Friday, May 24, 2013

House of Usher 2013: What the Students Liked

Location: Far from virtual worlds

For what will most likely be my final teaching experience with virtual worlds, I tried to add depth as requested by the last group, in Spring 2011. Notably, I added more clues, plus a real-life scavenger hunt / mystery on campus. Second, I added a combat system and some dangers to the House of Usher.

I want to share the experiences and advice of the class this year, but I will do so in two posts.

First, what students had to say went well. Each bullet point comes from a different student.

As others with more support and energy than I have build virtual-worlds simulations, I hope this feedback will guide them. It was fun, but, frankly, too much work give how my job is structured. I doubt I would take on a project like this again, if I had to build it all from scratch.

Be that as it may, thanks to my actor-volunteers and students.

  • I felt that speaking on the screen, rather than with our mouths made the simulation more immersive. It made the simulation feel a little more game-like and controlled. Though we could say whatever we wanted, we had to be careful with our words, because it was up to the reader entirely to decide the tone of our words.
  • Unlike the short story, the simulation did also provide me with an extra way to see into the characters’ minds: diary entries and notes. One particular example of this is a note written by Madeline, which states, “I do not think that Roderick is correct in providing me with Laudanum. I fear that it will not assist me with this malady of walking about at night. I would prefer to lock my door." In reading this, my player discovered a distrust of Roderick that Madeline does not make public. Playing as a character in a simulation allows for more direct access to the other characters themselves, though it remains impossible to fully delve inside of their minds.
  • The amount of detail that went into the virtual house eased the immersion into the world of Poe. Because of the elaborate design of the virtual world, I was able to notice any important hint or clue that could help me with my task. For example, by reading the letters and journals that Madeline and Roderick wrote, I gained a lot of information about their respective illnesses and Madeline’s doctor. In addition to the copious amount of detail that the virtual setting offered, it also allowed me to create my own story.
  • I was sucked into the recreation of the Fall of the House of Usher to the degree that it felt ‘abnormal’ being in the real world. There were many factors that allowed for such an amazing experience. To begin with, the ‘cast’ of the story in the virtual world was dressed in authentic looking attire which one might have worn during the 19th century. Other than a few slipups, the characters conversed (through chat) in a manner similar to what one might expect from the people of the era.
Simulation Vs. Media With Deterministic Endings
  • For the vast majority of us who read stories or watch movies for fun today, these art works are onetime thing – rarely do we watch a movie or read a story again. Developing simulation for movies and stories might change this. If a story is, for instance, simulated with multiple outcomes, the audience will try and change the end of the story from the original work, possibly to avoid a danger their favorite character faces in the original story. This might require more than a single attempt.
  • This technique of storytelling has been employed in many video games over the years. In the Mass Effect trilogy for example the players actions could change the outcome and would be carried over three games something not possible in a two hour movie or even a long book. The atmosphere of the original [story] is kept in the simulation along with the added mystery of the final outcome.
  • What I found impressive in the simulation was its small details. For instance, you need to say a password as the code to open the door in crypt. Though this advanced technology was not available at that time, it was particularly interesting when you typed in the password in the chat column and the door opened. You could virtually sit down, drink absinthe, and light a candle. The horrific sound tracks in the game really exaggerated the melancholy and dark atmosphere, which is something the film and original novel did not have.
  • In “The Fall of the House of Usher” there was a lot of mystery surrounding the characters. Roderick’s actions were completely unexplained and readers finished the story with more questions than they started with. The interactive experience gave some insight into why the characters acted in certain ways. Unlike a movie, the student is not watching one person’s interpretation of a story. Instead, the student’s interpretation is combined . . . . with the teacher’s interpretation.
Augmented Reality: The Egg-Hunt
  • I believe that the scavenger hunt that we went on to get the eggs added to the experience of the final by adding the mystery or giving an insight into what we would see in the final. The hunt could be considered the prologue to the final.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Commencement 2013: The Avatars Walk!

University of Richmond, Richmond, VA.
Location: Robins Center, University of Richmond

image credit: Boston Public Library at Flickr

I have reflected here before on the temporary and invented community that a college campus provides.

