Increasing numbers of people are using the Internet for the provision of all sorts of health services, from prescribing, through consulting to setting up automated self-treatment programs. But what about using it for education and therapy? After all, in theory, the ultimate form of cognitive behavioral therapy should be "virtual reality therapy." By simply wearing your wrap-around sound and vision multimedia headset you can be instantly transported to a cliff edge, soar in a plane thousands of feet above the ground or be surrounded by a gathering of thousands of spiders – depending on your phobia. And the ultimate form of online education should be fully interactive, case based and student driven, all of which I now use in my teaching in Second Life.
The phrase "virtual reality" was coined by Jaron Lanier in 1989 to describe computer simulations of physical environments. Since the mid-1990s, the video game industry and 3D graphics card manufacturers have driven forward the state of personal computer graphics, advancing it far beyond the needs of most business users. These systems range in capability from simple displays of 3D objects to entire virtual cities. Virtual reality systems are now being routinely implemented on personal computers for a variety of activities. One of the most popular virtual reality programs is Second Life, produced by Linden Lab, Inc. Second Life is a general-purpose virtual world accessible through any Internet-connected personal computer. In order to interact in Second Life, users create "avatars", or animated characters, to represent themselves. Individuals use these avatars to maneuver through various "worlds", complete with buildings, geographical features, and other avatars. While the system borrows heavily from video game technology, it is not a game – there are no points, no levels, no missions, and nothing to win. It is simply a platform by which people can create virtual communities, model geological, meteorological, or behavioral phenomena, or rehearse events. I have been working in Second Life for several years now.
Users of Second Life include a variety of education organizations, from Harvard Law School to the American Cancer Society. There are currently areas of the virtual world that provide such disparate services as teaching heart sounds and auscultation technique, providing social support for individuals with Asperger's Syndrome, and modeling the effects of tsunami on coastal towns. The system has over 10 million account holders from all over the world, most of them with free basic accounts. Approximately 800,000 of those users are active, with over 80,000 of them connected to the system at any time. Virtual reality programs such as Second Life are increasingly being used for educational purposes in a variety of fields, including medical training and disaster preparedness. Linden Lab currently operates the Second Life Education Wiki which functions as a source of information for educators and trainers in a variety of fields who wish to use Second Life for distance learning or large-scale training purposes. A number of government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation, have begun using Second Life to hold meetings, conduct training sessions, and explore ways to make access to information more readily available around the world. A recent comprehensive survey intended to gather information on the activities, attitudes, and interests of educators active in Second Life conducted by New Media Consortium reported that the majority used it for educational purposes such as teaching and taking classes as well as for faculty training and development .
I have been using Second Life as a teaching and learning environment for several years now. With colleagues I have created a "virtual hallucinations" environment, which demonstrates the lived experience of psychosis and allows participants who travel through the environment to experience both visual and auditory hallucinations; visions and voices. We used this environment to teach this experience to our medical and psychology students. With the California Department of Health and other colleagues I have created a virtual bioterrorism crisis clinic to train health workers, and more recently, as part of our Health Informatics Certificate Program, with University of California Davis Extension, we have taught informatics students in a virtual conference center on our own private island; Davis Island. Students find the environment straightforward to learn to navigate, and within a week of our informatics students being introduced to the environment they were able to travel and tour around Second Life with the rest of us with ease.
Second Life and similar multi-user environments offer enormous possibilities in the medical educational world, where such applications are now called "serious games" rather than social or fun software. Students of the future will adapt to them very easily, and it is clear that applications such as Second Life have a great educational future before them. I look forward to continuing to teach classes of medical and graduate students "inworld".