In a media first for the pubradio show The Infinite Mind, Suzanne Vega performs live, represented by a 3D animated avatar, in the virtual world Second Life.

Broadcasts about the mind originate in shared illusion

Originally published in Current, July 31, 2006
By Steve Behrens

Though it's built entirely with pixels, the jazzy new headquarters of the weekly psychology program The Infinite Mind may still qualify as a place for doing, listening to and discussing radio.

With the opening of their virtual facility this week in the extensive online world called Second Life, producers Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples plan to invite listeners to attend live interviews in the theater on four nights, including a performance by singer Suzanne Vega in their amphitheater. Visitors will also join discussion groups in the lecture hall and drop in to hear recordings of past shows.

"It's not just another delivery system online," says Lichtenstein, president of Lichtenstein Creative Media in Cambridge, Mass. "It's a whole different experience than what the Web has been up till now." Users of the medium don't just watch it. They inhabit it in the form of 3-D-animated avatars who walk — and fly — among stand-ins for friends and strangers they encounter online.

The low-resolution animation wouldn't fool anyone into thinking they're really on a 16-acre public radio island, but keyboard-chatting with other avatars "begins to be anchored in the hard wiring we have for conversation," says Lichtenstein. And if you jump off a cliff and free-fall hundreds of yards in Second Life, "you feel it in the pit of your stomach."

He knows, because that's how he often gets to the studio from his office, which his designer created hundreds of yards above the island.

Created and operated by Linden Lab in San Francisco, Second Life has the scope of a massively multiplayer online game, but it's not any normal kind of game. Users set their agendas — chatting, listening to actual live music in virtual moonlit settings, selling digital doodads they've made, and constructing their parts of this imaginary world. Some misbehaviors end up on the police blotter. They play virtual games of their own choosing and reportedly engage in online sexual encounters.

More than 340,000 people have opened accounts and some 100,000 are active users, according to Second Life's creator, Philip Rosedale, in an interview on Andrew Keen's blog AfterTV. On a recent weekday afternoon, 5,000 were online.

Admission is free. Linden Lab earns revenue by selling virtual real estate. The list price for Lichtenstein's island, for instance, was $1,250 plus $195 a month, though nonprofits get a 25 percent discount. Lichtenstein kept design costs down by partnering with a virtual architect, Infinite Vision Media.

To enter Second Life, go to, download the 25MB software and choose or create an avatar for yourself. Slider controls let you determine how thin your waist will be and how bulbous your nose. Infinite Mind interviewer John Hockenberry, who uses a wheelchair in real life, gets around Second Life in a hovercraft.

Users find other residents, activities and places with a search engine. It can be hard to seek out things on foot, or even by flying, since plots of land and islands are far removed from one another.

"It's sort of like Houston — not effectively zoned," Lichtenstein observes.

Lichtenstein didn't know much about Second Life until Business Week's May 1 cover story. The magazine reported that Second Life was developing an economy, with residents spending $5 million in January and more than 3,000 profitable online businesses averaging $20,000 a year in real-dollar revenues. Online purchases are made in a currency called Linden dollars; one has the floating value of a fraction of a real penny.

By the time Lichtenstein attended the Beyond Broadcast conference later in May — twin events held simultaneously at Harvard Law School and in Second Life — he was eager to stake out a place in the virtual world.

Bill Lichtenstein's avatar in 3D landscape Digital stand-ins for interviewees, hosts and listeners can now meet virtually on the online campus of The Infinite Mind. Pictured: Lichtenstein's avatar on campus at sundown.


Assigned to reconnaissance in Second Life, producer Peoples found discussion groups among users who otherwise would have been separated by geography or other barriers. A disabled woman told Peoples that interaction in a stroke survivors' group in Second Life helped her overcome depression. One reason was that she saw herself walk, ski and dance again, even if it was only on the screen. The experience helped her regain interest in life, she told the producer.

Peoples speculates that virtual interactions may help people with social phobias, Asperger's syndrome and other disorders that are covered by The Infinite Mind.

It should be no surprise that people can have real benefits from virtual experience, according to Peoples and Lichtenstein, because playing is how human beings and other species practice and learn so many real-life behaviors.

YouTube image and links added 2008.

Web page posted Aug. 1, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee


Hundreds of Beyond Broadcast conference attendees were accommodated in a lecture hall in Second Life, watching a video feed from the actual event at Harvard. One actual attendee, Steve Garfield, shot this photo of Christopher Lydon speaking both in real life and in Second Life.


WGBH building island in Second Life, plans broadcast first with classical pianist, May 2008.


Public broadcasters show a growing interest in exploiting the educational potential of computer games, 2006.

Oregon Public Broadcasting debuts a guided tour of a fur-trading outpost, for use on Sprint cell phones, 2006.


Actual website for Lichtenstein Creative Media's Infinite Mind public radio program, with page about its adventures in Second Life.

Boston Globe article about virtual location.

Images from Infinite Mind's virtual island.

Websites of Second Life and Linden Lab, its parent company, based actually in San Francisco.

Website of Infinite Vision Media, the architect of Infinite Mind's island.

Business Week's May 1, 2006, cover story about Second Life.

Andrew Keen's interview with Philip Rosedale, creator of Second Life, on After TV blog.

Blog about Second Life: Second Life Insider.

Active Worlds, a similar 3-D virtual world based actually in Newburyport, Mass., with its own complement of community groups and activities calendar.

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