Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Eggheads Debate Virtual-World Teaching Tools

Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable (by way of Yadni's Junkyard, a favorite of educators, pictured)

Dim dim. Dabbleboard. Mystitool. Crystal Gadgets.

Are we in the slot-machine room in some Vegas casino? These sound like games of chance, but they are actually favored tools for educators and their students.

We met last week to discuss our favorites, and the transcript, packed with URLs and SLURLs, can be found at this link. One I know I'll use: Pmiller's shared media tools bookmarks (as soon as I get up the courage to use Viewer 2).

What amazed me, as ever, is the sheer number of useful tools, from whiteboards to video-capture applications to in-world gadgets, that educators and students employ in Second Life and in OpenSim grids.

Comb through the transcripts, colleagues, and see what you need in your virtual toolboxes.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Just Because: New Look at I.A.S.L.

I've been thinking about Cyberpunk so much lately, so I played with Blogger's design templates and picked an oh-so-1980s white and gray on black.

Remember those black marble countertops, stainless steel fixtures, and white walls? That really rad CD player?

C'mon, let's party like it's 1984 and Neuromancer has just been released!

Or, do you HATE this look? Think it completely unreadable? Brickbats go into the comments section.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cyberpunkish Musing: Utopia? Or Dys?

mayroadtrip: Sign says it all
Location: RL Desk, Fixing Class Web Site

Over at New World Notes, I have followed the discussion of Neal Stephenson’s response to the erroneous claim in an NPR story. The reporter misused a quotation by the author about Google Earth to claim that Second Life is what Stephenson imagined in Snow Crash. Can we map the template for a cautionary tale over this novel and (to my mind) the better crafted The Diamond Age? That has been my reading of both books.

I’ve been troubled by years about the craving others manifest for that future and, indeed, any future with a transhumanist immersion in consensual hallucinations. It worried William Gibson a lot, too, because, like Stephenson, he set out in part to warn about the power of media. I've lost the citation where he acknowledges the irony of what happened after the book appeared. But as he noted in the now quaintly dated documentary Cyberpunk, his fanboys and girls viewed the Neuromancer trilogy as a sort of utopian roadmap for the digerati in their leathers, high-end computers, and industrial-space housing (at least until they can join the exodus of mind to cyberspace). For Snow Crash, though Hiro Protagonist is just what Stephenson names him to be, my sympathies lie with Raven, Mr. “Poor Impulse Control.” I suspect that Stephenson made him an admirable villain to remind us of who gets left behind, and may fight back, in the sort of libertarian nightmare depicted in the novel.

Raven’s glass knives are the ultimate reminder that Meat is greater than Mind, if I may mix my cyberpunk tropes a bit.

So, here's a different future from Neo-Luddite, Peak-Oiler me. Not as darkly sexy as Snow Crash or Neuromancer...but reality is always drearier and scarier than SF. As Gibson noted in a recent post, "The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian." Read the rest of this post at Gibson's blog to see why he's not simply, to use his words, one of those "aging futurists, who of all people should know better. This newfound state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing."

I'm not sure that my vision of the future will be so good for many who use virtual worlds and crave better ones. It will be both quotidian, in Gibson's terms, and very difficult.

We'll run out of cheap resources before we build consumer-grade immersive fantasy-lands online. Our efforts will be more mundane, to marshal our technical powers for survival in a time when not only highways but power grids enter a period of permanently cascading failure. There will be no fusion reactors, Mars missions, everyday nanotech, or Singularity. We'll be spinning windmills, stripping mountains (unless we Greens can stop it) for coal, and going to war for the last oil fields. We'll be growing our own food and patching our own roads to maintain local commerce as we rip apart vacant big-box stores for building materials or repurpose them as village markets as suburbia unravels.

"Good enough" technology like Protosphere will be used to avoid travel for those left-standing in business, as a permanent energy crisis sets in. The masses, in a dilapidated society, will play games and not create anything. That's not too different from what many social SLers do now. The games these futurians, looking for a bit of escapist fun, will be good enough. Virtual worlds will remain a niche for a few creators and academics.

