Why Second Life Seems so real

About 90% of the people who try out Second Life don't stay long enough to discover the full benefit of the experience. Those that do, find Second Life completely different from all other media because there is an uncanny sense of "presence".

This sense of "presence" comes when the user begins to feel that he or she is not just watching avatars move around on the screen but is actually one of them. The media itself becomes transparent as the person becomes, through their avatar, totally immersed in the artificial world.

Other avatars are experienced as real personalities. Activities such as dancing, boating, ice skating, water skiing, flying, and even sexual encounters are experienced in much the same way as in the real world.

It is common for avatars to tour Second Life together. Sharing with each other the excitement of discovery and adventure. Emotionally, they will feel the same kind of pleasures that a group of tourist might feel when exploring the novelty of a tourist resort - laughing and joking together in mutual enjoyment - not only of the attractions but also of each others company.

This unique media has attracted the attention of psychiatrists and neurobiologists all over the world. They recognize the huge possibilities for therapy and for studies on social interaction and personality disorders (See: Presence and rehabilitation: toward second-generation virtual reality applications in neuropsychology). It provides an ideal environment for neurobiologists and neuropsychologists to study brain activity using Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and Evoked potential mapping (or EP mapping). These techniques (See: Technical description) allow researchers to see where in the brain there is neuronal activity during social encounters and be able to analyze what specialty parts of the brain are being brought into play.

This scientific research has led to many new theories about how the conscious and unconscious human mind works. There are new ways being explored to explain what is regarded as "self"; how the brain creates the visual impression of what we "see"; how memory combines with inputs from the senses; how emotions are harnessed to bring people together and to socialize and cooperate with each other; how communicated information flows around a large community.

One of the main outcomes of this research is the evidence to suggest that the brain constructs an internal body map of a person's physical form and another map of the external environment. This is the way evolution has shaped the working of the brain to allow humans to survive in a hostile and competitive world.

The surprise has been that the body mapping is not rigidly restricted to a person's real body: it can be extended and transferred to objects external to the body. This can be demonstrated with a simple experiment that anyone can try out for themselves at home. Sit down at a table and place an object in front of you on the table to represent a hand. Place one of your own hands out of sight under the table. Then, get a friend to gently stroke the object on the table and at the same time stroke your hidden real hand in a similar way. Magically, the object on the table will then seem like your real hand and appear to be part of your body.

It is this phenomenon that allows participants in Second Life to identify in a realistic way with their avatars. The brain, somehow, is able to transfer the body mapping of "self" to an avatar in an artificial world. Also, the same phenomenon allows the brain to map the environment of the virtual world as if it were a real environment that their "real self" was inhabiting.

It is this quirky feature of the brain which makes Second Life such a unique media. This virtual world has the feel of reality. There is a sense of "belonging". It is an ideal environment for word of mouth communication, valuable to anyone interested in spreading knowledge, information and marketing messages. It is ideal for cooperative group activities. It can genuinely provide a new and enriched life experience to the old and disabled who can, through this medium, acquire a new appearance and take a vigorous and active role in the community and its many events.

This provides a strong basis and incentive to develop a project which will fully utilize the benefits of this unique environment - creating a service that will be useful, beneficial and applicable in the real world.

Peter Small (SL: Eliver Rang)

December 2007