Today, my last group to use Second Life for an entire semester graduated. As a commencement marshal, I got to be up near the stage to help seat, direct, and congratulate our newest alumni. It's bittersweet to see them leave, as they were curious and interested students.

When I took my favorite walk of the year, from the ceremony back to my office to hang up my cap and gown, I thought about how time passes.  Today was wistful and perfect day, with light cloud, cool breezes, but warm-enough sun to remind us it is Spring in Virginia, the best time of all here. One colleague nearing retirement said to me "the years pass at first like telephone poles from a car window, then the pickets of a fence, then railroad ties."

As is always the case, the campus is boisterous near the basketball gym where the thousands of parents, staff, and students gather after the last diploma has been conferred. My walk in my academic robes takes me, in stages, further and further from those happy sounds and into the clear light of a quiet May afternoon. Soon the brick buildings--our campus looks like Hogwarts--loom in the clear daylight as if they'd been there for centuries.  Eventually all sounds, save those of Nature, are muted.

It's a ritual I never miss each year.

Next month, I'm going to return to my own alma mater's 30th reunion, partly because of the mark the education there left on me.

Thirty years!

Yes, in time in all becomes a blur. I suspect we'll all look back on the early days of virtual worlds that way, too, and say "that only seems like yesterday!" Moreover, I hope my students recall the strange experience of exploring SL as a possible future for communications, as they struggled to master the art of writing in academic settings.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Deformed: Virtual Worlds & 1970s Computing History

Mother of All Demos
Location: Watching Douglas Engelbart's "The Mother of all Demos"

image credit: New Media Consortium at Flickr

Many of us who have dabbled with virtual worlds have wondered how they could form a constellation of networked systems, in much the same way as the Internet's servers do today. Whatever the fate of this niche technology called virtual worlds, from the failure to run on mobile devices to the inherent boom-bust cycle of Second Life's particular brand, the road not taken always beckons.

There is an historical precedent here, and it's one that has a happy ending. Could the same be true for virtual worlds?

Today's Internet: Clarke's Law in Action

For a moment, consider the complex and delicate magic that occurs whenever we use the Internet. My university server talks fine to Google, for work such as the just-completed Usher project. Whenever the Outlook mail client randomly eats student file attachments sent to me, I smile. Ah, Microsoft's wonderfully Byzantine and wonderfully doomed, technology, eating even its own Word files. Cue Apple and Google, as the Ottomans on the horizon, slowly gobbling up a once mighty empire.  Good riddance.

Then, because of the lack of monopoly that Microsoft coveted and almost got, I have the students try, try again with Gmail. Excede's servers send me the results and, once I type, transmit my thoughts--profound or inane--from home travel via satellite to Google.  When I send notice of this post to interested folks at Twitter or Facebook, the servers hosting that data all "talk" to one another.

Types of Gardens and a World-Wide Web, 1975?

Compare that to virtual worlds technology, ostensibly part of the Internet since that is how we access it. Second Life, InWorldz, and many others that share core technologies could, in theory, speak to each other. Had development not branched off as it has done, Linden Lab and a few other grids might have pioneered a system for avatars and inventory to travel from world to world.  That happens with OpenSim Hypergridding, a technology that John Lester promoted, before his work for Reaction Grid turned to Jibe-based 3D worlds.  But "interoperability" died years ago at Linden Lab, and it seems unlikely to return.

It's curious, this set of walled gardens. If today the Internet resembles Borges Garden of Forking Paths, Virtual Worlds resemble something else: the road taken in the 1970s toward personal computing.

I realized that while reading John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said, a history of early computing got influenced by the American Counterculture:
When personal computing finally blossomed in Silicon Valley in the mid-seventies, it did so largely without the history and research that had gone before it. As a consequence, the personal-computer industry would be deformed for years, creating a world of isolated desktop boxes, in contrast to the communities of shared information that had been pioneered in the sixties and early seventies. (179)
The Internet did not begin with Al Gore, whatever he may have claimed. It did not begin in Jobs' family garage and with Steve Wozniak's brilliant hardware hacks. It did not begin at Xerox PARC with the Alto. The personal computer with a GUI and mouse? Yes, we can credit or blame Xerox and Apple for that.

