The NUS community has a place to call its own in the virtual world.
“Co-designed, co-built and co-owned” by the university community, NUS Second Life was also touted as the “ideal hangout” by its developers at the official launch on March 12 outside the Central Library.
NUS Second Life is an online role-playing landscape that can be accessed with a virtual avatar, also known as an alter ego.
Spanning four islands, the basic infrastructure of NUS Second Life replicates the University Hall comprising of meeting rooms and an outdoor amphitheatre with streaming music.
Other facilities on the virtual campus include a dance floor, a market place similar to the Central Forum, and a beach.
The project was first conceptualised by the Computer Centre early last year.
A team of undergraduate students was then formed to conceptualise the facilities and activities required for the development of NUS Second Life.
Their input was to provide a sense of authenticity to the virtual student community.
John Yap, media producer of the Information Technology Unit at the Computer Centre, said, “To create an ideal hangout for the NUS Community, we felt there was a need for student articulation.”
Yap said, “We wanted them to create the content themselves and see it translated into reality.”
NUS Second Life is still in its first development phase and its full completion is expected by June.
The project started with no common agreement on how the landscape was to be designed.
“Everyone initially had different ideas of what the online campus would be like and it was not easy to come to a consensus,” said Marie Cheng, a final-year building major from the School of Design and Environment who was part of the NUS Second Life founding team.
The designs of the virtual campus that were accepted in the end had to be functional, creative and fun from a user’s perspective.
Ou Di, another student member of the founding team at the launch, said, “Things in NUS Second Life are not there just to look good, but are interactive. They are for users to have fun with.”
“Take for instance, the treadmills in the gym, and the indoor pool with slides and floats.”
However, the virtual campus is not simply meant to be a social playground. It doubles up as an education centre with virtual classrooms available for lessons to be conducted in real time.
These lessons are unlike “webcast” lectures which do not allow for interactive student participation. Class discussions with multiple users are possible and lesson notes can also be given out in the form of “notecards.”
Chew-Goh Swee Wah, assistant director of business technology at the Computer Centre, said with a laugh, “Just think of having a tutorial class together with a bunch of animals and aliens avatars.”
“We want the students to have fun even while learning and sharing.”
Teaching facilities on NUS Second Life have been tested on three classes from the School of Computing and the Communications and New Media department at Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
According to Chew-Goh, other faculties have also expressed interest in using the virtual platform’s advantages for academic purposes.
“SDE, and in particular, the architecture department, is looking into working with us so that their students would be able to design and create buildings more easily with just a few simple clicks and in 3-D form,” said Chew-Goh.
Students are expected to take ownership of the online campus and cultivate a sense of identity in the virtual setting.
To aid in this process, campus student deejay group, Radio Pulze, is collaborating to stream music from its programmes on NUS Second Life. This is done in place of buying commercial licensed music.
There are also plans to get the students’ union into the project.
“NUSSU is the ‘big brother’ of all CCAs here, and collaborating with them would be a handshake to get all the other communities involved so there would be increased activity,” said Yap.
He added, “The different student groups would probably be able to get their own spaces once the virtual Student and Alumni Clubhouse is completed.”
The virtual space also comes with its set of rules and regulations. As listed on NUS Second Life official website, usage terms include codes of conduct such as “no violence and its stimulations,” “no dramas” and “no stalking.”
Yap said the rules are similar to those applied at other academic institutions located in Second Life.
He revealed that the university administrators were more concerned about protecting the intellectual property rights of virtual objects developed by students than to be overly imposing.
The measures are also against users not part of the NUS community to prevent them from stealing virtual campus property. Certain areas of the virtual campus will be made exclusive to the NUS community only.
Another concern raised was the potential of student activism in the virtual world.
“The provost was concerned about strikes, as one did occur previously in Second Life,” said Yap.
A virtual political riot broke out in January last year when the French National Front party, a far-right anti-immigration organisation, established its headquarters in Second Life. A number of its opponents, including the Second Life Unity Left, a socialist and anti-capitalist user-group, got involved in the fray.
Yap remains convinced that this hostile scenario is not to be expected in NUS Second Life.
Yap said, “I believe even if such a thing were to happen on our own island, it should be done in a civilised and proper way. And students should be matured enough to handle it.”
Meanwhile, NUS Second Life has largely been met with a positive response from the students.
Mike Chiam, a final year student from the Faculty of Law testing out the virtual campus at the road show, said, “I think it’s pretty well done. It’s graphically intensive and has quite a few features.”
Gu Peiting, a final year CNM major, said, “It’s something innovative and has potential for growth.”