Monday, November 30, 2009

More On Second Life's Image Problems

Location: Student Blogs
image courtesy of Ryan's Koinup Site

My students are no longer noobs. They have done a great deal of thinking about virtual worlds, and almost universally, they give Linden Lab's attempts at marketing a HUGE thumbs-down. Here are two standout blog posts.

From Ryan:
"Just recently I was talking to one of my friends across the hall. I was talking about how we use Second Life in class to help us with our writing. My friend said something along the lines of “isn’t that one of those games that 30 year old losers play in their mom’s basement?” It is this image that is hindering Second Life’s advancement in the communication technology front. To someone who doesn’t know anything about Second Life, he had the 'creepy' vibe. Linden Lab needs to fix this, and use their money to better promote Second Life, not as a serial killers paradise or loser hot spot." Read his entire post.

From Jenna:
"The credibility of virtual worlds is not yet known by the mass public, especially among the instant message- texting- Facebook generation, which I am a part of. I had to explain the existence of Second Life to every friend I mentioned it to because they didn't have any knowledge of it. This shows a serious disconnect between virtual worlds and the real world. Word of mouth is not nearly enough to promote its existence and potential as an educational and communication technology." Read her entire post.

From Caroline:
The biggest problem SL faces as a communications technology is the unappealing light it has been portrayed in in Hollywood and the resulting image "non-SLers" gain from these shows. I know first hand because I was one of them. I think a lot of people are hesitant to join worlds such as SL because they are afraid that they too will end up with a stalker or worse. There are a lot of skeptics out there, and I think that unless Linden Lab makes more effort to put SL in a more positive, less "serial-killer" type light then it will slowly begin to die out. Read her entire post.

From a Few Students about Facebook vs. SL:
It may be naivety, but they trust Facebook profiles more than they do profiles in SL. With Facebook, the students claim it to be harder to conceal one's identity. Interesting point, but I'm not convinced. One can construct a completely bogus life at Facebook with the right photos and activities, while still giving the company valid information when setting up one's account. Granted, that is harder than in SL. But a very clever Facebook impostor might never be sniffed out, until someone met the person face to face.

My pro-bono marketing advice to Linden Lab:
  • Change the name. "Second Life" is too "creepy," to use an overly popular "student suitcase word." How about the old "Linden World"? it sounds like a theme-park where one can have some escapist fun, not a secret life.
  • Funny TV: This works for the Sims. Why not promote it in ways that are funny, not pitiful, as in Dwight's case when he uses SL in The Office? Ryan recalled that show's negative message. Instead, have TV spots showing families separated by geography skiing (and falling down). Feature old high school pals meeting online to race or go dancing.
Just get us out of the "creepy treehouse." I'm not convinced LL can do this, ever, with a product called "Second Life." Other virtual worlds have more fortuitous names.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Trouble in a Real-World Invented World

Location: Dubai Towers Web site

It took a while to convince myself that these buildings, "inspired by the movement of candlelight," were not right out of Second Life. With its indoor ski-runs in the middle of a desert, the 800-meter-tall Burj Dubai, and plans for a 1,200 meter-tall building, it's easy to mistake the U.A.E. city for something out of a virtual world.

Now, the candle that Dubai lit is flickering.

In the Gulf, oil remains the regions' source of income, though states like the U.A.E. and Kuwait, already sensing the aging of the region's oil fields, struck off into a different direction. Like my ancestors in Lebanon, these Arabs understand the power of becoming hubs for trade, banking, and, in Dubai's case, high-end tourism. And they have, one hopes, learned from my relatives' experience to avoid sectarian warfare.

It seemed reasonable. But Dubai, as one observer puts it (see his slides below) has become "a city on crack."

The crisis in Dubai has real-life consequences for developing markets and many wealthy individuals whose fortunes or failures I'd normally shrug off. Dubai teems with the sort of megarich who buy artificial islands or put their condos in 800-meter tall skyscrapers. As Fitzgerald reminded us in another era, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

Now they too may get to see how the other 99.5% lives. One gets a sense of how wild the changes in Dubai have been, and how like a virtual world it appears, from this comparison of images. Too fragile to sustain? Too hyped and fevered, like the virtual worlds that flicker on our monitors?

I learned a shortened version of this Dubai proverb when I was a younger:

"My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel."

