Thursday, February 26, 2009

MetaPlace: I'm a Toon

Arrival in-world
Location: MetaPlace, in My Living Room

Well, I've always been a Toon.

MetaPlace is a virtual world that enables content creation and is Web-based. It was frightfully easy to get started.

Now little bobble-head IggyO is in his virtual living room. He watched a video about the potential of MetaPlace.

I'm liking the fakeness of this virtual world. And unlike OpenLife, I'm not a friggin' cloud. I cannot be bald or in dreads, yet...but so far, this looks entertaining. I had the avatar do a little dance in all his pixelated glory.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Tale of Two Bots, Part 2

Location: J&M Creations, Nebo

I learned about these bots some time back--"Barbara" at Sunland's camping/freebie store, who has been quizzed by both Pappy Enoch and Beeble Baxter, is one of J&M's early models. These bots are both more limited and lot cheaper than the Daden Robotars.

After teleporting to the shop, I spent some time quizzing "Mirna," the Robotar 2.0 on duty. She works as a sales assistant, and of course I did my best to trip her up--I wish I'd brought Pappy or Beeble along to really jazz things up. They both know how to trip bots up with odd questions. So I tried my best:
Ignatius to Mirna: may I take your photo?
Mirna to Ignatius: Not right now, maybe later.
Ignatius to Mirna: do you always turn to face an avatar?
Mirna to Ignatius: Not always. I have never considered it. I answer a lot of silly questions.
Ignatius to Mirna: what is the silliest question?
Mirna to Ignatius: A lot of people ask me to marry them.
Ignatius to Mirna: did my friend Pappy Enoch ask you to marry him?
Mirna to Ignatius: I'm not certain whether I can give an accurate reply or not.
Ignatius to Mirna: what do you say to people who ask you to marry them?
Mirna to Ignatius: You tell me.
Ignatius to Mirna: I would say no
Mirna to Ignatius: Ah.
I crashed at about this point. Then I logged back in and had some fun:
Ignatius to Mirna: did you miss me?
Mirna to Ignatius: Yes , I've been thinking about you.
Ignatius to Mirna: really? what were you thinking?
Mirna to Ignatius: For real. I was minding my own business.
Ignatius to Mirna: did you miss me?
Mirna to Ignatius: Yes , I've been thinking about you.
Ignatius to Mirna: what?
Mirna to Ignatius: No problem.
Ignatius to Mirna: did you miss me?
Mirna to Ignatius: Yes , I've been thinking about you.
Ignatius to Mirna: thank you for your help
Mirna to Ignatius: You are quite welcome! Your purpose is my help.
So when compared to the Daden Robotars, Mirna is limited. That said, she'd be a fine shop-assistant, notecard-giver, or chat-recorder (all features that the J&M bots offer). It may have been lag, but she seemed to glide, rather than walk, as Daden's Halo could do. Still, for 9000 Linden Dollars, J&M offers a product worth considering.
I just don't think she's ready for a literature simulation. Well, maybe for a Beckett play simulation...Visit J&M and have a look for yourself.

A Tale of Two Bots, Part 1

Halo Closeup
Location: Daden Prime

With Richmond considering an interactive literary simulation for the 2010-2011 academic year, I went bot-shopping. Beeble Baxter's and my idea involves programming SL bots to act as non-player characters (NPCs) inside our simulation. This post may run a bit long, because it's as much a report to RL peers and potential funders as it is a blog-post on a fascinating SL technology.

Daden's Robotars:

A UR team of four began our investigations of A.I. technology at Daden Prime, where Corro Moseley introduced us to Halo, a bot programmed by his company, Daden Limited. Halo can do many different things, including:
  • Respond to verbal cues in chat

Bot Snake

  • Recognize and respond to objects (such as the snake shown) by their object-names. Corro told us that shape-recognition is under development
  • Move about in a set of prescribed bounds. One problem here is that Halo and her peers are confused if an area gets modified. Like the robotic cop who malfunctions in THX-1139, Halo would walk repeatedly into a wall. For that reason, we'd want to have the shape of our simulation nearly done before we embedded our bots
  • Rez objects, change appearance or clothing, and do other "avatar-like" things in response to verbal cues
  • Interact with scripted objects such as doors and other items in our simulation
  • Respond to other bots, without the "infinite loop" phenomenon that anyone programming a chatterbot in a MOO understands. In SL, such chat-spam can make an entire region crash.
  • Recognize key words in a query and search the Web for answers. Wikipedia and are frequent locales for this action by a bot
  • Engage in simple recognition of objects or people, as in this part of our test:
Corro Moseley: what objects can you see
Halo Rossini: I can see Garden Bench about 45m away to the west
Halo's Swing about 10m away to the east
Twitter Fountain 02c 10m away to the north east
Haro House 1 about 40m away to the east
*Simply Sierra's Koi* - Orange Ogon* (Random CW speed) 10m away to the north east
Halo's Picture Frame about 45m away to the east