Utopians and technophiles hate my saying this, but the future is going to look more like a more advanced version of James Howard Kunstler's dystopia in World Made By Hand, not the high-tech dystopias of Cyberpunk.

If I'm wrong, the smart-drinks are on me in The Black Sun, when we build some immersive and compelling virtual world far better than SL. If I'm right, I'll give lessons in splitting and stacking wood and fixing old-timey tractors on my farm. We'll make a run to get some bio-diesel from the local co-op and drink some Shine on my porch.

We’ll know the direction of futurity in a decade or so. It will be quite a ride.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

August Roadtrip: Breakdown

August Road Trip: Getting Star...
Location: Side of the Road

Is this my final road trip in SL?

It's getting nigh impossible to travel by vehicle in SL. I say that while using a brand-spanking-new laptop with 8 GB of RAM, SL client 1.23 (no Viewer 2 for me), and my work connection, far faster than my zippy FIOS connection at home.

I may have to reconsider these monthly adventures. SL is having trouble and Philip Rosedale's window of opportunity for fixing it is limited. SL users will keep leaving. I don't think there's much of a driving community, anyhow. Perhaps the racers stay on low-lag sims they own, on special tracks. That's hardly the free-wheeling adventures I imagined when I saw the road-grid on the continents.

I realize that driving will never match the experience of a console game, but unless lag is reduced and sim-crossings made easier, the Lindens simply need to stop with their road-building plans.

Or maybe we can walk on them. Anyhow, here's what happened. Mind you, until my crash, I was moving rather slowly through empty sims.

I began at Starting Point: Gun Club Bar & Vehicle Rezz Area. My soundtrack: T.Rex and Iggy Pop

I found good cliffside views on road through Duck Sim. I can ignore all the "for sale" signs and continued evidence of crappy builds that focus on games of chance. If anything, the best casinos in SL before the ban were well made: today's parlors full of Zyngo and other games look like a loser's arcade at some ready-to-close amusement park.

If only the metaverse would fall into ruin, it would be more stately than this slow and continual slide in the tawdry and soiled version of what it might have been. Many ruins have a certain grandeur.

Driving past the Isabel infohub was fatal.; I crashed like the Hindenberg. When I returned, my car was at the Infohub with some noob named Pepe in a passenger seat. I planned to just roar off with him in my clutches and then use the ejector-seat option at the right moment by that cliff and sheer drop to the see, but Pepe got a good look at me, then ran for it before I could get the car to even move.

When it works, traveling in SL reminds me very much of Iggy Pop's song "The Passenger," because as fake as it all is, I do like it that we made this crazy world on the Lindens' infrastructure.
August Roadtrip: Crash

He sees the stars and hollow sky
He see the stars come out tonight
He sees the city's ripped backsides
He sees the winding ocean drive
And everything was made for you and me
All of it was made for you and me
'cause it just belongs to you and me
So let's take a ride and see what's mine.

Well, it does not belong to us, since Linden Lab changed their motto. And we may have to walk under that hollow sky. Fix the physics, Linden Lab.

Monday, August 23, 2010

DMCA Notice: A Colleague's Project on Brave New World

Not So Brave A New World
Location: First-Day-of-Class Blahs

Classes began today, and with them came a warning from Attorney Jonathan Kirsch that Miranda, a project that my colleague Beeble Baxter (in SL) had used with several classes violated copyrights held by the Huxley Estate. A DMCA notice would soon follow. With some regret I pulled down many dozens of hours of work by my colleague and his student assistants.

Our understanding, when Miranda went live, was that Huxley's survivors had permitted copyright for the novel to expire. We were wrong, and now a great educational project has vanished. In time we hope to negotiate with the holders under the Fair-Use provisions of the law, so a portion of Huxley's text will again appear as a hypertext. I expect other sites with full-text copies of Brave New World to be forced to take down their copies as well.