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum's saying may well come to pass.
Dubai would look interesting in ruins, like some alien city from an SF novel. Let's hope we never see this future. It won't bode well for the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Neuromancer on Stage in New York

Location: H+ Magazine Web Site

Following links from a student's wiki project, I came across this post by the one and only R.U. Sirius, cyberboho and former editor of Mondo 2000. I hope the performance piece he mentions, Case, leads to interest in a film. The Internet Movie Database has rumors of a 2011 movie.

Gibson started all this craziness for me. We thought the book so cool in grad school, with our black sunglasses and, tucked into our leather jackets, battered copies of Gibson's novels. That seems eons ago. Yet the novel sticks with me; I came to Second Life partly, as my in-world profile shows, to see if he was right about virtual worlds.

Gibson has stopped writing science fiction these days, mostly, as I heard him explain to an NPR interviewer, because reality has caught up with him and surpassed his early visions.

And what visions. While we don't yet have "Microsofts" to plug into jacks behind our ears, razorgirl meat-puppets turned street samurai, orbital AIs that make artwork, or Rastas in abandoned space colonies, we do have a lot of Gibson's fearful future with us: soulless corporations with slick-as-glass slaves who work for them, governments in shambles, a climate-crisis, global terrorists. Yet I don't call his future "dystopian" as much as "detached," in the same way hard-boiled detective fiction can feel. Neuromancer's world scares students with its steely-cool hipness.

Despite my misgivings after the awful mess of bringing "Johnny Mnemonic" to the big screen, this new project might spawn something better.

My mind, like a television tuned to a dead channel, awaits the arrival of Neuromancer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Educators from Second Life Branch Out to Other Virtual Worlds

AJ rallies the team
Location: Virtual Valley of the Kings

I was amazed that we got 18--or 17, with someone crashing frequently--into Rezzable's Virtual King Tut Experience. It was our group's first foray outside Second Life. It will not be our last. We plan visits to Metaplace and Reaction Grid soon.

Our transcript shows a lively and lighthearted group of educators pondering what it will be like to explore multiple worlds. Given our group's upcoming name-change to The Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable, the change of venue was appropriate.

Readers know that I am less than pleased with how Linden Lab has handled educational issues recently, and now they heap on changes that will hurt small merchants, and educators, using the Xstreetsl market they acquired last year.

Time to shuffle our feet, if not vote with them, in other virtual worlds. Land is cheaper there and, in time, content will be as rich and the community large enough to sustain our efforts. Rezzable itself left much of its SL property over pricing.

Others will, in time too. Princeton has scaled by its SL presence, as Paisley Beebe noted in her interview with jokay Wollengong.

Who will the winners and losers in as these technologies evolve? If you know that answer, time to make some strategic investments.

Friday, November 20, 2009

From the BBC about Second Life: "Shame, Really"

Low Lag Horizon

Location: Watching the Horizon

It's not wonderful to have your own misgivings seconded by a major news source.

"What happened to Second Life?" considers how the coverage of the virtual world has waned since the hype-days of 2007, when I came in world.

Amid the consternation, even fury, caused by several Linden Lab decisions, such as the ending of the mentors program and the new fees for users of the Linden's online market,, there's a broader story.

We in SL spend too much time in our little universe to see that the world beyond has just moved on. This may be why almost none of my students or colleagues even know what SL is.

Points in the BBC story:
  • Return on investment was about zero for most businesses that came into SL during the hype era. My reading: they had bad business plans, but they also came away with a desire "never to do THAT again." And they spread the word.
  • SL does not work well on low-end systems and not at all on hand-held devices. Small and portable computing, not Alienware desktops, are the devices of choice of the future.
  • The experience for newcomers has been awful and they don't return. As one commenter put it, about her experience of wandering aimlessly, then quitting after a few days: "It was a great idea but just didn't work in practice. Shame, really."
That is perfect English understatement about a looming disaster.

I'm pleased by one thing: I'm active in other virtual worlds. I don't feel confident for the future of Linden Lab.

Students Run Wild in SL!

Location: Richmond Island, Arm Draped Over Forehead

It had to happen, eventually, in Second Life: I teach a class that bonded enough that they began to have FUN without too much prompting. This does not happen often enough in college courses, especially at my school, where so much emphasis gets placed on rigor for its own sake.