Corro Moseley: whereabouts is avatar beeble baxter
Halo Rossini: beeble baxter is at <202,91,25>

Me, Halo, Corro
Daden can host the bot's code on their servers or supply it to a user. They charge for annual updates, on-site visits, and by the bot. We'd code Halo (and her brother) for our simulation. Bottom Line: Daden's Robotars are not cheap but they are powerful. Even so, we were nutty enough with out questions to get this response:

Halo Rossini: Sorry, my brain doesn't appear to be working properly at the moment. Please try again.

Halo appears

That happens to me every day, at least once. Halo also took a while to rez (shown above) but once she did, she was ready to work with us.

Really want to have fun perplexing a Robotar? Check out what that wag, Hamlet Au, did on his visit to Daden Prime.

We are awaiting a quote from Daden.

Mardi Gras Road Trip

Mardi Gras Road Trip

Location: The Road, South of Ross Sim

This one is just for the joy of posting the pic. I love the juxtaposition of the gas sign and billboard: two different sides of SL, captured at random in one frame.

I was wearing custom Mardi-Gras beads, courtesy of Cynthia Barley. Many thanks!!

The trip itself was brief. I crashed badly--not the car, but the SL client.

Possible culprits:
  • A fancy 3D mouse that Beeble Baxter loaned me. It was cool...when it worked :)
  • Using a car, and not my lower-prim motorcycle, in a crowded area. I was approaching some sort of Mardi-Gras event on the open road when things fell apart.
  • SL's high graphics specs. I was running off the Macbook's more robust external-monitor card but with graphics at "high" and with a custom sky in the "environment editor."
All that said, I'll keep riding the roads of SL. It's becoming a hobby within a hobby. You never know what you'll see, if you don't crash. It's a sort of innocent voyeurism (I don't cam into buildings when I stop the car) that one does not get in racing games.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

How We Talk About Second Life: Are We Drinking the Kool-Aid?

Crowd Shot 2
Location: Cloud 9? The Valley of Despair?

Does Utopianism Drive Away the Mainstream?

I’m reading Synthetic Worlds, Edward Castronova’s first book on MMORPGs and virtual worlds. Castronova strongly feels that it’s only a matter of time until virtual worlds rival other major communication media in number of users and ubiquity.

If this is true, why are some of us in the educational community harming the reputation of virtual worlds and thwarting broader adoption by colleagues?

Here are two scenes from a yet-to-be-completed movie, now playing in my head.

1) A colleague at another university attended an educational focus-group discussion on virtual worlds. He was the least experienced person in the room, and he was not impressed with how we “insiders” automatically embrace VWs in our work and talk about their magic in ways that do not consider drawbacks of many sorts. His story reminds me that many of us seemed to have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid and become uncritical utopians.

2) It still smarts a bit to think back to an e-mail discussion on an SL e-list for educators, where I suggested that Linden Lab needs to do more to bring in mainstream faculty and not simply early adopters. I was pounced upon, and my sense was that many of my attackers felt as though grubby mainstreamers are unworthy of beholding the glittering jewel that is SL.

Both scenes are not pretty, and I fret about the ending of this film-in-my-head. The vetting of our work by organizations such as EDUCAUSE helps academics make the case for investing time and energy. On the other hand, does the way we discuss SL undercut the very progress of the EDUCAUSE recognition?

Nowadays, I temper my enthusiasm and talk sedately about SL and what it can do for teaching. How to do that deserves careful consideration in the limited space here. I also realize what I recommend won’t be universally popular. Got other ideas? Let me know.

Avoid the term “resident” with colleagues. I like the term for writing to those who know SL well, because it captures the immersive experience and the sense that the metaverse is a place. But “resident” can connote institutionalization for mental illness.

