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E-government266

Estonians Already See the Future Today

Marten Kokk, undersecretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Estonia

Second Life is a three-dimensional interactive environment in which users are represented by avatars. This is one of a number of virtual worlds that can be accessed via the Internet and offers a glimpse at what the Net will look like in the future. Second Life was launched by Linden Lab in 2003, and it has become a popular social environment with a user base of more than 12 million people.


WHAT IS SECOND LIFE?

Second Life is an Internet-based virtual world which was launched by Linden Lab in 2003.  It attracted international attention in late 2006 and early 2007.  In this world, people interact with the help of motional avatars.  The basic avatar is human in appearance, but avatars can be of either gender, have a wide range of physical attributes, and can be dressed or otherwise customised to produce a wide variety of humanoid and other forms (Figure 1).  Avatars can be creative, or they can be made to resemble the person whom they represent (Figure 2).
There are two main methods of text-based communication in Second Life local chat and global instant messaging.  Chatting is used for localised conversations between two or more avatars, and these can be heard up to a distance of 20 metres.
Many of the residents of Second Life have a creative background.  Artists and designers use it not only as a platform to demonstrate their art, but also to express themselves by creating new virtual art.

VIRTUAL EMBASSIES

In May 2007, Sweden opened a virtual environment in the Second Life environment, becoming the second country (after, interestingly enough, the Maldives) to do so.  Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt conducted the grand opening, a video recording of which can be found on YouTube.
In July 2007, Estonia also decided to go virtual, seeing Second Life as an excellent opportunity to introduce the country in a place where people who are interested in modern technical solutions gather together.  We asked colleagues at Hill & Knowlton to help us.  CEO Daniel Vaarik (known on Second Life as Distant Signals) has a personal interest in virtual worlds, and particularly Second Life.  He was highly involved in the first presentation of Estonia in the environment an art gallery that was named MOOG.
Early in August of last year, we conducted some systematic scanning of Second Lifes architectural landscape.  We found a talented virtual architect called Scope Cleaver.  Scope has been of great help to us, creating the Estonian embassy building along with many virtual statues and other items. The concept for the embassy was designed in co-operation with a number of people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Hill & Knowlton, along with Scope.  Some ideas were contributed by Villu Arak and his colleagues at Skype.

THE ESTONIAN EMBASSY IN SECOND LIFE

Estonia became the third country to open an embassy in Second Life on Tuesday, December 4, 2007.  The opening of the embassy was held on two fronts a real life press conference at the Foreign Ministry, followed by an opening ceremony in the Second Life environment.
Foreign Minister Urmas Paet declared at the ceremony that communications are increasingly occurring on the Internet, and Estonia must keep up with the trend.  Second Lifes popularity as an alternative environment for interaction has grown rapidly, and that is why we decided to establish an embassy there, he said.  The secretary general of the Foreign Ministry, Matti Maasikas, added that several other countries are planning to open up virtual embassies in Second Life, which means that the prominence of the environment is growing in diplomatic circles.  We expect interest from people in Estonia, as well as others who are interested in foreign relations and foreign policy, and we hope that they will participate in events at the embassy, said Maasikas.
The virtual embassy is a huge, geometrically impressive and ultramodern building (Figure 3).  It features shiny, modern rooms with an interesting mix of glass and concrete.  Daniel Vaarik says that according to Scope, the building could be created in real life by some very angry architects.
The virtual embassy has a conference room, exhibition room, reception hall (Figure 4) and technology room which introduces Estonia as an E-nation.  Visitors to the embassy can listen to current news, as reported by an Estonian hound.
In honour of the 90th anniversary of the declaration of Estonias independence in 1918, the embassy is displaying an exhibition called Blue-Black-White in Estonian Painting (those are the colours of the Estonian flag).  Other exhibitions dedicated to the anniversary are also on display (Figure 5).

VIRTUAL LECTURES

Educational activities have been very successful on Second Life.  Universities which have conducted very popular virtual lectures in the environment include Princeton, Harvard, INSEAD, University College Dublin, Edinburgh University, the New York City College of Technology, New York University and Stanford, among others.
Having noticed this, we created a classroom for lectures, too.  One of the most successful events for the embassy was Remembering the Future a lecture delivered by Estonias ambassador to the United Kingdom, Margus Laidre (Figure 6).  He spoke of history and the future and role of small countries therein.  Laidre took listeners on an intellectual stroll through the rapidly changing world of globalisation and the virtual world.

CONCLUSION

More than 12 million accounts have been registered in Second Life, though many are inactive.  Still 1.3 million accounts have been active in the last two months.  The Estonian embassy receives dozens of visitors each day, and they come from very different parts of the world mostly from the United States and UK, but also from Brazil, Poland and Serbia, just to name a few.
We believe that this has been a success in that people who cannot visit Estonia or any of our real embassies can now meet us in the virtual world.  It is really encouraging that many Estonians are voluntarily helping embassy staff and contributing to lively discussions in the virtual embassy, thus increasing awareness of our country.

Authors contacts: +372 637 7087, marten.kokk(at)mfa.ee


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eBaltics
21.11.2019


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