I'm reminded of that line from Buckaroo Banzai every time someone snickers at the notion of a "second life" or the proliferation of acronyms applied to virtual worlds. It's so reminiscent of the reactions I used to hear from people around 1993 or 1994, regarding the "fad" called the Worldwide Web. To some extent, it's not surprising, given the cheeseball depths to which the "virtual reality" meme has sunk in the years since its early helmet-and-glove days.
But there are some pretty good reasons why I'm convinced many (more) of us will be regularly using MUVE's (multiuser virtual environments) within 5 years. I think the following quotes from an essay in TechJournal South capture the compelling nature of this "new" medium:
The whole idea of having this portal into a virtual 3D world where all of the rules of our physical plane can be removed or warped or refined completely fascinates me. It is one of the most compelling media types every created by man. The rapid growth of the video game market is living proof of the power of the medium, but I believe that we will soon see this medium subsume all other media as the best means for educating, socializing and entertaining humans.
The nice thing about interactive 3D as a medium is that it contains all other media as a subset. Sound, video, text, and animated objects and worlds are all embedded in one landscape. When you give humans the ability to add to the content of virtual worlds such as in Second Life, new behavior and opportunities will emerge.
And I think large multiplayer gaming environments will become even more immersive and compelling. We won't be watching the latest James Bond movie; we will be inside the movie, interacting with professional actors playing those movie roles that we once sat on the couch and watched passively. History students will enter the battle of Agincourt and become one of the archers. Science students will fly around inside of molecules and will walk on distant planets. The possibilities are endless.
So these will become common communication media; not only do students benefit from learning through them, they benefit from gaining experience with them. An article in MIT's Technology review captures one exciting possibility: a mashup between virtual worlds, Google Earth, and realtime data:
Remote collaboration, virtual tourism, shopping, education, training, and the like are already common on the Web, a vast resource that grows faster than we can figure out how to use it. Digital globes are gaining in fidelity, as cities are filled out with 3-D models and old satellite imagery is gradually replaced by newer high-resolution shots. And today's island virtual worlds will only get better, with more-realistic avatars and settings and stronger connections to outside reality.
Second Life (SL) is one instantiation of a MUVE that is garnering the most attention recently. The New Media Consortium's "Seriously Engaging" video on YouTube is a good overview of some of the pedagogical affordances of SL. SL Education is a growing resource on the educational uses of SL, while EduMUVE lists sites of interest to educators in SL. And Text100, a public-relations firm, has produced a compelling video showing practical business applications that one can easily map into an educational setting.
Maybe you're just now getting a handle on Web 2.0, but get ready for Web 3-D. It's already here.
P.S.: Lest you think the SL evangelists are all technophiliacs with no sense of humor, I highly recommend two satirical URLs: Get A First Life and DRAFTFCB's SL parody video (both of which are a lot funnier after you've spend some time in SL).