Avoid in-world jargon and assumptions. “Rez” and “prim” and “lag” are not going to instantly explicable to novices. But the biases we hold about the virtual world can be even worse when we toss them around. I was jumped on at Burning Life for complimenting several participants. I typed in chat that “my students who have visited this event will never see SL as a game again.” All the avatars nearby—old-time SL residents—heard was “game” and they laid into me. I got really angry about that—as angry as I’ve ever been over something that occurred in SL.

Avoid both sensationalism and denial. Unpleasant and unsavory content, as well as technical problems exist side-by-side with moments of effective learning and technical wizardry. The broader Internet contains both as well. I let my colleagues know that and admit that SL is still a young technology.

Avoid the myth of inevitability
. I was pleased to hear our presenter at the last SL Education Roundtable, a noted librarian who works in-world, say that we should not go around assuming that SL and other worlds will catch on quickly or easily. Because their use may be intuitive for us, we cannot assume that will be true for others. Remember, corporations fail, and promising technologies can be deferred for many years, even decades. Some never re-materialize after a disaster: the Hindenburg’s fate put an end to the fascinating, and promising, technology of Transatlantic airship-travel.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Where the Road Ends? Eminent Domain?

Location: End of the "Old Wagon Road," Sababurg Sim

I've been curious about what the Linden Lab Department of Public Works has been doing.

I'd read that the Lindens have a public-roads project to provide interesting highways. You can see the proposed routes from the Linden's Wiki, posted nearly a year ago. I love the idea of these roads, but what will Linden Lab do when the new route bisects a resident's land?

On one side of the screen, real-life governments exercise eminent domain to get land from owners. Here's a good example of where SL may be posed for an evolutionary change that could violate the libertarian ethos of the virtual world, or where the sheer unreality of SL will trump any metaphors we try to drag along from our world.

Perhaps the Lindens will simply wait for lands beyond the end of the road to go on the market and buy them up. Then the Old Wagon Road will continue.

The Lindens seem to have adopted a tongue-and-cheek approach to the situation where, where the road ends. It's one of the few places in-world where a map tells me "you are here" and provides a bit of verisimilitude as to SL.


I don't know if the billboards I saw are an inside joke at some resident ("those losers in Ellingson") who would not sell his or her land, a chamber-of-commerce plug to go to Ogilvie to drive on a completed road, or something else that just escapes me.


Just how long it will be before SL beauties tear down the roads on Vespas, like characters in a Fellini film? I don't know, but Olivia Hotshot already got this photo.


Not long before such scenes get more common, I'd bet: build it, and they'll drive.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pappy Enoch: Cub Reporter!

Location: Alphaville Herald

Despite Pappy's Abduction by creatures not of this Earth, he has found work.

Or maybe it took such extreme measures to make him work, one. Pappy is now the latest employee of the Alphaville Herald (formerly the Second Life Herald) and was actually paid to publish "Lindens Court Hillbilly-and-Redneck Market?"

The story is a meditation upon the mysterious photo above, one that Editor Pixeleen Mistral notes has puzzled Second Life residents since it first appeared. Women and fish: Right up Pap's holler, so to speak. Read his fish story and send him topics for more burning SL issues.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pappy Enoch--or an Alien Imposter?

Location: Hellbilly Paradise

Pappy is reportedly on the Planet of the Goreans, along with TammiFay Digfoot of Enoch Holler.

My spy-cam picked up this shot of a man who looks a lot like our Moonshiner-in-Chief...but, is it really Pappy?

Could the aliens who abducted Pappy Enoch have put a changeling in his place, working as a Reporter for the Second Life, I mean Alphaville Herald?

Have the journalistic bulwarks of our fragile world been compromised so nefarious aliens can infiltrate and take over? Stay tuned, gentle readers.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Public Roads in Second Life

Location: Logging off in Frontenac

In light of my recent post about zoning, I thought it high time to speak up for an often overlooked bit of SL geography: the public roads.

Earlier this month, Prokofy Neva waxed poetic about these highways in "The Road Taken," and I must concur. In SL, I did not get my kicks on Route 66. I found them on the public highways.

In real life, Route 66 symbolizes a freedom from restraint and the call of the open road that existed before Interstates came, with their bland get-there-quickly aesthetic. So I tried to hit "Route 66" in SL.

My road-trip began on my motorcycle and not my Dominus Shadow because, on SL's Route 66, cars are sneered at. They are also not permitted into the neighboring regions (one, called Sunset Crater, requires a 250L membership fee, in fact). I found the Route 66 sim to be overcrowded with less-than-stellar riders, and though I'm not Evel Knievel, I easily dodged a few head-ons with bikers while others plowed into each other.