Personally, I tend to make derivative works of what is clearly in the public domain, such as Poe's fiction. But given the state of copyright now, and given the limited resources of educators and their employees, it's easy to see how fuzzy the rules can seem for older works. It's also a bit sad to see how easily cowed educators can be by a professional with good letterhead, an insistent message delivered in an amiable way, and excellent communications skills.

DMCA warnings have gone into virtual worlds, such as the Estate of Frank Herbert forcing Second Life roleplayers to remove all references to the Dune novels from their simulations.

Pity, really, but there's not a thing to be done except obey. The Alphas, after all, wrote the laws and gentlemen like Mr. Kirsch are there to protect their interests. One wonders what Huxley would have made of all this.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Counterpoint: Why Educators Still Need Second Life (For Now)

Brain and Skull in jar
Location: House of Usher

It's all about content, content, content. Let's suppose one needed a human brain in a jar, for the hidden examination room of a twisted family doctor in, say, 1847 and, say, in an Edgar Allan Poe story.

To make such an item myself in Third Rock or Reaction Grids, I'd have to learn to make sculpties, scripted bubbles, and the jar. The jar part would be easy for me. But the rest would take me many hours for which, as an educator, I'm not rewarded one iota in my annual evaluation.

Let's see. Does "made brain in jar for immersive simulation of the examination room of Doctor Renfield Allan" come under "Professional Development," "Teaching and Scholarship," or "Service"?

You see my quandry: I would be stuck with making a lousy 2D brain in a jar. Now what self-respecting madman would own a flat brain? In Second Life, to add such an immersive prop, I went over to Xstreetsl and searched for "brain." Even "brain in jar" turned up several possibilities. Cost: 110L. Time required, 15 minutes. Back to essential work, such as finding illustrations from morbid Victorian medical texts.

For now, Second Life offers the sort of premade content, much of which can be modified to suit an educator's needs, free or virtually so. It's the best reason to build a simulation in SL, after one factors in the higher land costs, the per-upload fees, and the failure to provide off-world backups.

Eventually, the Linden Lab product will lose this crucial edge, but I'd hope that, if the Lindens wish to make money from other grids, that the Xstreeets site could alter licensing with creators to permit delivery to multiple grids. Technically that is possible and would lead buyers to purchase Linden Dollars or pull out a credit card.

It's a win-win for Linden Lab to leverage their residents' creations and their currency in multiple worlds. Why not do it?

If anyone at Linden Lab needs a spare brain, I've told you where to look.

Brain credit: Chrom Snook. Go buy one of Chrom's brains NOW. You know you need one. Act fast and get human skull in jar, gratis.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why DO Educators Need Second Life?

Never Forget--Back it up!
Location: House of Usher

For a long time, I've answered that question "as a platform for making immersive simulations that are not possible, for very expensive, in the world of bricks and mortar."

Let's skip the "expensive" part, now that OpenSim offers pricing at a fraction of the Linden Lab product. But most OpenSim grids are also "metaverses," where there are a range of social users, other educators, creatives, and roleplayers. Running into the Bloodlines vampires in SL reminded me that neither I nor my students need those folks to run something like The House of Usher.

In fact, we don't even need a metaverse. All we need is a one-sim private 3D world.

I think this argument will sway many colleagues. Unless a course of study asks students to go explore an alien online culture, why not simply build a closed 3D simulation so students could log into a shared account with all their inventory pieces and appearance in place, go through a short orientation with a mentor, then begin the assignment? Next term, we'd change the passwords for the shared accounts, fix any broken bits in the inventory, and run the simulation again. If visitors wanted a tour, we could create avatars as needed.

We did something like this in SL last term, sans the shared accounts, since Linden Lab never got back to me about setting up a series of stock accounts that could be reused from class to class. I'll file a feature request formally soon, but I don't expect an answer.

Meanwhile, my next immersive literary build with Viv Trafalgar, to be launched sometime in the 2011-2012 academic year, won't be in SL at all, but in a closed grid where only invited students and actors can participate.

