Saturday, April 30, 2011

Digital Story: "Transhumanism"

Take this Ray Kurzweil!

Carly is a techie, like her teacher, but as with many in the class she sees how technology can "bite back."

This one is a stunner...hope you enjoy her techniques with digital audio. Do not have your audio on full-blast, however!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Digital Story: "Cogita"

Brett really dug in his heels, and coding skills, near midterm to explain why it would be so difficult for a computer to become an AI. I lack his mathematical skills, so I'll take him at his word about Ackerman's Function.

For the digital story, he returned to this theme and provides a twist on an old warhorse of the SF canon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Digital Story: "Dirty Internet"

Minds out of the gutter, please. Mike's runner-up entry in the competition talks about how dependent we all are upon these "always on, always on you" technologies (the term is Sherry Turkle's).

We use the Net as we do air. And what would happen were the service to be interrupted? That, readers, is perhaps the one aspect of the technology that frightens Mike--and me--more than does our addictive usage.  On to the story!

Mike got no extra credit for pandering to my Clint Eastwood obsessions.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Digital Story: "I Facebook, Therefore I Am"

I want to congratulate my student Tyler, one of the runners-up in my digital-story competition.

As a reluctant and recent Facebooker, I found myself drawn into a narrative by a student who really enjoys her social networking with friends and, notably, family.

Small irony: for a guy who really does not bother much with social networking, I'll note this post at not only Twitter but on my Facebook Wall.

But for Tyler and many of my other students, social networking is like breathing, and her story provides eloquent testimony to the power of those connections. And now...roll the film!

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Week of Digital Stories Starts With "The Last Text"

Location: On the virtual set

My students have a pizza-and-film-festival event tonight, showing their digital stories that were the final project for my course on the history and culture of cyberspace.

All week I'll feature student stories, but today I'll begin with my own, done to test the technology I expected students to use. Speak shout outs to Ken Warren of Richmond's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and my Writing Consultant, Korine.

As one might expect if you know me, some student-composers explored dystopian, Neo-Luddite, and cyberpunk themes. I hope they were not being so dark to pander to the professor, since this project gives them freedom to create anything as long as it relates to our course themes.

Doing a story with iMovie or Windows Movie Maker is a laborious process. I decided to do one myself; it took 10 hours to gather or take the photos, more to put them with a narrative. I did record it in one take, the only part of the process that was quick.

Here's my piece, inspired by the utter addiction to constant contact I see around me. Perhaps we should pay more attention to events beyond the horizon of the self, before that is the only horizon we have remaining.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Meta7 Virtual World to Close

Location: IP Pondering

Reading a response by Ann O'Toole to a New World Notes post, I visited a forum notice for the Meta7 virtual world. I'd heard enough good press about it that I'd planned a short visit for a future issue of my "Gridnaut's Journey" column at Prim Perfect.

After April 30, however, Meta7 will be no more. Despite the somewhat snarky graphic I chose, I'm sorry to see an OpenSim world that had good press close.

It seems that an IP conflict lies at the heart of the legal proceedings that led to the shutdown:
Another company, that has trademark rights to the use of a similar logo used by us and the name 'Meta7' is forcing the company behind Meta7 to stop using the trademark commercially. . .Meta7 has been opposing this until recently, but does not have the resources in time, people and money to battle this action against it.
Content creators have a grace period to back up their items but no region-wide OAR file can be provided, "as we can not verify the ownership of all the items in the region."

Nike Japan seems to be the other company noted. I found this about an advertising campaign:
Illustrator Paul Huang, creator of Nanospore, teamed up with animators Chris Riehl and Sean Starkweather to create this playfully original, yet oddly familiar spot for part of Nike’s new viral campaign to promote the Nike Free Trainer 7.0, which gives you the power of flight and exempts you from noodle-bowl lines.
We have the power of flight without special shoes in virtual worlds, but the reach of lawyers is long, like the arm of Sauron in Lord of the Rings.

