From 2-D to 3-D Web: The Science Center in Second Life

Second Life residents, known as avatars, view the total solar eclipse streamed live by the Exploratorium on March 29, 2006. Image © The ExploratoriumBy Paul Doherty and Robert J. Rothfarb
From ASTC Dimensions
November/December 2007

Museums are already using 3-D visualization, animation, and even single-user virtual worlds in their real-world exhibits and programming. Why then go to the trouble of creating multi-user, online virtual spaces? Is there something about these social 3-D spaces that enables online visitors to experience science exhibits differently than via 2-D web sites and interactives?

Designing for multi-user-enabled web sites requires consideration of real-time interpersonal communication. In the context of current Internet methods, this could be user-created personas/identities, chat, messaging, videoconferencing, and/or games. And even if you don’t attempt to create games or game-like experiences online, you will need to think about online content and exhibit design in the context of how multiple visitors might experience those things together.

Despite those concerns, and others related to costs and technical requirements, many museum professionals feel a need to create a more social Internet and to widen their online exhibit aesthetic to include more of this element. Multi-user 3-D virtual worlds allow “face to face” interaction between web users around the world, in spaces that are representational, abstract, or completely imaginary. They also offer a way for museums to stay in touch with community members and casual audiences and to design and present content that’s relevant for and interesting to those audiences in a personal way.

Predating Web 2.0, most 3-D virtual worlds have, at the core of their user-experience design possibilities, built-in tools and methods for collaboration and user-created content. As a developer of content and experiences in virtual worlds, you will need to think about balancing the elements of 3-D interaction, real-time communication, and user-created content. Each of these elements is familiar and powerful by itself. By bringing them together, and by designing content and experiences that leverage how they work together, you can create personalized and social experiences and learning opportunities for your online visitors.

At the Exploratorium, media creators and educators have been experimenting in Second Life (SL), a rapidly growing (9 million+ registrants to date), massively multi-user, 3-D virtual world and online community. This unique space is not a game, but an open-ended environment where all the content is created by the members of the community, or “residents.” (Note: To access the secondlife:// URLs referenced in this article, you must have the SL client software installed on your computer.)

SL makes experiences of the 3-D Web accessible not only to content creators, but also to a web-savvy public. In SL, users navigate their “avatars” (virtual-world characters) through the world’s virtual landscape. Through a spatialized audio system, SL residents can now speak to one another using microphones connected to their computers. This mix of real-world and virtual-world realities allows participants to further personalize their experience.

Moving into Second Life
On March 29, 2006, the Exploratorium presented a live webcast covering a total eclipse of the sun as viewed from Side, Turkey. Telescopic views of this rare sun/moon/earth alignment, created in collaboration with NASA’s Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum, were broadcast with scientific commentary via satellite, television, and Internet streaming to hundreds of thousands of viewers worldwide. We also created an overnight program at our museum in San Francisco where the public came to view the live eclipse webcast.

This event seemed a perfect opportunity to try our first venture in Second Life. We streamed the program into several locations in SL and created a companion set of in-world exhibits. The combination of live streaming video, a unique viewing environment, interactive exhibits, and in-world hosts to answer questions provided a virtual-world experience that mirrored our real-world museum programming. The 65 SL residents who attended remained actively engaged throughout the one-hour presentation. This showed us that a live webcast-viewing experience in-world could attract and engage SL visitors.

Our next SL undertaking was to create the ’Splo, an industrial-looking space in an in-world urban setting filled with more than 100 3-D exhibits (secondlife://Midnight City/ 176/58/26). Some of these exhibits were new to the Web; many would be hard to make in a real-world museum.

Encouraged by positive visitor experiences at the ’Splo, as well as by the response to the eclipse event, we were inspired to establish a larger SL presence for the Exploratorium and develop relationships with other educational content creators working in-world. We have since built an entire island called Sploland (secondlife://Sploland/ 175/75/25), filled with both serious and humorous exhibits, and have hosted two more live SL events.

