Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sounding Off: Second Life Educators and "What Do We Want?"

Location: NOT at the VWER Roundtable

Photo credit: Lolly Dovgal

I'm doing a night class for the next month, so I missed an important session of the Roundtable. I've asked for on-my-computer backups of my creations in Second Life, but what did 30+ colleagues put on their wish-lists for 2010?
  • Easier scripting
  • More than 25 groups/avatar & more flexibility in groups (subgroups etc.)
  • Better performance on lower-powered systems
  • Interoperability with other virtual worlds
  • Better media management in SL (working video capture for all OSes, document sharing, course-management system)
  • Some policy to allow those under eighteen to use the Main Grid if they are in a class, coupled with better policing of underage residents on the grid
  • (For some) A separate educational grid.
Noteworthy Quotations; Kudos to Lolly & Olivia: "recognition of value at the university!" and "I would like to see support of education that was as strong as it is for business, and conducted in a way that worked with educators' constraints - semesters, huge enrollments, age restrictions, group privileges, group enrollment, etc."

Read the entire transcript here. Let's hope the the Linden Lab team pays more attention to the educational community this year.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Heritage Key: Improved Avatars & Orientation

The Mechanism 2/2
Location: Travel Hub, Heritage Key

Before Viv gave me my recent tour of the Heritage Key Valley of the Kings, I bumbled about the new welcome areas for avatars. The ability to select better avatars (I'm sticking with Ron Glass' clone, however) makes HK worth a repeat visit. Here's Iggy/Ron looking at the new HK avatars and accessories:

A Welcome Change

Still in the works: a better default walk. I hope that happens soon. It's the only thing I detest about my avatar, and my students felt the same about their walks last term. If for nothing more than deepening the immersion here, realistic walks for men and women would help.

I like the Travel Hub, pictured below, a great deal.

Travel Hub

The immersive nature of the experience--the avatar as time-traveler--extends to the Dr. Who style time-travel booths. I'm not an avid follower of Dr. Who, but I know a Tardis-like device when I see one. The simulation is not too close, but the reference is both quaint and comforting. The area matched my mental image of how a time-travel hub might actually look.

Time Travel Portal

I'm very fond of the Mechanism that powers all this, Viv's interpretation of an antikythera mechanism mixed with an astrolabe - a Steampunk masterwork. The new welcome region features many classic buildings, mixed with futuristic ones by primary sim Flopsie Mcardle and Rezzable's team, including LIttleToe Bartlett, My McKenzie, and Pavig Lok, get major nods for the structure and decor of the new areas. But, unless I'm mistaken (and I'm not), Viv's is the twisted mind behind the Mechanism's underpinnings as well.

I knew this when, touching various objects, I got this message: "Do NOT Touch!!!: You've discovered the secret power hub of Heritage Key. Watch out for the alligator!" Perhaps you'll see the critter in the image below:

The Mechanism 1/2

Viv notes that "the Travel Hub is meant to be a center of travel - from here you can get to all the regions that are opening up--Stonehenge, Tutankhamun, the Terra cotta Warriors, Ancient London--and travel within them, then come back and explore more destinations." There is information about many of these areas within the travel center. For instance, I got this notice:

departure 5: Stonehenge 2010: Walk the stones at sunset and meet modern-day Druids. Feel what it is like to attend a festival, and revel in the shadows of the Stones.

Orientation and guidance extend beyond the Learning Center. Viv has been at work on a HUD to guide visitors through the Valley of the Kings, too. She adds:

"I'm finishing the new updates to the VoK wearable...adding a region map with resource areas marked. It will help people see where they are, and what they're doing, and also allow them to reflect on the things they've found."

My next post will return to the Valley of the Kings for more detail on the HUD and the other treasures there.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of the Fake Nation: Gimme My Free House, Linden Lab

Linden Furniture Girl
Location: Buyer's Remorse

When I hard about this new program, I figured the incentive for new premium members would bring in lots of residents who pay that $72 annual fee. That's real money for Linden Lab, whatever Mark Kingdon once said about his disinterest in premium memberships.