The lesson is, I suppose, know your small-grid provider well. I never thought I'd have to do a Google search before choosing a provider, but I think Jokay Wollongong, no stranger to cease-and-desist orders, chose her grid's name well.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Literary Hypertext Rediscovered: A Different "Virtual World"

Location: Lost in a world made of letters

Michael Joyce's nonlinear, elusive narrative Afternoon, A Story was a delight to postmodern literati and literary scholars in the early 90s. It ushered in a long list of titles from Eastgate Systems, and at the time I tried--without too much success--to bring them into a few of my classes.

I'm delighted to see that W.W. Norton has released a partial edition of the hypertext for the Web. I come late to even this party: the site talks about Windows NT, Netscape, and other artifacts of an earlier time.

The Gen-Xers of the day were as resistant to hypertext as are my current Millennials to virtual worlds.  I don't know that this is a "University of Richmond thing," because then, as now, I heard from colleagues elsewhere about resistance and anger: Gen-Xers wanted closure and linearity in their stories.

Have a look at Joyce's text, if you don't know it, and see how your reading experience morphs in the equivalent of Borges' Garden of Forking Paths. One enters not a story with good hypertext, but a world with many meanings. No two visitor/readers come away with exactly the same impression.

Why did literary hypertext not thrive, to blossom in the era of e-readers that would have been a delight to the 90s authors and enthusiasts of hypertext? That is for others to answer. I moved on from what I considered then to be a fading "niche" technology, even though I published a poetic hypertext at Carolyn Guyer's Vassar site, Mother Millennia. My research into the subgenre of literature ended after I published an article about using film to help students understand strategies for reading hypertext.

One wonders if the sort of utopian virtual world that Second Life once promised to be might morph into another future, more corporate, less rather the way hypertext fiction was eclipsed by HTML-based hypertexts, literary, linear or not, that never quite matched the subtle linkages afforded by Eastgate's StorySpace technology.

I once heard author and scholar Nancy Kaplan argue for the essential differences between Web and "native" hypertext, in a conference where, glumly, Michael Joyce told us that the number of .com sites had finally surpassed .edu sites.  A groan came from us in the room: the future was at hand, not one we wanted. The marketers and hucksters had found the world of the artist/coders of hypertext.

It may be hard for the readers of this blog to even recall a time when it was otherwise.

"There is no simple way to say this," Joyce says in an early textual moment in Afternoon.

True. It seems like yesterday. It seems like it was in another galaxy.

So go back and have a peek at a might-have-been in literary and technological history.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

No Exodus to Virtual Worlds for These Millennials

Location: Glued to Keyboard, Working (not Gaming!) on a Fine Spring Day

On reading Edward Castronova’s Exodus to the Virtual World, once again the types of Millennial I teach are nearly uniform in their disdain for a cultural migration to use avatars in our lives and work. I think my students represent a majority view of career-driven and affluent US college students. I’m told that our campus is not that unique.

Dare I claim a surprising Neo-Luddite response in this rejection of virtual worlds?  Irony of ironies: as a decided Neo-Luddite, I see occasional use of virtual worlds as an environmentally sustainable alternative to academic conferences, expensive brick-and-mortar training, and even some forms of cultural tourism. Our driving is wrecking our planet's ecosystem. The less we do, the better, and I welcome all forms of telepresence as alternatives to "commuting to the office." We're more likely to power our grid with alternative technology, or at least clean the point sources at power plants than we are to tidy up billions of tail-pipes emitting poisons.

