O Brave New World That Has Such Avatars in It!

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Local officials in Arlington have set up offices in Second Life, a virtual world where users can walk or fly themselves through the obsessions and passions of people everywhere by clicking on screen arrows. Across the virtual Potomac, organizers are putting together a white-tie inaugural ball on Jan. 20th at a replica of the Capitol. The Washington Post's Michael Laris explored these places.Footage by Michael Laris/courtesy Linden Lab, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com

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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

The virtual world Second Life, a landscape of primping avatars, ballroom dancing bears, space stations and vampire castles, has a new -- and maybe even more surreal -- inhabitant: the Arlington County government.

The county's cyber-office, on the first floor of a virtual glass-and-steel tower, sits behind tinted sliding doors, across from a vending machine that sells digital Cheez-Its and Pop-Tarts. Visitors can take a seat in swiveling office chairs and scan understated orange and gray promotional posters ("brainpower: arlington's alternative energy") as they wait to meet with an economic development official.

Curious executives can swing by to gather market research aimed at luring grocery chains to Arlington. County officials can conduct presentations on an interactive white board as they promote the region to corporate prospects. And later this month, anyone interested will be able to join a confab on how to launch a business in Arlington.

While the setting is cyber, the economic development official behind the site is real. John Feather, 53, has been volunteering his time to create Arlington's online presence, which he hopes will give the county another way to sell itself to tech-savvy businesses.

"People can come and get a real sense of not only what Arlington is now, but of what Arlington will be," Feather said. "If we are at least here struggling with everyone else, that kind of says something about us."

Local governments haven't rushed to set up shop in Second Life and other virtual worlds. Officials have plenty of skepticism, not all of it unwarranted. Virtual worlds remain a social and technological frontier, where people, through their animated alter egos, or avatars, can act out fantasies of violence and public nudity and where a computer hiccup can leave a frustrated visitor pounding on a keyboard.

But as designers keep pushing to make the worlds more realistic and easier to navigate, the Washington area has become home to creative efforts to move government toward such realms.

The Bethesda-based National Library of Medicine, for instance, has created in Second Life a potentially noxious world of everyday health hazards called Tox Town, where clicking on a tower in a dusty construction site produces a list of the chemical properties of neighborhood runoff.

At the University of the District of Columbia, criminal justice students practice investigations and patrols and deal with such imaginary perp behavior as the attempted theft of Professor Angelyn Flowers's pink convertible.

Other designers have created in Second Life a virtual Capitol Hill, where plans are afoot for a white-tie inaugural ball Jan. 20. Instructions are forthcoming on how to find a good tux.

"There will be music. There will be dancing. There will be socializing. There will be virtual punch," said Steve Nelson, executive partner of Clear Ink, a Berkeley, Calif.-based Internet firm that built the cyber Capitol Hill. "The idea is after they leave [the ball], they actually feel like they participated somehow."

Nelson is related by marriage to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). His wife, Troi Nelson, designed an avatar for former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has dabbled with the medium as a way to advance his political agenda. And for the TV series "The Office," she created avatars for the actors who play Jim and Dwight.


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