RTC:Rural Presents at Virtual Ability Island

May 23, 2022

Screenshot of Virtual Ability Island with a wall of text on a sign that reads 'Welcome to Virtual Ability Island,' a map of the island on a dirt path, a palm tree and buildings and a mountain in the background

Screenshot of Virtual Ability Island from Virtual Ability, Inc.'s Website

According to Alice from Virtual Ability and Madori from Second Life, insiders like them call Second Life “the little platform that residents built.” It is a virtual world constructed by residents that provides community, socialization, income, new experiences, and an opportunity for its residents to be known how they want you to know them.

RTC:Rural researchers Catherine Ipsen, Lillie Greiman, and graduate assistant Genna Mashinchi got to experience Second Life firsthand as invited presenters at the 2022 Mental Health Symposium. The symposium, hosted by Virtual Ability, is free, open to the public, and has been completely volunteer-run since 2012. The symposium took place on Virtual Ability Island, a location within Second Life developed in 2008 for people with disabilities to experience a unique peer support community.

The presenters’ avatars stood in front of an audience of more than sixty people seated in the Sojourner Auditorium while they presented their research and took live questions. The auditorium is a beautiful spot, with lush trees swaying in the breeze and a softly flowing water feature in front of the presentation dais and projection screen. It is completely wheelchair accessible, has no obstructed views, and is presented with full text-voice functionality, providing attendees with an experience in universal design rare in “first life” (“real life” in Second Life terms).

It is hard to understate the popularity of Second Life. According to Madori, there are 500,000-900,000 individual log-ins each month, and at any given moment there are 40,000-70,000 people signed in. June 2022 will mark Second Life’s 19th anniversary, and there are residents that have not missed one day of log in for the duration of the platform’s existence. The name sums it up: Second Life. Not only is it often more palatable than first life for many people, Alice explained, but learning can actually be improved within Second Life. For people with disabilities, shyness, anxiety, or neurodiversity, Second Life can provide a sense of belonging and opportunities to participate in ways that first life often does not.

As for the RTC:Rural researchers, it was an informative experience.

As Genna Mashinchi described:

“The Virtual Ability conference was a great example of how technology can benefit the dissemination of research. For instance, individuals across the world were able to join the conference and provide immediate feedback to researchers on their projects. Although there is a learning curve with the controls, the [Virtual Ability] team was very helpful and made using the interface easy. I see many possibilities of conducting presentations in the virtual world again!”

Alice and Madori are quite aware of the great value in using Second Life for research, outreach, and hosting events of all kinds. Virtual Ability chooses and invites researchers like those from RTC:Rural to present research of value to residents, and has recently created an Educator Zone to have research materials available outside of conferences. They explain that for hard to reach rural residents or those struggling with mental health or addiction issues, Second Life provides a unique and accessible avenue for connecting with people.

Lillie Greiman agrees that the future potential is clear, and says of her experience:

“I really enjoyed presenting in Second Life and it was exciting to be able to engage with an international audience in a new way. I think that Second Life, and Virtual Ability Island, help provide deeper insight into how we define and think about community participation. It also highlights the importance of expanding internet infrastructure into small, rural communities as the opportunities virtual participation create are vast! I look forward to continuing to do research and engage in Second Life in the future. A huge thanks to Virtual Ability, Inc. for welcoming us onto the island!”

The next steps are wide open. Alice says “if you can envision it, you can create it,” and the possibilities certainly seem limitless in this collaborative virtual space.