Monday, November 29, 2010

Virtual House of Usher: Viv's Machinima

Location: Brooding in the Crypt

As part of an article Viv Trafalgar and I are co-authoring, she produced a video of our soon-to-vanish Second Life build of Poe's House of Usher. Many thanks to Jake Rose for composing an original theme for this video.

It's delightful to record the feeling of the House and more delightful still that an editor for an academic publication wanted machinima and still images in an online article. The scholarly world does change, slowly, and some things cannot be fully apprehended in print. Poe knew that; his most evocative work often stretched language to its limits.

A I watch Viv's video, I sense how much I will miss aspects of this House, and of course the wonderful content by builders such as Morris Mertel and several Steampunk geniuses.

We'll have a new House in Jokaydia Grid next year, ready for another group of students to try to save Madeline from her brother, and Roderick from himself, in an immersive re-imagining of Poe's shadowy masterpiece.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Future That Almost Happened: A Review

Location: Looking Skyward

I've really been enjoying Megan Prelinger's book Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957 - 1962. I've lamented the end of America's "reach" in space before in this blog, but Prelinger's book is more than a eulogy for a dead set of dreams. She shows us clearly how the aerospace companies of the Space-Race era recruited employees, wooed politicians, and projected a can-do spirit for technologies that seem alien and exotic to us, like the Nerva Nuclear Rocket. Even companies making ball bearings sexed up their ads with moon bases.

It's all a hazy memory from childhood for me, and those are the sorts that so often retain their power best. Madison Avenue was not interested in prediction, in the ads that Prelinger presents. The clients for the era's "Mad Men" wanted to hire the best engineering talent and beat any competitors in getting the next DoD or NASA contract. Showing what might happen in ten or twenty years was a great way to tap the talents coming suddenly out of engineering schools post-Sputnik.

I'm certain that Republic Aviation or Sperry did not care, or even conceive it possible, that they were going to break the hearts of hundreds of thousands of geeky kids who saw their ads in the public library, skipping copies of Hot Rod and Sports Illustrated to hunt down ragged back-issues of Aviation Week. There was money to be made in beating the Reds to the moon and even in preparing for what would have been humanity's final technological war. Along the way, we got some amazing space art, some of it heavily inspired by the covers of Astounding, others seeming sprung from the walls of exhibitions by Abstract Expressionist painters.

The images in the text, and Prelinger's analysis, reveal a sense of inevitability that the industry sought (and needed) to project, as well as insider information from the post-Apollo days, such as this pronouncement at engineers of NASA's Project Rover with its NERVA engine:

"Long-range research and development work that cannot be expect to have a real need or application until the 1980s must be terminated at this time."

To think that, for a shimmering moment in the last years of the 1960s, alongside the wishes for a Woodstock Nation (who became the ever-more-conservative Boomers of the 80s and went for Reagan) we had promises of a lunar base and Mars landing by 1985. I'll never forget the lonely and dog-eared copy of a NASA book on human-crewed Mars exploration that somehow made it onto a table with Apollo documentation in 1973, when I met the Apollo 17 crew in Richmond. It was an artifact for a future that almost happened.

At this distance this "other science fiction" of the years before Watergate all seems improbable. Yet had public interest and America's economy not waned in the 70s, a great number of these visions would have come to pass. Others, like nuclear-powered projects that exploded a series of small bombs in earth's atmosphere to reach escape velocity, would have run up against the potent dangers they posed to the earth's biosphere. If anything, such schemes prove that the engineering minds employed by the aerospace titans back then were not holistic thinkers and did not reckon with long-term costs.

In 2010 "routine" space travel seems unlikely, America has no concrete plans after the last shuttle retires, China manages a 1960s-style orbital mission every few years, Europe needs to bail out economies and not dream of space. Of course, millionaires can pony up a stack of cash for suborbital joy rides with Richard Branson, touching the Void for a few very expensive moments.

Perhaps I'll always be too much a creature of the 20th Century to find solace in other technological developments and too much a Peak Oiler to believe that our species will reach so far again with anything aside from robotic explorers. Experiences in virtual worlds can be immersive, but I'm still chair-bound as I manipulate pixels, not headed out with the first group of colonists to establish the Lunar International University's first campus.

