less energy than is needed to drive an average US-made automobile 100 miles.

Still, this debate is sure to come up again. In the end, it’s safe to say Second Life, like any other Internet service that requires a larger server farm (i.e. Google, YouTube, etc.), requires a lot of power. So perhaps the more fruitful question for the ecologically minded is whether the gains (as above) are outweighing the costs.

Wagner James Au is a writer, game developer, metaverse consultant and former Linden Lab’s “embedded journalist” in Second Life