Kansas University film students may find themselves in an unusual classroom in coming months.
"We could be floating in the sky. We could be underground. ... It could be something where your class meets and everyone just sits on clouds and takes the class that way," said Stacey Fox, technical director for KU's film studies program.
Fox is anticipating what courses might look like after the film studies program finishes buying and designing its own virtual island in the 3-D world Second Life, something the faculty approved by a vote during the spring semester. KU's art department also is considering making a similar investment, according to department chairwoman Dawn Marie Guernsey, but the faculty have not yet voted.
Second Life is a growing online community where people create animated "avatars" to represent themselves, build 3-D buildings, interact with other participants through chatting or Internet phone service, and spend a virtual currency called the Linden dollar that can be exchanged with real-world money.
Real-world businesses are establishing a presence there, and 2008 presidential hopefuls including Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have set up virtual campaigns.
All this - combined with the growing popularity of 3-D movies and animation that users are creating inside the world - makes it something the film faculty decided they couldn't ignore.
"As more students are becoming tech-savvy and cyber-production oriented, it's important that the film studies program keep up with what's happening on the outside," said Fox, who will design the island for the program. "We want to be the hub where students come to get the latest in technology and in studies."
The "island" will cost the department about $900, with annual upkeep costs of around $1,800. Essentially, it guarantees a reserved space on a computer server, a sort of sandbox where the film faculty can build whatever they want using Second Life's built-in construction tools.
Other schools already have arrived in the world, including Ohio University and Texas State University, which both have a "virtual campus" there.
Importantly for filmmakers, Second Life allows users to record the scenes around them with a built-in, 360-degree camera. That's led to a new genre of film making known as "machinima."
"Really what we do is all about communicating ideas from person to person through different media," said Matt Jacobson, associate professor in the department. "This gives us an opportunity to explore the boundaries of mediated communication."
In addition to teaching students how to make machinima and animation, Fox said KU's island could be used for distance-learning classes. For example, it could include a virtual auditorium with a projection screen at the front that could display film clips or photos uploaded to the site.
Then again, why make it look like an auditorium when you could just as easily make the movie screen float on virtual clouds?
"We're trying to get away from the norm and create an atmosphere where everything is interactive and it's stimulating just to look at," Fox said.