The type of future on Prelinger's advertisements provided a dream of a transhumanism unlike that of today's merge-with-the-computer futurists. As a spacefaring race, humanity would be one with its spacecraft and colonies. We'd have left the cradle and have transcended our biological origins with hardware. Perhaps today's Transhumanists can upload their intelligences into robotic probes and reach for the stars.
Apollo 11, 40 Years On
Forty Years on, that possibility repels me, so I'm still waiting for my "ride" to the final frontier. In another forty, I'll get it, but it won't be in a spacecraft and I won't be able to blog about it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Here Come The Teens (Hide Your Pose Balls & Censor Your Profiles)

Public Orientation Island
Location: Linden Lab Blog

Terrence Linden seems to be assigned the tough jobs by his employer. He's an urbane man who visited the Virtual Worlds Roundtable a while back, just before the price-hike for education and nonprofits. We all liked what he said to us, then, though a week later I'm sure a few educators were saying entirely different things.

Now Terrence got the short straw and has to explain to residents how safeguards will work when 13-17 year old teens are permitted on Second Life's Main Grid next year. I waded through the comments to Terrence's post, I wondered what the changes might mean for those who teach, host sims, hold events, or develop educational content.

Our Profiles

First, we'll have to police not only our profiles but also those of visitors who come to our events on any sims zoned "General." Linden Lab is clearly not doing this, and though certain terms can be blocked automatically in classified listings, does the Lab have the ability to consider every photograph in a profile pic?

I just was at a VWER meeting with a woman whose name and profile noted her BDSM interests and even status as a teacher of these erotic arts. At a meeting with teens, I'd argue that she could not stay, nor could those with naughty group-titles or pictures in their profiles. Are we to AR such folks to prove due diligence? While I could care less what an adult does in private, once teens are legitimately "in the house," inaction will no longer be an option. Could a group who hosts events be sued in a US court? The sim owner? Linden Lab? All of above? We'll soon find out.

Naughty Cam, Naughty Click

For 13-15 year olds, to me it seems that Linden Lab's safeguards are sufficient. They will be locked down to estates where they have been sponsored.

But for 16 & 17 year-olds, who will be able to come to the Mainland, I agree with Ceera Murakami, who opined "Parcel bans to NOT prevent someone from camming into a parcel and buying content from vendors. They do NOT prevent anyone who is banned from interacting with content in the parcel they are banned from. The only "safe" thing to do with the arrival of the teens is to remove 100% of the content that is not G-rated from the mainland. Period. The vast majority of the Mature sims on the Mainland are within camming distance of one or more G-rated sims."

Linden Lab currently lacks the ability to police camming and clicking. One of my students, in Fall 2009, found many adult items in plain view on the Mainland just walking down the Linden-built roadways.

After the Teen Grid merges, no teen, in theory, will be allowed into a "Moderate" sim, the analog to the Mature sim. This, too, needs to be tested carefully before teachers bring their teens to the Mainland. My student later walked into a night club in a Mature sim to find a couple on a pool table, talking very dirty in public chat while warming up to have cybersex in front of the other patrons. Only my student and the loving couple can be seen here.

My student was not looking for this sort of content. He was part of my gender-or-race-change assignment, and he used in-world search to find popular social spaces to see how other residents would react to his female avatar. Not wanting a turn on the pool table, after an "Ewwwwww! Old folks doing it!" (and a snapshot!) he left. He was also 18 years old.

The Logical Fallacy of "It's No Different from the Internet"

How is our diddling among the pool balls different from what a minor might see on the 2D Web? A lot tamer, if it were only snaps. But I want to head off a rather facile complaint that "SL is no different from the Internet." In a PG-rated word, bullshit.

As an interactive environment, SL's content can "talk back" and educators make a great deal of how immersive it all is. We cannot argue that the environment is both more realistic than other online experiences and yet, when it comes to adult content, no different.

As meshes come to the grid, we'll make a big step closer to a photo-realistic metaverse.

My European colleagues will be scratching their heads over a lot of my concerns, but while the USA is not Iran, we have many thin-skinned moral conservatives who would not mind filing a law suit or two. We have conservative-activist Attorneys General in states like mine with ambitions for national office. A few appearances on some law-and-order TV show "protecting our children from online smut" would further such careers.