Pity, really. I like the big grid for socializing and meeting colleagues, but since our first-year writing program changed, I'll not be teaching a class where they need such a grid.

I suspect that this sort of use of 3D grids will play a big role in educational use, just as the closed BlackBoard system does in course management.

Who's to blame? No one really, though had Linden Lab set up private grids at a fraction of the failed SL Enterprise product, they might have cornered the market. Reaction Grid offers just such a service, for those who don't have the knowhow to host their own OpenSim servers on campus.

That's the future I see, not SL, in education.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bloodlines Silliness

Location: Shopping for Grave-Robber & Evil Doctor Tools

I was doing a bit of accessorizing for our university's House of Usher simulation when I stumbled into a Bloodlines' roleplaying region:

Vampire 1: What clan are you a part of

Vampire 2: santuary of darkness?

Ignatius Onomatopoeia: Academia...the undead. I'm here to shop

Vampire 1: Cool

Second Life...where the socializers and roleplayers rub shoulders with the shambling corpses from The Academy. Those vamps are lucky I didn't make an avatar out of my utterly evil Voodun cultist, Okonkwo Richelieu. I once ran him in Vampire the Masquerade and it was wicked fun.

Effective vampires do not say "cool." They say things like "it is going to be fun to see this city bleed on Mardi Gras."

Well, my next post will be about why contact with that social and RP aspect of SL may not be needed. Can faculty building a simulation simply do it without SL?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Back to School! What Educators New to Virtual Worlds Should Think About

VWER August 10, 2010
Location: VWER Meeting

We had a small group gather last week at the VWER meeting, just before the Boston SLCC event where Philip Rosedale joined our group. I moderated a useful chat of what educators need to consider as the school years begin. Here's some group wisdom:
  • Avoid "tossing students in" without orientation and practice (in person if possible, which is hard for distance ed.)
  • Put pedagogy ahead of technology: target assignments to specific tasks and appeal to student interests
  • Make students aware of community standards; use a signed waiver if you feel it's best
  • Don't come in-world just to do a Powerpoint show for students
  • Try new features out with an ALT account (notecard givers, interactive parts of simulations) before inflicting it on your students
  • Use voice judiciously in student groups; allow one student to use voice at a time while others use text chat
  • At the start of the academic term, clean out old groups, spruce up simulations if only to make things look fresh.
The rest of the transcript of our talk can be found here. In light of Rosedale's encouraging words, perhaps more of us will bring in colleagues to SL and other virtual worlds, both commerical and self-hosted grids.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Philip Rosedale at Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

Location: Running late

image courtesy of Olivia Hotshot's Flickr Photostream

It speaks volumes that he came to AJ Kelton's meeting at SLCC 2010. Philip Rosedale has that Rock-Star thing going, and he didn't have to come see us. I'll thank him personally if I ever see him at a live event in either world.

I'm really encouraged by this. After months of feeling that the educators working hard in SL were getting repeated kicks in the teeth from the company Rosedale started, this felt very nice.

AJ, it seems Mr. Rosedale caught you speechless, at least in this photo. I'll run the transcript of our group's Q&A soon.

Of course, RL me was out running errands (Orientation Week begins!) so Iggy the avatar only caught the last bit of Rosedale's encouraging talk. Aside from closing the Teen Grid, something many secondary-school educators will lament, the talk seems very positive.

Yet, cynical Iggy the avatar reminds his maker, talk's cheap, even from someone whose vision I greatly admire. Now, of course, it's time to see Linden Lab walk the walk with us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

New Academic Journal About Virtual Worlds

Image: "Jellyfish," from Elif Ayiter/Alpha Auer

Tip of the top hat to Nina Ayoub at The Chronicle of Higher Education for this story.

Peter Monaghan's Aug. 4 story at The Chronicle explains how Elif Ayiter of Sabanci University in Istanbul and Yacov Sharir, of The University of Texas at Austin, have launched Metaverse Creativity, a refereed journal dedicated to "the examination of creativity in user-defined online virtual worlds such as Second Life."

