Friday, July 31, 2009

Building Tip: Little Pink Boxes! Building Flop: Millennials & Creativtity

Location: House of Usher

A problem with group building is how often we forget to "share with group" when we lay down a prim.

Today, I worked with Jordan, the student assistant helping with the House. Mostly we were testing textures and making sure our permissions were correct. I created a visual cue for her (and me) to remind us which prims need fixing. A free script for floating text sits inside the full-bright pink cube, so we can indicate a location with some level of specificity.

There's nothing pink or even bright in Poe's tale, so we won't mistake this tidbit for the scenery.

As we built, I had a fascinating conversation with Jordan. Like many her age, she does not see the point of SL, and though she's a good builder, she finds the creation tools tedious. I only agree with that final point, especially after spending hours chasing down flickering edges and closing gaps in walls.

Her first claim made me sad, as I'm always sad when I encounter the imaginative impoverishment of an entire generation of "taught-to-the-test" Americans.

Jordan and I talked at length, across the tops of our monitors, about the lack of creativity that has marked the educational experiences of too many Millennial students. Jordan agrees that she and her peers have never done much imaginative play. One result of this is a goals-oriented approach to all work at school and social activities beyond it.

SL, with its culture of creative play and creative chaos, just seems beside the point--the point of getting ahead in life--that Millennials crave.

That, readers, is a problem far larger and scarier than any virtual world, and there's no pink box that can fix it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pedagogy First, at The House of Usher's Front Door

Front Door
Location: Front Door, House of Usher Build

I am continually surprised by how much little details count, with this generation of college students.

We want, in our build, to have pedagogy drive the design. It would be easy to build with some "cool factor" in mind. Coolness could mean too any scripts early on, too much fussing about the furniture. These might simply detract from the immersive experience we want. After all, the faculty members working on this house want to make Poe's story come to life.

Part of that is getting students engaged in wanting to change Poe's ending, while comparing their decisions to those of the narrator.

One thing I did spend time doing--maybe too much time--is making a decent front door for the House of Usher. It's the first impression, after all. Thanks to a simple scripting technique by Bob Suter with IBM, not to mention a publicly available script, I soon had a slab of plywood in place that would open on a hinge and not in the center. Then I dove into some vacation photos of old English doors, as well as battered versions of a family crest for the Usher Family. I soon had a seven-prim textured door that had seen better days.

Inside, of course, we'll use simple one-prim rectangular doors, but in a virtual world complexity of design becomes necessary at key spots. For the library railing where Roderick's books will be scattered about the floor, I employed a TGA file with lots of transparent cut-outs.

When the faculty member for the Poe class looked over my shoulder, he approved. "That railing texture looks like bones."

Good touch for a Poe story! And in Richmond, you can have a sense of the author looking over your shoulder. Our town is haunted by his tragic life. We have to get this right.

Faculty in writing-intensive classes don't think visually when designing assignments. But for this project to work--even when my writing students beta-test it for later courses on Poe--I'll need the skills of a story-teller, cinematographer, and graphic designer at one stroke.

Stay tuned. No lag so far at the House...but lag happens. Let's hope that it's in the service of good pedagogy.

Friday, July 24, 2009 is Watching You

House of Usher--under construc...
Location: Richmond Island's House of Usher Build

As I make prims fit and have fun with Photoshop designing textures, all so we can beta-test this simulation next semester, something that would have given Poe even more nightmares has happened.

Anyone following tech news knows how reached into Kindle owners' machines without their knowledge to remove copies of Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm. How appropriate and how unfortunately ham-fisted for a company that should know better.

Printed books have this power: ownership. It will be a long time before I buy an e-reader of any sort. Although a company spokesman noted that the company will not do this again, Amazon needs to provide a legally binding contract to Kindle owners stating that it will never do this again.

The power of a major corporation to erase works of literature in an increasingly paperless world is terrifying. There's not much of a leap from that to a totalitarian state erasing our books.

Make mine paper: I'll be reading Mervin Peake's Gormennghast tonight, in a thick edition that includes all three of the Gormennghast novels. And Barnes and Noble cannot come and seize it, nor can Uncle Sam, without a major domestic incident and quite likely, violence. Books are worth dying for.

As for Poe? I had planned to offer my students the option of downloading "The Fall of the House of Usher," in a free Kindle edition, instead of buying the Penguin Classic edition. Now they'll have to buy the paperback and I'll use it as a lesson about how fragile knowledge can be, when others control it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Yesterday's Tomorrows

Apollo 11, 40 Years On
Location: Richmond Island and the Moon

As I began to assist our university's team on a build of a House of Usher, for a new course in Rhetoric and Communication Studies, an idea struck me. I thought of the moon landing by Apollo 11, 40 years (and a day) ago.