And we are a litigious nation.

It May All be Moot

While 16-17 year olds will be able to register from home, at school it may not be an issue. Even after the change, many schools will not touch SL with a 10-meter prim pole. My wife's county does not let any flavor of SL through its firewall, and having exceptions granted is a tedious business.

Personally, I'm not even bringing my of-age students to SL in 2011-12, since I'll be using Jokaydia Grid and my Usher simulation. Any who explore SL for class research will sign my usual waiver. By then, this mess may be sorted out. Or not. Linden Lab needs new customers, and getting teens in-world seems to promise that. I'd argue that they could have already signed up in droves for the soon-to-close Teen Grid, had Linden Lab spent money on marketing.

If Linden Lab wants more concurrency and dots on their map, they should have instead encouraged in-world shopping and fixed some of the extant problems with their grid. Merchants like Morris Mertel have closed their in-world (and teen-friendly) shops to go to the online marketplace.

I'm just glad my colleagues and university won't be dealing with this legal jungle.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Roll Out The Barrel (And Give it Away)

Roll Out the Barrel!
Location: In the Hold of The Grampus

Poor Arthur Gordon Pym. He had to face hostile natives, starvation and forced cannibalism, the death (and rapid decomposition) of his best friend, and the not-so-deft hand of would-be novelist Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's one attempt at a novel is interesting, but hardly a coherent work. Like the poor man's mind and personal life, Pym is a mish-mash of chaotic events and violent outbursts.

At least the long-suffering Grampus, one of two sailing vessels wrecked and ripped to pieces, in an almost pornographic manner by Poe, can get some good flotsam and jetsam when I rebuild it.

In a tip of the hat to Yadni Monde, who made so many freebies that I used in the SL version of The House of Usher, I made a barrel for the wreck and the cellars of Jokaydia Usher. The process was easy, using two half-spheres streteched and "dimpled," with prim tops and bands. I'm not a cooper, but it was fun making them. Next I'll do some one-prim crates, another greatly appreciated gift of Yadni to SL residents.

To what end? I'm envisioning a terrible family secret not in the story, part of the experiments in intertextuality that my colleagues and I began in Second Life. Howard Usher, the father of Roderick and Madeline, knowing that the family was near bankruptcy, revised an old crime from his ancestor's past: Sir Howard became a wrecker, leaving lamps near the most treacherous spots on the Yorkshire Coast, then plundering what remained after the "accident."

I don't know how poor Pym will fit the expanded story spun on Nevermore. Perhaps someone or something devoured him!

The mystery will be solved, for the curious and persistent explorer. At seven prims a barrel (I know, I could probably get by with three and good textures) I could not resist putting barrels here and there and leaving clues in or under some of them.
Free to Copy

When I had a barrel done, I took one to the Newbie Dome at the grid's Welcome Area. It's free to copy, as are the ones at Nevermore. The nicest part of this new grid is the sense that we are all building things and giving them to colleagues for their projects.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Texter or Gamer: Which Are You?

Outside Platos Cave
Location: Solitary Pursuit Called Writing

I'm a hermit by inclination. Whether it's real life or the shimmering and consensual hallucination called a virtual world, I like my quiet. I don't appreciate the random IM, the unsolicited chat-request when I'm replying to my electronic mail. Lots of folks who fancy themselves writers seem to be that way.

This reaction is a long-term one that built over many years, but until I read "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction" in the New York Times, I did not fully understand why. Writer Matt Richtel notes that what Sherry Turkle has called "always on, always on you" technology has created new social types on campus, "not the thespian and the jock but the texter and gamer, Facebook addict and YouTube potato."

My colleagues who gather to discuss education in Second Life, and who post to blogs about it, often confuse these types. There's a conflation of ideas that runs like this: our students live virtual lives already and virtual worlds are an inevitability for them.

This is a mistake. Mediation and virtuality are separable to them, if not to us. There's a huge difference between the augmentationist who is always on Facebook or texting people known already and the loner who chooses to get immersed as a alter-ego, then connect a guild or a few distant gamer-pals through an MMORPG. Most Richmond students, who tend to be socially adept and careerist, are not loners by inclination and they've been scared by stories of gamers who end up where they began: mom and dad's basement.

