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Learning Architecture In A Virtual World

Terry Beaubois had a problem when he was offered a position teaching architecture at Montana State University. He wasn't ready to move to Bozeman, Montana, where the campus is located. So he figured out a way to teach the course from his home in Northern California.

He did it by creating a virtual classroom in Second Life. But now he wouldn't have it any other way. Even though he's now based in Bozeman, Beaubois hasn't abandoned his virtual classroom. In fact he's expanded it into a program he directs called the Creative Research Lab, which is part of the school's College of Arts and Architecture.

Second Life, operated by Linden Lab, is a virtual world - built on what looks like a gaming platform - but for Beaubois and many other users, it's not just fun and games. It's a place to do real work.

"It's a precursor to where much of the Internet will be headed in the future," said Beaubois. "It allows for people to visit other people, create and exchange objects - to do what they want to do."

Beaubois has created a Second Life environment complete with his lab and four "islands" where he and his students create structures and interiors to teach and practice architectural design.

From my home in Palo Alto, he took me on a tour of his virtual lab which looks a lot like what a real one might look like. There are posters, diagrams and pictures on the walls, books on shelves and, in his case, rooms where students can design and place furniture. I admired the cover of one of his books so he invited me to click on it to look at drawings and read some text.

I was especially impressed at the rooms in which students can design, place and show off furniture. I liked a particular setting but questioned the choice of colors. No problem. He repainted the walls and re-upholstered the furniture at the click of a mouse. It's a way for a client to see what a room might look like before actually ordering furniture. Almost anything is possible in a virtual lab.

Some parts of his lab reflect the real world. In an effort to show his students objects they're familiar with, he has an aerial view of the campus with the ability to zoom in on replicas of real buildings "Creating environments people are familiar with in real life makes the virtual environment more understandable," he said.

Designing buildings in a virtual world brings up some interesting philosophical issues that he and other virtual architects like to debate. There are those who argue, for example, that architectural students should only be able to design buildings that could actually be built in the real world and others who say that there's nothing wrong with taking advantage of the special features of this virtual world.

For example, in one of his students' designs there is a staircase with stairs that simply float in space - they're not anchored to the structure. And the stairs are very far apart.

It would be impossible to build such a staircase in the physical world and equally impossible for a real person to use it. But in Second Life, people can fly and jump more than high, so this staircase works just fine. Residents of Second Life could even get around a tall building without a staircase.

While he has no qualms about creating structures that could only exist in a virtual world, he thinks there is value in using Second Life to create structures, design furniture or create music and art that could exist in the outside world as well. "It shows the potential of being able to bring real life objects into this virtual world, as well as creating objects that don't exist in real life."

Sometimes, he said, "I show them pictures and they say it could only be done in Second Life, but it turns out to be the Opera House in China. It's not just limited to the real world [or] to what they know so far."

Dr. Beaubois isn't just an architect and academic. He's also a real estate tycoon. He own two Islands that he bought with him own money and his students have access to two additional islands that the University purchased.

Beaubois didn't tell me the actual price he paid for his islands but he did pay with real U.S. currency.

Second Life is operated by Linden Labs, which makes part of its money selling virtual real estate for real money.