I was a nerdy space-kiddie then, and I recall Neil Armstrong's first step as one we'd all follow. Those were heady days, with a task force report stating:

We conclude that NASA has the demonstrated organizational competence and technology base, by virtue of the Apollo success and other achievements, to carry out a successful program to land man on Mars within 15 years.

These words were published in September, 1969. In 1984, we had just barely gotten the Space Shuttle off the pad, to languish in low-earth orbit.

Whatever the merits and demerits of human-crewed spaceflight, the 60s program had a "reach" and a promise of new worlds, even if they only were available to a few lantern-jawed rocket-men.

I feel pretty strongly that one of the feelings that motivates me to work hard in virtual worlds is the promise of a frontier, albeit an electronic one, with a sense of embodiment that I never had on the "flat" Internet. And when I attach one prim to another, I'm making something new in a new world.

New Worlds?

Our House of Usher build, and the rest of SL for that matter, are not Mars colonies, but they will have to do. And it may explain why so many builders and creators are drawn less to games and more to worlds that permit user-generated content.

I'll just keep building and hoping until, to quote Tom Wolfe in the New York Times, we do set about "recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Smart Tools

Last Thursday, I attended a conference on the use of "Serious Games" (worst marketing-speak spin ever) in peacekeeping efforts. The conference featured various tools and methods for teaching and training that are relevant to virtual worlds education, and I'll discuss them in a moment.

The conference was also remarkable in another way:

  • there wasn't enough space to hold the audience, and overflow areas had to be used;

  • sound quality varied;

  • slides didn't load, or loaded slowly; and

  • applications sometimes didn't launch as expected, or at all.

This was not a shocker, except if you run a list of typical complaints people have about presentations in SecondLife and other virtual worlds. That would be them in a nutshell in that bulleted list up there.

But this conference, as well as its attendant issues, was located in a building overlooking 17th Street in Washington DC. A video stream of the proceedings fed back to the virtual world. Because the issues took place real life, the snafus were treated as business as usual; no one was really surprised, or called FAIL. This, even though the attendees all had to commute in, pay for parking or transport, and dress in business black in order to be present. It's an interesting thing to noodle on when we look at our expectations of technology, both real world and virtual.

The conference, Smart Tools for Smart Power: Simulations and Serious Games for Peacebuilding, at the US Institute of Peace wasn't an academic conference in the traditional sense. The presenters included Beth Noveck, Deputy CTO at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Jason Dechant from the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA); Charlie Hargraves from Lockheed Martin; Jon Wilkenfeld from the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland; Steve York and Ivan Marovic, creators of "A Force More Powerful"; Scott Sechser, aka Scott Linden; Col. Philip Evans from the US Army War College; Colin Rule from Ebay; and Michael Martine from IBM. While that looks like, and is, a big Federal support squad, each and every speaker talked about using games and simulations to teach new ways of thinking and new skills. Well, almost every speaker - Scott Linden went with the traditional 'You can make anything in Second Life,' because of some software issues, but he had planned to illustrate that point with the Navy training sim, NASA, and probably one of the hospital sims.

Several other speakers described a mix of computer-assisted modeling and training, in coordination with classroom exercises and face-to-face discussion. IDA's SENSE program, for instance, allows players to guide a fictional state through transactions, negotiations, and crises, and receive detailed graphs and reports about the results. The ICONS program from the University of Maryland uses a chat and bulletin-board style simulation to teach conflict resolution and negotiation.

"A Force More Powerful" is the intriguing video game that documentarian Steve York and Ivan Marovic, who was a key figure in the Serbian Optik movement, created to show the steps of nonviolent organization and protest to anyone who wants to play. This is the second game from this team. The first was given out freely and has spread virally throughout the world. The second game will also be a viral teaching tool, with the added bonus of game players being able to create and upload their own scenarios for others to play.

The US Army War College presented an example of its intensive training program, which is role play to the highest degree, although the world created is not virtual at all. Instructors at the institute play roles, and participants face the prospect of 'testifying to Congress,' 'giving press interviews,' 'negotiating,' and more.

Lockheed Martin spoke about its 3-D simulation program and showed an army training seminar in OLIVE, and a striking scene of the Washington Mall (complete with - sigh - gunfire), but the flow of their presentation was plagued by technology issues. They also mentioned an April 2009 cameo for the software on the television show NCIS. Linden Labs had lots to show throughout the grid (see Iggy's article on the Loyalist College case study for starters), but Scott Linden had to tap-dance a little when he couldn't teleport. The LL team would do well to make up a machinima or two for times like those, I think.

