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The Infinite Mind [2006]

by Elizabeth Angell

Award-winning public radio program The Infinite Mind has just built a fancy new studio for itself, complete with glass walls and theater-style seating. If you’re interested in what’s being recorded—Suzanne Vega and Kurt Vonnegut were recent guests—you can wander in without a ticket and take a seat. If you like the guest’s performance, you can cheer and clap. After it’s done, you can stroll down the main street and go shopping or visit a beach. And all this from the comfort of your own home.

The Infinite Mind’s new broadcasting complex is in Second Life, a three dimensional virtual world that can be accessed online at www.secondlife.com. Users choose avatars, virtual alter egos that range from humans to mythical beasts and furry animals, and navigate a world that comes complete with homes, stores, vacation destinations, and all the other entertainments one would expect, from games to x-rated activities. Among the newest diversions available in Second Life is the Infinite Mind studio, where anyone can listen to live recordings and take part in online chats, in which their avatars will interact with anyone else who has chosen to be there.

Upon first glance, Second Life seems like an unlikely place for The Infinite Mind. The popular public radio program covers a range of topics under the general rubric of mental health and science. Second Life seems better suited to teenage boys with super-hero fantasies—or grown men with more explicit fantasies—than NPR fans interested in the science of the mind. But Bill Lichtenstein, president of Lichtenstein Creative Media, which produces The Infinite Mind, believes their fan base is particularly well suited to an unfamiliar medium where ideas, words, and visuals can be accessed in a new way. "This is a unique way of engaging people in our discussion of the mind," says Lichtenstein. "What really makes this environment different is it’s the first media that can actually transmit experience. It’s potentially much more powerful than TV or radio."

Though the cost of building a studio on Second Life is just a fraction of what it costs to build a bricks-and-mortar complex, Lichtenstein has taken a risk by making the jump into 3D cyberspace. Will the program he developed find its audience in Second Life? He’s sure it will and he what’s more, he says, this transition is part of his company’s overall objective of finding new ways to transmit their message. "For us public broadcasting is not the goal of what we do as a company. The goal of what we do as a company is to produce high quality media focusing on important social issues, including health and related social justice and human rights issues, in a variety of different media," he says.

Lichtenstein says the programs he produces are always in search of an expanded listener- and viewership. "Public broadcast is just the beginning of the way that information is used by people," he says. He cites a recent example of something that happened in The Infinite Mind’s virtual chat rooms. "I was in one the other night and a woman from Saudi Arabia and a kid from Canada were listening to show on depression and talking about it. She said, ‘This is amazing, we don’t have anything like this in Saudi Arabia.’ People who might not be willing to talk about these issues can find a common space to do so in our studio and can do so in a way that’s more real than any other virtual experience."

Lichtenstein is also aware that public media producers are notoriously slow in adopting new technologies. For-profit companies tend to push the boundaries in search of new consumers, but public television and public radio, confident in their superior programming, play it safe and rely on their audience’s loyalty. "What’s required of companies to enter in environments like this is the ability to let go of a vine and to go flying through the air with only some certainty that the next vine will be there," says Lichtenstein.

The producers of The Infinite Mind don’t just want to preserve their audience, says Lichtenstein, but grow it as well. He hopes 3D programming is that next vine, and it’s not a bad bet. Wired Magazine recently called Second Life the "coolest spot on the web" on its cover. New users can join the three-year old realm for free and download the necessary software gratis. The site has a population of over half a million and growing quickly. More than 200,000 users qualify as permanent residents, which means they’ve logged in at least once in the last 60 days. Average time spent in the world is 40 hours per month.

Once online, Second Lifers purchase currency, which can be used to buy anything from real estate to clothing or new hair. Linden Labs, the company that launched Second Life, makes its money by selling currency, but the site is somewhat unique in that there is a staggering amount of user-to-user commerce. People rent apartments to each other and sell unique services, bits of software they’ve adapted for their own use. Last July alone saw $6.3 million change hands, and some users have found ways to make thousands of dollars to deposit in real-world bank accounts. In other words, Second Life users are tech savvy innovators with active imaginations and an entrepreneurial spirit—just the kind of audience a science program would want.

Some critics wonder if The Infinite Mind is for grownups, while Second Life is for adolescent gamers. Though some citizens use the site almost exclusively for gaming, the site is much more complex than just competition. "There’s no inherent challenge or quest," says Lichtenstein of navigating Second Life. "It’s just like getting off a plane in a new city. That’s going to appeal to an adult, not a kid."