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At Hearing, Real and Virtual Worlds Collide

Forget C-SPAN: Congress Goes Interactive

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008; Page D03

A Linden Labs worker put on her nicest black suit and her most formal pair of wings this morning, to help run a congressional subcommittee hearing about online virtual worlds that was broadcast simultaneously in the company's own virtual world, Second Life.

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This might be a little confusing, but here goes: A virtual depiction of the Rayburn House Office Building meeting room was projected on television screens on the wall, so that real-world attendees could look at the small virtual crowd that logged on for the event. Attendees logging in from Second Life, meanwhile, could watch the proceedings on a video screen projected on the wall of the virtual room. The real-world guests included executives from Linden Labs, IBM and a tech firm that helps nonprofit organizations take advantage of virtual worlds.

A self-admitted group of virtual-world newbies, the politicians, led by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), asked a wide range of questions. In an era in which technologies can catch on and become mainstream quickly, the subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet wanted to know some basics. Could Second Life be used as a place to launder money? Are children safe in online worlds? Are there churches? Are you making any money?

"We have never seen any evidence of such activity going on in Second Life," Philip Rosedale, Linden's chief executive, said of the possibility of criminals using Second Life to launder money. Rosedale argued that Second Life is a self-policing community and that users would likely be quick to report any behavior that seemed to indicate users posed real-world threats.

As the politicians and the witnesses discussed the potentials of the online virtual world, the online visitors simultaneously logged on in Second Life chatted away on the screen in conversations on the topic at hand and beyond:

"I think senators are superdelegates but not all reps."

"I love flip4mac."

"They should really move the x and the c away from each other on the keyboard." (This following a warning that the video might freeze for "just a sex.")

On the real-world end, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) probably got the best quips out, joking that some people already think Congress is a virtual world and that Markey was throwing the event merely to learn how to get to the next level in World of Warcraft.

The invite-only event was a bit less chaotic than the time, a couple of years ago, when Mark Warner, the former governor of Virginia, made a Second Life appearance and virtual participants floated across the room, apparently unable to control their avatars.

-- By staff writer Mike Musgrove, and originally published on the Post I.T. blog. For more entries on technology, visit washingtonpost.com/technology.

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