Ironically, they hurt their grades either way, as the NYT story shows.

In my case, I escaped the basement, though I never had my bedroom down there. We had a nice dry cellar with 1970s wood paneling, and, yes, the D&D group met there in the 70s and 80s. I even escaped the lure of online gaming because of the massive amounts of time needed to be good at a game and the inability to make one's own game; I've long been the game-master type rather than the player. Academics and folks who write a lot tend to tilt that way, too.

But I'm neither traditional texter nor gamer. So are many of those who made SL what it is today.

It's possible that Linden Lab's recent move to stress the social aspects of Second Life over its creative aspects is a wise move: there are more texters than gamers out there. This leads me to think about which social networkers they want. If my students are any indication, they already have all of the social network they need; it consumes enough of their time to hurt their intellectual work. They have no patience for a non-intuitive interface such as SL's.

Will my colleagues who buy into triumphalist narratives about the course of networked technology "get this"? Not until they come to understand the shaping power of various technologies and the habits of use of various generations. There will be exceptions; one colleague is just as wrong in claiming that the Linden-Lab ideal customer is a bored housewife.

Finding a sweet-spot demographic is Linden Lab's problem to solve. Since I'll likely not be teaching in SL again, but only in focused-and-directed simulations in OpenSim, I have time for other worries. I ask a neo-luddite's questions about our networked lives and worry more about the next generation of young people. They are even more addicted to portable devices and easy connectivity than the ones I now teach.

How on earth can they be taught to listen to what silence can say?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A 3D Trick of the Eye for Novice Builders

Roderick Makes Some Armor
Location: Counting Prims

I'm writing a longer post for the VWER Web site about the lessons learned from nearly a month in Jokaydia Grid. Here's a tip I learned as I rebuild a superior version of the Virtual House of Usher.

Roderick has many familial heirlooms noticed by Poe's narrator, "sombre tapestries of the walls. . .phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode." The tapestries are easy. What about those trophies?

I could MAKE a suit of armor with my 20K prims, right?? Um, no.

Instead, I did this Shadow-box trick, until I got some mesh armor for Roderick’s family collection! As a drawing teacher told me not so many years ago, "trick the viewer's eye." Here's my technique:
  1. make shadowbox of two prims. The back prim is a flat rectangle; the top prim is a hollow cube aligned to show the back prim.
  2. color the inner surface of the box black and give its outside a wooden texture.
  3. put your “model” (some armor, a skeleton) on the front surface of the back prim at the rear of your box. I used Photoshop to simulate, in the 2D .jpg, the 3D interior of a box.
  4. I'm still playing with how to tilt the back prim inside the shadow box to make the 3D effect most realistic. From close up, of course, it vanishes.
If you try this technique, send me the pictures! If you are in Jokaydia Grid, stop by for free decor. Both suits of armor are full perm so help yourself to a copy.
Suit of Armor #1

Extra credit awarded if you put the shadow box behind an archway. I made one of those with a single prim as well, using alpha-layers and other geeky Photoshop tricks that require their own post, if not a full-on tutorial.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Case of the Premature Linking

Location: House of Usher

On a weekend of illness, reading, and being housebound, The Virtual House of Usher 2.0 in Jokaydia Grid has spawned a mystery worthy of Poe--vanishing walls, shifting images, and spooky apparitions that bespeak my recent fever, if not an overdose of Laudanum.

In texturing a wall above a hidden passage (all of this linked to the main build), I'd hoped to align the wallpaper patterns perfectly on two prims to hide the secret behind the walls. I'd had no trouble doing this on other walls, where, however, I'd not yet linked the prims. I'd also been able to shift horizontal and vertical repeats on already-linked walls without problem.

Now, however, when I try to re-texture or shift the repeats on one particular prim, it fails.

If I resize it, it vanishes! If I go back to edit the rest of the build and then move my camera back to the vanished prim, there it is again!

If I try to unlink it, it fails. For the love of God, Montresor!

Moving to another part of the House, I found I could unlink all four roof prims and then manipulate them. For my perverse prim, however, it's linked to too many others for me to consider.


I think I'll unlink it all and fix my spectral wall tomorrow, the the cold light of day when the shadows near my chamber door do not loom so large...only that, and nothing more.

