Not long ago, the press hailed the free, 3D, online social virtual world Second Life  as the next great thing. Approximately a decade later, it’s not uncommon to hear “What, it’s still around?” But over the past 10 years, Second Life has grown to represent more of a creative social space than the virtual mall the media originally envisioned. And while the virtual environment has yet to (and maybe never will) see the same level of adoption as behemoths like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, a loyal niche audience has kept it alive, with flat or slow growth in participants and internal economy.

University of Oregon Professor Donna Davis (a co-author of this post) was recently invited to present her work in this virtual arena to an auditorium of 100 students. Following her brief lecture, she began a live tour of Second Life. Coincidentally, her friend and professional violinist Xander Nichting was about to start a live Second Life concert from his studio in Belgium. When she messaged him to let him know she was online, he selected her favorite song as his opening piece, and dedicated it to her and her student audience via live webstream.

Nichting’s avatar was projected on a large auditorium screen, allowing the students to enjoy a live, 3D, immersive international experience. If you examine the students’ Twitter feed during the performance (Feb. 6, #J412ssm), you will see that they moved from skepticism to awe.

The potential of Second Life

The usefulness of Second Life is still evolving. While companies such as Ford and Coke rushed into the virtual world but quickly abandoned it because the traffic numbers simply weren’t there, other organizations and corporations such as IBM continue to use the space to train international employees. The Mayo Clinic continues to provide community education in Second Life, and the American Cancer Society has used the platform to raise more than $1.5 million in US dollars since 2005 (reporting more than $375,000 per year the past two years).

One of the interesting and unexpected benefits of this environment is that it creates a profound opportunity for people with disabilities to engage in creative new ways. Organizations such as Virtual Ability, Inc. have emerged in Second Life, using it to provide a supportive environment for people with disabilities—a place where they can develop skills that help them thrive. Here, Second Life becomes an accessible and viable space for those reinventing how they might engage with the world anew.

Parkinson’s enters into Second Life


A virtual garden environment captured from Second Life. (Image created by avatar name Barbie Alchemi)

Last summer, Davis began working with another Second Life participant, who created a virtual place of support for people with Parkinson’s disease (including her own 86-year-old mother). The project began as an opportunity to raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease and funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Remarkably, the creator of this virtual support world saw symptom relief and improved mobility in her mother after her mother watched her own avatar freely doing tai chi in a virtual garden within Second Life (see image). This phenomenon is of great interest to researchers working with Davis and her colleague, Tom Boellstorff, a professor of anthropology at UC Irvine and an Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing fellow. Davis and Boellstorff are working with medical researchers who are just beginning to explore the potential benefit of virtual experiences to others who have Parkinson’s.

An architect in Second Life

Another associate is David Denton, an architect known for several prominent designs, including his work as managing partner with legendary architect Frank Gehry. Denton also has Parkinson’s. As he adapts to living with the disease, he has recreated his practice in Second Life, and is responsible for creating a unique bridge between physical and virtual in his “Kansas to Cairo” project, an online collaboration between American and Egyptian architecture students. Today, Denton also uses the creative nature of the virtual world to unleash what he calls “compulsive creativity.” To compare his offline and online designs side by side, visit his website.

The opportunity space

The opportunity here is to consider the future of virtual environments as a supplemental working space and a globally connected, healthy means of support for those facing challenging experiences in the physical world. Many are using Second Life as a space to explore meaningful, creative social innovations.