In virtual reality of Second Life, users find a world of opportunities

FOR MANY, THE “metaverse” — an all-enveloping, all-online world — is a fairly new concept. For the regulars on Second Life, it’s just part of everyday reality.

Second Life is an immersive online platform that somewhat replicates the physical world. Users customize avatars that interact with others in spaces designed for all kinds of activities, from lectures to campfire singalongs. Hundreds of thousands have used Second Life since it was launched in 2003. The pandemic brought some former users back and prompted others to join. (It’s free to use, but some users pay for premium memberships.)

Virtual worlds are not just about wandering around chatting with strangers and caring for virtual pets (though you can do that, too). Resourceful folks have envisioned — and created — a vast spectrum of possibilities.

Valerie Hill’s Second Life avatar has long blond hair, as she does in real life. Unlike in real life, a stack of books balances atop her head. Hill directs the Community Virtual Library, open to anyone on Second Life. The library looks like a Spanish-style building on a beach. (There seem to be many beaches in Second Life, because why not?) People visit to find resources but also to hear speakers or take classes.

While you can do the same things in a physical-world library, the virtual version has its perks. “Sometimes when we’re doing book discussions, we can go into a hologram of the book together,” Hill says.

Renne Emiko Brock uses Second Life to teach at Peninsula College, where she coordinates the Multimedia Communications Program. She encourages students to explore other virtual spaces and share their creations, from stories to virtual clothing. “People can interact across time. You can leave something for future students and come back and see what others have done with your work,” Brock says.

For Monica Berkseth, one of Brock’s students, Second Life has been a refuge from the realities of life — especially helpful during the pandemic. Entering another world also helps her explore her own identity. “I get to show off the me that I felt like I was,” she says.

Virtual worlds have been a lifeline for people with disabilities since the pre-Web message boards of the 1980s. “We’ve been in the metaverse for almost as long as you’ve been alive,” Alice Krueger, founder of the Virtual Ability community in Second Life, tells me.

Getting into Second Life can be a little intimidating; it helps to have someone show you around. Virtual Ability’s website acts as a portal for people to enter the platform with help from guides experienced in working with all kinds of disabilities. One developer created software to let blind users navigate Second Life using a screen reader.

The platform offers freedoms people might not have otherwise. As a wheelchair user who doesn’t drive, Krueger doesn’t get out much in the physical world. “If I didn’t have virtual worlds, I would just be staring at the walls.”

Via Second Life, she attends everything from conferences to dances — with people from all over. “There are just so many things you can do in virtual worlds that you just can’t do otherwise, whether you have disabilities or not,” Krueger says.

And the people are still real people, even if they can fly and teleport. “People talk about ‘real’ life. To me, Second Life, and the things that I do there and the people I meet there, are all real,” Krueger says.

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