But years before, nearly every element of the modern Internet would have been possible with the Augment system, developed under the leadership of Douglas Engelbart. Yet that development stalled and ended, a revolution stillborn.  I think we can see an analogue for what is going on, at this cultural moment, with user-generated virtual worlds.

Engelbart's Mouse

Want to see what might have been for the Internet? I am convinced that had something like Augment  been made less opaque for casual users, we'd have had an academic, and perhaps consumer Internet in 1975. Engelbart gave a show-stopper of a demo in 1968, with mouse, text-editing with clipboard and copy/paste, multiple files, graphics on screen, electronic mail, hyperlinks tagged to graphics, and remote visitors via a network.  You can see what he was doing with Augment at these videos from Stanford.

The reasons for Augment's failure are complex; Markoff's book does justice both to the creator's vision and his ultimate failure to produce a widely adapted product.  What happened, however, for consumers was the emergence of walled gardens and proprietary systems from Apple, Microsoft, Digital, Tandy, and other competitors forgotten except by historians of technology.

When the Internet emerged, it came late to a culture of desktop boxes that could not, generally, talk to one another.

What if the personal computer revolution had begun with networking? And similarly...

What if Virtual Worlds Had Begun with Interoperability?

I'm writing an article about one group of USENET hobbyists who have made the jump to Facebook, because the old .alt group proved too chaotic and full of spammers, trolls, and other bottom feeders. They also made the leap because, frankly, .jpgs and text import and export well between applications. Text did in Engelbart's day.

Little aside from these, plus Collada files and some other graphic formats, can move between different virtual worlds.  Standards for inventories, for avatar meshes, and for "land" templates are different. In this technology landscape, OpenSim grids serve as today's Augment. Managing a bunch of avatars and a region in OS is hard to master, not stable in my experience except in the hands of a pro, but interoperable. Running an entire campus-hosted grid would be lovely, but it's beyond my time or expertise to learn.

Other products with potential beyond SL's technology, such Unity 3D and Jibe, produce elegant worlds, but they don't talk to other worlds and expert designers need to craft objects. They do offer vast potential, according to OpenSim pioneer Adam Frisby, for scaling, running on mobile devices, and improved grahics.

That sounds great until one considers faculty skills-sets and what it takes to build with Unity or Jibe. As noted  before in this blog, developing for these platforms may be within reach for architecture and engineering students, but at my university, it's challenge enough to get students to juggle multiple e-mail accounts and embed files from YouTube into their blog posts. We faculty lack time and incentives to do more with them, let alone learn 3D applications such as Maya or Blender.  Yet nearly all of us at my school have created content, mostly with text and images and sometimes digital video, and shared it on the Internet.

For all its limitations and toxicity as a brand, Second Life and, lets amateurs with a copy of Photoshop build easily. I'm told that Cloud Party does too, and I will soon try again with Cloud Party's latest build tools. Scripting remains something for those not faint of heart and projects to make visual scripting tools, such as MIT's Scratch for SL, remain as stillborn as Augment.

What it will Take to be Disruptive

Here comes a sweeping generalization, and I'm ready to fall on this sword if some wise person can prove me wrong. Virtual worlds will never be a disruptive technology, in Tim Wu's sense of the term, until they become an interoperable and popular tool for everyday life, as the Web and e-mail have become.

Had virtual worlds begun with a series of collaborative academic ventures rooted in common standards, rather than a group of for-profit start-ups from The Valley, we might have that disruption and a 3D Web today.  Then the profits would follow, because in 1968, who could have foreseen eBay or Amazon or Facebook?

Right now, however, it's still 1968 and we've all seen the potential of a disruptive technology, as those who watched Engelbart's presentation did.

So today, who will build the 3D Web?

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Silence of the Blogs

Location: Blogroll

It's not just this blog that has become quieter. I've noted that Lalo Telling, Tateru Nino, and several other writers who focused primarily on virtual worlds have dropped off my radar. Tateru tweets, and some others post far less frequently than even a year ago.

