Eric Hackathorn

Living NOAA's Second Life

As told to Alice Lipowicz

As leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Virtual World program, Hackathorn found new ways for the government to participate in the Second Life virtual environment. He also is co-chairman of the Metrics and Research Working Group at the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds and co-created SciLands, an international user community that meets on its own mini-continent in Second Life to promote science and technology.

NOAA is testing virtual worlds for use in educational outreach, data visualization and other applications. We are using Second Life as a platform because it caters to a worldwide audience and provides access to people who could never visit our real-life offices. Ideally, we can show students parts of our world they otherwise would not see, like the bottom of the ocean or the northern lights. Much of the data that NOAA produces is inherently 3-D, and Second Life provides unique opportunities for visualization.

NOAA Virtual World started as a personal hobby in 2006 outside normal working hours with a generous donation of a virtual acre of land on Second Life. I was able to demonstrate some basic functionality and convince local management there was value to this new technology. In July 2006, Sandy MacDonald, director of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, provided some seed money. NOAA's first virtual island opened in January 2007.

Our program has grown in small steps since then. This process is by no means over. At this point, we have two or three on-site staff and half a dozen subcontractors. Our operational budget is in the low to mid six figures.

Second Life provides the interface, the building tools and the world. It is like an [Internet service provider] hosting a Web site and providing basic tools to design Web pages. The number of regions NOAA utilizes is a function of how much money we invest. Most of the design work is done in Second Life, but more and more, we take advantage of 3-D animation programs like Maya, Blender or SketchUp.

We are beginning to test data visualization in virtual worlds, or what I like to call collaborative [geographic information systems]. One recent prototype we call Second Earth attempted to blend the capabilities of tools like Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth with the collaborative capabilities of Second Life. You can fly through and remotely collaborate about a real-time dataset.

My advice to other federal agencies interested in virtual worlds is to define your goals before you break ground. Use the numbers in terms of visitors, time spent on the site, etc., to help refine your design and improve your conversion rate to your goal.

Start small by focusing on a topic that is of interest to local management. Wow a manager with an easily understandable and relatively cheap application. Don't be shy about asking questions and fostering a sense of community development.

Compliance is very much an ongoing process. Virtual worlds touch on everything from Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to working with the procurement office to buy a [virtual] island. The most recent addition to our team comes [with] a background in policy and planning. His assignment over the next six months is to create a strategic plan for virtual worlds, along with various policy frameworks. Regarding privacy and other potential issues, NOAA has not had any legal challenges. My hope is that policy would address these issues. The more groups that are talking to each other [and] sharing their best practices, the better chance we have of addressing these sorts of issues.

I started a group called Real Life Government in Second Life, which now has 10 [or] 15 agencies from several countries. Also, NOAA participates in SciLands, a user community in Second Life with about 20 science and technology organizations, including NASA, the National Library of Medicine and, most recently, the Energy Department.

Our greatest challenge for NOAA Virtual World is that we have not identified a consistent source of funding. Our funding comes in on a program-by-program basis.

Usability is a source of frustration. Virtual worlds are very much first-generation. It still takes an enormous amount of energy to sign up for an account, learn how to walk around and make it to NOAA's infrastructure. This is improving with time, but it certainly affects the short-term return on investment.

[Sometimes] an individual group recognizes a need for the technology, and they would like to take advantage of our expertise. Unfortunately, with this strategy, an agencywide vision for virtual worlds is quite challenging. Simply put, agency funding cycles that occur on a four-year time scale do not work well with technology that reinvents itself every four months.

My favorite aspect of NOAA Virtual World is showing up on a Monday morning, logging in and popping into the middle of a virtual tour of our facility in a language I don't understand.


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