In the capital of Canadian province Alberta, CIO Chris Moore is on a mission to recreate his city in the virtual world, where avatars roam and interact like they would in real life.
Launched in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, Second Life is an immersive online environment and a 3-D modeling tool based around simple geometric shapes that allows users to build virtual objects. At the beginning of the year, Second Life had 18 million accounts registered. Moore is one of them. When it comes to business, he likes to plug in.
"When I have 'in-world' conference calls, I'm much more engaged because on my screen, I'm actually looking at the other avatars," he said. "It creates a different experience because of the immersive nature."
Federal agencies such as NASA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a presence in Second Life, but most cities haven't gone there for various reasons.
Edmonton is not the first to get into Second Life, but it's believed to be the first city to officially recreate itself (geography, terrain and major landmarks). Moore believes the interactive platform can encourage tourism and economic development. Virtual Edmonton was launched in August.
"I treat it as a platform from which we can understand and experiment," Moore said. "Because it's not behind our firewall, it lives in a place where we can easily interact with the community. Will it be the platform that we stay on forever? I don't know. But it's a really easy place to start."
Edmonton embraces innovative opportunities, so it's no surprise that a 3-D immersive environment appealed to Moore. As soon as he learned about Second Life, he began to see the technology as a tool to foster public involvement, education and emergency preparedness.
To build Virtual Edmonton, the city contracted with Christie Communications, a local tech firm, for about $25,000 Canadian dollars. Moore breaks down the three stages in the process:
1. Planning: First, they had to decide how much space to replicate in the virtual world and how big the environment would be. Every city has its unique geography, Moore said, and planners wanted to capture Edmonton's terrain in Second Life as much as possible because "it creates a sense of place and orientation."
2. Building: Virtual Edmonton is divided into four zones: civic, which includes City Hall and connections to other virtual cities; culture, which includes the Muttart Conservatory, Edmonton's premier horticultural attraction; the community zone, where users can find links to organizations, nonprofits and educational institutions; and commerce, a hub for businesses.
3. Developing: The third and current phase of the project includes figuring out how to manage and develop Virtual Edmonton. Moore is in the process of creating a land management group to oversee the virtual city and make sure it's sustainable.
"This isn't just for people currently in Second Life," said Alexis MacMillan, president of Christie Communications. "It's also for new users. When they visit Virtual Edmonton, we want them to be able to navigate in the space very quickly."
To that effect, she said, developers built virtual display boards and signposts so users would know where they are and how to get to where they want to go.
For governments, the benefits of a virtual platform like Second Life seem obvious: For relatively low cost, local officials can create visual designs and get real-time input from the
It's a model that makes sense for the public sector because in-person presentations lack effective visualizations, said Pam Broviak, city engineer and assistant director of public works in Geneva, Ill.
"At a face-to-face meeting, someone might have a valid idea, but it might not gain any ground," she said. "It fails because people can't visualize it."
But even with the advantage of visualization, an immersive environment can intimidate local officials who have no idea how to use the interactive tool as an urban planning platform.
"It can be very uncomfortable at first because it's something that none of us are prepared for," she said. "Particularly in government, we're usually conservative, so we're not going to take many risks."
For the most part, she said, governments can't get beyond the idea that Second Life is nothing more than a game. But Broviak noted that another integrated authoring tool, called Unity, has been winning fans in government circles.
Unlike Second Life, she said, Unity3D visualization technology allows developers to input existing public works files, drawings and tools directly into the platform, which simplifies the replication process. It's still new, so governments have no concrete examples to examine. But Broviak believes that as the concept of virtual platforms evolves, governments will discover great possibilities.
"Once people see that it's all meant to work together, I think they'll be more accepting of it," she said. "It will be perceived less as a game and more as a tool to get work done."