Hanover acquires a 'Second Life' online

by Emily Weisburst | 11/15/06 6:00am

Hanover has recently found itself in the limelight -- of the computer screen -- due to a virtual replica of the town in the increasingly popular 3-D virtual online world Second Life.

"It's funny because I've had a lot of Dartmouth alums visiting the [virtual] town and telling me about it," said Christopher Carella, the creator of the replica and an employee of The Electric Sheep Company, which oversees and manages Second Life.

Second Life is an open-ended virtual space that is designed to be an extension of real life and boasts 1.3 million users.

Users can interact with each other, engage in a free market economy with Second Life's currency, known as Linden dollars, and add any new features they feel are lacking by writing new software.

Linden dollars are exchangeable for real U.S. dollars online on the LindeX exchange market at an average going rate of 250 Linden dollars to one U.S. dollar.

The replica of Hanover is a 16-acre island in the virtual world that models Main Street from the building that contains the Dirt Cowboy Coffee Shop to the building that houses Bank of America. It includes a complete model of the sites on Main Street with representations of the Nugget Movie Theatre, Lou's Restaurant, Town Hall and Ledyard Bank.

"A year ago, [Hanover] was very popular in Second Life because it was one of the first recreations of a real place," Carella said. "Now, as Second Life is bigger, it's less popular, but it's still very popular and gets a lot of press."

Carella, a former student of Thayer Engineering School, was inspired to recreate Hanover in Second Life as a first-responder training site because of his previous job working for the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth.

He originally developed the Hanover replica while at ISTS in 2005 with the Hanover and Lebanon Community Response Team, a first-responder volunteer force, in mind.

"The hope with volunteer forces is that they never have to be used, but we thought that the Second Life platform might be a good way to keep first-responders sharp who don't have the time or resources to train in the field," Carella said.

The project was never finished, however, as a result of funding issues and Carella's move to become an employee of The Electric Sheep Company.

Today, Hanover Island serves primarily as a prototype of what the Second Life engine is capable of for users interested in building in the virtual world.

Carella also said that although there are no plans to continue the interactive simulation with ISTS, several other companies that specialize in first-response equipment have become interested in using the simulation portion of the Hanover replica as a form of advertisement.

Jenny Bodwell, a research associate at ISTS and former colleague of Carella's, described the cost benefits of simulation in first-response training.

"For emergency responders, it's much more cost efficient and realistic," Bodwell said. "You can use multiple scenarios in a gaming scheme using only the time and resources that it takes to develop and distribute the program, rather than the tons of time and resources it takes to plan multiple real life training scenarios."

But Bodwell did question the efficacy of using Second Life or other recreational gaming engines specifically as a training tool.

"It's a cool idea, but it may be ahead of its time," she said.

Bodwell said that the reality is that first responders, as a generally older community, are for the most part unaware of Second Life and are not the most computer-literate group.

She noted that with time, virtual online simulations for first response training may become more viable.