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Broviak, pictured above as alter ego Renoir, will teach attendees how to build a virtual plant in Second Life at the American Public Works Association's Congress and Exposition in New Orleans. Photo: Pam Broviak

Meet Pam Broviak. By day she's public works director and city engineer for LaSalle, Ill. By night (and on weekends), she's “Pam Renoir,” creator of the world's first virtual-reality public works resource center.

Second Life is an Internet-based world in which members, called residents, create avatars—3-D models representing themselves—and use those avatars to travel to “in-world” destinations, interact with others, create and trade items or services, and help build the virtual world.

Broviak realized the Web site's potential as a planning and design tool when she attended a presentation hosted by software company Autodesk Inc. in December 2006. The presenting architect used the virtual world to design homes and then meet clients in the homes to discuss design and collaborate on changes.

“I joined to establish a presence for our city,” says Broviak. “But after spending time in-world, I realized there were no groups or sites organized for civil engineers and public works professionals. I decided to establish some groups, create a site, and start working on some projects.”

Asher alter ego, Broviak manages Public Works Island. Though still under construction, the island is already home to:

  • An underground sewer that visitors can explore
  • A public works garage that houses public works resources
  • An educational area listing colleges that offer engineering programs both in real life and through Second Life
  • A house showcasing a 3-D representation of the International Building Code
  • A downtown area with buildings and offices for rent
  • Gathering places such as a beach, dam, lake, and dock.

Broviak is building a store to demonstrate how vendors can set up a virtual storefront, fill it with products and resources, and interact with potential buyers.

“We'd also like to build a water and waste-water plant,” she says.

Second Life offers many networking and training opportunities, says Broviak. Plus, residents can test their designs before implementing them in real life.

“You can build projects as concepts, and they can be built to scale—everything is on a coordinate system,” she explains. “You just have to keep in mind that the building objects are only available in specific geometries, so there's a little creativity involved in selecting the correct objects to use and the detail that is necessary for a particular design.”

Thus, Broviak has also created virtual tools to serve as design aids. For instance, she made a manhole and pipe kit that can be used to help decide which diameter manhole to use based on the pipe configuration at the manhole.