Preview of Princeton University in Second Life

Princeton University to open an island in the virtual world of Second Life

The number of universities entering the virtual world of Second Life never ceases to amaze me. One that I have been keeping an eye on for some time is Princeton. It has been closed to casual strollers while construction proceeds, but following a bit of string-pulling, I was able to get an advance preview earlier this week. I have only one small problem: the amount of information I now have is so huge it is going to take all of my ingenuity — and there’s precious little of that — to prune it down to the bare essentials. The sim will not formally open to the public until the next academic year, but much of the work is now complete.

Incidentally, aware that I over-use the term “iconic” I have opted in this post to go with “signature” instead. Time will tell whether this is a sensible move.

My tour guide was the charming and ridiculously well-informed (not to mention often downright hilarious) Persis Trilling, who, apart from heading up the Princeton in-house IT education support services, is something of an expert on the History of Architecture and is overseeing the build in Second Life.

There is a strong architectural spine running at 45 degrees across the island, along which several of Princeton’s signature buildings are situated. On arrival you find yourself facing a simulation of Nassau Hall. The original was, at the time of its completion in 1756, the largest stone building in the colonies. However, a couple of fires in the 19th century put paid to that, and the building now standing — and reflected in this Second Life build — dates from the 1850’s, though the college continued to tinker with it for many years. Clearly some compromises have to be made when looking to reproduce buildings in Second Life, and in the case of Nassau Hall there is a great simplification of the interior — with 2 large rooms set up for seminar groups of around a dozen participants, and what appears to be a debating chamber. The texturing of the building, indeed, of all the buildings in this sim, is excellent.

Behind you as you arrive is a simulation of Chancellor Green Student Center, which was originally the college library building and dates from the 1870s. It reeks of Victorian Gothic. Inside is a library (surprise!), which the college plans to build into a Second Life-based online resource, together with a couple of informal meeting rooms that would house around 6 people.

The third major building along the spine is Alexander Hall. Following some hiccups with construction of the simulation, this has been taken on by CJ Carnot of New Media Center and is currently being reworked, but even the version I saw was most impressive. Again, as with the other buildings, the texturing brings out a great sense of physical presence. The actual building, built in 1892, was designed (and still serves) as a convocation hall for commencement exercises and other large gatherings. It therefore made sense to preserve this function in Second Life. This is where concerts and many meetings will be held.

Off to one side of this trio of signature Princeton buildings lies another jewel — but this time there is no Real World counterpart. The Art Gallery is the work of Canadian master-builder Scope Cleaver, and anyone who knows his work will spot the style immediately. Persis was full of praise for the way in which Mr. Cleaver has gone about fulfilling his brief: “If Chancellor Green is about Ruskin‘s seven lamps, Scope’s building has them in spades too. He is just using a different architectural vocabulary.The sense of craft; of expression of essential human qualities and the emotive use of light and space is a lot like the more modest drama of Chancellor Green.” She went on: “It’s a very nice build, and I think reflects well on the existing major buildings — each one perfectly modern in its day, in fact, forward-looking. I showed him a lot of spaces that I admired. He did not copy anyone but respected an element of each design. I told him what I liked about each — so a little Carlo Scarpa; a little Gehry; a little James Stirling.”

Princeton University to open an island in the virtual world of Second Life

So what is the aim of the Princeton island? Is it just an architectural display? The current aim is to offer classroom sessions and writing seminars for the Schools of Architecture and Visual Arts. There is also a human behaviour experiment being designed for the island. They will also be offering performances, “cocktail parties” and conferences, recognizing that in Second Life an island needs people if it is to be of any value. As for information, the plan is to offer a rich set of resources, including RSS feeds, podcasts and vodcasts. There is already a shop offering free Princeton shirts (the closest I’m ever likely to having one!) and a number of training notecards for would-be builders.

There is more on this island that I have not covered — for example, the Prospect Garden, and the debating society buildings — but hopefully this gives you a feel for what to expect in September, when we may all get a chance to visit. Thanks to Persis for giving me far more information than I could ever hope to include in this posting, and for being such a gracious host.

Aleister Kronos appears by kind permission of Ambling in Second Life.


  1. Forseti Svarog

    You gave me an excuse to go check it out again. I wheedled my way in a while ago when they were just getting going. The photograph they’re working off of for Alexander Hall is not as red as I remember, and I feel for CJ trying to replicate it because it’s got so much 3D architectural detailing. It’s a classic building that people either love or completely hate. The urban myth on campus was that it was an architecture student’s senior thesis that got a failing grade. He later became famous and when hired to do a building, created it as revenge. I have no idea if it’s true but I’ve always loved the story.

    Scope’s building is very Scope, I agree, and I love it. Totally love it.

  2. Prokofy Neva

    It’s humorous to me that these meat-world values of preserving the old alma mater’s signature builds is then replicated in Second Life. But that’s what people need and want — and why not? In a way, you wish they just let Scope and co. build the entire thing, as a new build in a new world. Perhaps it’s better that it has a foot in the old world and a foot in the new world.

  3. Aleister Kronos

    I see where you are coming from Prokofy, and in general I would nor recommend slavish reproduction in SL. However, I think well-made repros of “signature buildings” have an important role – they provide a sense of continuity for the owners/users, and also promote “the brand”. Coupling this with Scope’s work I think is a well considered, intelligent concept.

    BTW – although I’m limited to the number of pictures I can use in 3pointD, I don’t have this constraint at Slambling. I will therefore be publishing more (and bigger) pictures there after the weekend.

  4. C.C.

    Great to see colleges finally using the space a bit. I hope more do it and I hope they break away from the “signature buildings” as well. A couple or one maybe, but this is SL after all. Have fun with it and do what you can’t do on the campus ground.

  5. corrie

    I’m an educator who got in on the ground floor of educational computing with TRS-80s and C-64s, and at PLATO I worked with the folks who dug the basement. I’m still wondering how we can use the unique affordances of environments such as Second Life. Online 3-D lecture halls have a certain novelty, but I see that wearing off quickly. What can you do in this environment (that’s worthwhile) that you can’t do with other tools?

  6. Forseti Svarog

    Corrie, an interesting anecdote from the first NMC campus. We created some formal lecture halls as well as total informal outdoor meeting areas. As I remember Larry Johnson telling it, everyone wanted to use the outdoor areas and not the lecture halls, but they wanted to keep the lecture halls because it set a tone, gave an emotional context.

    That’s one thing that people keep on forgetting in my opinion in this push for “new new new”, and thats the fact that we’re human beings, we have emotional responses to things and stored psychological responses, and bringing some things in from the real world acknowledges and takes advantage of that fact. Breaking away from RL and doing something cool and bold and new has it’s place, but so does bringing in things we understand or relate to or adore. All depends on the audience and the purpose.

  7. John Truempy

    It is great to see more schools coming in. It is a good step for most for them if they have a plan to use it. Both as a recruitment and teaching tool but I hope in time they also serve the alumni in time (I figure that is what the signature buildings are for in part).

    I know the Warton School of business has been looking at the virtual economies of these worlds. But so far it is the only division at Penn that has and that is shame because computing started at Penn :(

    PS I can’t help you with a Princeton t-shirt but when you want one from a larger Ivy League school just ask LOL