Living in a Virtual World

DUBAI - After college finishes for the day, many students take time out by drinking Arabic coffee in a Majlis near the local mosque. Some of them however take flying lessons.

By Martin Croucher

Published: Wed 22 Apr 2009, 1:40 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 9:16 AM

An island owned by Dubai Women’s College has become a meeting hub in the virtual reality world of Second Life. The 3D game, which allows individuals to create characters for themselves and live out virtual lives, is being explored by DWC as a learning tool.

Since the college set up its campus in the game last year, it has been used as a meeting point for foreign exchange students from around the world.

Nicole Shammas, from the college’s English faculty, arranged a visit to the college’s virtual campus last year for 20 Korean students who were studying English. “It became a way for students from both colleges to practice their English language skills and learn from each other culturally,” she said.

On Monday, the Khaleej Times was given an exclusive tour of DWC’s virtual campus and was shown an abra, a mosque and even a miniature Palm island — on which building work had been “put on hold”.

Despite being virtual, the island cost the college Dh3,300 per quarter to rent from the US-based owners of Second Life, Linden Labs.

However Shammas said that the virtual world offered unparalleled learning opportunities. In two weeks, the students will have their second virtual foreign exchange visit from English-language students at Bahrain Polytechnic. Second Life was launched in 2003 and now boasts over 15 million users from around the world. ‘Second Lifers’ can work jobs for virtual cash, which can be spent on virtual homes or designer outfits.

A copy of the Burj Al Arab hotel is being sold now for 15,000 Linden Dollars — which according to an exchange rate calculator on Linden Labs web site, is the equivalent of just over Dh200.

There is even an online version of Makkah in the virtual world and residents can perform Hajj at set intervals throughout the year. The mosque on the DWC campus points toward the site. However non-Muslims are able to enter both sites, provided women cover themselves with a virtual abaya.

Sharifa Hajjat, e-learning coordinator at DWC said that it was not clear whether either site had an equivalent sanctity to the real life version.

“Even if a student performs Hajj in Second Life, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have to fulfil their duty in real life,” she said.

Hajjat said that the college also offers tours of some of the world’s most famous landmarks, recreated in virtual form. “These places have been built so they look exactly the same as the real life place,” she said. “For students it is like us taking them on a tour of the world, without leaving their classroom.”

A video of DWC students on Second Life, shown to the Khaleej Times, made the class look like a group of supermodels. “They spent ages designing their characters and improving their appearances,” said Shammas. “They are girls after all.”

What is Second Life?

SECOND Life’s potential as a business tool was first recognised in 2005 when entrepreneur Ailin Graef became a millionaire by building and selling virtual homes and offices.

Although the money she earned was in virtual currency — Linden Dollars — the creator of Second Life, Linden Labs, has an exchange system where the money can be converted into real dollars. The result has seen an explosion of interest from businesses around the world, including IBM, Sony and Toyota. Hundreds of colleges too have established a presence and bands such as U2 have held live concerts through the game.

Second Life was created in 2003 and now has more than 15 million registered members around the world. The game allows characters to create ‘avatars’, or 3D representations of themselves, and perform a range of everyday functions.

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