Sunday, November 2, 2008

Integrating simulations in SecondLife/Wonderland?

SecondLife has drawn extensive interest among educators. It is an attractive immersive environment for multiple users to interact with each other through navigating in an interesting 3D landscape. SecondLife represents the latest effort of developing 3D Internet, which, as opposed to the conventional page-by-page Internet, provides a novel mechanism to display information in a more interesting way beyond text, images, animations and applets interspersed in a 2D layout.

Although SecondLife is very interesting, it currently does not allow an author to embed an existing simulation in its environment. The media support is currently limited to text (animated or not), images and movies. Considering the fact that there exists a vast number of simulations on the Internet written in Java and C++, including those offered by the Molecular Workbench (, it would be nice if one day we can see the user interacts with a simulation hung on a whiteboard inside SecondLife. We can imagine that there will be a virtual math and science musuem. Students will "walk" into rooms that have different exhibits, explore the wonderful models by pushing various buttons and observing what happens, and discuss with people in the same room about it --- pretty much like their real experience when they go to a real museum.

I think it is unlikely that SecondLife itself would offer simulations that are content-specific, such as those offfered by the Molecular Workbench. The SecondLife community will have to rely on the domain experts to fill in the real stuff. So it seems to me that the best strategy is to make Java work in SecondLife and provide a plugin service for C++ applications.

Wonderland ( is a toolkit developed by Sun Microsystem that rivals SecondLife. Wonderland is particularly interesting because Open Office works within it. As a result, multiple users can work on the same Open Office document projected onto a whiteboard in Wonderland. If an application as complex as Open Office can work within Wonderland, there is every reason that we should believe Java should just work without a problem in Wonderland. Wonderland, therefore, may seem a very attractive option for developing a virtual museum as described above.

There are many technical issues about integrating a compute-intensive simulation with a compute-intensive immersive environment. Some of the problems will automatically go away as multicore computers become more powerful and more available. Some won't without substantial work in figuring out better ways of synchronizing a simulation for multiple users and synthesizing their inputs.

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