The MICA Experiment: Astrophysics in Virtual Worlds
We describe the work of the Meta-Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA), the first professional scientific organization based in virtual worlds. MICA was an experiment in the use of this technology for science and scholarship, lasting from the early 2008 to June 2012, mainly using the Second Life and OpenSimulator as platforms. We describe its goals and activities, and our future plans. We conducted scientific collaboration meetings, professional seminars, a workshop, classroom instruction, public lectures, informal discussions and gatherings, and experiments in immersive, interactive visualization of high-dimensional scientific data. Perhaps the most successful of these was our program of popular science lectures, illustrating yet again the great potential of immersive VR as an educational and outreach platform. While the members of our research groups and some collaborators found the use of immersive VR as a professional telepresence tool to be very effective, we did not convince a broader astrophysics community to adopt it at this time, despite some efforts; we discuss some possible reasons for this non-uptake. On the whole, we conclude that immersive VR has a great potential as a scientific and educational platform, as the technology matures and becomes more broadly available and accepted.