The interesting thing is that once these building blocks have been put in place, people start using them for all sorts of amazing things that you have never even thought of. One fairly well known example is the work that IBM has done over the last year or two with the virtual representation of the Wimbledon Centre Court inside Second Life. What they did was build a representation of Wimbledon Centre Court inside Second Life, and linked it up to a system that acquires data from Hawkeye and various other on-the-ground systems, and then have that data fed into Second Life to represent the actual physical event inside Second Life, so you can walk onto centre court at Wimbledon inside Second Life and watch a representation of the event that is taking place in the real world.
Another really interesting example: last year I was in the US doing a tutorial on hardware hacking inside Second Life, and one of the tutorial participants came up to me afterwards and explained to me that he was a mining safety engineer. His idea was to use Second Life to build a complete representation of the mine environment that he works in, and then acquire telemetry data such as positioning data from trucks, loaders and the various machinery inside the mine, and then feed that in real time back into the Second Life environment and have it as a real time representation of what is going on in the mine. So as a mine safety engineer he could pull up a virtual representation of the mine on his computer and walk through it, and as he is walking through it he will see representations of what is actually happening at that moment in time in the mine, so he could very quickly run through and see where all of the people are, and see exactly what is going on.
Why do you consider Second Life to be such a suitable platform to build on?
Second Life is interesting because it was specifically built as a platform, not as an end product. If you look at any three-dimensional environmental, like a game environment such as Quake or some of the newer 3D First Person Shooters, they are essentially virtual reality environments with lots of code running in the background. But what you are seeing is the end result of someone else putting everything in place - they have done the coding for you. It's not accessible; you are interacting with it on their terms. If they put an object in a place that is where it stays; you can't change it other than in a way that they have specified.
The clever approach of Second Life is that they built a tool kit, and they seeded the environment by building some things, but then they have relied on end users to do all of the creation. So it allows people to be very creative. If you download the Second Life viewer and you are logged in as a Second Life user all the tools are built right into the software that you are using already. There is no extra step to take, all you have to do is use it, and that is a very deliberate move. What that means is that the Second Life environment is almost entirely managed by end users, not by Linden Labs who create the tools, and that has brought out a lot of creativity in people.
What are some other examples of out of the ordinary communities or projects that Linden Labs may never have expected Second Life to be used for?
There are historical re-creationists, there are science fiction enthusiasts, there are people doing modeling of complex systems, for example there is one island in Second Life that is deliberately setup as an entire ecology with autonomous animals including predators and prey. There is a whole food chain and the system is basically just allowed to run and the various animal populations reach a state of equilibrium because they behave in a certain way, they follow certain rules. That sort of modeling has traditionally been quite hard to do.
There is another project that is really interesting, which is a friend of mine named Matt Biddulph who's a UK-based developer. A little while ago he was hired to create a system to represent molecular structures inside Second Life. Researchers who were working on molecular structures typically use proprietary software that runs on their local machine and it shows them what the particular chemical looks like and they can rotate it, for example. But there is not much collaboration involved, and what they wanted to do was have multiple researchers in different labs be able to look at a model simultaneously and discuss it, move it around. So what they did was setup a system that allows a molecule to be represented in an enormous size inside Second Life, and allows anybody to fly around it, look at it and manipulate it. So that is one application that I am sure Linden Labs never thought of when they were originally putting the tools together, but it's a really cool example of how, if you build these toolkits, people will use them in crazy and imaginative ways.