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Online Virtual World Is Part Fantasy, Part Civics Experiment

'Second Life' lets researchers, local governments, and regular people introduce new projects, trade ideas, and even conduct a bit of virtual commerce in a three-dimensional world.

Democracy Island may sound like a remote location for the next episode of a reality TV series, but it's actually a three-dimensional testing ground inside an online virtual world called Second Life.

The layout of local parks in some Queens neighborhoods of New York City is the first project up for debate on the island, a 16 square acre piece of land that only exists inside a domain that combines a chat room vibe with video game fantasy.

Beginning this week, a member of the Queens Community Board, Thomas Lowenhaupt, will take prototypes of parks and post 3-D models of them on the island for his neighbors to check out and give their comments.

Jerry Paffendorf, the project manager for Democracy Island, calls the work a "3-D wiki," alluding to Wikipedia, the Web-based encyclopedia written collaboratively by volunteers, who may edit articles once they are published.

Democracy Island is funded by a $50,000 grant from the International Center for Automated Information Research to the New York Law School's Institute for Information Law and Policy, which purchased the island from Linden Lab, a private company that created Second Life two years ago.

Paffendorf says all kinds of groups have expressed an interest in Democracy Island and Second Life, including the World Bank, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, some nonprofits and at least one tech startup. The Department of Transportation is looking for new ways of hearing feedback on its projects and rule changes - like whether cell phones should be allowed on airplanes, a probable future project on the island, Paffendorf says - and 3-D experiments like this could be the next version of the town hall meeting.

"The word is out, there's a 3-D tool, so you don't have to go out there and create your own 3-D engine," Paffendorf says. "Everybody who has an inkling they might be able to do something in that space is getting money together and buying an island."

That's not an overstatement. University researchers use Second Life to study urban planning and create a meeting place for people with Aspergers syndrome, a neurobiological disorder, among other projects. The Department of Homeland Security has used the online world to develop emergency response training.

"Seven years ago, people would ask, 'Where's your Web site?'" Paffendorf says. "Now it's, 'Where's your island, where's your virtual world?' It wasn't like that a year ago."

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