The first of these, in November 2006, was an astronomy presentation offered in conjunction with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) at Kitt Peak, Arizona. We offered a live streaming webcast of telescopic views of the transit of Mercury as it crossed the face of the sun. In SL, the event was hosted at the International Spaceflight Museum (secondlife: //Spaceport Alpha/48/78/24/) by ’Splo avatar-scientist Patio Plasma (an Exploratorium physicist and educator in real life), who demonstrated the phenomena using an interactive, 3-D planetary-orbit model.

We also presented a Pi Day event on March 14, 2006, jointly celebrating Einstein’s birthday and the number pi (3.14). In the real world, the Exploratorium has hosted Pi Day events for more than a decade. This year, staff built dozens of Pi Day exhibits specifically for SL, including PiHenge (like Stonehenge, but with pi-lithons replacing trilithons) and a giant Pi sculpture that spit out cherry pies. Avatars could try “hands-on” activities, such as building a Pi glass, a cylindrical drinking glass as tall as its circumference. Exploratorium visitors could watch the SL goings-on in our real-world theater and ask questions about the virtual world, and Pi Day events at the museum were streamed into SL, where avatars could query staff avatars about them. In San Francisco, visitors were served slices of pizza and dessert pies; in Second Life, avatars received free Pi Day T-shirts.

Most recently, we have launched Exploratorium Island (secondlife:// Exploratorium/163/124/23), a multipurpose space where we plan to build and prototype exhibits, present public programs, and offer workshops from our teacher-education programs. Exploratorium Island and Sploland are part of a group of science-technology-themed SL locations called SciLands (, a sprawling campus where avatars can stroll (or fly!) around and engage in experiences across a range of topics. SciLands includes both real and virtual institutions; it has a governing board to oversee the addition of new content areas.

What you can do in SL
So what kinds of online exhibits can a virtual-world science center offer that visitors can’t get in real life? Here are a few ideas we’ve tried with success.

1. Move the visitor around
In the real-world Exploratorium, there’s an exhibit where visitors walk up to an upside-down photo of TV personality Vanna White. At first, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with Vanna, but when you rotate her photo, you see that her eyes and mouth have been cut out and placed upside-down in her otherwise right-side-up face. The effect is grotesque and disturbing. The exhibit shows that people analyze pictures of faces in pieces, looking at the eyes and mouth independently. In our SL museum, we’ve made two copies of the exhibit. In one, the viewer rotates the photograph as in the real world; in the other, the avatar gets rotated instead—a memorable experience for SL residents.

Another exhibit allows avatars to either watch the orbit of Comet Halley, or ride the comet as it races away from the sun, slows near aphelion, and finally plunges back toward the sun. Most choose to ride the comet.

2. Change the scale of objects
Unlike in the real world, it’s easy to change the scale of natural phenomena in the virtual world. For example, to help visitors understand eclipses, we built a scale model of the earth/moon system in SL. We hung an earth model in space (easier to do in a virtual world!) and, at the same scale, hung a moon model 30 meters (100 feet) away. People visiting the exhibit, including real-world astronomers, have noted that they had no true appreciation of Earth’s scale relative to the moon before encountering this exhibit.A virtual world can also offer access to the very small: One inspired SL resident built a model of the Brownian motion phenomenon, which describes the random motion of particles. In his model, four cubes that would be a few nanometers across in the real world tumble and spin inside a transparent cube 10 meters on a side. Taking advantage of what we’d learned about a virtual visitor’s scale-of-reference experience, we suggested allowing avatars to ride the cubes. The view from a particle undergoing Brownian motion and rotation in 3-D makes for a wild ride.

3. Make exhibit information portable
Museums in the real world often struggle with how to present interpretive materials with their exhibits. Too much information for one visitor might not be enough for another. In a virtual museum, you can create rich textures offering visual or textual information adjacent to or on exhibits, or you can attach “notecards” that avatars can read and discard or save in an “Inventory” file. Notecards can be linked to other notecards or to web pages, offering deeper levels of detail, examples, references, or links to real-world museums.Both notecards and objects can have scripts attached that offer mementos or artifacts. You can give a visiting avatar a talking book or a T-shirt or hat customized with museum graphics. The ability to integrate textual and other external web content into the virtual experience is an active area of development for Linden Labs, creators of SL.