Lately, the students have begun to bring their laptops to the lab, where we don't have SL loaded. Others would download the client on the faster desktop machines.

What got them over their initial caution? Guided experiences in-world. I am pleased that so many of them went to Burning Life. Unlike 2008, this year I added a required blog-post about attending an event in SL, and that led to a few getting into uncomfortable situations, but more of them were able to interact with SLers and find out that they are not--mostly--misfits or perverts. The few who did have problems learned about muting and "unfriending" the persistently annoying avatars they encountered.

As a result I have "Thumper" cavorting as a giant rabbit (and pleased that the owner of the avatar slipped in a "Harvey" reference). I have "Riley" in butterfly wings (and bald) hanging out at the Public Orientation Island.


It may be a crazy world, but this class at least got to see a world, not merely a collection of empty, if beautiful, sims.

More soon on what they found when they changed race or gender.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Widespread Faculty Adoption of Virtual Worlds: Unlikely

Burial Chamber
Location: Heritage Key Virtual Tut Experience

It was both a revolutionary moment and a sad one. I talked about my class' "Saving Isis"assignment for the VWER (nee SLER) group's first meeting outside of Second Life. At the same time, I realized how few of us, in higher ed, use these technologies. I've often written here about why students don't take to virtual worlds. But how about my colleagues who sometimes snicker about the work we do in SL and elsewhere?

To this observer, despite feats like the much ballyhooed rollout of the UT system's SL project, virtual worlds are not likely to be a mainstream technology on campuses any time soon. Some possible reasons:
  • Incentive and Reward: Tenure-stream faculty, and even full-time nontenured ones like me, have to meet goals in our assessments that may prevent us from living deeply enough in the culture of virtual world to truly learn it. I've been lucky, personally, with my work for Richmond, but I know that my department and school expect a juried publication out of all this, preferably in a major journal. This is how we faculty accrue prestige in academe for ourselves and our schools. It may be a dated measure to non-academics, but trust me: it will be around until my readers and I retire.
  • Time the Tyrant: Right now, VWs like Second Life and Heritage Key are far too difficult to master in a few hours, even if one is not a builder. In SL it's the overwhelming size of the simulation and the difficulty of the building tools. In HK, which one colleague just dismissed as a big museum where you cannot build, the navigation tools and pedagogical activities are not yet in place yet the world is wide open for visitors who will go, crash multiple times, and not return.
  • Creepy Treehouse: Here it's the culture of SL and even the name that turn off so many admins and colleagues. That does show signs of changing, after these parties get a look at what a good simulation can do to spark learning. More educationally focused and PG-rated virtual worlds will emerge under OpenSim and that will both hurt the Linden product and encourage the reluctant to "give this one a try instead."
  • Linden Lab's Mercurial Policies: We educators recall how jokay Wollengong was promoted by one part of the Lab and issued a cease-and-desist order by another. It was one reason I urged my colleagues to change our Roundtable's name. But the problems go deeper. Decisions like that undercut the very culture that brings in academics: when I showed a reluctant colleage jokay's wiki in 2007, he said "I get it now." Now his URL won't work, and Linden Lab lost a potential customer.
It's all as one, as Tateru Nino claims in a reply to me about her post on the decision by Australian telecom Testra Bigpond to leave SL, that Second Life does not quite fit the hype cycle famously described by the Gartner Group.

She contends, with evidence, that there's a sinusoidal cycle at play here, with ever-diminishing amplitudes. Those ripples do not seem to register in the very crowded professional lives of academics.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Egghead with Dreads on "Tonight Live With Paisley Beebe"

Tonight Live!
Location: Ready for my close-up, Ms. Beebe

It may have been a slow night for news about virtual worlds, so Paisley Beebe resorted to having me as the final guest for her November 15 show. To be honest, I was honored to be featured on's lineup of outstanding shows shot in and about Second Life. I even behaved myself, given that the experience was quite immersive; I felt as though I were on a real-life set.

Our talk ranged over several topics, including my feelings that educators need to explore beyond SL and why most students never log on with their avatars once the semester ends.

Special thanks go out to Paisley, AutumnFoxx, and the fine crew at Tonight Live. I didn't even fall off the stage or sit on Paisley's cat.