Is that merely the drift of writers' interest away from virtual worlds? Or has blogging about this topic, generally, ebbed as interest and land-mass in Second Life have ebbed?

Did some in education who were grad students stop blogging as their career needs became a necessary priority?

There are clearly more blogs I should follow. After posting a first draft of this post, I did a quick Google Search and found that Daniel Voyager noted, in December last year, that Lalo's real-life typist passed away. Pity. He was a gifted writer.

One thing for certain: it's gotten a lot quieter around here.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Leaving Las Vegas: 6 Years in Virtual Worlds, Farewell

VWER 25 April 2013
Location: Grading Finals

During the Spring Semester of 2007, this fool rushed into Second Life, something he felt would not only change education but the world beyond. Virtual worlds looked like a utopian technology with lots of zealous folks ready to evangelize the masses.

Six years later, grading what may be my last-ever student projects about virtual worlds and somewhat wiser, this educated fool wonders why SL did not change the world or even higher ed. I've written elsewhere about why SL failed to become that "3D Web" of yore.  Meanwhile, the bandwagon has moved on, the cheerleaders yelling "hurrah!"and "higher education will never be the same!" for MOOCs.

I'll sum up what I've learned about utopian narratives and would-be transformative technologies here, based on not only the last 6 but the last 25 years of studying and writing professionally about technological change, especially that which generates legions of enthusiasts.
  1. Look past the message to the messenger
  2. Wait for results unless you are an entrepreneur or venture capitalist
  3. Be a trailing-edger
  4. Find community locally, not just online
  5. Consider what students have in their hands
Lesson one: Look past the message to the messenger

I first head about Second Life in a story from Wired. That is not a sedate or juried publication; it's the Popular Mechanics of the digital era. Ever the sucker for flying cars and moon bases, I decided "I need to get in early with this technology," not considering that one company, with a closed platform not built for education, held the cards. I trusted the vision of Magic Koolaid provider, Philip Rosedale. Linden Lab's corporate culture and Rosedale's wandering vision both disappointed this educator, along with many colleagues.

Who is pushing MOOCs today? College faculty members? Technologists who embrace the new without considering pedagogy of large classes with little or no contact with faculty? Right-wing lawmakers eager to dilute the power of those "tenured radicals" supposedly in charge of Higher Ed? Boards of Visitors eager to promote a school "brand" without a clear sense of what it will do to curriculum, staffing, or the long-term value of that "brand"?

Ask yourself, and take a deep breath before jumping on the band wagon.

I do wish I'd looked past the euphoria about virtual worlds in 2007 to see who was cheering most loudly.

Lesson Two: Wait for results, unless you are an entrepreneur or venture capitalist

I was not in virtual worlds for the money. As noted just now, I wanted to be in on "the next Web," as many were then pitching SL. In 1993, when I first saw a moving weather-pattern on the Mosaic browser in Dickie and Cindy Selfe's lab at Michigan Tech, I knew I was seeing something historic. In 2007 I thought so again, without applying the very critical-thinking skills I teach my students.

From 2003-06 or so, it made sense for venture capitalists to take a bet on this new technology. It might have become the next Web. Educators, however, need to always place sound pedagogy ahead of tech, which is a suspicious I have about the euphoria over MOOCs at the moment. I saw that same brand of enthusiasm for MOOs in the late 80s and early 90s, literary hypertext a bit later, glove-and-goggle VR from the 80s to the present, and of course, virtual worlds.

While one might reasonably claim that virtual worlds are going to become significant culturally, I'd suspect lots of Magic-Koolaid drinking by an educator who claimed SL will ever again be more than a niche-product in years to come. AJ Kelton of VWER rightly called SL "The AOL of virtual worlds" to the disdain of several Linden Lab staff. AJ was correct, and the Lab staff in question now work elsewhere, after being fired during the first stages of Second Life's ongoing and palpable decline.

