Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Manifesto for Staying or Leaving Virtual Worlds: What Do Educators Need?

Location: Blue Mars Web Site

With the launch of Sony's Playstation Home, we have a viable alternative in terms of graphics, if not community, to SL. I do not know anything about content creation in Home, however; to this academic it's the defining characteristic of a richly textured virtual world. Blue Mars, a yet-to-be-released virtual world (that coy woman is a Blue Mars avatar) promises unparalleled graphics but, and this is key, no user-created content.

I enjoy Dusan Writer's posts a lot, and from Dusan's old site, I ran across a post on "Leaving Second Life" from February. It would be good reading for a future class, when we study the psychology of virtual worlds. It's also influencing my thinking for an ongoing project, an academic article with the working title "The Holodeck Paradox."

A few call-out claims of Dusan Writer's:
  • "persistent 3D social spaces are at their most basic level experiences"
  • "at their most complex level, they’re new ways of creating, interacting with, and sharing concepts"
  • "virtual worlds have the power to be so compelling that we, consciously or not, decide that these worlds have more appeal than the real world" (this echos philosopher Jean Baudrillard's point about any "hyperreal" environment)
  • "The feeling of presence and the ability to share documents, pictures, and objects in a 'space' brings a deeper and more intuitive engagement" [than, say, teleconferencing]
Thanks to Writer's blog, I got a peek at Blue Mars, from Avatar Reality Inc. It appears, unlike OpenLife, to avoid using any Linden Lab open-source code. It's stunning, from the screen shots shown; here's a Blue Mars landscape.


Yet of course such projects always show us only the finest images captured on high-end computers. In fact, I'd argue that Linden Lab's splash photos on their Web pages are often delightfully dowdy--rather like snaps in a crazy family's album.

SL Splash Pic

If Blue Mars' makers are not merely blowing steam at us, " A 3D casual game in Blue Mars can be developed for the same cost as a 2D Flash-based game." That would be a powerful incentive for residents and developers in SL to give it a try.

But it's not enough for academic users who are not in SL or other virtual worlds to play games. That's not why I came. Other than my fetish for virtual racing in SL, I'm drawn to builds like the virtual Globe Theatre, House of Seven Gables, or Dante's Inferno.

As for Blue Mars, its launch has been repeatedly delayed. The company's site shows no updates past August of this year, and a few scatter-shot Google News searches show a spring 2009 roll out. Whatever the real-life economy does to new ventures such as Blue Mars or Home, the points Writer makes remain valid for those seeking entertainment in a virtual world. In time, the exodus to virtual worlds that Edward Castronova describes will reach the tipping point...whether that helps or hurts SL remains to be seen.

Here's a sign that some pioneers are already setting up camp elsewhere and plan to make virtual life easier "on the other side" for their fellow refugees.

Exodus Project

But will they really leave? And what will academic residents and (more importantly for Linden Lab) inventors need?

The operative issues for this academic, and others I've spoken to at and beyond our weekly Roundtable, remain:
  • User-generated content must be present to attract the educational community (Blue Mars' approach is to work with professional content developers)
  • Free or very cheap accounts must be available for student users
  • Hardware and software requirments must be relatively low and cross-platform (I won't join a virtual world without Mac OS support; others will feel differently). SL is mixed in this regard, because it does not support laptops well, and most of my students now use PC and Mac laptops. A few have been stranded by LL upgrades mid-term
  • The world must be stable enough to let projects thrive (Second Life has a mixed record here, though it's still better than OpenLife, the alternative I know best)
  • A world must enable gateways to non-vw content. That would mean being able to share Office documents and non-SL files within SL. I hear rumblings that Linden Lab is working on a solution to this. It would be a boon to academics in-world
  • The interface must be intuitive for new users (Home and Blue Mars promise this; SL-based virtual worlds fail pretty badly).
I realize this is beginning to become a manifesto. Perhaps that is needed.

