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College building in Hamilton gets Second Life in online world

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by Peter Kenter

Mohawk College creates a virtual version of its library to give international students a chance to view the campus before they get there.
College building in Hamilton gets Second Life in online world

College turns to interactive online site to promote high-tech library

Wayne MacPhail is president of w8nc, a specialized construction company based in Hamilton, Ont. When Mohawk College assigned him the task of duplicating its iWing building on the newly-formed Mohawk Island, he asked for permission to improve the design — so that visitors would find it easier to fly inside.

The new building exists in a virtual realm known as Second Life. Launched in 2003 by Linden Research, Second Life is a fully-functional online world where as many as 20 million people manipulate electronic versions of themselves — known as avatars — through an electronic landscape.

“Mohawk’s iWing is their electronic library, a really striking building with massive green glass panels,” says MacPhail. “The college is always interested in pursuing international students, so I approached the school to create a virtual version of iWing to give them a chance to view the campus before they get here.”

MacPhail applied to Linden Research to create Mohawk Island, specifying the type of terrain he wanted to work with. The island — located in an archipelago devoted to information and learning — cost the client about $1,200. A $200 per month fee pays for the computer server that maintains the existence of the island in virtual space. MacPhail worked from engineering drawings supplied by Mohawk to re-create the building.

“I took probably 200 reference photos and noted the colours of things, right down to the patterns on the chairs and the angles of the windows,” says MacPhail. Construction was painstaking because it required that much of the building be erected in Second Life’s virtual space, not merely imported from another computer program. “The tools are persnickety,” he says. “And there are often glitches when working with different materials — it took about four months to build.”

As part of the purchase price of the island, MacPhail was given a set of common building materials to work with. “You get some generic material textures like wood and glass, but if you want something more exotic, you can go to Second Life’s version of Home Depot and buy extra textures for 10 Linden dollars apiece — the Canadian dollar is worth about 270 Linden dollars. Sub-contractors will provide unique building tools, or help you to align the building blocks in a certain way. You can buy a spiral staircase, or buy the computer script to depict a working elevator. You have access to a full-blown construction industry with a complete line of contractors and sub-trades.”

The Mohawk building plans were altered to suit Second Life residents who may find traditional buildings difficult to negotiate.

“In Second Life, people are a lot like seagulls,” he says. “It’s awkward for them to walk, but easy to fly. The removal of iWing’s support pillars and the addition of the skylight made it easier for visitor avatars to enter the building and explore the space.”

MacPhail says that builders in California are already using Second Life to give clients a sneak peek at the buildings they want to erect. “An avatar of the client can go inside the building and live with it for a week or so,” he says. “They might tell the builder that they want the halls widened or the windows moved. It gives clients the opportunity to see what it means to have their visions realized — perhaps to look at a colour scheme they picked and say, ‘Man, that’s ugly.’”

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