Second Life

I got this in my inbox and thought DDIG readers might be interested (in case you didn’t know about it already):

2PM-4:30PM Pacific Standard Time (10PM-12:30AM GMT or Universal Time)
December 10, 2008
Location: Okapi Island
(You must have the free Second Life browser)

Join us for Burning Çatalhöyük, a project developed by OKAPI, the Berkeley Archaeologists at Çatalhöyük, and the UC Berkeley DeCal program. Çatalhöyük on OKAPI Island, in development since 2006, is an exploration of the past and present of a 9,000 year old site located in present-day Turkey. In this demonstration we intend to burn the existing models down in order to better understand the use of fire in Neolithic settlements. In consultation with fire experts Karl Harrison and Ruth Tringham, and architecture expert Burcu Tung, a team of undergraduate apprentices have replicated the burning sequence of Building 77, a structure excavated in the summer of 2008. OKAPI island also hosts reproductions of modern developments present at the site, including a water tower, Sadrettin’s café, the Chicken Shed and the nightly bonfire.

Remixing Activities:

Guided Tour of OKAPI Island by Ruth Tringham, (Professor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley, and Principal Investigator of Berkeley Archaeologists at Çatalhöyük) and the Remixing Çatalhöyük team.
Niema Razavian will introduce the work that the Fall 2008 Decal class has done on the island, and how this fits in with a broader UC Berkeley education.
Roland Saekow will demonstrate his teleportation system, to guide new visitors around the island.
Kira O’Connor will show the site datum she has constructed, and talk about how datums are used at archaeological sites in general.
Clark-Rossi Flores-Beyer will demonstrate the skeleton model he has managed to manipulate into a crouch position, in accordance with how people were buried at Çatalhöyük. He will briefly discuss burial practices in the settlement.
Garrett Wagner and Raechal Perez will discuss their own reproductions of the interiors at Çatalhöyük, and how they decided to configure the space on their own.
Colleen Morgan (UC Berkeley PhD Candidate, excavator at Çatalhöyük) will wrap-up the program with a discussion of why virtual reconstructions of archaeological sites are important, and what Second Life can do to increase our understanding of the past.

Second-Life recreation of Çatalhöyük

Second-Life recreation of Çatalhöyük

    What is Second Life?

Second Life is a 3-D virtual world created entirely by its residents. Okapi Island is owned and build by the OKAPI team (that’s us below!) and the Berkeley Archaeologists at Çatalhöyük.

Getting Started
To visit Okapi Island, you will need to create a user account and download the client software–both free.

To create an account, visit, click on Join (in the upper right corner) and follow the instructions. Note: You do not need a premium account to use Second Life or visit Okapi Island.

Next, download and install the Second Life client for your computer:

Launch the Second Life client and enter your password. You will likely begin in Orientation Island. To visit Okapi Island, click Map, enter “Okapi” in search field and click Search. Alternatively, you can click on the following slurl (second life url) in your browser, and you will be transported there:


Shawn Graham got the ball rolling with his discussion of applying Second Life as an instructional platform for archaeology. It seems to have had some resonance with other archaeo-bloggers (see ClioAudio, and ArchaeoGeek). ArchaeoGeek noted some fascinating work attempting to link GIS-type capabilities in Second Life. They even have an elaborate model of downtown Berkeley, including BART station.

Shawn also rightly discusses some concerns that people have voiced. These comments show some worry that we’re in danger of putting our data eggs in one basket, aand becoming dependent on yet another commercial platform (as in my previous discussion of Google, and how much we’ve come to rely on it). Given all the data preservation problems caused by closed-proprietary file formats and software, these are valid issues.

However, Linden Labs is pretty good in this regard, and I wouldn’t put Second Life in the same realm as Microsoft or even Google. Mitch Kapor (of Lotus fame, and now Second Life’s major investor) recently gave a talk at the UC Berkeley ISchool about Second Life (link to podcast). He talked about how Linden Labs is doing much to open up its infrastructure, and has “open sourced” both its client and will do so soon with its backend infrastructure software. Others will soon be able to run a Second Life server on their own. I think portability of the data in virtual worlds makes using Second Life and investing some effort in playing with it much more worth while and less risky.

In any event, while reliance on any one system is probably dangerous, there are good immediate and practical reasons for avoiding such digital mono-culture. Certain systems are best for certain types of applications. Second Life is great for visualization, and offering rich and shared experiences. But it’s probably not the kind of thing I’d use to run a statistical analysis of pot-sherd distributions. That said, Second Life doesn’t have to do that, because Linden Labs is making it easier to integrate with systems that do offer such capabilities.

I think a lot of interesting things will happen in systems like Second Life (and GoogleEarth). However, I think the most interesting things will happen between and among such systems that work together as an ecosystem exchanging data. The capability to draw upon a diverse array of powerful web services (delivering XML-encoded data, or similar formats like JSON) from data providers such as Nabonidus, Open Context, Freebase, GoogleDocs, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and others.

Of course, all this leads directly into standards questions. I tend to favor simple, incremental (or “gracefully degradable”) standards, since this approach seems like the most feasible way of exchanging at least some data. I’ll write some more on the standards question shortly.

Shawn Graham over at the “Electric Archaeology” weblog has a post asking about the use of 2nd Life to teach archaeology. There is a UC Berkeley Catalhoyuk reconstruction in 2nd Life now, intended to be a teaching resource (it won an “Open Archaeology Prize“). He has some very interesting ideas about linking archaeological databases dynamically with the virtual world.

I think it’ll be really useful to connect Second Life with different archaeological databases for visualization. 2nd Life does support connections with other online data sources, or web services, (see link). I’ve never done any programming in Second Life, so I’m not sure what sorts of limits the system has in reading outside data.

At any rate, outside databases would have to express data in a machine-readable format so the Second Life scripting language could parse the information. XML is an obvious choice, but there needs to be lots of thought on how to apply it to support Second Life visualization.

Most archaeological datasets that I’ve seen don’t have enough spatial information to make an easy and precise mapping into a virtual world. For example, many finds are in “bulk find” category, and you’ll only know their spatial context approximately (from say from a specific contextual unit). The contextual units, their size, shape, and relative positioning may be very poorly recorded and documented. Thus, rendering in Second Life will require lots of guestimation.

Shawn mentions Open Context in his post as an example data source. Open Context does make XML data available for all media, locations & objects, and for its faceted browse. Examples:

(1) Here’s a link to XML data for all small finds from Petra that have pictures (from the faceted browse).

(2) Here’s a link to XML data for a specific sheep radius from Petra.

(3) Here’s another link to XML data for an elephant capital also from Petra.

Although there’s contextual information, the contexts don’t have very clear spatial referencing, so it’ll be hard to simply put these data into a good Second Life 3D view. Having some clear common standard for spatial referencing in 3D will be really useful, as well as clear conventions on how to visualize archaeological data when detailed spatial referencing isn’t available.