In Chicago, Children's Memorial Hospital uses Second Life, with its three-dimensional software representations of landscapes, buildings, and vehicles, for disaster preparedness training, to show employees how to evacuate patients in an emergency. Meanwhile, disabled people use Second Life for peer support, helping one another with the emotional, social, and other problems they encounter in the real world. In both cases, people in Second Life interact using avatars, software representations of themselves or a character of their choosing.
Developed and operated by Linden Lab, the six-year-old service has about 650,000 active users, who turn to it for business, games, live music, and more. IBM, Cisco, and Sun Microsystems are among the companies with a presence in Second Life. The University of Texas recently announced it's building a virtual campus in Second Life, and the U.S. Armed Forces uses Second Life for training.
Staff at Children's Memorial started thinking just after Sept. 11, 2001, about how they would get the kids out of the hospital and to safety in case of fire, tornado, terrorist attack, or other disaster. The hospital also needed a way to do simulations without using the hospital itself, which can't be shut down for training, said training manager Judi Smith.
They tried tabletop drills, in which participants act out a disaster while sitting around a table, but found those exercises lacked realism. That's when the hospital turned to computer simulations. "Health people are physical, tactile people," Smith said. "They can talk about things and read about them, but the closer you can get to doing things in the real world, the better off you are."
Children's Memorial hired a contractor to build a Second Life simulation of its campus and building. The simulation included the outside street, a Starbucks on the corner frequented by hospital staff, as well as a nearby parking garage that might be used to shelter patients during an emergency. The builders included interior details, such as a purple sculpture in the lobby and decorated bulletin boards throughout the building to help hospital staff orient themselves in the virtual world. For realism, they used blueprints of the hospital, photos taken on-site and imported into Second Life, and images from Google Earth.
During the training exercise, a team of about nine hospital staff members, drawn from nursing, security, and administration, logs into Second Life and spends 10 minutes learning the basics of how to navigate and communicate in the virtual world. Then, the drill begins.