Lessons Learned:
  • When building in OpenSim, get textures on prims to-be-linked aligned and perfect before linking them.
  • Consider doing a large build in sections, so if unlinking has to occur, it only alters 10 or 20, not 50, prims.
  • Count your blessings. In Second Life, our build of Usher had reached over 2000 prims by this point in construction. I have just hit 300, including prim-heavy props and furniture. I think we'll keep the entire thing under 1000 prims and then move on to the family graveyard and other Poe-themed areas on Nevermore.
  • Do not read too much Poe (or Poe-influence Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk) too close to working with a Poe-themed build.
See if you can spot the Imp of the Perverse Prim! Go to Jokay's shiny new Hypergrid Directory and scroll down to Nevermore. I hope you don't land in the dark tarn of Usher.

Update, Nov. 15: The mystery spawned in night's drear domain has been solved. Once I unlinked the House I could modify the errant prim.

I then relinked the House in sements and took copies into inventory. Other prims that were linked still could be edited. I think, however, that this impish prim of the perverse will remain autonomous until the final tolling of the bells of doom.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Virtual Theorists' Project: Meet the Faculty & Students!

Dr. Freud
Location: Talking to Dr. Freud About my Klaus-Kinski Nightmares

If you do not follow the SLED list, you might have missed AJ Kelton's note of this talk / open house. I find the project to be one of the best examples of immersive education in Second Life and it's well worth your time, especially to chat with students who have worked with the build. I've posted before here about my tour of the project (my students in Fall 2008 and 9 also toured and reviewed it).

To quote AJ about the current event:

"Teaching Counseling Theories in Virtual Worlds - Student Perspectives"

Wednesday the 17th, 5:30-7pm eastern time (2:30-4pm SL Time)

Edina Renfro-Michel has been teaching counseling theories in virtual worlds for around two years, this event is an opportunity to showcase Edina’ students perspective and the work they have produced.

One of the key elements of Edina’s teaching is to facilitate the students building of environments in Second Life that contain and reflect various counseling theories and their originators. There are now 9 houses built by students, each dedicated to different theories including those of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Carl Rogers.

We will begin with an introduction to the students themselves for about 20 minutes and then use the remaining time to tour the work of the students.

Edina is utilizing a highly innovative learning environment to combine powerful audio and visual resources to help students learn, assimilate and demonstrate complex theoretical propositions.

This event is an opportunity to get to know the students experience of this learning environment.

Virtual Worlds Roundtable Launches VWERGrid

VWER audience 11 November
Location: Ready to Hypergrid

image courtesy of Sheila Webber of VWER

AJ Kelton, founder of the VWER, just announced the group's new home: a four-region minigrid set up by Reaction Grid. The technology will permit those with avatars in OpenSim grids that permit hypergridding to teleport to meetings and events. You can also read Maria Korolov's coverage of the group's move here.

I'm most excited about expanding my own knowledge of running an OpenSim server, since it's a goal I have, long-term, for my university.

The VWER membership has sufficient skills to build what we'll need for this new grid. It will be considerable: making a meeting place, designing scripted objects, even pimping our avatars that are "native" to the new mini-grid.

Why is all of this important? The group's move signals that yet another educational group (like colleagues in New Zealand and at Clemson) have branched out to a technology superior to Second Life's closed universe. We have more control when we own or manage the technology of our builds, including region back-ups that resemble the ways we retain data for all of the other work we do outside virtual worlds.

Essentially this is an evolutionary move, not a revolution. Many members thought we were leaving SL, which isn't at all true. As long as that grid exists, VWER will meet there, though the price-hikes mean that our current home will vanish in May. The group's next step in SL will be to find a new home on that grid.

Lalo Telling once quipped that we may come to see SL as "the old country" from which we immigrated. I'm not sanguine about the future of walled-garden grids in general or SL in particular, but I will always feel fondness for SL.

Personal note: the last two weeks marked the first time I'd spent more time--a lot more time, actually--in OpenSim than in SL.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wizard Gynoid's Sacred Geometry: Through December 1

Location: Badly Needed Study Break

I needed to get away from reviewing academic articles for Writing Lab Newsletter and so off I went, in avatarian form, to see Wizard Gynoid's artwork. This gave me the excuse to play with the Advanced Sky settings, something I used to do on my monthly road trips until I got so mad at Linden Lab that I parked my fake cars for a while.