Here's the show, embedded. Be sure to hear Buckley Moonwall perform and listen to Alice Burgess, a librarian at the University of Kentucky and Shamblesguru Voom, an education consultant in Thailand discuss education in SL. Then I can lull you to sleep.

SL Education Roundtable Changes its Name

by AJ Kelton, Founder and Chief Moderator
and the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable Organizers

(photo courtesy of Olivia Hotshot)

In March of 2008 the idea was born for a weekly roundtable meeting focused on a specific topic each week. The idea was to bring a bit of democracy to the process of discussing education in this new and adventurous world we'd all found ourselves in. The group was called the SL Education Roundtable and the idea was for us all to, quite literally, sit around a round table and talk with each other. Over time the meeting group grew to 40 or more attending each week, with nearly 400 members in our Second Life (c) in-world group and over 400 members in our Facebook group. Through the efforts of both a handful of dedicated volunteers, as well as a broad and diverse group of people participating on a regular basis, the group has seen a fair amount of success.

SLER was never meant to be a bully pulpit from which controversial ideas or political dramas were fostered. Our role has been to create an environment within which many thoughts and ideas can be talked about and shared, without anyone feeling like theirs were bad or wrong or unwelcome. In many ways, this group has become somewhat of a news media outlet, where topical ideas are raised and discussed without the gloss of one side versus the others. This is not to say our conversations cannot get heated, or interesting, but the organization itself does not take sides, it just facilitates conversation.

Since that day nearly two years ago, the landscape has changed. Technology has changed. Virtual worlds have changed. Second Life has changed. And now it is time for our organization to also change. In order to acknowledge that there are many virtual worlds out there to be talked about, and proactively moving into compliance with the Linden Lab restriction of the use of the "SL" in any name, effective January 6th, this group will be called the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.

In addition, effective immediately, Our scope will broaden beyond the weekly meetings every Tuesday in Second Life, at Montclair State University's virtual campus. We will continue to hold our Tuesday weekly meeting in Second Life. We will also be holding additional meetings on other days in other virtual worlds, including one tomorrow, Wednesday November 18th at 3:00pm Eastern Time, in Rezzable's simulation, Heritage Key. In the future we will also be meeting in Metaplace, Reaction grid, as well as other virtual world grids.

A new Second Life group, Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable (VWER), has already been created and, as of today, will begin to accept membership. Although we will leave the original SLER group open, effective today, no new members will be allowed to join this group. There are also Flickr and Koinup groups making use of the new name, a Facebook group, and a Twitter account. We feel the time between today and January 6th will allow all of those interested to make this important and exciting transition with us.

Great thanks to all those who support The Roundtable efforts and activities. We're looking forward to even better programming for our regular meetings as well as expanding our virtual worlds vocabulary.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blue Mars Teaser Trailer: Entertainment, Business

Location: Avatar Reality Web Site

So much dazzle from the makers of Blue Mars, and not a word about education. I get to these things slowly--the post where I found the embed code for this video bore the date May 2009.

Have a look. The maker, Avatar Reality, promises a public release soon (the virtual world is in public Beta now). As with Second Life, system requirements are high. But--groan--it's Windows-only. I'll find a gaming PC eventually and try to take an unbiased look at this new entrant in the VW universe.

Gee, maybe I'll play a round of golf. No, maybe I'd rather have spikes stuck into my eyes. The prevalence of golf on the site--though not in the trailer I've embedded--says a great deal about the target demographic.

Okay, I'll find not a driving range but a place to drive in Blue Mars and see how the cars work.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More Thoughts on Second Life and Laptops

Tooters Office
Location: Slacking while reading student wikis

There's been quite a productive exchange of ideas on the SL Education List about the barriers that SL's steep graphics requirements pose. This drove my friend Tenchi Morigi to put her avatar into hibernation.

Here's a colleague's statement about student computers and my reply on the e-list:

So, what I'm saying is: for good operation and experience of SL one needs the best affordable graphics, rather than the *newest* possible computer. What schools and individuals do when they cannot afford this is another story, of course. But whatever course they take, they should be aware that SL teaching/learning will suffer greatly from low-quality graphics, ceteris paribus.

I'm in complete agreement here. Where we part ways may be how Linden Lab has presented SL as a mainstream tool for educators and typical students in higher education when it, ceteris paribus, is not.

