Thursday, September 9, 2010

Some Martian Musings: Why I'm Not Visiting Blue Mars Yet

Arcadia's Martian Boneyard
Location: New World Notes

image: "Arcadia's Boneyard," from BlueMarsOnline's Photostream

What a drama-fest Hamlet Au's decision to start a Blue-Mars blog has caused, with one grump calling him a "traitor." Au is just looking out for his career. If Blue Mars is an up-and-coming virtual world, and the maker, Avatar Reality, is willing to pay him for his reports, he needs to be over there.

Disclaimer: Prim Perfect pays me to report on OpenSim and other non-SL grids, so I may be kinder to Hamlet than are some of his regular readers. As for Blue Mars, I'll just have to take a look. Eventually. There are a few concerns I have about it, and if they are correct, this virtual world will never be good for educators.

Cross Platform Failure:

I suspect other OSes will come to Blue Mars, and while I won't visit or recommend any world to colleagues until I can do so without Bootcamp on my Mac, I'm not as harsh about it as some Mac-users. Avatar Reality picked a Windows-only game engine for their own reasons (their CEO is a Microsoft alum, one; they wanted a certain level of graphics performance, two). I'd prefer a cloud-based service for my students, anyhow; we have high-speed access everywhere on campus, and the kids want to do their projects on portable devices, not desktop PCs.

No In-World Content Creation:

The lack of content made in-world by end users has been more a detriment to me than the lack of a native Mac client. But I want to look to be sure. Builds like Usher, for all its warts, began with a team on computers together in SL, making the simulation together. I've spent over 200 hours on the project, and at least 50 of them were collaborative in our Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology with one or more students present.

I cannot imagine that sort of live building going on with me using a 3D tool, a student nearby using another to make objects, then having to log on to the world to see our work. As clumsy as it is in Second Life, building in-world has some amazing potential for collaboration, and collaboration trumps slick design for me every time.
Build it! Finale
My students shown here, for all their lack of building skills, stayed up until midnight with me to finish our builds in Fall 2008. They reported having a blast doing this, too.

Second Life and OpenSim permit amateurs in classes not dedicated to design to try their hand at building. That's a killer application of these platforms, and it would be impossible in Blue Mars.

Little Interest in Educators by Avatar Reality and Little Interest in Virtual Worlds by Evaluators:

Nowhere in the Avatar Reality's early materials did they court educators. Now I'm seeing a few nods to us in their FAQs. I'm pleased they have changed that.

Yet it appears, from the barriers to content creation alone, that Blue Mars is not going to be the platform for most of the educators I know, whose skill sets tend to be stretched even for prim-based work. Perhaps those of my colleagues at institutions with architecture, engineering, or large computer-science departments can find student assistants to make good content for Blue Mars. My local CS faculty grin about virtual worlds, and to be honest, the students think these worlds provide lame alternatives to gaming.

We faculty could hire Maya-skilled builders, or learn it, Sketchup, or Blender for builds in Blue Mars, if the interface is all that compelling. I may well begin learning Sketchup or Blender, even though the time required will be detrimental to professional development more readily accepted by my evaluators.

I'll see when Avatar Reality launches a Mac client or opens a cloud-based portal to their world. But like many colleagues, I'm not rewarded annually for learning new software unless it's directly related to teaching or scholarship. I can make the case just as well for having my students blog as for learning Maya, and the learning curve for blogging is infinitely shallower.

OpenSim as a Better Bet:

For now, and with grids like Reaction and Third Rock Grids courting educators, we could figure out how to host our simulations in OpenSim. We can keep meeting in SL and holding conferences there, given its proven ability to host events and conferences.

While the "Second Life" moniker has its own troubles, our colleagues and evaluators don't like the term "game" as it is, and that's how Avatar Reality markets its world.

So while I'm eager to see how stunning this SL competitor is, I don't think too many educators will be investing time or energy there. If you have experience in Blue Mars and an opinion on it for education, I'd love to know how it has gone for you.


Dale Innis said...

Some comments on how soon I would guess you'll see the magical "cloud" (i.e. server-rendered) access to Blue Mars (or anything else in the consumer VW space) here.

Iggy O said...

Thank you, Dale, for the clear-eyed points about "server-side rendering.

As a Rhetorician first and techie second, I'm sorry to say that "cloud" is so much more evocative and simple.

Such computing will be necessary if ANY of these providers want the sorts of customers I teach. Mainstream adoption will hinge on something as simple to use as a browser, albeit one with a plug-in. Very few students or faculty will put up with downloading a large client for SL or Blue Mars or OpenSim.

Josue Habana said...

I have tried Blue Mars. With a top ed PC that runs SL flawlessly on all the highest settings, I struggle on anything beyond the medium settings on Blue Mars.

Not everyone had a high end PC... so I really think Blue Mars is alienating a lot of users.

Of course, SL takes a good machine to run it brilliantly, but at least even those with a low end machine CAN run SL, even if they can't enjoy Windlight!

Iggy O said...

Josue, see Dale's link with first-hand experience in BM. I hope that server-side rendering will make it work not only on Macs but on your high-end Windows system.

It's worth noting that Hamlet Au had to buy a new Alienware laptop for his gig.

I'll quote a student from last fall, a tech-savvy kid who said that virtual worlds as they now exist would never catch on with his generation:

"Note everyone can afford an Alienware desktop."

Or laptop. Avatar Reality, Linden Lab, and OpenSim hosts need to keep that in mind if they want any retention of Millennials. If it won't run on wireless handheld devices, it may as well not exist.

Why is the industry lacking that vision?