I don't get out enough now to see the arts in SL, one of the best reasons to retain an avatar in that grid. I've a layman's interest in geometry, one of the few forms of math at which I could ever earn A grades.

Wizzy's "Four-Point Retroperspective" runs until Dec. 1 at The Turing Gallery and to quote the artist:
"The creations shown here are a retrospective of some of the things I've been working on over the last three and a half years. Precise geometry is the unifying theme. My work has largely been about shifting these objects to an artistic context, so that their inherent beauty can be appreciated.

First Room: Works by Polagirus...

The lobby has several works by my collaborator Polagirus Paragorn. These works are significant from a "Sacred Geometry" perspective, and are suggestive of the significance of the isometric grid. The "Flower of Life" motif is recurrent.

The next room has objects representative of the Kepler/Poinsot group of geometric solids. The Platonic Solids are represented, as well as various higher-dimensional (than three)"
Sacred Geometry

Get by to see the work. I'm an old-school gamer, so I had to buy a dodecahedron.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Great Time To Invest in Virtual Worlds?

Location: Building the Usher Family Crypt


As I paste megaprims together in Jokaydia Grid, I read of two exciting developments for educators using virtual worlds: John Lester's job as Director of Community Development at Reaction Grid and Avatar Reality's announcement that Blue Mars will be able to launch well on the Mac OS, older PC hardware, the iPhone and iPad (and soon) even on a fast wireless connection.

Why should educators strapped for cash invest now? Although I have never been one to proclaim that anyone actually owns land in a virtual world, the situation today is analogous to the real-estate market. With competition for Linden Lab now and lower prices, it's a good time to get started.
  • In Second Life mainland pricing is very low and other closed grids like InWorldz and Blue Mars are offering service and content that are catching up to SL fast without SL's reputation for cybersex and griefing (unfair though that may be).
  • In many OpenSim grids the emergence of hypergate jumps allows connections between locally owned and hosted grids, so we have an archipelago of worlds that can scale, limited only by the number of servers distributed across the planet. That model seems to have worked pretty well for the 2D internet.
  • OpenSim stability continues to improve, in my personal experience and according to Maria Korolov's recent survey, 84% of OpenSim users would recommend the technology to others. and Mesh, groups, and other features that many SLers love (or want to have) will soon be there. With that comes the avalanche of content from Google's 3D Warehouse.
I'm sanguine enough about this moment to spend out-of-pocket for my sim at Jokaydia Grid (it's a bargain). In time, with a proof of concept there and, one presumes, a simpler UI, I want to show colleagues on my campus again why virtual worlds matter for building simulations. Then the institution can make the next step of hosting its own grid or renting space again.

By then I'll have our own hypergate at Nevermore sim, in a family graveyard beyond the House. It will resemble Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, including W.W. Poole's tomb. He's the Richmond Vampire, and his crypt is locked as if to keep something inside. I'll toss the doors open and make that our hypergate to the growing worlds beyond our bit of rented land.

Feels like starting all over from the lessons, good and bad, learned in the last four years.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What To Do (or Not) When You Talk To Admins & Colleagues

Location: VWER meeting

Image credit: Olivia Hotshot

I was impressed by the turnout last week for the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable. I'd blogged my ideas last week before we met, but what follows arose during the meeting. I think we reached consensus on most points.

