We all remember the frisson of delight when we watched The Matrix for the very first time, and thrilled to this incredibly convincing on-screen depiction of a truly virtual world. Gaming has cashed in on the explosion in computing power and networking capabilities to create highly realistic, nearly immersive playing fields.

And Second Life, developed by Linden Labs, takes social networking to the next level by creating a complete virtual world, with its own self-sufficient economy. (In fact, Second Life's in-game economy prefigured the economic meltdown in the real world.)

But Second Life and virtual reality aren't just for entertainment anymore. Via Physics and Cake comes news of an article in Physics World about the first professional scientific organization based entirely in virtual worlds: the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA) which is the brainchild of scientists from Caltech, Princeton, Drexel University, and MIT. MICA conducts professional seminars and popular lectures in astrophysics and cosmology, as well as other special events, all in Second Life, for a membership that numbers 140 and is still growing.

Now they've published a scientific paper on the potential of virtual worlds to enhance scientific communication and public outreach, describing immersive virtual reality as "the next-generation browser technology, which will be qualitatively different from the current, flat desktop and web page paradigm, as the current browsers were different from the older terminal screen and file director paradigm for information display and access."

Mere gaming is so 2001. "While these technologies got developed largely by the gaming industry, and there is certainly a lot of gaming going on, virtual worlds are something bigger: a general platform for all kinds of activities, ranging from entertainment to purely professional -- just like the Web itself," Caltech astrophysicist George Djorgovski told Physics World. Scientific visualization, for instance, is likely to be transformed by virtual capabilities.

We can't wait to see the virtual physics demonstrations that will be possible in Second Life, if The Matrix is any indication of the creative possibilities.

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