Lawmakers hold first hearing in Second Life

Why would Congress hold a hearing in real life when it could do so in Second Life?

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet did that today, holding the first congressional hearing in the online virtual world.

The session was held both in the House Rayburn Office Building and in a faithfully replicated version of that committee's hearing room in Second Life.

The subcommittee held the hearing to get more information on the virtual world, which has 6 million unique registered users worldwide across 390 square miles of virtual land. Second Lifers create avatars — or representations of themselves — to explore and interact with the sprawling world.

“We call it three-dimensional Internet,” IBM’s Vice President of Digital Convergence Colin Parris told the panel. Parris said he considers Second Life and other virtual worlds the next step in the evolution of the Internet.

There's a possible obstacle to further virtual hearings: none of the representatives on the panel own an avatar of themselves, with the exception of Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.). The audience filled the rows of the virtual Energy and Commerce room, but the witness table slots for House members remained empty, except for Markey’s avatar.

Markey's staff created his avatar when Markey spoke at a climate change conference in Bali — or, rather, at a virtual version of the conference, as Markey was unable to take the trip to the Pacific island.

Some federal agencies already host offices in the virtual world. NASA opened a branch called the Collaborative Space Exploration Lab, which has models of past rockets and instructional films. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs a sophisticated laboratory that simulates weather conditions such as eroding glaciers and tsunamis.

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