I'm still working on the transcript, but here are a few highlights. Slap me with one of my own Lovecraftian tentacles if this all seems too obvious:
  • Dress and look serious. We may enjoy our unique appearances on-screen, but that will not sway wary colleagues. Olivia and I were making a little point in our appearances :)
  • Choose your venues. Several educationally appropriate choices appeared in the text, such as the WW I Poetry Archive, Virtual Harlem, and Spaceport Alpha. If possible (nice tip from Sheila Yoshikawa) pick a region or simulation that connects to the interests of your audience.
  • Choose language carefully. "Game" is not going to win too many friends, so alternatives might be "multi user virtual environment, " "immersive education," or (Olivia's idea) "visual web conferencing software." My favorite is "simulations builder" but the best answer was "trick them."
  • Use machinima first. You know that the Windows Media or Apple Quicktime Players won't crash on you as readily as will a virtual-world client. A canned video can show the potential of the environment. Just be sure to pre-test it on the equipment and in the room where the demo takes place!
  • Avoid "next big thing" discourse. Instead, consider practical applications of the technology, and for Second Life, be aware that except for Mitch Wagner, many well known tech journalists, who possess great ethos with I.T. admins, think SL is a dying product.
  • Know your culture. You may not wish to discuss the adult content in Second Life unless it comes up in your talk. But have a reasonable answer. Several folks noted that students on their campuses can download pornography without restrictions. That may be true, but naughty .jpgs do not talk back, I reminded them.
We never reached closure on this point, and perhaps we need not do so. I'll have the transcript ready in a day or two, so readers can review the wisdom of our group of educators, technologists, and instructional designers.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Walls Go Up at Usher

Location: Virtual House of Usher 2.0

Building without Sketchup has its advantages. The first House of Usher in Second Life had an elegant and rather Baroque floorplan, thanks to the sorts of magic possible with Sketchup. At the same time, it came out over-primmed and fussy to complete when it appeared, roofless.

Making the roof look decent must have taken eight hours in-world. Now, with a basically square floorplan, I'm already putting up walls that I've textured. Roderick's Library looks like a room now. Thanks to freebies at the grid's welcome area, it even has working oil lamps.

I think all told, the entire House will have under 200 prims as compared to 6000 in the Second Life build. It's more than starting with megaprims...building the second time let me economize in ways that did not occur to our original team, such as using ramps instead of a spiral staircase (and ramps are more realistic in a medieval structure).

Having one builder also eliminates the permissions-and-backup problems. Others can later add touches to the house and furnishings, but it really pays off to have one person do the bones of the place, and Usher is full of bones, literally and metaphorically.

Hair Mistake

Now if only I have time to make Roderick some hair!

Perhaps I'll modify some of the freebie male hair in Jokaydia Grid. Roderick's hair from Reaction Grid's main grid has just vanished out of inventory after being unable to load. Then I did try to (stupidly) resize some worn hair; it ended up half the size of the house!

These are the first glitches I've had, but for the House of Usher, everything is backed up at least once or, in some cases, twice. The rest is only hair.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Risking the Red Pill: What Questions to Ask Educators in Second Life

Location: Jokaydia Grid, Looking Backward

Shortly after Linden Lab announced the price-hike for educational sims, I polled my readers and also educators who do not normally follow this blog.

The results of what was admittedly an imperfectly worded survey appear here. I was gratified to get even 35 replies but I hope that a better designed survey will get more.

Now I'm wondering how to structure a new survey to give after January 1, the first month when those contracts for server-space (let's get over the illusion of calling it "owning land") end in SL. Educational sim-renters will then face the choice of renewing at higher rates, cutting back their holdings, moving to a mainland parcel, or not renewing at all. My Matrix reference is hardly a forced one: if we get representative answers to well designed questions, we may, like Neo, see a reality far different from the often-comforting one of our daily lives and work in virtual worlds.

As an Open-Source sort of person, whose creations in OpenSim will be given to those who are interested, I think designing a survey using the wisdom of crowds might be wise.

Here are responses I'm considering. Statistical mavens, have at it. I want to avoid bias (and I am biased about, if no longer enraged by, Linden Lab's decision) as much as possible. NOTE: this is not the survey. You'll get to reply to that later. I just want feedback on my questions at this point.

When your contract with Linden Lab comes up for renewal (or if it already has for the next year or years), your institution will:
  • Acquire more land for classes and programs in SL
  • Acquire more land for classes and programs in SL and set up programs on another grid
  • Continue classes and programs at current level in SL
  • Continue classes and programs at current level in SL and set up programs on another grid
  • Reduce land holdings (explain in comments) and continue classes & programs in SL
  • Reduce land holding (explain in comments) and set up programs on another grid
  • Cease renting land from Linden Lab & continue courses / programs in SL
  • Cease renting land from Linden Lab & move to another grid
  • Cease institutional work in any virtual world
  • Have not decided.
Readers, share critiques and revisions in comments. I'll then prepare the final survey to administer in 2011.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Butcher, no. Baker, no. Candlestick Maker in Jokaydia Grid!

