Kathryn gave an introduction to Second Life and an online tour of the Australian Libraries Building. The building is modeled on a real library, with interfaces to traditional online library resources, but done in a whimsical way.
One aspect which worried me is that Second Life is a for-profit company product. You can purchase an "island" to display your products and services. The Australian Libraries Building is on an island devoted to libraries around the world. While anyone can use second life for free, it costs real money to set up a building and it is effectively a virtual private gated community.
The interface for second life is a two dimensional rendering of a virtual 3d world. Each user of the system is represented by an Avatar; a graphical representation of the person. The avatar and the environment can be customized to look and behave differently, partly using purchased resources (using a local currency). The user interface is similar to that of a video game (but without the guns and violence, for the present).
All this made me feel old and alienated. Not being a computer games player I found the visual interface unnatural. I had difficult seeing the details and keeping up with the blurry, animated items. The overly rich visual design made me feel nauseous (much as a set of 3d goggles does after a couple of minutes use).
However, there was a great level of enthusiasm displayed by Kathryn and evidently a lot of effort being put in by other librarians. But will this translate into a mainstream product or be just for a few geeks?
At question time I asked if there was an alternative accessible interface for the blind. Kathryn didn't know and I was shocked that the audience of librarians laughed at the idea. I would have assumed that librarians would know they have a professional and legal obligation to provide services to the disabled. Not providing an interface for the blind, if is technically feasible and not too expensive, is unlawful. While Second Life may seem a virtual place, unlawful actions carried out there are within the jurisdiction of Australian courts (I had to do an expert witness report for an international online libel case a few days ago).
Correction 15 February 2007: Above I wrote that the audience of librarians laughed at my suggestion there should be an alternative accessible interface for the blind. Someone else there says they were laughing at were the antics of the avatars on the screen, behind the speaker, not at my question. My apologies to the audience if this was the case.Another audience member asked a question about the bandwidth needed for the interface. Apparently the graphical interface required a lot of bandwidth. This would seem a fruitful area for IT research. It should be possible to optimize the the system to reduce the bandwidth needed and provide an interface for the blind at the same time. I might set it as an ANU e-Science project for the students to do.
This talk was one in the excellent NLA Digital Culture series. Unfortunately the NLA doesn't have a public web page about the series. But the next time they email me an invitation I will blog it.