But enough of my fears; there are plenty from the students for one post. The finest negative response came from this writer; it is nuanced in a way many others are not and I think it shows what I’ve intuited among the Facebook: Yes, Games: No mainstream of Richmond students.
I don’t ever see myself using a virtual world, but that could just be because of my current situation. In college, I am constantly surrounded by my friends and love talking to them and spending time with them face to face. I don’t picture myself wanting to spend ten hours a day online in a virtual world, instead of laughing out loud and talking to my real life friends. In addition, my opportunity cost of spending more than two hours a day online is too great. I would be failing all my classes because I would be giving up time to study to be in a virtual world. I cannot afford to essentially waste my time not being productive. I also do not like the idea of anonymity online. People can create avatars that don’t look anything like them and pretend to be someone completely different. While people can be misleading on Facebook, I know I only communicate with my friends, people that I know in the real world. Virtual worlds can be very private and people do not meet the people in real life with whom they are making alliances and friends with.
Here are a few other voices from their class blogs, almost all negative:
“I do understand that there are many people today who are already deeply involved in virtual worlds. I am not one of these people. Perhaps, because of this, I am biased against such worlds. I would much rather spend my time talking with my friends or furthering my education (getting my parents' money's worth).”

“In my experience, games (even MMOs) are something that is outgrown.  I know many of my friends (myself included) who played consistently throughout middle and some of high school and then left due to lack of extra time or lack of interest.”

“An overwhelming majority of college-aged kids view virtual worlds as time wasting, unproductive, and nerdy addictions reserved for the socially inept.”

“I’m sorry, but I will never spend hours interacting in cyberspace, nor will I allow my children or my children’s children to join the exodus to the virtual world.”    

“The current generation (The Millennials) is almost entirely preoccupied with social networking. ‘Facebookers’ as we are sometimes called, we would rather use virtual realities to connect with old friends from back home, not to escape the confines of daily life. So instead of being active users, we may participate maybe once or twice a week, giving us no reason to participate in the exodus.”

“What he describes is something so artificial and unnatural. There are many gamers out in cyberspace right now who want to escape their lives and transform into something they are not, however I am not one of them. The main issue is of avoidance and denial. When you assume these fake identities then you are essentially in denial of your own life. I don’t think its healthy not to deal with the issues present and escape to a virtual world.”
One contrarian voice notes “I think that our bias as successful college individuals also blinds us from other populations that use games to escape from their circumstance.”

This is my opinion as well. My students cannot imagine the modern version of Emerson’s “quiet desperation” of many individuals who seek escape, or those who see themselves empowered to do things not possible in real life. Those may be artists working in a new medium, explorers of simulations not possible here (to one blogger, I cited Ancient Egypt or the interior of the human heart as examples).

Another student was kinder to Castronova’s ideas:
We all want to be challenged and overcome obstacles in order to feel good about ourselves. Additionally, we want to have fun, to simply enjoy our existence and be happy. As Castronova puts it “helping people find happiness may involve something other than giving them the things they currently seek” (88). This is what these online games promise.
One student who feels good about virtual worlds stands apart from the rest and says a great deal about what they don’t see:
I could jump into a virtual world right now.
No, really. All I'd need is a secure income. I could be there 24/7, easy.

As I looked around the classroom when this question was asked, I had the feeling I was the only one who felt this way. Some of you are probably shaking you're heads right now, thinking "You're crazy," but I'll tell you why I can do it.

For one, I'm used to it. Sitting in front of a screen for hours is easy to me. When I'm not at class or with my friends, I'm plopped in front of the screen. Furthermore, I'm used to synthetic worlds. Being in a fake world with filled with real people who don't look like themselves is normal to me. I don't find it weird.

Secondly, just about everyone is already engaged in a digital world, whether they realize it or not. We've really already migrated over in Facebook. My best friend once told me, "The more friends you have on Facebook, the fewer you have in real life." And as someone who has over 400 Facebook friends, but less than 10 real friends she can actually trust, she would know. She's in her own world where she has lots of friends that are easily accessible no matter where they live, where she thinks other people care about what her status is, where all her photos are of her looking perfect, and where she only has to care about what she wants to.
Here’s how I answered a different student, and my response could have been to them all:
Your comments echo many in the class. I understand your disdain, but the number of generalizations is enormous here. I applaud you for admitting your bias.

