Sweden is virtually first in Second Life

Pleather-wearing punk rockers sporting mohawks aren’t the usual sort Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt associates with, but in the 3D virtual world of Second Life, just about anything goes.

Today, Bildt’s avatar – or Second Life alter ego – cut a virtual yellow and blue ribbon inaugurating the Second House of Sweden, the virtual replica of the first House of Sweden in Washington D.C.. The new embassy is located on a virtual island intended to resemble the Stockholm archipelago.

The congregation of journalists at the Swedish Institute in Stockholm was of the usual flavour, but the ribbon-cutting ceremony “in world” was attended by a handful of odd-looking personalities, ranging from avatars wearing traditional Swedish folk dress to creature-like characters. A video stream of the real-life press conference in Stockholm was simultaneously broadcast to Second Life as well as to a press conference in Budapest, arranged by the Open Society Archives (OSA).

The OSA is cooperating with the Swedish Institute on its Second Life exhibition on Raoul Wallenberg, which can be viewed in the Second House of Sweden. Wallenberg was Swedish diplomat stationed in Budapest at the end of WWII who helped save thousands of Jews from Nazi concentration camps. He disappeared after he was arrested by the Soviets in January 1945.

There are several items on offer at the Second House of Sweden. Visitors can experience a recreation of Wallenberg’s office in Budapest, browse an art exhibit from the National Museum in Stockholm, download images and fact sheets about Sweden and deck out their virtual homes with furniture from IKEA and Swedish wood manufacturers.

Bildt said he interested in anything to do with public diplomacy and believes it is important to use technology as a medium to share Sweden with the world. “Sweden is a country of innovation and curiosity about the future. Our presence in Second Life is just a faint beginning,” he said.

The Swedish foreign minister had a bit of trouble navigating his avatar in the 3D world. “I ended up in a tree!” he narrated as he made his way to the steps of the Second House.

Then he fumbled for the virtual shears he was to use to cut the ribbon. “I can now choose between the scissors and a kräftskiva hat,” he said.

The ceremony also provided an opportunity for a bit of friendly banter with Sweden’s Nordic neighbors. When asked by a Norwegian media team to describe his experience in second life, Bildt said the unveiling of the Second House was his second time to the virtual world. “This is my second visit to Second Life, but this is not going to be my last,” he said. “I expect to be invited to the opening of the Norwegian embassy in a couple of decades.”

He also reflected on the potential drawbacks of diplomatic events in a virtual world. “Virtual champagne is not quite as tasty as real champagne,” he said.

Last week, the Maldives – a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean – beat Sweden to the punch when it came to becoming the first country in the world to launch a virtual embassy in Second Life. Sweden announced its intentions to stake its claim as virtual embassy numero uno in January, so the Maldivian sneak attack a week before the inauguration came a surprise for the Swedes. Bildt admitted he hadn’t yet checked out the Maldivian embassy, but said he intended to pay a visit and speculated that they “might have better beaches.”