The conference was a powerful blend of the traditional and the imaginative. That game tools at this level of richness and depth are being applied to the very important task of teaching peacekeeping, negotiation, and nonviolent organization strategies to anyone from the average person on the street, to those engaged in governing countries around the world, is inspiring.

It lets me dream of other ways games, role play, immersive narrative, and virtual worlds can be used to teach.

That is of course, once we get past the slide-loading problem. In this world and all the others.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Case Study from Loyalist College

Location: Linden Lab Blog

At our most recent SLER discussion, participants noted how many colleagues and senior administrators ask for case studies when wondering how effective virtual worlds are for education.

Linden Lab trotted out this post July 10, and since I don't keep up with their blog on a regular basis, I missed it. Have a look at “Virtual World Simulation Training Prepares Real Guards on the US-Canadian Border: Loyalist College in Second Life."

More on how to get it, from LL:
To learn more, check out this video on YouTube, read this article on the program in the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, or download our case study PDF.
Border security training seems a reasonable use for simulations. It may be harder to use that particular case to justify a writing class. That said...

Fred Brecher, who's helping organize the House of Usher project at Richmond, noted in our discussion that many educational technologies have not been subjected to rigorous assessment or case-studies. I suppose virtual worlds are more suspect than, say, a course-management system, since VWs appear game-like.

In time we'll get more and more such studies of what works and does non in VWs. My own project, under review by readers, is not quantitative but does show what worked well in SL last year, with my writing students.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sorting Out A Paper World

Location: Moving Offices

No, that is not my office. But it's not staged, either. Those pictures are usually easy to find on an image search, because the mess does not have the accretion of, say, rock-strata.

In Second Life, you simply right-click an object you own, choose "take" or "delete," and any offensive or annoying clutter vanishes.

Would that it were so in the world of bricks, mortar, and...filing cabinets. This week, I've been sorting their contents, largely old materials from the early 90s. Soon I'm moving to a new building and a change of departments, from English--a realm of paper if ever there were one--to Rhetoric and Communication Studies.

I live a largely paperless life, these days, though I'm still bookish (20 small cartons) and enjoy volumes on paper. What I hate is office paperwork that could be put on-screen (nine small cartons). I'm a relentless back-up fetishist and the piles of campus mail and journals on my desk are not too bad, by academic standards. My hard drive is well organized, though not ruthlessly so. I do know a few hold-outs in their 50s or older who still print out most e-mail, but they'll be mercifully off the scene in a few years.

Yet at one time, not so long ago, all of us over 40 lived that way. Sorting out my old office and our tutoring spaces, where the two file cabinets have been banished, reminded me. These things called personal computers were not networked, and word processing was high technology. We kept copies of important memos and our annual reports.

Before that, I suppose there were photocopier or even mimeograph geeks.

In any case, about one-third of my life at the university working full-time, 17 years and counting, was without the Internet as the primary means of sending and storing documents.

At one time, I kept dozens of articles from academic and popular journals in little folders, ready to photocopy for my classes and peers. Now, I open a PDF that may or may not be printed. Back then, I did not use Adobe InDesign to make little brochures; I printed little graphics out and used scissors and paste to make promotional materials.

I don't miss ditto machines and their purple goop (to quote from Wikipedia's entry on duplicating machines, "aniline purple, a cheap, durable pigment that provided good contrast"). In grad school, cheap was preferred for folks making $700 a month, so Indiana University had a room full of ditto machines and, for big jobs, mimeograph machines that printed in black. I ran reams and reams of paper using ditto "spirit masters," a name I just love. When state budget-cuts threatened our ditto room, the grad students in English promised to do a work slow-down by writing all handouts, slowly and carefully, on blackboards (telling our students why and reminding them to notify their parents).

IU changed its policies quickly. Don't mess with our ditto privileges!

While that brings a warm memory, I don't miss reams of binders and dozens of cabinets full of files. What I do miss is a sense of time passing; this fading world of yellowing paper vanished in little more than a decade.

Makes one wonder what's ahead.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dealing with Skeptics on Campus

Location: SLER weekly Roundtable

Poor AJ Brooks! Our intrepid moderator had a raucous crowd on hand for the discussion of "Non-VW issues" last night. These should have included staff management, budgeting, project-planning, and so forth.