Despite a few wonderful riding shots, I found the confines of these motorcycle-gang regions stifling: just the opposite of what one wants on an open road. So with Prokofy Neva in mind, I returned to my old home, Neva's Memory Bazaar in Ross, pulled out the bike where I first rezzed a vehicle two years ago, and took off down the two-lane. Soon I was snapping vistas like this, with a castle in the background and a typically Prim-Moderne home near me.


Special thanks to Olivia Hotshot for some on-the-road photo tips; I had tweaked SL's environment editor to "desert sunset" but found the lag daunting. Olivia walked me through a few changes to my settings and inside a few minutes, I was ready for anything.

Well, I was not ready for Outy's Particle Paradise. Either I had been going in circles or Outy has more locations than Starbucks.


The road brings pleasant surprises too. I'd found a spot to log off when a nearby club-owner IMed me. Robin Vogel is a fan of Carolina Beach Music and Shag. She and Nucit Sin were having a good time doing the pretzel (it's a PG dance, folks) in Nucit's and Robin's just-opened club, Ripples Shag and Swing


More from the road soon. I dance a mean pretzel: I think it's still part of freshman orientation at UVA.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Zoning Richmond Island

Zoning Day

Location: RL office of "Kevin Galbraith"

When Kevin told me that we'd be having a zoning meeting, fears of a clampdown danced through my ever-suspicious mind. I'm not the sort to live in a planned community of any sort, in a real or virtual world. But Richmond Island is not all about me, damn it :)

Two colleagues who also have avatars and projects on Richmond Island joined us. Luckily, our zoning work clarified, in one meeting, ideas we'd been considering for over a year. Our short talk showed me the power of planning well.

Right now, our virtual campus is a hodgepodge of all sorts of materials and parcels set to various groups. We decided that given the low prim-load on the island, we could develop a second "story" on a floating platform that would house semester-long student projects. Our ground-level builds would be permanent features and would include:
  • An orientation point in Richmond's current gazebo. The gazebo would remain, as a visual cue, like the brick walkways, from our real-life campus.
  • A Showcase (garden or building) for the best projects from Richmond classes
  • Long-term projects (I've a literary simulation in mind...that's all I'll say for now)
  • A meeting space to hold larger group-events (Montclair State's Amphitheater comes to mind)
  • A Sandbox area for faculty and students to use for play and prototyping not connected to classes.
Some issues unique to SL design came up:
  • Should we turn flying off in some parcels, and not others, for the purposes of simulation particular to a project?
  • Where should we build relative to the SL sun? If we put a video screen with the sun behind it, it would blind avatars watching a presentation at sunset.
  • How often should we have seasons? In RL Richmond, we've had a typically wimpy winter. On SL Richmond Island, the snow, like that found by Good King Wenceslas, is "deep and crisp and even."
  • What roles and powers should go to those who use the island? How can we insure that students can build for classes without wrecking items that are supposed to stick around for the duration?
We will emerge with a better island. And, as more classes use SL on our campus, we may need a second island.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bad Cold IRL: Pappy Handles the Education Roundtable

Pappy at Montclair State
Location: Montclair State University Virtual Campus

Breathe, Iggy. Go to your quiet place. I'm too sick to help manage the weekly education roundtable this week, but someone "volunteered."

After a surprisingly small bribe, I managed to get Pappy Enoch temporarily released from the Alien Zoo (where he's been held captive with Tammifay Digfoot). I promised the spacemen that Pappy would only be on his best behavior.

I'm sure Pap, in the company of international educators, won't make a fool of himself.

Or of me....go to your quiet place, Iggy. Take another pill. Montclair will survive until 2108.


Monday, February 9, 2009

A Sense of Place in Second Life

Location: Web Site

One of my obsessions is maps. I made them up for paper-and-pencil roleplaying games, and I even taught map-reading in my military high school. When I spend a lot of time in the wilderness, I love poring over the topographical maps that I use to get from points A to B. On road-trips I often relax after dinner with a drink and a highway map, looking for odd spots to visit the next day.

I never travel by interstate when I can manage it, and I'm not big on GPS. I like to get a feeling for the place I'm in. For the same reasons, as convenient as teleportation has been in Second Life, I love to get in a virtual vehicle and drive the Linden-built highways that can be found on the mainland continents.

