Yale owns two islands. But you can’t get to either of them by air, land or sea.

They exist only in Second Life, an online universe where people can buy land and trade services.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”8177″ ]

The University purchased its first virtual island, Elihu, in 2007. While the second island lies fallow and Elihu Island currently has only two projects, people involved with the projects said Yale’s presence on Second Life is a cost-effective teaching tool — each island costs $700 to buy and $147.50 a month to maintain — that they hope the University expands.

“The reason we got involved in Second Life is because there was a lot of momentum in higher education towards investigating Second Life for learning and teaching purposes a few years ago,” said Ken Panko, manager of the Instruction Technology Group, or ITG, which helps faculty members select and use technology.

With over one million active members, Second Life is a popular virtual world that allows users, so called “residents,” to interact with each other through highly customized avatars ranging from Victorian debutantes to flying dolphins. Residents can create, buy and trade virtual property and services in Second Life by using Linden dollars, L$, which are bought with real money. As of Feb. 10, the exchange rate was L$260 for every U.S. dollar.

The first University project on Second Life was a simulation of the Seeley J. Mudd Library located on Prospect Street, said Themba Flowers, manager of the Social Science Statistical Lab in the library. Because Mudd, which houses government documents, is slated for demolition to make way for the construction of the two new residential colleges, the online project gives Yale librarians a chance to experiment with creating new library spaces without having to pay architects for the initial visualizations, he said. Rather than gutting the actual building to redesign Mudd’s interior, anyone on Second Life can help with the layout by adding study cubicles and conference rooms — all with the click of a mouse.

While the University paid the New Media Consortium, an international non-profit that works with organizations on new technologies, to help recreate Mudd on Second Life, it was much cheaper than hiring architects for the same task, Flowers added. Panko said this initiative was part of Yale’s vision to better combine libraries with informal learning spaces, such as with the creation of the Thain Family Café during the renovation of Bass Library.

The second project to materialize on Elihu Island was a pulp and paper mill created for a course taught by School of Forestry & Environmental Studies researchers Reid Lifset and Matt Eckelman GRD ’08. Because there are no pulp and paper mills within convenient driving distance of New Haven — the closest is in upstate New York — Lifset and Eckelman took the opportunity to design their ideal mill on Second Life for students to explore.

“We are able to structure the learning environment and get exactly what we want,” Eckelman said. “In a real tour, you sometimes get what you want and sometimes you don’t.”

The pair began their quest in 2007 by visiting several mills in New England, taking photographs and recording videos and sound bits at each facility to create the most accurate simulation possible. Afterward, Lifset and Eckelman used funding from ITG’s Yvonne and Jack McCredie Fellowship to hire a software firm that specialized in building projects on Second Life for $10,000 to $12,000.

After almost a year of milling around, Lifset and Eckleman were ready to take their students on a guided tour of the virtual mill in the spring of 2009. Meeting virtually with their half-dozen students on Elihu Island, Lifset and Eckelman led the group around and spoke to them through Skypeb while the students asked questions using the Second Life’s instant messaging system. Whenever the students’ avatars encountered floating question marks, they shot streams of light from their palms to unlock information about the mill’s machinery or operating processes.

While Eckelman said there is no replacement for going on a real field trip, he said some things are better in virtual reality. Their next project will deal with mining or smelting.

“Students could jump into a mine shaft or inside a machine,” Eckelman recalled.

Ali Kruger SOM ’09, who was on the first “trip,” said she was impressed by the versatility of the virtual mill.

“You can fly 50 feet in the air and look down to see how materials flow through the entire space,” Kruger said. “The best moment of the tour in Second Life may have been when Matt [Eckelman] had to say, ‘Hey! Who’s dancing on the Foudrinier machine?’ You wouldn’t hear that in real life.”

Xiaoyan Du FES ’10, who took the class this fall, said she had only expected a tour of pictures and videos.

While there are no concrete plans yet, Panko said they hope to develop more projects on Second Life, such as a virtual art gallery with student curators, Panko said. To help cut costs for future projects, Eckelman said fellow researchers or students will help with designs.

In 2009, transactions on Second Life totaled $567 million in U.S. dollars, according to a financial report from the Linden Lab, Second Life’s parent company.