Let’s play word association. “Webcam” – for me, the association is about keeping in touch with family or perhaps collaborating with colleagues and partners on business topics. “Virtual Worlds” – my association here is 3D, fantasy, escapism and gaming. While those associations will likely remain that way for quite some time, there have been numerous uses of virtual worlds technologies that go beyond the “neat and fun”. It’s not an overstatement to say that they are helping humanity.
Take, for instance, Hopecam, whose motto is “Connecting Homebound Children to LIFE”. Founded in 2003, this Virginia-based non-profit connects children (undergoing treatment for cancer) with their friends at school with nothing more than a laptop, webcam and high speed Internet connection. Hopecam has brought this “connection” to over 75 homebound children. Their web site has an “Our Kids” section that profiles some of these children – and on this page, you can make an online donation to the organization.
Note: I did an earlier interview with a similar, Ireland-based non-profit, Vizitant.
The Washington Post published an article titled “Webcams Allow Students to Stay Connected“, which profiles 7-year-old Becky Wilson, who’s able to virtually attend class at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington County via a webcam. Becky, who was diagnosed with leukemia, is a full participant in classroom activities, according to her teacher, Lainie Ortiz:
The webcam has exceeded Ortiz’s expectations as an academic tool. When Becky tunes in for class and has a question, she raises her hand and Ortiz calls on her. During story time, Ortiz will bring the book she’s reading up to the computer, so Becky can see the pictures, too.
At the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, researchers are leveraging a grant from the US Department of Education to “develop an intervention program in Second Life® that focuses on self-esteem, a critical element in health and wellness.” For women with disabilities, virtual world technologies mean that access to rehabilitation services require nothing more than a computer, an Internet connection and a virtual world application:
“Second Life® allows women with disabilities to experience virtual life as an able bodied person,” said Dr. Margaret Nosek, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at BCM. “They can be who they want to be in the virtual world rather than living by the standards set by others,” said Nosek.
“Second Life® allows them to interact with other women while learning and practicing new self-esteem building skills in the virtual world,” she said.
The program will be available in late 2009 – the Baylor College of Medicine published a news article about this virtual intervention program.
Finally, a BBC News article titled “What it’s like to have schizophrenia” tells the fascinating story of Dr. Peter Yellowlees, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, who is leveraging Second Life to take you inside the mind of someone afflicted with schizophrenia. Currently on a password-protected island, the purpose of this initiative is to educate people on the condition – there are clear benefits to understanding what it’s like to be afflicted schizophrenia:
“We welcome anything that proposes better understanding.”
“It broadens people’s experiences and narrows the gap between ‘us and them’.”
UPDATE: I published an interview with Professor Yellowlees regarding his use of Second Life.
The next time I login to Skype or Second Life, I’ll be thinking about the wonderful applications of these technologies and how they’re able to deeply improve the human condition.