Sadly for educators teaching first-year students, there may be no relatively foolproof way to integrate SL into classes. Courses must be listed online in order for students to register, and it can be tricky to have a Registrar add many lines stating "to take this course, your personal computer must possess XYZ graphics card or X GB of RAM" when LL's own systems requirements change quickly as new client versions emerge.

Two years of teaching SL in first-year composition have also shown me that the typical undergrad at my university will nod and even sign a waiver saying "my system meets the specs," and then find out otherwise. Many don't even know what RAM is: increasingly, kids I teach are more likely to use a handheld device than a PC for nearly every communications task.

My own teaching has been "bleeding edge" for many years, from the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment to MOOs to SL. That experience taught me to hesitate before I bring in colleagues to try their projects. I now feel that way about SL. Unless a Linden Lab or third-party client emerge with lighter graphics requirements, I doubt that I will be able to continue using SL next year for my first years. I'll search for another world that works better on typical equipment.

SL would then, for me, become a "niche" product for advanced courses in the Rhetoric of Online Communities where students can be carefully informed ahead of time about the technical requirements for their coursework.

But I may be wrong. LL might devise ways for more of us to use their world, given the CEO's stated intention to bring in millions of new Residents. Will SL 2.0 play better on portable devices, or at least netbooks and low-end laptops?

For widespread educational adoption, the answer to that question will be decisive.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why Some Academics Hate Twitter: Part III (The Sermon)

Location: Reading Student Journals (on paper!)

My dear fellow Humanists:

We are doomed in Birkerts' "Electronic Millennium" unless we adapt to its forms of communication, yet carry with us the Humanities' irascible and unhip hermeneutics for providing social commentary and critique. Notably, we somehow have to manage this for skim-the-surface students who live in an eternal now of consumerist bliss (or unfulfilled desire).

I nail these 9.5 theses to the digital doors at Wittenberg. Since this is a blog, I won't make it 95, but that rascal Luther had the luxury of a bookish century to support his spleen.
  1. Get over your fetish for "The Book." Reading and its habits, not bound volumes, transform our minds. As new forms of communication enhance the reading experience, we should move beyond our walls of books to consider how embedded film, audio, image, and experiential elements enhance new texts. Then we must develop critical methods to teach them. Civilization will not fall if we stop reading Henry James, sad as that would be. It did not end when most educated folk stopped reading Aquinas. If, however, we stop reading thoughtfully, we're in real trouble.
  2. Embrace Web. 2.0 in a thoughtful manner. These tools can further the critical method of the technologically adept humanist. I've learned that Twitter provides a painless way to post a link, report progress on a project, and share ideas quickly with those who share my interests. Blogs provide my students with the opportunity to practice in public what they do only for me in their paper journals, as they move from private to public (and ever more formal) discourse at their course wiki-sites.
  3. Refuse the "eternal now" culture and its interruptive technologies. I don't carry a cell phone. I check mail three times daily so I can focus on the tasks for which I'm paid and evaluated: supporting students, doing research, and teaching well. To what extent do you practice such habits and provide an example to students? They learn, for instance, that I routinely delete e-mails without a subject line :)
  4. Seduce others into seeing The Matrix for what it is. We have many tech users but few who consider their practices critically. Ask students in appropriate assignments to log their uses of a particular networked technology. It reveals much about them. I've had fewer writers fret about "those addicted to gaming" when they take a long, hard look at how much time they dedicate to Facebook.
  5. Practice teche and episteme. Kudos to Tom Boellstorff in Coming of Age in Second Life for reminding me what these words mean, as he notes that academics live in their heads too often and don't create enough. For me, Techne means making in Second Life and outside it, by writing for a general readership in our local alternative weekly and other non-academic venues.
  6. Employ "Ordnung" without driving a buggy. Futurist Howard Rheingold found, when doing research for "Look Who's Talking," that the Amish have a sophisticated system for deciding which new inventions get sanctioned or prohibited by their bishops. Generally the community use a new tool for a time, and at each step the members ask whether the tool builds community or pulls it apart.
  7. Dare to reinvent past treasures. Rezzable's Virtual Tut, my own House of Usher Simulation, and Jane Austen's (and Seth Grahame-Smith's) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies point the way to a New Humanities that will move beyond rigor for its own sake to bring playfulness and the ancient sense of "ludus"--school and play--into our classrooms.
  8. Question to paddlers of tomorrow. Textbook publishers, software companies, and some of our colleagues who are early adopters become overly eager and evangelize us about each wondrous new application that awaits. Like some evangelists, some of these paddlers want our money. Others mean well. I listen and apply theses 1-7 in these cases.
  9. Watch South Park or write for the Alphaville Herald. We need to take ourselves less seriously and find social commentary in the lowest of places. Humor is the best medicine to prevent sanctimoniousness.
Thesis 9.5? Add your own in the comments section! "Hush up Iggy" does not count.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Some Academics Hate Twitter, Part II