Our premium memberships include a 300L weekly stipend, but remember, the $72 is an actual-dollar payment to Linden Lab. The stipends are distributed with Linden Dollars that the Lab creates, like the US Federal Reserve printing more money.

This is a no-brainer for the Lab. As I realized (awakening me from a stupid torpor) from a recent post by Tateru Nino, when one cashes out Linden Dollars in SL, not a penny comes out of LL's pocket. A "sell order" is filled by another SL resident who wants to purchase some ready (fake) cash.

Okay, that's the end of SLecon 101. My non-snarky side is not interested; I had a look at some of the neighborhoods. They are too much like suburbia, a living arrangement that I detest in real life. And the new SLurbs lack roads, so where would I drive my fake car?

Now for the snarky part from an old resident (me). Take it away, other half of my personality!

Does anyone recall the "Furniture Girls" from the wonderfully ecological Heston film, "Soylent Green"? You gotta love this aspect of the ad. Poor lass is coming out of her blouse, too!

Well, I didn't get no stinking free house, no open-blouse babe, and no SL Stimulus package when I went Premium in hoo! I want my free suburban house! I want my "furniture"! I want it all and I don't wanna pay anything for what I deserve!

How closely SL mirrors the psychology of real life in the States. Hey, Mr. President! Change that State of the Union address, now! Give every citizen who sends the Treasury $72 a house and then a check for $1000, and all will be well for the nation and your legacy!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Next VWER meeting: What Do You Want?

Location: Prepping for Night Class

This is a timely topic, with Claudia Linden attending last week's meeting after a long absence. I think that signals LL may be ready to listen to educators, again. They could even regain some trust in our community. So come join us and answer AJ's question:

Tuesday, January 26th, at 2:30pm SLT at the CHSSSouth Amphitheater, on Montclair State CHSSSouth:

So here are my answers, AJ:
  • Dream #1--Perfect SL replica of 1967 Pontiac GTO (dark green, tan leather interior and convertible top) with Positrac rear end, 400 cubic inch V8 with working cold-air-induction hood scoop. Redline tires and Pontiac Rally mag wheels, please.
  • Dream #2--LL sanctioned inventory backup from SL to my hard drive for items I create.
I'm betting I'll see the GTO first, sold to me by John DeLorean's avatar. But maybe I'm wrong, and LL is ready to add features that will help educators try SL and convince their schools that LL provides services we can depend upon.

Later on I'll report on educators' wish-lists.

Free GTO courtesy of

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Heritage Key Update: Less Lag, More Magic

Heritage Key Tut: in the tomb
Location: Heritage Key's Valley of the Kings

Viv Trafalgar wanted to give me a sneak peek at some of the new content coming for Heritage Key. I'd cast some doubt last fall on how well it worked for my class. So now I'll begin a few dispatches on what we found, on my return visit. This post focuses on the Tomb of Tut. I'll turn soon in another post to the orientation experience for Heritage Key.

I'm pleased that on almost all fronts that worried me, Rezzable's team has made some dramatic improvements to the areas I'd ticked off: lag, navigation, avatar customization, and stability. Viv and I, and one other visitor, interacted with only a few difficulties, despite a server upgrade underway as we did our tour.

When Viv met me, she wore a mask of Anubis, one of several rewards that visitors can find after completing puzzles and quests. I won't give any hints away, but the Tomb chamber for Tut has a timed game that leads one to win the mask. I got one, as my lead-in photo shows. Viv's at work on a series of playing cards linked to the history and culture of Tut's Egypt. She asked me not to post any of them containing clues, but here's a sample she approved:

Adding these game-like elements linked to educational outcomes, such as learning which Egyptian gods governed which elements of the afterlife, really makes HK more than just eye-candy for educational visitors.

Hertitage Key Tut: Game Rules

Moreover, I have a better idea of the context of the tomb itself, since now objects that Howard Carter's team moved are rendered in their original spots as half-transparent shadows (including Tut's sarcophagus). That last addition would be a fine way to enhance the "Saving Isis" project I did last fall with my first-year writing class.