Before we judge these individuals, we might try better to understand them. As noted in class, Richmond students are, in many cases, from sheltered and loving families who provide support and care.

It is very different beyond the campus gates, even for many in your age-group; in fifteen years, as a virtual worlds researcher, I will be most curious to see how the Millennial generation regards escapist entertainment online.

I disagree with Castronova's thesis; I think virtual-world use will increase among all age groups, but there will be no exodus. Usage will be as a casual and occasional escape or for limited professional purposes such as simulations for technical or military training and meetings.

Reality will instead become more and more difficult, under the strains of environmental damage, political gridlock, resource scarcity, and economic stress, and we'll learn to take better care of the real again as we strive to fix the things generations before yours broke.

My biggest hope for you Millennials is that the researchers who wrote Millennials Rising are correct: yours is the next "Great Generation" able to collaborate, remain cheerful, and solve problems without the slack and cynicism of my Gen-X peers or the narcissism and greed of the Baby Boomers.

Maybe if your peers stay in Reality instead of making the exodus, you can accomplish great things. Maybe you'll even use Facebook to organize your efforts!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Collateral Damage: Dusan Writer on Military Use of SL Enterprise

Location: VWER meeting

image courtesy of Lolly's photostream

Last week, our special guest Dusan Writer covered a great deal of territory in his interview with AJ Brooks. They spoke in voice, and we transcribed this to text chat.

Among his many topics, Dusan noted that when Linden Lab ended its Second Life Enterprise product, the US military was hit particularly hard. At least two dozen military groups were "heavily involved" with SL Enterprise, and suddenly they had a dead-end product on their hands for training.

This prompted a "risk averse" attitude toward virtual worlds in general, though now these military organizations are pursuing a mixed-bag of virtual-world solutions for training: 8-10 different platforms including OpenSim, Forterra Systems' Olive, and their remaining SL Enterprise servers.

Dusan implied strongly that Linden Lab missed a great opportunity by ending their Enterprise product as they did. Now heavyweights like Lockheed Martin have begun "using web GL to deliver VW in browser at a massive scale."

You can read the transcript of the entire meeting here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Empirical Evidence For Benefits of 3D Immersive Learning?

 Location: Reading Desk
ActiveWorlds image courtesy of =IcaruS=

My contributor's copy of Teaching and Learning in 3D Immersive Worlds recently landed in my mail box. I look forward to reading the anthology this summer, but I paged ahead with a quest in mind: to find studies that provide empirical evidence that virtual worlds improve learning, when compared to similar tasks done in traditional settings.

For at least three Singaporean youngsters struggling to master Mandarin, the answer was "quite an improvement." In a 100-point assessments at the start and end of the academic year, these students' "scores improved by 20-30 points compared to peers who, on average, improved by 9 points." The account appears in Chapter 12, "Learning Language Through Immersive Story Telling in a 3D Virtual Environment."

The authors, Shen-Chee Tan and Yin-Mei Wong of Nanyang Technological University, admit that theirs is an "exploratory study" that could be repeated easily. They employed the ActiveWorlds virtual-world platform to create a virtual environment called "The Kingdoms," simulating a turbulent period in Chinese history "comparable to the tales of King Arthur" that "provides a context for introducing Chinese cultural artifacts and a storyline that is engaging."

A much larger study would be needed to falsify or corroborate these findings, but such small pilot projects are a start to test the efficacy of virtual worlds for learning in many disciplines.  We will see more and larger studies as time goes on.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This is NOT the Future

Location: Holding Sides, Laughing

Hamlet Au ran a reference to a New York Times piece about virtual meetings.  We've been talking a little about the concept in my current class, as we read Exodus to the Virtual World, by Edward Castronova.

Other than making me sing "The Time Warp" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I saw little use in the graphic that accompanied a story about a groundbreaking (to the Times staff, anyhow) development.  We are a long way from selling that particular technology to any serious business.

