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.
Virtual worlds are populated with users who, after donning new skins, walk or fly themselves through the obsessions and passions of people everywhere by clicking on screen arrows. Characters meet, gesture, text, talk, lie, kiss, marry and sometimes fight.
Feather's Internet double is Theatre Magic, a younger, chiseled version of the real thing. "I never had a swimmer's build. Second Life is an opportunity to be what you always wanted to be. And it's cool to look really hot at the office," Feather said.
One recent evening, Theatre was shepherding a reporter toward the county's online office space for a tour when he sent a text message suggesting a detour. "Want to go swimming?" he wrote. He then teleported to a lake surrounded by Japanese maples and did a summersault from a cliff with an animated Buddha nearby. It was a long way from the Arlington office, but what better place to ponder the future of government?
Politicians at all levels have sought to use technology to make government more responsive. President-elect Barack Obama's promise to continue putting his weekly addresses on YouTube is just one example. Many local government sites tend to focus on the basics: paying taxes, checking home values and providing streaming video of public meetings.
Virtual worlds promote collaborations that could eventually change the way local governments manage touchy issues such as development. One idea turns on its head the old architectural gibe about a building looking like it was designed by committee. So-called "wikitecture" is meant to do just that. Designers around the world can each contribute their own flourishes to an architectural sketch. For instance, far-flung hands drew an award-winning blueprint for a health center in Nepal, Steve Nelson said.
Those who promote the idea of offering government services in digital worlds say the benefits aren't always obvious until people discover that virtual settings can stimulate the imagination.
When Linden Lab, which started Second Life, needed online conference rooms, Nelson's firm made them look like national parks, including Denali in Alaska and Mesa Verde in Colorado.
Suddenly a mundane interaction becomes memorable: "Remember when we were at that beach in Kitty Hawk?" Nelson said.
Or taking a swim with that Arlington official? Theatre Magic eventually made it to Arlington's conference space, but the side trip showed how easy it can be to shake up expectations. With toes wet, Arlington officials have started to broaden their thinking.
What could the county do with its space? One idea is hosting a job fair in the virtual world for defense workers who don't want to move from Arlington as part of a massive realignment of Defense Department jobs. The anonymity of avatars could be very useful for those who wish to job hunt discreetly.
For Feather, helping nudge the county into Second Life has opened a creative spigot.
In November, he started working on a 3D map of Arlington's major buildings. Touching images on the map calls up Web pages about them, and he and his colleagues want to add real-time rent data and detailed visuals from architects and developers so that "when you click on that building, you go in the door."
Such technology will eclipse standard Web sites, including the county's, Feather said. "You'll start to walk around places instead of going to flat pages."
Arlington officials working in Second Life are spending their own money and working on their own time, mostly at night. Whether setting up office suites in cyberspace will produce anything tangible for the county is an open question. But for Feather, at least, Second Life has had an impact. Now he performs in an opera group and meets with a global crowd to talk jazz. And he's building the 3D county map from a virtual perch 800 meters in the sky.
"I don't like heights," Feather said. "The first couple weeks I was here . . . I would get to the edge of some of these things, and my stomach would turn. Now I jump off . . . just because I can. You crash land, get up off our stomach and dust yourself off."