AAAS Diary: NOAA's Virtual World

Reporter Graeme Stemp-Morlock blogs from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco.

One of the most extraordinary parts of the AAAS conference is the exhibit hall.  Inside the gargantuan space there are a few hundred booths with representatives from governments, labs, nonprofit organizations, publishers, and companies from around the world.  Trying to navigate the hall is a lesson in marketing.  Even nuclear waste can sound like a good idea if it has a glitzy pen and a poster to give away.

For sure, one of the best ideas at the exhibition this year was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) bold move to create a virtual island on Second Life.  

Quick background for the uninitiated (which included me until about an hour ago):  Second Life is a virtual planet started in 2003.  Millions of people have created lives in this world, buying virtual land, selling products and entertainment, basically everything that goes on in the real world but without the limits.  And, just for the record, it looks remarkably life-like.

So, NOAA bought an island and built a small complex of buildings just over a month ago.

“It’s like Disney Land meets science education,” said Eric Hackathorn, the NOAA IT Specialist behind the Island.

Floating or walking around the island is just like visiting a museum, but without sore feet.  You can explore a map of current weather in the USA provided by the national weather service.  Or you can view NOAA’s innovative Science on a Sphere (a six foot pin-pong ball that displays the Earth as it would appear if you were on the Moon – very cool in person and still pretty neat virtually).

Plus, there is some really neat science that you get to do that you could never do in person.  For instance, swim with dolphins and whales, check out an undersea volcano, watch a tsunami wipe out a village, explore a melting glacier, or even fly through a hurricane.

Besides being visually interesting, you can also learn a great deal.  Every sea creature, map, display can be clicked, and the viewer is taken to a relevant webpage with further information.  “In some respects this is just a 3D search engine,” said Hackathorn.  Currently, the project takes viewers to Wikipedia webpages when they click an exhibit, but there are plans to link everything to an official NOAA webpage soon.

For a video of NOAA's island, go here

-Graeme Stemp-Morlock 


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