There's also a drop-dead hilarious video of a "business meeting" with this clumsy technology.  I'm no graphics maven but I could not get through the demo without breaking down in gales of laughter. The avatars make Second Life's look wonderful.

Granted, as I noted over at New World Notes, using an avatar seems to spur more participation in a meeting than I have seen in teleconferences or Elluminate meetings. This merits formal study by academic psychologists: I have no idea why the avatar is more empowering than a teleconferencing window.

That said, I do prefer those technologies or Skype for small-group conferences, but they fail to enable really good work for large groups. In some cases, one may as well watch a television seminar with one or two active participants.

Second Life does pretty well for large-group meetings, but it suffers in professional circles from its rep for cybersex and nonhuman avatars. My colleagues not in virtual worlds, like many business folks and even many of my Millennial students, are wary--very wary--of identity shifting online.

For that crowd--and it's one I suspect to be the majority of potential conference users--to make the Castronova "exodus" they'll need something like the virtual meetings shown in the Times story.

But with necks.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Downward Spiral?

Bot Campers 
Location: Not Shopping Anywhere

I have been critical of Linden Lab here, but I'm a bit blind-sided by the slew of blog posts about the gradual decline of Second Life. Tateru Nino's charts, showing concurrency dropping faster than new residents can replace those who leave, are depressing. Just last week she was optimistic about the future of SL!

Everyone reading her numbers will point a finger here or there, but let's consider the entire virtual world as an complex system of linked parts. Here's just one of the downward cycles at play:
  • Lag forces us to shop less in-world (those pesky textures never load).
  • Meanwhile, Linden Lab sets up Marketplace to head off competition and rake in a % of each transaction.
  • We buy something at Marketplace instead of in-world.
  • Merchant in-world sees little point in keeping a shop to pay tier for a empty store.
  • Merchant closes in-world shop, puts land up for sale.
  • Land does not sell; merchant abandons land. Tier income now zero for Linden Lab.
  • Linden Lab must keep server running to support remaining plots in region.
  • Visitors to SL (the few who make it past their first log in) see more empty and lonely sims, decide to leave.
  • Fewer residents to support Marketplace, Linden Lab loses their cut of those transactions.
  • Linden Lab has less cash on hand to hire staff to address problems of lag and cannot lower tier.
We can second guess the Lab until Doomsday, but had the Lab worked on a reducing lag or setting up an economic model that would have permitted lower tiers, might be different.

There are many other cycles at play, but for now they point in the same direction.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Second Life Browser 2.6 & Other Viewers

Location: Two Grids at Once!

Today, I tested both the SL viewer 1.23 and the latest version of Imprudence Viewer on the machine where I installed the new SL 2.6 viewer. Both worked.

There was a moment of concern on the SLED list that the new viewer might disable access to other viewers on one's computer. Clearly that has not been the case for me.

I logged on again, with SL 2.6 and Imprudence simultaneously. This was the acid test, shown: at right, Imprudence running for Jokaydia Grid; at left, SL 2.6 for SL's grid. I did have to wait for the viewer to auto-download an update.  I also noticed that point-and-click movement has stopped working after the update--or is it just me?

So far, I've really enjoyed the SL viewer and think Linden Lab addressed issues that bothered me about earlier versions of Viewer 2, namely, that I could not build as easily using the new viewer.

Over the summer, time will tell as I use the new Viewer on my primary machine and with my primary avatar.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Under a Virtual Moon: Shamanic Drum Journeying

Location: In a cave on Clear Bear Ridge, Gaia Rising
When I found the journey cave, I was surprised, frightened and thrilled. I had heard about hokey Shamanic drumming but had never tried it. So, I plonked my avatar down on the blanket and started up the drumming. A lot of my fears disappeared even though I didn't understand the purpose of the drumming. Years later I found a book with CD of drumming, followed the book's instructions, and had my first Shamanic journey. And then I found a local first-life Shaman who offers monthly journeys. It wasn't anywhere near as scary as I thought.

