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Virtual World Helps Queens Planning Board Redevelop Local Park

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In the following Queens Week report, NY1's Adam Balkin takes a look at a park that's being redeveloped with the help of an online video game.

We begin our story on Democracy Island. Democracy Island is a creation of New York Law School within the game Second Life. Second Life is an online world where you can create a virtual version of yourself, or someone you'd like to be, and hang out with others much like you would in the actual world.

"Second Life and other products like it, like www.there.com, are what we might think of as the next generation of video games that we call a virtual world or a synthetic world," says Beth Noveck of New York Law School. "Rather than having a quest or a point system or a battle that you would in a video game, these are social meeting places where people come together in a three dimensional immersive version of cyberspace. It's a place where people can come together and play, and build things and interact with each other."

Democracy Island is a bit of an experiment being run by New York Law School, a place where real world issues and problems and disputes can be vetted by real humans face to face, only not physically face to face.

"In other words, it's new ways of getting people together to deliberate, to make decisions together, to experiment around how they can participate in decision making," says Noveck.

In the actual world, Landing Lights Park near LaGuardia in Queens is slated for redevelopment, but to save some money on cost, the local planning board picked up the park, so to speak, and dropped it into Democracy Island

Ron Blechner, lead designer on the project, developed the virtual park for the planning board.

"There is a little telepad where you get sent up about 100 meters to the map and it's a 5:1 scale model of the actual Landing Lights map," he says.

"We have pre-made parts for things you'd find in a park that we call the doodads, like a fountain or trees. You hit a button and it'll drop whatever piece you've selected onto the map. So you do this and you can design your park and once you have your setup there's a mechanism to save it," he continues.

"You can look at them side by side and say, 'wow, this is what this person wants,' " says Blechner. "I think the board can then look and say, 'clearly we're seeing these elements that are similar,' whether it's everybody seems to want a line of trees that divides this area and this area or perhaps 'okay, everybody seems to like the idea of having a fountain.' "

The board will still have to hire an actual architect, but that architect can draw plans based on the virtual ideas. Meanwhile, Democracy Island is already working on having an even greater impact on the actual world. Next up will be a virtual New Orleans so residents down there can have hand in redesigning their entire city.

- Adam Balkin
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