Heritage Key Tut: Tuts Restin...

I'd predict that for the Fall 2010 term (it being too late to work HK into Spring-term classes) that a few more educators will bring classes into the Valley of the Kings. I hope that Rezzable can do some work to get the project on educational radar, by sending articulate folks to academic conferences with a focus on technology in the classroom. I don't know the age-limit for HK, but if 14-17 year-olds can log on, I'd pitch the project to high-school teachers. Speaking only from my US perspective in Virginia, the state standards-of-learning require knowledge of ancient Egypt.

The site will only improve as more interactive content comes online. More importantly for teachers, the work on the Valley of the Kings shows that Rezzable has a long-standing commitment to education in its Heritage Key projects. I look forward to participating in their evolution.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The REAL Reason Reuters Left Second Life

Location: Random Seraching

I ran across this 2007 story in Reuter's archive, "What will the next year bring in Second Life?" The only question I have, after reading this, is why we wonder about the poor perceptions of SL outside our resident base.

I know I'm taking cheap shots at the folks who dressed up for the "Leather and Lace Masquerade" at SLCC in 2007. Yet if that was a public face of SL during the era of lots of new coverage for the virtual world, how can we wonder at its poor perception now?

Kudos to Izzy, the poor Linden Lab employee who said, "Increased satisfaction among the membership.” Uh, yeah. Which membership?

I'm having a science-fiction-convention flashback!

With a couple of exceptions, photos of avatars would have done less damage to SL's rep. But then, photos from academic conferences would not help our reputations, either, even though we don't have "leather and lace" events.

And thank God for that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Iggy and Beeble Make a Second Life Phantom

Mother Ushers Spirit
Location: Virtual House of Usher

I'm not a scripter by any stretch, but I'm good at cut-and-paste work. So when I found The Script Me! site a couple of years back, I salted away the URL for just such a day as today, when my colleague using SL, Beeble Baxter, poked his head into my office door.

"Can we get a ghost of Roderick and Madeline's mom to leave clues in the House of Usher?"

"Sure, Beeble," I replied. "I'll just fool around and see what disasters happen." But within an hour of trial-and-error testing, we had a phantasm that would appear when an avatar said a code-word in chat, then disappear after a few moments. In the interim, it would shout a warning whenever an avatar came within 5 meters:

"For the love of God! Do not allow Roderick to do to my other child as he has done to me!"

What Roderick did, as Beeble reminds me, should be left to conjecture: digging mom's bones up, having an "unspeakable" relationship with both her and his sister, or more? Well, Poe did not shirk from cannibalism, incest, rapid putrefaction, and other horrors in his tales. Why should we? But the actors playing the Ushers need to decide, with each visit to the House, what particular horror they wish to roleplay (I mean "simulate," Viv).

The only danger I foresee is that Beeble and I will over-populate the House with pop-up ghosts, each providing clues and, perhaps, responding to each other.

It's a risk we will run. I'm having too much fun, right now, downloading images of Victorian "ghost photos," embedding skulls and decayed faces in the right spots, then uploading them to Second Life.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What Sells and Second Life

Location: Goth-Barbie's Creepy Fetish Roleplay Treehouse

If only the social life of avatars were as innocent as the silly tubing-party shown above, from an item advertised on the site, now owned by Second Life's creator, Linden Lab.

Dang, what a pile of commas in that last sentence! Qualifying clauses aside, I can state this: what sells there is both amusing and sad. I never fail to notice, out the corner of my beady eyes, the little "popular" box one sees after logging on to the Second Life Web site.

This is dubious marketing for something educators would ever consider "mainstream." Have you readers in education ever clicked on any of these items? It seems that Linden Lab does know where the money is, which may be why they aquired the XStreet and Onrez sites. The money, as people keep saying again and again at our weekly Roundtable meetings, is not with us:

This outfit had the terms "Neko, Goth, Vampire" and more with it. I am so dense. I thought that the roleplaying communities (see correction at end) could not rival education for in-world spending. After all, we pay tier on entire islands. But I'm wrong, apparently. I reckon they own piles more.