The most scenic (and peaceful) way to arrive at the cave is to take a canoe from the dock across from the library and head around to the right. Once you get to the cave, you'll have to fly up or right click and "sit" on the blanket, as the water is a few meters below the lip. You can also try walking into the cave from the Native American ritual area on the other side, but to do that you'll have to walk through black-prim-total-darkness.

The blanket offers journeys from 10 minutes to unlimited. I suggest you do a little research on how to journey before using the blanket. On the other hand, you might enjoy the journey more by simply going with the flow.

In Other News
There's a tiny rash of Machinima videos being recorded in the pagan community. Anam Turas and others were included in a recently published video about Beltane. The same video group recorded the United Healer's of Second Life healing meditation this past Saturday. I'll let you know when the video comes out.

There was a Totem Animal celebration dance last week, which happened on very short notice. If you're interested in keeping up with the Totem Animal events, contact Shambala Kimono. Apparently she doesn't have a schedule yet.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Poll Results: Educators & Virtual Land Ownership

Location: Surprise

In March, I asked educators on the SLED and EDUCAUSE Virtual Worlds lists to tell me how their ownership of land in virtual worlds compares to their holdings a year ago.

Here are the results.

Analysis: No Mass Exodus

I had expected a larger exodus from Second Life, but the survey design made it hard, without biasing its design, to factor in the two-year pricing Linden Lab offered nonprofits and educational institutions.

The two-year reduced tier may have swayed many colleagues with ongoing projects that are hard to transplant to stay in SL.

With 15.4% noting that they would own more land in SL, and 23.1% noting that they would own less, there's hardly a mass migration out of SL to OpenSim or anywhere else. There may be a slow erosion of the user base among educators, but more data are needed for such a claim.

A difference of 8% between contraction and expansion might sound alarming to a company in other contexts. I could imagine executives losing sleep if their aggregate sales figures showed a similar change: more companies in the prior calendar year expanding their trucking fleets with more Chevy trucks than Fords, or more firms supplying their employees with Windows 7 rather than Blackberry smart phones.

For virtual-world users, however, the choices are not either/or: it is quite possible to rent server space from several providers to enable different projects.  The survey respondents could, for example, have cut land holdings a little in SL, while renting server space for an OpenSim installation (or hosting it on campus).  My own response would include "own less land in SL" (our campus presence has gone from a full island to my office, on a 512m mainland plot for which I pay no tier) and "own more land in non-SL grids" (I rent a sim in Jokaydia Grid).

With 27.9% noting more ownership of non-SL real estate than a had been the case a year ago, versus 1.9% saying less, educators are clearly trying other grids, perhaps as secondary experiments alongside work done in Second Life.

Faculty may simply be hedging their bets in case further changes from Linden Lab prove unsuitable to their needs, or they may be staking an early claim if OpenSim grids evolve in ways that make them match or exceed SL's stability and quality of content.

One telling statistic: nearly a third of respondents pay out of pocket for their work in virtual worlds.  That makes any further increases to tier difficult. For those paying the non-discounted tier in SL, it will be interesting to look again in a year, to see how many educators have changed their plans or stayed with Linden Lab's grid.

Public knowledge of OpenSim has certainly grown; a year ago at the VWER meetings, we had to explain when OS is. Now folks know, even if they have not spent much time on a non-SL grid. In time, more will travel, and their experiences with grids not quite as evolved as SL's may influence future survey results.

Room for More Data

A different survey might ask respondents if they pay more, less, or the same tier as a year ago, or the size of their SL and other holdings.

Moreover, another survey might break out the sorts of non-SL worlds that educators frequent. InWorldz, for instance, offers stability and the presence of many content creators; it is very different from smaller OpenSim grids with Hypergrid access and mostly DIY content.

I hope, however, to administer the same survey a year from now. These numbers could be very different, and one survey cannot reveal a trend.