Location: Ensconced Before My Walls of Books

image above is not my office!

In "Into the Electronic Millennium," a chapter in the very readable and depressing The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts laments that our culture of connectedness and instant access destroys something that he--like many Humanities faculty I know on campus--cherish: the contemplative life as reflected in the slow, thoughtful, and reflective reading of challenging books:
Curricula will be streamlined and simplified, and difficult texts will be pruned and glossed. Fewer and fewer people will be able to contend with the masterworks of literature or ideas. Joyce, Woolf, James, and the rest will go unread, and the civilizing energies of their prose will circulate aimlessly between closed covers.
Enter Twitter, with its 140 character tweets, and you have exhibit A for the decline of civilized life as we know it (or maybe we have exhibit R--the lamentations have been going on for a while).

I set out here not to skewer Birkerts or my cyberphobic colleagues. Instead, while reaching to an audience that accepts Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, I want to point out the nature of the cultural decay Birkerts catalogs:
  • Language Erosion: Nuance gets lost as we shorten our prose, substitute little words for big ones, and lose touch with the origins of words and our cultural history.
  • The Flattening of Historical Perspectives: Neil Postman's belief that we live in a "and now, this!" culture of consumption and gratification.
  • The Waning of the Private Self: Expectations of 24/7 access, quick replies, and easy answers at our fingertips lead us suspect the introspective person, the loner, the dawdler.
And, Professor Birkerts, I agree with you, even as I post a tweet and log on to Second Life.

I too fear a future like that of M.T. Anderson's Feed, a dark satire of a consumerist culture out of control where vagaries such as "thing" and "stuff" are about the most complex terms in the language, where the Internet is in our heads and not outside them, and where no one remembers much of anything from before the globe became a deadzone of toxic waste-sites.

My students read less and less for pleasure. Most take the easiest path in their studies and even crossing campus. They even fight the difficulties of learning the non-intuitive interface of SL. In fact, many of them seem to want a eternal early-June day of temperatures in the mid-80s, low humidity, and someone else to cut the grass they sit on with their friends. In time they may, in another reference in your book, become "efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference." That is Anderson's vision of a time just before the Great Collapse of American life.

Twitter alone won't make that future arrive, especially if we academics appropriate (ah, Marx, thanks for that verb) it for noble ends.

So how do we "Fight the Feed" while using it to keep our cherished ways of learning alive?

Good news, Humanists: you still have a mission.

Up Next: Part III--My Sermon To Humanists

Monday, November 9, 2009

What Some Academics Hate Twittter, Part 1

Location: Puritan Cleaners

Please explain to me why my dry-cleaners has a Twitter Feed and Facebook page. I can, of course, see how a program like "Coats for Kids" could benefit from the added cheer-leading that a few well-chosen tweets provide.

On the other hand, as a reluctant and recent Twitterer, I feared that Puritan is drifting from the stolidity and humility of their New-England namesakes by falling prey to the Gartner Group's hype cycle for new technologies. Second Life users know this well. We SLers are climbing out of stage 3, the "Trough of Disillusionment" and staggering up stage 4, "The Slope of Enlightenment."

The company is clearly riding high on stage 1, "The Peak of Inflated Expectations." Three years ago, Puritan would have a created a storefront in SL, then pulled out when they realized that SL is not a place to launder shirts.

Yes, and SL was to make all of us zillionaires, 2006, just as would in 1999.

Such hyperbole is antithetical to the academic mind, with its rather staid manner of vetting every source, considering every point, and taking one's time to say a whole lot, lest one be labeled a dilettante. We don't think in 140 characters; we think in 140 pages of text.