Yet one wonders about how such promotion of content will influence future users. How will admins and parents react, when they browse the SL Web pages, and see this for the class in which junior has just enrolled?

Yes, this is what is popular: awful ink and electric tape (not that I mind discrete ink in real life).

As in so much of our crazy popular culture, crap sells. And we who would raise humanity's lot with ideas worth debating, with science pushing back ignorance, with new ways of conceiving our place in an indifferent cosmos?

We get crumbs, as we do in real-life America. Yay, Goth-Fetish Barbie! You go, freak!

Correction for Jan. 19: I hope that the roleplayers of Caledon, New Babbage, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings do not come after me with rolls of black tape. I stupidly generalized here. Not all roleplaying is adult-rated. Mea Culpa.

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Reading Meeting" In Second Life

Info Island, 2007
Location: Comfy Chair

I'm looking forward to our next Virtual Worlds Roundtable, where we'll hold our first-ever "Reading Meeting." The idea is like any other book group that meets in Second Life, except our Roundtable will discuss a short academic reading each month.

Despite a ponderous title, "A Methodology for Measuring Usability Evaluation Skills Using the Constructivist Theory and the Second Life Virtual World" promises to put some method in our teaching with and about SL. If you want a copy, visit this link.

On Tuesday Jan. 19, 2:30-3:30 SL Time, we'll meet at Montclair State's Virtual Campus. Join us [teleport link] from your favorite chair for a text-chat discussion of this article and its implications for education.

Coda: I'm working on a snarky post about what seems to be popular in SL's shopping site owned by Linden Lab (mostly trashy fashion), compared to what we eggheads do (or wear).

Well, I enjoy in being happily un-hip! Come read with us and par-tee!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

2010 in Second Life: The Educators Reflect

Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable
photo courtesy of Ponderosafish at Flickr

On Jan. 5, a distinguished group of educators and technologists took the stage at Montclair State's virtual campus. While the entire transcript of what they said/predicted/opined can be found here, I've pulled out several salient points. Note that the presenters spoke in voice, and these transcriptions approximate their remarks:

Awareness of virtual worlds in education
  • "I no longer feel my job is justifying edu in VWs. . .not that VWs have reached mainstream adoption decision-makers are convinced they are worthwhile in terms of investigation even if they don't understand all the implications. We're no longer justifying, now focusing on scalability, integrating w/campus data systems." (Fleep Tuque)
  • "It is quite possible that 2010 be the year that virtual worlds learning comes of age." (Wainbrave Bernal)
  • "Part of my belief that this could be the year of non apology. This is a relatively no cost place for education." (Kenny Hubble).
  • Wainbrave Bernal talked in some detail about his beliefs that "the mobile, the virtual, the haptic will converge" soon.
How much does Linden Lab listen?
  • [At the Second Life Community Convention in 2008] "one session was a group of educators giving feedback. we talked about bringing in our students, faculty, administrators, asked for better registration APIs, easier group [management], etc. As I read the blog post [by M. Linden, with predictions for 2010 and beyond], I realized nearly none of it was addressed on the list and I am disappointed." (Fleep Tuque)
  • "a little pessimistic [that] the 2008 needs were not answered. The long term user(s) are going to get a bit fed up with being ignored and not getting heard." (AnthonyFontana Chevalier)
Improvements needed
  • "I think they lose a lot of people still in the orientation process and they want it much improved." (Wainbrave Bernal)
  • "Content protection has been hammered of late." (Buddy Sprocket)
  • "I hope LL will look at the low-hanging fruit & address some of our needs even a little. That small amount could have a big impact in what we can do in edu." (Fleep Tuque)
Possibilities of Open Sim Worlds
  • "Can SL remain a player in the field of VW's, and what do they need to do?" (AJ Brooks)
  • "I'm amazed at the progress of Open Sim even in the last 12 [months]. When I first tried it it was blank, you were ruthed, couldn't move. . .I'm surprised more educators aren't jumping to Open Sim." (Fleep Tuque)
  • "We're thinking about it." (AnthonyFontana Chevalier)
  • "I can see faculty member making curriculum in their own VW. . . and when they want community, they go into SL, do research, and come back to locally run Virtual environment that looks like SL without all the restrictions." (AJ Brooks)
  • "We are not meeting in open sim tonight so there is a place for SL it is the common ground." (Buddy Sprocket)
It was far from a "bash Linden Lab" meeting. As Kenny Hubble reminded us, "Are WE doing as much as we could do to make this as much of a success for our institutions?" Fleep replied, "Ken's an optimist & reminds me to be grateful for what we do have."