4. Let visitors experience dangerous situations, or take them to remote locations.
It can be tricky to explore the inside of a nuclear reactor core in real life, but avatars in Second Life need have no fear flying around inside a 3-D model of a working nuclear reactor. Bringing live audio and video from expeditions into SL simulations offers a unique way to engage visitors and connect them to activities at inaccessible locations.

Exhibits and social interaction
Visitors to virtual-world museums are more than just usernames; they’re “residents” who can express an identity and demonstrate interest in a museum’s ideas and exhibits. Through design, voice, chat, and gesture, this persistence of identity and level of expressiveness allows both museum staff and visitors to make important social connections that, for many, are not as easily made or maintained on the 2-D Web.

Because virtual-world audiences typically enjoy interacting with one another, public programs that offer shared experiences add an important dimension that can increase your level of contact with the SL community. And watching residents interact with your content in real time opens an opportunity to prototype exhibits and spaces and get important feedback about use patterns and good design. Although audience numbers in virtual worlds are not yet as large as those on big web sites, the time that individuals spend with in-world content can be significant. Visitors to the ’Splo, currently about 200 per week, spend a lot of time viewing and playing with exhibits—more if they visit with other avatars, a trend we plan to study.We’ve found that ongoing interaction with other residents—including other museums and educators—is important to staying in touch with the community and keeping content and programming relevant. New members can take advantage of guilds, groups, and communities of interest already organized in SL, or start their own. In addition, designing exhibits and programs that allow tech-savvy content makers to build things, share images and video, or make machinima (movies created entirely in virtual worlds; see can keep visitors returning to your space.

Paul Doherty is co-director of the Teacher Institute, and Rob Rothfarb is director of web development at the Center for Learning and Teaching, the Exploratorium, San Francisco, California. This article is adapted from “Creating Museum Content and Community in Second Life,” in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds), Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings (Archives & Museum Informatics, March 2007.) The Exploratorium has set up the Museum Virtual Worlds web site to share information and resources with museums and other educational institutions about theory, design, and practices of developing content and experiences in multi-user virtual worlds.


Advantages of getting into Second Life…

  • Extends reach of content and community to a growing online audience
  • Gets your museum involved in the social aspects of the Internet
  • Expands your audience on an international level
  • Appeals to Gen X, youth, and gamer cultures
  • Allows user-generated content
  • Enables collaboration
  • Allows wandering/linking/searching activities that promote discovery
  • Offers evolving content and social networks that enable emergent patterns and interaction models
  • Offers built-in economy for donations and sale of content, merchandise, or event ticketing

Compelling technical features…

  • Persistence of objects and identity
  • Rich media content support
  • Built-in scripting language, possibility of support for new scripting languages
  • Ability to interface with external data sources
  • Up-to-date hardware capabilities
  • In-world building tools that keep costs down and are easy to learn and use
  • Infrastructure actively supported and enhanced by developer
  • Support for internationalization
  • Open-source client that allows development of customized browsers and features
  • Active third-party development that contributes to overall platform development growth and extensibility

…And a few disadvantages

  • Limited audience compared to other electronic media, including the Web
  • Technical barriers to entry (hardware/ broadband requirements; ease of use
  • Not yet seamlessly integrated with other web media or virtual worlds
  • Openness to live content/content modification and associated consequences, a la Wikipedia
  • Moderated events can be challenging
  • Can’t accommodate large numbers of participants in a single space
  • Overall stability issues.

—P.D. & R.J.R.

From the November/December issue of ASTC Dimensions.

About the image: Second Life residents, known as avatars, view the total solar eclipse streamed live by the Exploratorium on March 29, 2006. © The Exploratorium