I must part company with Writer on a key point about social users; while I agree broadly with this statement, as Linden Lab tries to lure more governmental and academic residents who will pay tier for their own islands, this point will matter less and less:
Is there a role for a virtual world platform that goes in the opposite direction of cartoon rooms and game-derived avatars? It’s all about the shopping and socializing. They may suck up the early adoption curve because of the technology requirements, but if they can keep people for the shopping and the socializing they may be on to something.
Writer is talking about Blue Mars, but for most educators, shopping is not why we come in world with students, except perhaps to study marketing by content-creators. Socializing is essential to engagement in and beyond class.

But buying hair and chatting are not what this technology is all about: our universities are not going to exploit the rich potential of virtual worlds until more is done to assure stability, interoperability, and security of any content we create.

1 comment:

Dusan Writer said...

Many thanks for a wonderful and provocative post. You've touched on issues that are near and dear to my heart, of course. I wanted to jump in not to get into semantics but to offer my own perspectives on the emerging technologies, in particular in reference to education in virtual worlds.

One of the shifts I think that we've seen over the past year or so is the further tailoring of virtual world technologies for different uses and target audiences. This is coupled with the emergence of a number of newer technologies that I think will have a profound impact on the immersive Web.

First on the technologies: the emergence of new graphic chips, the possibility of server-side rendering (Otoy, say, if it's real), and the bar set by the consoles (Sony Home) for the visual richness of 3D spaces means that we will increasingly see worlds like Blue Mars that are visually stunning. The downside to this, of course, is that there will be barriers to entry for many users.

On the flip side, the embedding of 3D content in new platforms such as phones, Web sites, etc. is being facilitated by advances in these areas, including those represented by technologies such as Papervision, which runs off of the Flash platform, and its various offspring. Meanwhile, gaming platforms are increasingly starting to look more like virtual world platforms...I'm thinking here of Quest3D, say, or Icarus Studios.

Finally, I don't think that devices should be ignored, because I think that it's in devices that we'll see a significant wave of innovation in 2009. Whether it's immersive touch screens like the work being done with OpenCobalt, 3D cameras, avatar expression using Web cams, or perhaps soon enough avatar controllers using iPhones or brain-wave readers like Emotiv....the connection of peripherals to virtual world spaces will open up a new range of expression and potential.

But back to use cases: I often find myself straddling different applications and audiences. I see Blue Mars, for example, as within the consumer stream, with the potential (YEARS from now) to include rich content for other applications. But I do NOT mean to confuse shopping and socializing with enterprise and education uses of virtual worlds, if that's what I've done.

There's a lot of talk these days about how to bring education and enterprise on board (see Metanomics this Monday for an interview with Justin Bovington of Rivers Run Red as an example - and I suspect there will be something cool for educators ;))...and I'd make the argument that on the consumer side socializing, chat, and maybe some shopping have traditionally been the early attractions. Casual gaming and user-generated content are the second 'tier', and I look to Blue Mars and Metaplace for doing more than Google's Lively (for example) in providing stuff to DO.

I've often written about the lack of a coherent road map from Linden Lab, although I think this is true for the VW industry in general - and this where Sibley from the Electric Sheep is coming from (in his way) in wanting to see an industry-wide road map. But even with the Lab, there's a lack of stability not just in the current technology but in knowing what's next - if you invest in SL as an educator, say, then you'd better hope they don't have another Windlight in the wings, something that will raise the bar of entry again, and leave you stranded. I'm not saying they WILL, but it would be nice to have a clearer sense of where things will be a year from now, say, so that we can all plan, consider, and decide where to expend our energies.

For education and enterprise use I think you hit on the right points in your 'manifesto'. It is for these reasons that we're seeing moves by Linden Lab to provide more security, to allow fire-walled protection of student content and intellectual property....although whether they can ever solve the stability issue remains to be seen.

But these are the same reasons we're seeing parallel innovation in OpenSim, Sun's Wonderland, OpenCobalt, even Qwak for that matter.

These are exciting and often frustrating times. These aren't worlds that are nice to look at, these are platforms where through community, content, and hopefully stable function we're seeing the emergence of new models for education, enterprise and, yeah, just plain hanging around. As the range of options widens, some platforms will stabilize and become standards, others will end up focused on consumer use, and others won't find their "place in the space."

But passionate users such as yourself are helping to shape an exciting and, I believe, profound world of opportunities.