The moon was not full, but it might as well have been. AJ had a chatty and chaotic group of around 40 of us, and we resolutely stayed off-topic until near the end. Some excellent discussion did emerge (I'm combing through our transcript now). A major bone of contention (a fine metaphor, that) was how to convince campus skeptics about SL's value. These ideas emerged from the swamp of discourse:
  • Objections to SL are not limited to "SL means sex." See an old post here for more on that! Faculty may see it as merely a "game," as too complex to invest their time, as only for distance education
  • My Scottish bud Kali, who works heavily with Blackboard, noted that the popular course-management system went through the same process of gaining credibility. Other participants noted how the Web itself, even e-mail, had a bumpy start with faculty and admins
  • The "SL is dying" meme hurts adoption. I suggested that the skeptics look at Tateru Nino's figures at Massively, where she runs regular updates about usage of SL. I also pointed folks to this site by Virtual World Watch. Kali recommends a study (PDF format) done in the UK about investing in virtual worlds for higher ed
  • The urge to evangelize when we enjoy a technology hurts. As Kimbeau Surveryor put it, "I learned that VW evangelism is worse than being a door-to-door Christian." Instead, several participants wanted to have case studies in hand to show how SL has helped with learning outcomes. I think I'd point skeptics to the project that Profesora Farigoule's students completed, combining architecture and social change or other work that could not be done as cheaply (or at all) on the other side of the screen. By the way, I'd show colleagues the work on the flat Web first, before taking them in-world, even "over my shoulder." That way, they see the potential in a format they respect, and not in something game-like.
Comment of the week goes to CathyWyo1 Haystack:
those who have the most success with using sl are enthusiastic with their students and encourage fun at the same time as learning.

Update for July 17: The entire transcript can be found here.

Thanks to everyone who participated.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

July Road-Trip: Lonely Road

What, me worry??
Minchau Sim, SL Route 8

Land for sale…lots of it. Maybe I don’t spend enough time looking at the map with the “for sale” icons on, or maybe Tenchi is right and SL is in some big trouble.

I decided to roll over the map to find a big, straight open road I’d noticed on one of the continents. From there, I picked a random spot, teleported, and flew around until I found a spot to rez the bike.

Then down that lonely pixelated road I went. Maybe it was the lack of avatars, but the physics were great and I left the graphics set to “high” on my client. I never ran out of road.


Finally..I found avatars, but no way to drive to them. As I circled a giant building, I could see parked cars on a lot inside, but they were mere d├ęcor. There was no way in. Besides, when I cammed around, I saw only Zyngo games and lucky-chairs. Nothing interesting there.

There were lots of for-sale signs by the roadway. Could these be folks who left the older continents for Zindra, the new adult-playland?
world for sale

I managed to crash into an area to which I was not permitted. I lost the bike and decided to Teleport to an area where the “for sale” signs where thickest.

I had to see what Robin had on offer in a sim called Iwo Jima. 1024m - 369L a week is a decent deal. Her camping chair, at 1L per 24 hours, was quite the practical joke.

Good luck!

I quickly bored of that joke and the generally depressing bits of "beachfront" for sale. Each of them was a retread of a certain stale, low-rent American dream--a sort Jimmy Buffett and crappy tequila helped make popular. All that was missing were a few strings of Christmas lights on a suburban deck, a wading pool, and some pink flamingos.

Since escape in SL is easy enough, I typed “highway” into the SL search engine under places, then found the Noyo Rezzing Area and a twisting raised road for a ride by the sea. It was just what I need to get my mind off all those “for sale” signs.

It was a shock to see a bicycle built for two cross the highway.

Not a race

I caught up with Demian Arbizu and Ark Vuckovic. Demian has lived in three places and now is hiking the Mainland, with tent and backpack, his goal “to find the absolute best lot on the mainland” and on his advice I hopped off the bike and teleported to Tethys, a stunning highland of crenelated peaks. Demian said that it’s unique because it is the only sim on its server (most LL servers host multiple simulators). I realized that I’d driven through the region earlier, and it was there I’d found the raised road by the sea—and no lag whatsoever. It reminded me of Svarga in some ways.

Tethys Sim

The only problem with this wonderland is, for now at least, some peaks feature open-air parcels with lots of kinky BDSM toys lying about.

The SL stereotype rears its horny head again. Folks, put a wall around it and have fun, okay?

To Demian I say thanks, and it was nice to meet another sojourner who just enjoys traveling the land to find what lies around the next bend.

Game Over

When I got to the end of one Linden Highway, I decided it was time to log out, at least until my next road-trip in August. Happy Motoring!

Friday, July 10, 2009

He's Dead, Jim! Star Trek in Metaplace

Location: Metaplace's Starfleet World

I logged on to Metaplace to have a look at some new content, and being a fan of Star Trek's original series ("All Kirk, all the time!") I felt the call to boldly go…so I did.

