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Students at the University of Arkansas have created a couple of full-sized hospitals inside Second Life to experiment with the use of RFID tagging in medical environments, and ride on flying cats.

The idea of the project is to see if delivery and consumption of medical supplies can be tracked around a working hospital if everything is tagged and logged by monitors placed around the building. Two hospitals have been created - one hypothetical model and one based on Washington Regional Hospital right down to the contents of shelves and storerooms. Both models include delivery equipment and allow the placement of RFID readers with limited range.

What the models lack is patients, as well as the usual RF noise that often prevents RFID working properly. Craig Thompson, a professor of computer science and computer engineering at the university and director of the project, explained the limitations to RFID Journal: "If you want to test where to put a tag on a box, and that box has bottles of water, you are probably better off testing in the real world ... but if you want to test how many readers you might need in the nursery, and where you want them, you could use the virtual world."

Whether it was strictly necessary to model the emergency helicopter - or indeed the flying, hat-wearing cat - is open to debate, but the project has modelled RFID tags and readers as well as providing a mechanism for the virtual world to integrate with real-world inventory systems so they can be tested by virtual doctors treating virtual diseases.

There have been many attempts to do something useful with Second Life, the online game without a point, but if the hospitals can be staffed with realistic automata then monitoring the effectiveness of inventory systems could be a genuine application. It's a lot less controversial to embed an RFID tag into an avatar than a real elderly person, at least for the moment. ®

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