3D Virtual World - Application to Scientific Education
Virtual World is no longer a gamer’s monopoly. Recent development shows that the use of virtual worlds is spreading to the communities in scientific and educational fields. One such example is the Kira Institute in the USA. It had organized various workshops and summer schools in real life, aiming to be a hub of exploring interdisciplinary human knowledge. In 2008 it brought its activities into the 3D virtual world, Second Life, and set up the Kira Campus there. It opened a Japanese branch, Kira Japan as well.
The Kira Institute is a science and philosophy research institute originally set up in 1997 by Piet Hut, Professor of Astrophysics and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Roger Shepard, Professor of Cognitive Science at Stanford University, and other members. The institute is now promoting communication among scientists and/or general public at the Café located in the virtual Kira Campus, and conducting collaborative researches and providing education at the Science Park. It is known to be one of the most active Second Life sites in the USA.
With its motto, “Science in Context”, the Kira Institute has been promoting intercommunion of natural science and social science or other disciplines. Eiko Ikegami, Kira Japan Representative, Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at the New School for Social Research in New York, says, “It aims to investigate science in plural and critical ways and re-capture it in relation to the wisdom and insights of other disciplines and world traditions”.
This may sound too abstract. In a nut shell, the institute offers a place where scientists or general public of various fields can mingle and talk freely. Using the 3D virtual world as a platform, the Kira Institute may potentially change the way science and academic studies are conducted now. Professor Piet Hut says, “Virtual space will become an indispensable tool for international scientific collaborations. I want Kira Campus to be a place where not only scientists but all the people in the world who appreciate knowledge of mankind can enjoy exchanging their views and extend their networks.”
Today, we have an increasing number of problems that require us to tackle them by going beyond a single discipline in any single country. These problems include global warming and life science, and they are asking a society at large to identify the problems as such and give thoughts to them. Yet, boundaries still remain static between disciplines in academic arenas, even though interdisciplinary programs are so much hailed in recent years.
In a virtual world, however, there is no distinction between professionals and amateurs. It is a barrier free world where one’s nationality, occupation or social status doesn’t really matter. Persons who can’t move because of their physical disabilities can take part in it too. It allows you to jump into academic discussions with the “playful” mind. Inspiring ideas and tip-offs for researchers may come out, which are not available if researchers remain in a narrowly defined academic framework. For the general public, they may raise the level of science literacy if they can communicate with scientists.
The 3D virtual world is still being developed and it has many technical and institutional issues to solve. Yet, the 3D virtual world surely presents a great potential to make a breakthrough, if not single-handedly, in the way the scientific community serves in today’s ever complicated life and in its relations with the general public. For that reason, the Kira Institute deserves our close attention, and we would like to see how it develops.