The Metaplace Starfleet world is delightful fun, or it will be, when other players show up. Several avatars were standing about, but I think they were bots or afk...all were identical levels, and none would interact with me despite my speaking in vintage Trek hyperbole.

Still, there was more I did not explore.

There are well developed ST builds in Second Life, but Metaplace offers the advantage of a lower-bandwidth, Web-based alternative for RP. I could imagine SLers who don't need realistic avatars for some activities, such as staff meetings for their crews, using Metaplace before beaming over to SL for other activities.

Klingons are going to look cuddly as Metaplace Bobble-heads. We won't be able to take them too seriously.

Other trouble lurks on the station where I appeared, in the form of the M5 robot. It's down in the lower right, below the well rendered Galileo Shuttle.


And, of course, an errant Tribble. And where you have ONE Tribble...


A well developed ST cluster could include a "find the Horta" mine, "stop the Salt Monster" adventure, and'd just need lots of dead security guards and many opportunities for great ST lines like "There was a third planet, but not anymore!"

Monday, July 6, 2009

Educators Ponder: Are We Our Avatars?

Location: SL Education Roundtable Weekly Meeting
Photo Courtesy of Olivia Hotshot

I wasn't able to make this meeting, but I like the topic. I think readers will, too, though as usual, the transcript is a long slog if you are not used to reading them.

The most interesting points to me are a discussion of how professionally we should dress when we are around our students and colleagues. Some participants at culturally "conservative" institutions in the States or abroad felt that one must wear professional dress, on a human avatar. Others fiercely defended the rights to look as one pleases, as long as the attire stays decent.

Quotation of the meeting goes to AstroGrl Enzo:

I would suggest to someone for a "professional" avatar to have fun with it. Be respectful, don't have your "parts" hanging out, just have fun with it. Keep your personality and that will come through.

Good advice: I'm a nutcase in both worlds, but I'm fond on a well made European-cut suit, a Brooks Brothers shirt, and a hand-painted silk tie. If the weather were not so hot in Richmond, I'd wear that look year round. To me, that's both professional and fun, while showing respect for those I meet during the workday. All attire is costume, after all.

I may have to dress the avatar up more now, just to be contrary to the "dress down" sentiment I come across so often in SL. But I like being contrary.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thinking About OpenSim: Goodbye, Centralized Grids?

Whither SL?
Location: Rezzable's OpenSim Regions

When I rezzed as IggyO Heritage in OpenSim, it was my first use of this technology. What I had expected to be buggy and hard to access was instead smooth, fast, and at least as intuitive as Second Life.

For old hands in the virtual world business, the picture I am about to paint will not be new. But to many educators new to Second Life, it may point the way forward.

Instead of a large grid with thousands of regions, hosted by one company controlling pricing, imagine an archipelago of small grids, tailored to certain uses, various adaptations of SF or fantasy roleplay, adult grids, governmental simulations, museums, educational grids. They'd compete for pricing and, in many cases, offer free services. So far, this is where OpenSim has gone.

Then imagine an avatar teleporting from grid to grid without losing inventory or violating someone's intellectual property (a complaint about the program Second Inventory). To do that, a company would market compatible avatars and accessories, not build grids. These avatars would be housed on our local machines, then uploaded to an OpenSim grid when we log on. We'd honor IP by buying the software from the creators, or obeying open source licensing.

Having just met with our I.T. folks, about moving Sketchup and Autocad files of buildings into SL and other grids, I wondered: if it can be done for buildings, why not avatars?

When that technological development occurs, an avatar service conforming to OpenSim standards, I don't think SL will be more than, as one friend put it, "The AOL of the next decade." It will be present, a pioneer, but no longer the hip place for the most creative content.

This probability must be driving Linden Lab crazy, since their (as well as OpenLife's) model of one big metaverse has been essential to their financial success.

Back to Tut for a moment, as a test case. For casual users, the Heritage Key client will prove easy to download, install, and start. One's avatar appears in a well designed orientation area, to my experienced eyes. The real test will be to get colleagues who've never used a virtual world to try it.

In the end, such micro-grids may prove ideal for users who can host a server and do not wish to spend the money to own SL regions, especially when OS grids are more easily connected than at present. To see where some of this may be going, consider Meerkat and Hypergrid, viewers that permit logging on to multiple grids from one client and, for Meerkat, uploading Autocad files.

As Meerkat's creators put it, their product lets users "have the freedom to make the sort of changes that Linden Lab has traditionally been unable to integrate." Linden Lab should be paying close attention; they love to ignore problems, such as my inability to capture video on my Mac client as I once could do.

As long as the competition is weak, LL will not have to make customer service a priority.

In a few year? We'll see.