We profs don't look kindly on dabblers. And Twitter is a technology of dabbling, of telling one's circle what one had for lunch or other minutiae. Consider my last two tweets:
  • "Checking Twitter feed for my dry-cleaners. Cat has a hairball."
  • "Began reading Coming of Age in Second Life. Outstanding! Had broasted weasels for lunch. Tasty but needed more sauce."
Okay, I cannot stand it when someone tells me on Twitter what they had for lunch. So my lunch tweets will get more surreal, as my 140 characters permit.

Now if they found a great tapas place in Madrid, I'd be all ears (or stomach).

Next up: More on those 140 characters, Sven Birkerts, and tweeting barbarians eroding our language and, hence, our Gutenberg World.

I'll tweet
when it's done.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

November Road Trip: Metaplace Speed Demon!

69 Boss
Location: GK97’s World

No Mini Cooper S, my real-life ride, in sight, so I debated a contender for my car-buying dollars (but too long to park in town without bumper-dinging sorrow), a Mustang GT.

Then I saw a car I’ll never own, a ’69 Mustang Boss. The Boss wins!

Since it's a little world--and that makes driving a tiny bit more frustrating than in an arcade game with a much larger track--I'll keep my post tiny.

As in Second Life, Metaplace driving is controlled by arrow-keys. There were no gears to shift or special features on these cars. The biggest problem here, however, is the tiny size of the world. On a bigger track this low-lag driving could be the hoot of a virtual lifetime.

Meep-Cannons & Moop
The cannons let visitors blast each other and the drivers with flying Meeps. They make green Moop when they hit.

The Boss handled about as well as a real-life vintage Boss would. Muscle cars were not known for tight handling, so I mowed down many virtual spectators. They were just props put there by the builder; I wonder what my car would do to other Metaplace avatars? The world was empty, but for me.

Silly, yes! Fun, yes! Visit GK97's World to try for yourself.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Judged by Pictures: Students Consider Second Life & Anonymity

A URspider meets the lamplight...
Location: Classroom

Picture credit: URSpider4 at Koinup

Wagner James Au and Tateru Nino have sounded off this week about important changes implemented or possible in Second Life, such as linking SL more richly to Facebook or Linden Lab's turn-key business solution, starting price $55,000, "Nebraska."

I kept saying to myself, "I like my fake dreads. I can wear a tie in real life."

So before SL comes to mean "Suit Life" or just a Facebook application, I asked my writing students about the role of anonymity (a touted option in Nebraska and, presumably, a hypothetical Facebook/SL mashup).

The verdict from fifteen first-year college students about RL and SL conflation:

--13 prefer anonymity for avatars as an option
--1 prefers RL identification
--1 absent

--1 uses YoVille and loves it. 2 other have heard of it. All of them have Facebook accounts.

Noteworthy quotations by students:

On real-life identity:

" the NWN readers (read, old geezers) realize how much anonymity that Facebook permits?" (noting that none of the class use their RL names in their profiles)
  • "If businesses want RL identifications, let them build their own virtual worlds."
  • "In Burning Life people were being who they were wanting to be."
  • "On Facebook you do judge [others] by their pictures."
  • [Without some anonymity] "There would be no diversity any more on SL...people in Gorean culture don't want disclosure."
  • "It would be a turn off to know that you are playing SL with a bunch of older people."
  • "SL is about avatar-to-avatar; Facebook is about person-to-person."
On steep graphics requirements for virtual worlds:
  • "An Ethernet cord is not convenient. If it won't run on a laptop on wireless, I won't do it."
  • "Not everyone can afford an Alienware desktop to see this stuff."
Go, students! My only gripe back to them was "stop whining, buy an Ethernet cord, and log back on." It's a silly excuse. Those who bought cords report a dramatic bump in performance on SL and Heritage Key.

College is not about their convenience; at a selective and attentive school like mine, it's about their practicing critical-thinking skills and learning new things that harried high-school teachers don't have time to teach.

But some conveniences have their place: half of the class reported using Facebook to plan group-activities for SL, as it relates to doing assignments.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bot Technology In Second Life For Medical Training

Location: Waiting Room

I'm impressed with this YouTube video, done my my SL Roundtable colleague Kali Pizzaro. "Colin," the bot shown, can reply to simple text-chat questions, and as this technology develops, it could provide a good training simulation for medical professionals.

