Put Yourself On the Map, Build a Virtual House: Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings, Part Three

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connecting digital media with specific locations through various forms of geotagging and online publishing. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, there’s a lot more to explore, from Panoramio to Schmap and from geocaching to WikiMapia. One of my recent favorites is Atlas Obscura, a compendium of bizarre and curious locations contributed by readers.

7. Become a Virtual Architect in Second Life

A couple of years ago, I went on an extended journalistic assignment inside the virtual world Second Life, doing research for a Technology Review feature story about the growing overlap between digital mapping and 3-D virtual worlds. (That story, “Second Earth,” came out in July 2007.) Second Life is one of the most successful online worlds, and probably the most popular non-gaming world. Online role-playing games like World of Warcraft may have more people online at any given time, but Second Life is like the world’s biggest city square; users go there to socialize or do business or build things, not to kill dragons and battle for treasure and glory. (Though perhaps it’s all the same thing.)

Part of my research involved learning how to use Second Life’s built-in object-creation tools, which are much more extensive than those available in any other online world. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that Second Life was built by its citizens. The San Francisco-based company that runs the world, Linden Lab, merely creates the land underneath everything, and users colonize that territory, creating custom-built structures and communities, even whole economies.

Wade's house under construction in Second LifeBut my “research” got a little out of hand. As a kid I had some basic drafting tools, and I spent quite a bit of time fooling around with designs for futuristic buildings and cities. As an adult, I’d long been intrigued by CAD-CAM software for computerized drawing, but it always seemed too expensive and complex to learn. But once I realized how easy it is to create virtual objects inside Second Life, my long-dormant architecture bug came back to bite me, and I wound up spending a few solid weeks building things—mainly a pair of houses, one starter model and one rather elaborate mansion.

For anyone who shares my interest in drawing or architecture but thought 3-D modeling was the exclusive province of professional designers, I strongly recommend a trip into Second Life. Basic accounts are free, and there are plentiful “sandbox” areas where anyone can use the building tools. (If you want to build anything permanent, though, you have to buy some virtual land to put it on. Second Life’s “land use fees”—which are really server storage fees—start at $5 per month for up to 512 square meters of land, which is enough to build a simple house, and range up to $195 per month for a whole 16-acre “region.”)

I won’t try to describe building methods in detail—there’s an excellent walk-through of the basic concepts at the “Ivory Tower Library of Primitives” inside Second Life, and there are plenty of video tutorials on YouTube. But to boil it down, every 3-D object inside Second Life is made from basic shapes called primtives or “prims.” When you create—or “rez”—a prim, you decide whether it should start off as a cube, a sphere, a cylinder, a pyramid, or the like—there are 15 basic prims to choose from. Once you’ve rezzed a starting shape, you can … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “Put Yourself On the Map, Build a Virtual House: Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings, Part Three”

  1. big3news says:

    We’ve been using Platial for over a year and really love it’s usefulness for displaying our viewers all over the world.

    However, the site has been down for several days now and our Platial map embedded on our website no long displays.


    Any idea what’s going on? I hope it didn’t go bye-bye…it would be a real pain to have to start a replacement map service as we had nearly 100 people pinned on our map collected over a period of a year!


  2. Wade Roush says:

    @big3news: I’ve noticed that Platial is down too. I will try to find out what’s happening and report back.

  3. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @big3news: Platial is back up now. I checked with Platial founder Di-Ann Eisnor over the weekend, and she said the company was having an issue with its server colocation company.