As, one hopes, are those who build virtual worlds that include educators. Our short-term investments may pale, in total spending, when compared to social users. But higher ed has deep pockets and, when we invest, it's for the long term.

With that in mind, I'll let Jeremy Kabumpo, not on the panel but well known for his work with SL, close this post:

"Second Life in the form we see it here has an 18-month lifespan going forward. [CEO Mark] Kingdon has essentially stopped the company in its tracks technically and also melted its core value - its community. But the learning models and teaching methods we have designed and tested in Second Life will map onto new platforms. After OpenSim, Flash in the browser and location-based wireless apps need our attention. The tech press think of Facebook apps like Farmville as virtual worlds."

A Semester Without Second Life!

AIrships and Other Goodies
Location: In a Quandary

For the first time in a while, I can actually enjoy SL as a user and not as a teacher. Though I'll be consulting on the House of Usher project for a course in Rhetoric, I'm not the "prof."

How will I spend my time?
  • Exploring SL more often in my car and at events
  • Exploring what the virtual world Reaction Grid offers
  • Doing more customization of the Usher Build
  • Enjoying more free time for older hobbies (board gaming, building model aircraft and ships, gardening).
Sounds like a working plan. I actually won't miss teaching in SL, at least for a few months.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

January Road Trip: A Hotrod Named Desire

Highway time
Location: Desire Sim Free Vehicle Rez Platform

I began my trip, the first in SL in a couple of months, at this free rezzing spot, my goal to circle the inland sea on this continent and end up at the Memory Bazaar, where my avatar rezzed in SL nearly three years ago.

Some highlights:

--In Mud sim, a hot-air balloon ride created by Blaise Timtam, who set up the Svarga Memorial. Small world!
Belated Christmas shop
--Next door in Alcona sim, a belated Christmas shop. A few empty and sad looking camping towels nearby.

--This strange place, an adult club that had moved its main location to the adult-rated continent. Nothing naughty on view, but the lack of taste in decor was actionable. Gotta love the giant sexbed at the center of it all (floating text above it reading "locked"). It's redolent of an earlier era in SL, before the Lindens segregated content.

What taste!

--I crested a hill and nearly ran down an avatar named Rex. I IMed him as I sped away:
Ignatius Onomatopoeia: sorry about that near miss! Don't often meet anyone on the road

Rex Ishelwood: Not a problem

Ignatius Onomatopoeia: I do a monthly road-trip just to see what's up and put it in my blog. Any road-news?

Rex Ishelwood: Traveler nearly killed by speeding driver

Rex Ishelwood: SL needs more sidewalks

Ignatius Onomatopoeia: and driving schools
I was closing in on my destination when my friend Twyla (of the late, lamented HippiePay Island) IMed me; she was losing it laughing at Art Box's interactive displays, where I'd recently taken some pictures.

Yellow Brick Road

So my road trip ended up on a famous yellow-brick road...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

11th Lesson For Literary Simulations: Backstory

Attic skeleton
Location: Virtual House of Usher

Viv Trafalgar and I summed up, in 10 lessons, our thoughts about what educators need to consider when they construct literary simulations in Second Life or other virtual worlds.

Now, like my heroes in the mock-metal band Spinal Tap, I want to go to 11.