Kali's original post on this notes how the test demonstrates "our work on connecting “Second Life” avatar-patient-bots with specially written AIML [artificial intelligence markup language] and speech synthesis software. Hopefully we’ll add speech recognition too."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dulce et Decorum Est: The WWI Poetry Sim

Under a lurid green sky, my feet sinking into foul trench mud, I am faced with poetry. It marches down and over me. It waits to be noticed in the medical tent. It whispers its truths from every ghostly mouth.

Thanks to a tip from Prim Perfect editor Saffia Widdershins, I traveled to the WWI Poetry sim, and found myself surrounded by the powerful combination of virtual experience and literature.

A collaboration of The First World War Poetry Digital Archive and the Learning Technologies Group at the University of Oxford, the region's goal is to place "the poetry of the Great War in context, allowing the visitors to the exhibition to visualise archival materials in an environment that generates deeper understandings and to take advantage of the social and interactive aspects that the environment offers," according to Stuart Lee, Lecturer of English at the University of Oxford.

I began my journey in the training camp, listening to a soldier speak as I walked among the tents. Passing through the trenches, I followed builder CSteph Submariner to the medical tents, where Sigfried Sassoon and Vera Brittain waited. Poetry and history twine throughout the region, waiting to be discovered. Beyond the medical tents, the front line beckons and I will return there this evening. It is haunting to hear these poems in place, surrounded on all sides by the sights and sounds of the Great War. As an educator, it is thrilling to see, and to imagine how this project, and many, many others like it, could enrich the study of literature and connect writers and readers across generations and experiences in a new way.

When you go, please respect the region's atmosphere and the experience of other participants by wearing the clothing provided at the landing area.

A Bubble Option For Avatars: Um, No.

Bubbles or Avatars?
Location: Outside the Bubble

On the SLED list, I ran across an interested reference to this post by deepsemaphore. The claim at play here is that a bubble with a video-conferencing stream, rather than an avatar, could do a better job than a virtual world for certain types of interactions:
In my view, the virtual environment of the NEAR future will be desktop based, point and trigger and provide the space to contain 3d audio conferencing+ video conferencing (as ‘video bubbles or some variants of that) + information sharing (basically document/web sharing).
One of the SLED respondents was fascinated; he feels that business users, wary of avatars, might use:
Video bubbles would permit retaining all the advantages of a shared 3D environment while offering a representation that would be perceived as more “serious” or “businesslike” (you know what I mean) by many. Also, at this moment we cannot precisely control avatars but we can and do control our faces and hands.
I'll grant the limitations of avatars as they currently exist. Anyone past noob status has encountered the limitations that virtual-world avatars possess. They don't gesture normally or use facial expressions well. They cannot hold up real-life objects as quickly as one might during a video-stream.

I'm less certain that we can feel "there" in a virtual world if our representation is a stream in a bubble. Having used video conferencing in a few forms, it seems that while the technology permits some interesting ways to communicate, it leads most participants to be observers and stay quiet while a presenter presents. Conferencing is an augmentationist technology, not immersive in the way that Gwyneth Llewelyn explains (note the ever-present wink on her page--do that in a bubble and you get fired by the HR Department).

Bubbles may suit the needs of top-down business organizations where Mr. Quimby expounds the virtues of the cornflower-blue icon for the next wonderful spreadsheet widget that is about to roll out to the masses.

But, as I once taunted Prokofy Neva in saying, virtual worlds can let us cavort like young gods. We make things and then we can walk through and interact with our creations. I'm a Promethean at heart. Bubbles won't permit the joy of discovery that I had interacting with others at Burning Life or with the Story of Uncle D at The Virtual Worlds Story Project.

So I'll take my embodiment and minor-deity status, thank you. If not Prometheus, think the tricksters Loki or Coyote. But let's put the Suits in bubbles; they've been there for years in the US, at least until recently, when their bubble-bound thinking led them to pop the Big Bubble of the global economy.

As Tyler Durden put it, time to get out of the bubble:

Warning: If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don't you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can't think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all that claim it? . . . .Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you're alive (from "Fight Club").

Anyone got a needle or a pin? POP!