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Virtual Ability

Submitted by Tom Peters on April 14, 2009 - 9:52am

I love quiet revolutions. They beat the odds and buck the trends. They don’t rely on the braying of pundits and prognosticators. They provide pleasant surprises, awakening us lovingly from our dogmatic slumbers.

Recently a place named Virtual Ability Island (VAI) in the three-dimensional virtual world called Second Life has provided me a fascinating glimpse of a quiet revolution in progress. I don’t know how big or important this quiet revolution will be, but it is a welcome development. At the risk of braying a bit myself, let me tell the tale.

I like Second Life and I think virtual worlds in general have a bright, significant future, but I have to agree with many tepid reviews of Second Life that note that most places seem like ghost towns, not vibrant virtual communities.  I’ve called this problem in Second Life the “reverse frontier” because the virtual landmass seems to grow faster than the resident population.

Virtual Ability Island was created in 2008, funded in large part by a grant from the National Library of Medicine, Greater Midwest Region, to the Alliance Library System in Illinois. The purpose of Virtual Ability Island is to provide orientation and training about virtual worlds for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. The Alliance Library System partnered with Virtual Ability, Inc. on this project, and intrepid avatars such as Gentle Heron, Eme Capalini, Carolina Keats, and Lorelei Junot worked hard to make it all happen.

I’m involved in other projects serving library users with disabilities, and I think these projects are very important and worthwhile. Still, the idea of creating Virtual Ability Island in Second Life sounded initially to me like the recipe for a worthwhile but little-used virtual world location, resource, and community.

That turned out not to be the case. Virtual Ability Island has proven to be one of the most-visited locations in the Alliance Information Archipelago. People are flocking to VAI. Part of this surge of visitors is due to the fact that in February VAI became an official Community Gateway in Second Life. The purpose of a Community Gateway is to provide orientation and support for newly created avatars during their first few hours in Second Life. Because Second Life is a global community, there are Community Gateways for speakers of Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and many other languages.

The owners of newly created avatars get to decide if they want to begin by visiting a Community Gateway location, and, if so, which one. For the English-speakers, there are a baker’s dozen Community Gateways, including BigPond (Australian themed), Campus in 3D (for higher ed. types), Dublin in SL, Virtual London, newBerlin, Solace Beach (pirates and tiki torches), Caledon (Victorian Steampunk) and, of course, VAI, projected to newly created avatars via the following two-sentence description, “We provide a community of support for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, their family and caregivers. Our training is open to anyone, and ideal if you learn best by self-paced detailed instruction.” Hundreds of people a day are choosing VAI over pirates, tiki torches, steampunkers, outbackers, and Berliner bears. The word on the street (and the virtual street) is that VAI has a very well-designed orientation experience and a welcoming community. You can come for the great orientation experience, and stay for the vibrant community of interest. 

I have been contracted to write the final report on this grant-funded project. That’s why I’ve been paying attention to this amazing quiet revolution. One thing I did to generate some data was to place proximity sensors at several places around the island. Whenever an avatar comes within range of one of the sensors, the presence of that avatar gets tabulated. No privacy-compromising data are collected. The proximity sensors I use note that an avatar came within range and how long they stayed within range. During the 45 days from February 15, 2009 through March 31, 2009, over 25,000 avatars passed within range of the sensor located near the Orientation Center on Virtual Ability Island. That’s an average of 555 per day! Surely, you may be thinking, not all of these visitors are people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. That’s true, and that’s fantastic. People with a wide range of abilities from all over the world are coming to Virtual Ability Island. There probably is no place in the real world that gets such a consistently high amount of diverse visitors. This kind of interaction could be revolutionary. They arrive in droves to this place.  Gentle and Eme remember all the Rumanians who visited VAI after Second Life was featured on Romanian television. It was the same weekend as the Super Bowl here in the States. 

Of course, VAI offers much more than just a great orientation experience. They offer advanced training, lectures, social events, informal gatherings, and places to just hang out. 

VAI seems to be proving that, when an experiential information resource is designed to be accessible and welcoming for everyone, the resource and the experience is improved for everyone. I wish the designers of other information systems and portable information appliances would appreciate and apply that basic truth.

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