Bottom line for me: waiting to see if SL lived up to its hype would have cost me nothing in 2007, and would have saved me time. Had I first taken a class in-world in 2009, I'd have been ready for the myriad frustrations and technical issues that bedeviled a product that seemed very much in Beta up to that point.

Lesson Three: Be a trailing-edger

During the summer I spent with the Selfes and their grad students at Michigan Tech, Richard "Dickie" Selfe, co-founder of that school's CCLI humanities lab, along with wife and fellow scholar Cynthia Selfe, once told me only to adopt trailing-edge tech for teaching and learning. The Selfes were among a group of 1980s pioneers with personal computing in the classroom, and Dickie's lab at MTU was a playful space, with stuffed animals, a coffee machine, snacks, and weekend gaming sessions with Doom and similar titles.  I'm sure that at Ohio State they continue this practice, so influential to young scholars of writing pedagogy in writing-intensive curricula.

At every step, while the Selfes liberally experimented with leading-and-bleeding-edge applications, in the classroom they proceeded more carefully with undergraduates. The older technologies were stable, easier to support, and grounded in best practices for teaching.

My experiences in 2007-8 in SL, and then in 2011 with OpenSim's Jokaydia Grid, taught me the dangers of being on the bleeding edge. My students and I bled. Only Jokay's personal help saved the final exam in 2011, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth for teaching with OpenSim. As for SL, only by 2009 was it stable enough for a class to appreciate. That class was, ironically, my last one to focus on the technology, rather than using it for a single project.

Today, SL as a product is fairly stable, and critical and scholarly work about virtual worlds has emerged to guide our pedagogy. One would be far better off starting today as a SLer with students, given these two changes. Those on the bleeding edge, however, get cut by it.

Lesson Four: Find community locally, not just online

My years with the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable have been good ones, and I cherish the faculty contacts I have made there. That said, the weekly meetings and constant advice did not compensate for a lack of interest in virtual worlds on my campus. With other innovations, from our Writing Consultants program to First-Year Seminars, we meet in person and I have lunch with folks in the flesh. There is no substitute.

Our technologists all had avatars before I did, but they never convinced more than a handful of faculty to try SL. The learning curve, the oddness of avatar-based education on a residential campus, and the lack of incentives for faculty all worked against us.

In the end, SL was an experiment that failed at Richmond. When Linden Lab renewed the 50% discount for education (if you ask the right person!) we declined. Why spend even $150 monthly for a product that might be used once every few years by one faculty member? Meanwhile, our technologists have other more tasks, from supporting Blackboard and other meat-and-drink software to  new initiatives with mobile apps.

Mobile may turn out to be the "new shiny object" for education, but it's not a niche application for students. As for MOOCs? I will wait to see comparative studies of students' learning outcomes in them and outside them. That should have been done for virtual worlds.

Lesson Five: Consider what students have in their hands

The transition to smart phones as students' primary communications tools has changed everything for us. While laptops abound, students use them like big phones: never plugging in the AC adapters, perching them in nooks where Millennnials gather to collaborate, plastering them with stickers to personalize them. I suspect that with a better keyboard, students would do their content creation on fast tablets, since we have ubiquitous and fast wireless everywhere on campus.

None of that I could have foreseen in 2007, since I did not even slow down enough to consider how poorly SL would run on many laptops, especially those not hard-wired to an Ethernet port or plugged into a AC outlet.

Even with desktop connections, students loathe SL's lag. I saw that last week in the finals. Perhaps server-side baking from Linden Lab will make SL run better on what my students still use for content creation--laptops--though not on phones, where virtual worlds simply cannot display with any sort of grandeur.

But by then, Iggy will have left the virtual building.


I'm thankful for an experiment of six years, even if the experiment failed. At least virtual worlds generated two publications for me, as well as a forthcoming anthology I'm co-editing with some chapters about virtual worlds. I don't write the rules, but publications and teaching evaluations are the currency of academia, despite the best wishes of utopians that it be otherwise.

It is always possible that my teaching load will shift again, and my Chair and Department will call on me to teach my course about the history, culture, and future of Cyberspace. In such an event, Iggy and his students will be back. Look out.