Thanks to the maps of we are a step closer to having a sense of the shape and scope of the Lindens' invented world. It's Philip Rosedale's first big project since he stepped down as CEO. At first, I thought "well, they gave him some make-work job," but as I surfed his maps for familiar places, something else happened.

Here's the area around Ross, the region where Iggy first appeared from Orientation Island.
And here's Richmond Island. I can even see the three buildings that my students made for the build-it project last semester.
I get the same thrill when I look down at my own house using Google Maps, after setting the view to "satellite." I've found other familiar places from my past, in the US and overseas.

Like Google Earth, the maps rekindled my sense of wonder. Of course, the world I'm seeing is not "real." Yet the thrill of recognition is the same. That has always been Rosedale's gift as a utopian.

Why did we come to SL, in the end, if not for wonder? We need it from time to time. As fertile as the virtual world is for friendships, education, even shopping, it might as well be Facebook were it not a place. Now the unreal world of Second Life seems ever so slightly more tangible.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Gutenberg Elegies in Second Life

Tigers Shop1
Location: Tiger's Bookshop, Rare Books, & Victorian Furniture

I came to a Second Life bookshop in search of materials for an upcoming project, and I ended up thinking about the fate of books in real life and why we use them as decor--both in reality and SL.

Before logging on for the afternoon, I'd begun a curious donation for charity: lots of mostly unread books. I've many anthologies and rhetoric texts that I keep for writing teachers to consider adopting. When new editions arrive, out go the old timers. My donations--a bookcase full--will go to US students in disadvantaged school districts and, overseas, to institutions of higher education. One of my student assistants is toting another huge load of texts from the English Department to the donation site: a giant cardboard box in the Richmond Commons.

It's a better fate that a recycling center or landfill, where too many discarded books end their lives. I also see books all the time in thrift-shops, but lately I have noticed how many people shop for titles not to read, but to display.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed how the book-as-decoration has entered the realm of the preposterous. High-end homeowners, the article noted, want a wall of good books they'll never read. One decorator found a library of texts in German, a language spoken by neither of the homeowners who planned to show off the tomes in their "library."

Such a space is less a library than the virtual ones of SL at Information Island, Caledon, and elsewhere: at least one can pick up on-screen copies of public-domain books at such places to actually read. And that, in the end, should be the fate of books: not decor but knowledge.

Sven Birkerts, a noted luddite among academics who wrote the magnificent Gutenberg Elegies several years ago, attacked the Internet for three reasons. It flattens historical perspectives, erodes nuance in language, and diminishes the "private self" in a web of relationships and communication.

All are true, but I took a road different from Birkerts to embrace the technology, from e-mail to Web to virtual worlds. And I still read books, though I read less than I did before.

So perhaps it's not the activity but the object of reading that concerns readers like me and Birkerts. We both are unabashed bibliophiles who prefer the sensual pleasure of reading a well made volume rather than a SL notecard, backlit screen, or even a cheap paperback.

Most of us will just have to get used to reading in new ways, on screens and in-world, in places that honor the memory of what the book was in the 20th century. Yet even as the technology changes, reading continues, that relentless hunt for connection coded into the words a writer chooses to share with us.

Need bookish decor? You can hop over to Tiger's with this teleport link. Nice prices and well made items abound.

Tigers Shop 2

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Second Life Academics Grill Pathfinder Linden

photo courtesy of Olivia Hotshot

Location: Montclair State University Virtual Campus

It was a collegial and jovial grilling, of course, at yesterday's Second Life Education Roundtable.

Pathfinder discussed a number of topics and debunked a few myths. We got to hear about why the teen and main grids are not going to merge anytime soon, as well as why it's a mere SL rumor that premium members will be able to join up to 100 groups.

Of more use to us, he talked at length about how Linden Lab is making eduction a priority in their business plan.

The full transcript is long (and transcribed from voice--expertly by Mirt Tenk and mOOn Jaecies). I've added in-text links to various topics our presenter and moderator (AJ Brooks) discussed.

Monday, February 2, 2009

SL Education Faire: Roundtable on Upcoming Conference

Double-Decker Roundtable
Location: SL Education Support Faire

We did not crash the four sims for this event, packed with nearly 100 avatars.

The topic, the upcoming "Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Conference," got a lot of interesting discussion going, including (my favorite) "what are some worst practices?".

The conference will be held in-world in May. Proposals for papers and talks are due by month's end.

For more:
  • Our transcript is here
  • Conference Web site is here