Ayiter is a multimedia artist whose avatar, Alpha Auer, has a wonderful photostream at Flickr Sharir is a choreographer and recipient of an "Arts And Virtual Environments" two year fellowship at UT Austin. We have good editors who know their materials.

The first issue will launch online and in print in October. To my knowledge, only one other academic journal, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, exists in this emerging but interesting field...dare I call it "metaverse studies"?

Welcome and best wishes on your journal, Professors Ayiter & Sharir.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Third Rock Grid's Rising Sun

Rising Sun Sim, 3rd Rock Grid
Location: Japan, Edo Era

One of my first assignments for Prim Perfect will involve Third Rock Grid, where a small but passionate group of "Citizens" are building the virtual world.

My story about "3RG" will feature an interview with PhD candidate Margaret Dashwood (Margaret Michalski in SL) who had made her home in the grid.

We had begun a tour of Rising Sun when a crash stymied me. I came back later for another tour and more photographs, with graphics pumped to high and the MacBook handling it fine, even on a wireless connection. I used the notecard feature of 3RG (nice to have this in OS grids) so I could ask the sim owner, Dartagnan Nakajima, a few questions about what makes 3RG special to him. As his profile notes, he “came here in August, 2008 and have been here ever since.”

I'll run his answers here as well as more details about this grid.

Nothing profound to say yet, except the grid is usually stable and its content impressive. What I'm seeing conveys one clear message at least.

If virtual worlds have a future, it will be in network of small grids rather than Second Life's "one big metaverse" model. As soon as some entrepreneur contracts with bespoke designers to make multi-grid inventory possible without violating IP, the game will change for good.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bald-Headed Freak Joins Prim Perfect Staff

Location: Other Grids

I'm pleased to announce that starting with this issue of Prim Perfect, I'll be writing a monthly column about grids Beyond Second Life.

This opportunity to work with Saffia and her talented collaborators will also have a salutatory effect on me. I hope to bring an outsider's perspective to a journal that does a fine job of covering fashion, architecture, and design in virtual worlds. There is, after all, a lot to be found beyond Linden Lab's walled garden.

It's too easy to stay in the familiar, well trodden paths.

It's wise, given the year's turmoil at the Lab, to lay some "just in case" plans if an acquisition or bankruptcy leads to all our virtual goods going "poof." It happened in There, Lively, and Metaplace, after all.

With those sobering thoughts in mind, my first trip will be to Third Rock Grid. After that, who knows!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Second Life's Destination Guide: Why I Like This Buried Treasure

Location: Planning Virtual Travel

This began as an update to the previous post, until I discovered that Linden Lab has already done something I was about to recommend for retaining player...I mean resident...interest.

The clever and intuitive "destination guide" can be found, though after too many clicks, from a featured area at the bottom left of the log-on window. It's also there when one clicks on "world map," but that's not enough because in either case. The visitor must scroll to the very bottom of a few selected sites to get the big list.

The guide deserves greater play. Perhaps instead of the moon-eyed couple in Paris or the shopaholic in the little videos shown to all visitors, why not feature a different roleplaying group or cool location with each reload of the window, using machinima they prepare for the occasion?
At the top of the page, I'd add "stuff to do."

Just as the model companies mentioned in my previous post sponsor contests and promote groups, Linden Lab could promote these key communities in SL. With a click the visitor could could discover the nature of the RP community, see some photos, read a few ground rules, and learn of places of interest in-world.

The problem would be how to feature something like Gor (not technically "adult") without raising a ruckus in the mainstream media that sporadically cover SL. I can see it now: "you too can become a slave girl!" I leave it up to Linden Lab to figure out a way to showcase roleplay without that particular problem. They already have "Sexy Islands" up there, as racy as I'd suspect they'll get.

The guide also features the UT system project as well as the ever-popular (or annoying, your choice) Bloodlines game.

The impression is of a large and diverse community. That should be front and center, not Ken and Barbie on the Eiffel Tower.