Emerson Island group creates virtual Boston

by Beacon Staff • December 12, 2007

While that may be a normal December day for Floridians, many Boston residents are also having fun in the sun-or, rather, their avatars are.

On Dec.,Right now, there are people strolling through Boston Common in the sunshine, coats forgotten in their closets.

While that may be a normal December day for Floridians, many Boston residents are also having fun in the sun-or, rather, their avatars are.

On Dec. 13, Hub2, a collaboration between Emerson, the city of Boston, the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, will be showcasing virtual models of different Boston areas that were designed by city residents at 12:30 p.m. in the Little Building's Beard Room.

Using the virtual world Second Life, users are able to create avatars, or simulacra of themselves, to interact with the computerized world and other avatars. For them, sunny days are always possible.

Emerson professor Eric Gordon, one of Hub2's founders, said the project allows average citizens to participate in city development by giving them a space to create their own vision of the city within the program. Interaction between different avatars means that Hub2 can also serve as a social networking tool.

"We want to change the way the [city] design process is done," the assistant media arts professor said.

Second Life is a 3-D world created entirely by its users. Since launching in 2003, the Web site has attracted about eight million residents. Avatars work jobs, go to parties and interact with each other.

Founded earlier this year by Gordon, Berkman Center Fellow Gene Koo and Nigel Jacob, an assistant to Mayor Thomas Menino, Hub2 encourages interaction between Boston residents and their public spaces in the real world and cyberspace, Jacob said. It creates a way for citizens to participate in their community, and city officials said they hope it will encourage more people to become involved in civic activities.

Six Hub2 projects will be on display at the showcase, including a design of Government Center and the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The designs are the work of students from Gordon's VM503 class, and those who attended Hub2 public workshops taught by Koo. The workshops consisted of Emerson students, members of City Hall, BRA workers and local residents interested in learning about Second Life.

Evan Leek, a graduate media arts major and a project coordinator on Hub2, is also a teacher's assistant for Gordon's course, the group that was given the task of redesigning Government Center on Second Life. Leek said the goal of the project is to give residents the sense that they can change and affect their community.

"There are theoretical bases for why things are built or changed on Second Life, that can then be applied to the real world," he said.

Hub2 was inspired by the Emerson Island project, a Second Life reproduction of Emerson's Boylston Street campus that began in January. Leek worked as a project manager on Emerson Island, which led to his work with Hub2.

The project, Jacob said, is still in its experimental stages, so there are no confirmed goals for it as of now. However, he said that by seeing the way residents are designing their virtual cities, Hub2 provides a tool for City Hall to gauge what residents think Boston should look like.

"In a very informal sense, it could be used as a feedback tool to the city," Jacob said.

Hub2 has been designing sections of Boston since September, but is currently not aiming to make a complete one-to-one mapping of the physical city and all of its functions in Second Life's virtual universe, Jacob said.

"While we don't have completely set goals," he said, "we do know that avatars aren't going to go around and pay parking tickets."