Usher would not have worked as well as it did without backstory. I first encountered the term over at the Alphaville Herald, when Urizenus Sklar, avatar for Northwestern University Philosopher Peter Ludow, described the idea of how two different types of gamers react to online spaces in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs):
Ludologists think that MMOs are all about play. Narratologists think that MMOs are about spinning collaborative narratives. . . . In Second Life those narratives have to evolve organically in the lore of places . . . .Good back stories have uptake -- users pick up on them, expand on them, and write them into their own narratives and game play.
I'm a Narratologist through and through, and as a long-time gamer of the dice-and-paper sort, I generally preferred to build game campaigns to playing in them. I do roll d20s as a player, of course, but it's the task of making a world--or even a character I play--seem real that makes gameplay come to life. I've had "hack and slash" gamers join our weekly "Nerd Night" sessions, but they quickly bore as our group prefers to build story-lines collaboratively.

That said, without the backstory or a game-world, it would be hard to get the uptake Ludlow describes.

So we added a lot to Usher that Poe never put into his tale, but what we added remains consonant with his story (and borrows directly from his other work). Have a look at our wiki site on the Usher project for the backstory that emerged right before and during the playtest. It is subject to revision, but what interests me most is how we did not script it completely before students began to explore the House of Usher. We had some ideas, suggested by the making of the House and its contents; much more came out as students explored the House and made suggestions.

The narrative will continue to evolve this semester and next, as more students explore Poe's doomed family and their strange home.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Svarga: Closed to Mere Mortals

svarga memorial
Location: Svarga Memorial

I've been wondering whatever happened to Svarga. Long ago (by Second Life's standards) the creator, Laukosargas Svarog, put the island up for sale. I think it vanished from SL's map, for a time, only to reappear as an island that no one, save the current owner, could visit.

For those who missed Svarga when it was open to the public, the island was a phenomenal, Myst-style build done before sculpted prims were available in SL.

I have some fond memories of the island and its virtual ecosystem. I spent many an idle hour there just wandering and chatting with other visitors. Sometimes I'd just fly around the island in my car and take pictures.

svarga car

One bit of Svarga remains, Blaise Timtam's Svarga Memorial [teleport link]. I contacted Blaise for more information, and he didn't know much more than I do:
More than a year ago Svarga was for sale from its private island owner. Then it was restricted to svarga group members only and recently it diappeared from the grid. Then it came back with the same "satelite" image on the map but still unaccessible to public, shortly before it disappered i got an IM from sim owner that it was sold.
Here it is, as close as we'll likely get anytime soon:
svarga now

Svarga now reminds me of Tolkein's Valinor, the land of the immortals that lay, at one point, to the uttermost west of Middle Earth. Mortals were banned from going there, because it was the land of the Valar, the lords of Tolkein's world (Sauron's boss and the first Dark Lord, Morgoth, was a fallen Valar).

I suppose that whoever owns Svarga now is happy there. To me it seems sad; at least the Valar had the Elves to keep them company. I can imagine some eccentric and rich hobbyist, wandering the landscape all alone...of course, Philip Rosedale was fond of Svarga, and his avatar used to hang out there. I like to imagine that SL's founder is the mysterious, lonely sage wandering among the ferns and sky-bridges of Svarga.

Yet I never have seen a green dot on this map-view, indicating that someone is "at home."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Art Box: A Great Immersive Primer for Students

Art Box: Abbey Road
Location: Abbey Road

When I discovered that one could enter a painting for famous photograph, I had to hightail it over to Art Box, in order to get my and Pappy Enoch's New Years' Greetings cards out.

This simulation would be a perfect starting point for teachers who want to show students what interactive art can mean. After my students see Robbie Dingo's Watch the World(s) they want to explore interactive artwork in SL. This easy-to-use exhibit / playspace would teach students several useful skills in SL, notably how to take photographs well and move their cameras.

It might even mean a job for Pappy, cleaning up for Edward Hopper (or at least cleaning out Hopper's cash register).

Art Box: Nighthawks

Teleport on over and have fun hamming it up in dozens of famous works of art.

Thank you, James Au, for featuring this simulation in New World Notes' list of 20 most popular sims of 2009.