Location: Letting there be light

When we finish our move to Jokaydia Grid, I'll miss Morris Mertel's furniture and outstanding candles that have graced the Usher Manse since early in the building process. I'm going to see if he'll sell me restricted-rights versions of his fireplace and furnishings, but meanwhile I thought that I might try to make a candle myself.

This tutorial is for those new to OpenSim (or SL) building.

1) Making the candle itself was was easy. I rezzed a tube, set its x and y sizes small, and I tapered the top. But the wick, a .01 meter tube, looked HUGE. As builders know, however, there are tricks to making "microprims."

2) A quick Google search revealed this post by Kevin Jennings, with a short and easily comprehended guide to making little-bitty details. Using the trick for a making a tiny square, I rezzed a cylinder, made it a sphere using Kevin's tricks, reset the sizes, then played with the stretch tool. It takes some patience but soon I had a pointed wick to go into the candle.
Linking up the Candle prims to...

3) I added more taper and reduced the candlestick to .02 meters x & y.

4) But what about the FLAME? There's a free candle-flame script that works in both SL or OpenSim. I don't mind paying for scripts but this one was a free godsend. I made it the root prim and linked the candle and wick to it.

Finished candle in House of Us...

5) Touch the candle and...three-prim instant ambiance! Thanks, Path, for the skull. Touch it and the spirit of Roderick's and Madeline's mom will appear with a grim warning. Note that it and the candle are free to copy and take. I'm going to make a few holders for these candles and do some in different sizes and colors.

Have fun and don't let the ghosts get you!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Talking to Colleagues and Administrators About Virtual Worlds

vwer Happy Halloween Iggy
Location: Lunch Table with Physics Department

kudos to Kali for the image of Lovecraftian Iggy

Rule One: Never show colleagues that you dress like a monster for Halloween, even if it's in a virtual world. Rule One B: Spell "virtual" correctly in your post's title (fixed 11/2/10!).

I often get the variation of the same question from my colleagues in Physics, as well as from a few mathematicians, with whom I have lunch. "So, what is happening with your avatar?"

The line is usually delivered with a crooked smile, as if a humanist can at least be funny with his research topic, if not serious.

My science and math colleagues do realize that lots of good simulation can be done in 3D, including inside virtual worlds. They would be an "easy sell" but what about Deans, Department Chairs, and I.T. administrators? That will be the topic this week at the Virtual Worlds Roundtable's meeting on the Montclair State University virtual campus. We begin Thursday at 2:30 pm SL Time and will chat for an hour. Teleport link:

I have a few other "ground rules" I employ. I'm going to toss them onto the roundtable Thursday, but here they are:
  • Avoid triumphalist discourse. Present VWs as a promising new technology, not the greatest innovation since fire. Explain that virtual worlds are not games, but that they use a game engine to let educators build simulations.
  • Note that there are some activities, such as exploring a simulation and interacting with it, that cannot be done without an avatar. Show them, for instance, pictures of the Virtual Theorists Project at Montclair State.
  • Point to the Canadian Border Crossing Project and in-world work by health professionals as examples of good in-world pedagogy, and note the Journal of Virtual World Research as a peer-reviewed publication.
  • If appropriate, point to your grid as not containing adult content. If on a grid where hanky-panky exists, get the students to sign a waiver and present this to dubious colleagues.
  • For face-to-face courses, do not emphasize in-world office hours when talking about a virtual world. I let my students know that they can IM me or visit during SL office hours, but that I'll also be at my physical office.
Selling my evaluators on The Virtual House of Usher was not simple but it worked. I had to convince them that the students would indeed read Poe's text and then write about it. The topic, as I patiently explained, would enable students to write at two levels: as art and architecture critics of the build itself, and as literary-studies students exploring what happens when a tale by a famous writer enters another medium. First, I asked the students to consider the compromises (and opportunities) for actors and creators, as well as the ability to make a tale that is deterministic in its original form into something where participants could alter the outcome.

My audience liked that, and so will yours. Come by Thursday to share stories of what worked for you, or come by to hear others' stories.