Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shift of Emphasis at Blog...or the End?

Location: Looking at shockingly bad 2007 avatar photos

Now it can be told: little is happening that interests me professionally in virtual worlds. So what to do?

The exodus of educators seems ongoing and inevitable. I no longer recognize the promising world online that, in the picture above, had me thinking that we were on the cusp of a revolution. While our VWER meetings used to pull in 30 or more in a week, we now log about 13, that luckiest of numbers.

And the topics are recycled too often. And so would mere whining on this blog.

Iggy is not in Second Life at all, save for a weekly meeting of our Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable and a single use of Usher in the Spring semester.

Choice One: this blog changes with the times. Tech on campus has raced past the era of CPU-intensive virtual worlds to what students hold in their palms.  I would hate to just write about mobile technology so I'd expand to technoculture with an academic focus. Virtual worlds would crop up from time to time, as the situation merits.

Choice Two: End this blog to focus on the campus ones that look at writing. I'm working on an anthology about online communities, too, and most of them are not related to virtual worlds.

So by January I'm going to face a tough call about "In a Strange Land," the blog I began in 2007, when our local daily paper tried to shift with the times and ride the brief and fleeting hyperbole about Second Life. They failed. So did Second Life, in terms of changing the culture of how we work online.

Stay tuned for that decision (if you are still reading this). If the current crop of Doomsday predictors are right, on Dec. 22 I won't have to make a decision.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What Simulations in Education Would Santa Bring YOU?

Location: VWER venue

It will be a fun meeting tomorrow, with the topic "Tell Santa: What Simulation Do YOU Want in STEM, the Arts, Humanities, or Social Sciences?"

Cue the ho-ho-ho music, cause I'm your Santa Claus as seen on TV.

I hope to publish a list of what we've never seen in any virtual world or have lost, such as the King Tut exhibit in SL's build of Heritage Key. That was a stunner.

Can't make the meeting and would like to suggest some simulations? Post 'em right here and naughty or nice, you may at least get your wish heard!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Novel Way to Market a New Virtual World

Glitch: Getting Started 
Location: Watching one door close as another creaks and threatens to open

I read Iris Ophelia's post that Tiny Speck's Glitch will close, joining the ranks of Google's Lively and Raph Koster's Metaplace in the bin of might-have-been sensations. Will Cloud Party be next?

I loved Glitch for a short while, but did not spend a great deal of time there after the funny concept grew a little tired. I never found community as we ran about squeezing chickens, planting seeds, and donating goodies to appease the giants and curry favor with them.

Iris noted that she too had tried it and stayed away until she heard the world was going under. She also noted the beautiful content she'd found. It was not enough, since not too many folks even knew that Glitch existed.

I'll quote at length from the company's closing announcement about why it failed to attract a user base large enough to sustain the world:
And, given the prevailing technological trends — the movement towards mobile and especially the continued decline of the Flash platform on which Glitch was built — it was unlikely to do so before its time was up. Glitch was very ambitious and pushed the limits of what could be done in a browser-based game ... and then those limits pushed back.
I have said, many times, to colleagues still vainly cheerleading for virtual worlds that I see the future daily: students using handheld devices, not heavy-duty desktops or even, increasingly, laptop computers. I feel sorry for virtual-world evangelists today, especially though naive enough to think that Linden Lab's bizarre corporate culture will pull off some miracle and make our media landscape that of 2006 again. Virtual-world evangelists remind me of me and my geeky Apollo-era friends, waiting for the Moon Base and our flying cars. Going on toward 50 years later, we are still waiting.

So does Glitch's closure mean that the virtual world concept is doomed to failure? Unlike SL, Glitch was fast and ran in a browser. So Flash or not, what could the next starry-eyed designer do to bolster the success of a virtual world with user-generated content?

How about market the world outside the echo-chamber of those who use and write about virtual worlds?

There's My Flying Car! A Vision For Marketing a Virtual World

No world with big aspirations is going to get enough users by cannibalizing SL's user base. Not Glitch or Cloud Party. None of these, including Google's Lively or Koster's Metaplace, advertised.

Compare that to the big games. I saw lots of adverts for Mass Effect III and now for the Assassin's Creed series, including ads on television. Would such expensive TV blitzes help a new virtual world? I don't know, but I have a notion that something different might.

I am about to read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, a novel I'll teach next term in my first-year seminar Cyberspace: History, Culture, and Future. The novel's setting is largely a near-ubiquitous virtual world called Oasis, and today I began to think: what if an author worked with a game designer from the start to let readers of the book enter the book's world? And what if the book contained clues and puzzles that might be of use in the virtual world?

Cline beat me to the punch, partly. He announced that:
I’ve hidden an “Easter egg” in the text of both the hardcover and paperback editions of Ready Player One. If readers can find this hidden clue, it will lead them to the first of three increasingly difficult video game challenges. The first video game challenge is an Atari 2600 game that contains another Easter Egg that will lead you to the Second Challenge. Completing the Second Challenge will lead you to the Third and Final Challenge.
A winner, Craig Queen, won an actual DeLorean car. While Cline did not take the audacious step of trying to get someone to build Oasis, he's on the road to it.

His contest is pure marketing gold, the sort of thing that Linden Lab could have done but never did, in their assiduous attempts to avoid advertising their world. Imagine giving away a real automobile in 2007, at the height of the SL frenzy, for a Premium member who had solved an in-world riddle. It would have made national news, and Linden Lab would have easily parted with a Porsche or two.

The Lindens relied on free media buzz and insider hipness to pump up SL. We are more harried and tethered to our mobile devices now than five years ago, so cutting through the smog of information would be harder. And hip? That's no longer the case for virtual worlds, so it escapes me why Tiny Speck, with a platform both more obscure and more stable than Linden Lab's, did not promote their game.

If someone can figure out how to create an immersive space that can be accessed by the computers we carry in our hands, it will still need marketing, where Tiny Speck, Rezzable, Linden Lab, Raph Koster, and Google all failed. It will take a tie-in to the broader geek culture, and it will take something like what Cline is pioneering: cult book and world released together.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A New Airplane

Location: Premium Sandbox

I want to both congratulate Linden Lab for the premium membership gift of a nicely rendered WWI biplane  and ask "if I want to dogfight, can I cross sims now?"

The answer is "maybe." From where I rezzed the biplane, it flew nicely and to test my aviation skills, I did a few barrel rolls. Immelmans and loops can wait for next time. I crossed a couple of borders into protected land that is not full of user-generated content. I'd not want to try that on the mainland where I still have a small parcel.

Is it even possible to fix that problem? UGC is what makes Second Life Second Life. It also bogs down sims with loads of poorly written scripts, overdone builds, and other lag-magnets.

Drive or fly anywhere. That's the gift I'd really like from the Lab. Aerial combat does not tend to run into invisible walls in the sky.

Curse you, Red Baron!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Political Post 2012: Party of Disaster

Future Americas? 
Location: Desk, gloating a bit about George Allen's defeat

Image rights (share with attribution) by futureatlas.com

I can sum up my attitude toward today's Republican Party with some comments left in response to a column by David Brooks of the New York Times. Brooks  critiqued the "hyperindividualist" ethos on display at the Tampa GOP convention, but he also critiqued today's Democrats as lacking an agenda. My remarks follow.

My NYT Response

I thought, at one time, that Governor Romney might have offered disenfranchised moderates like me a way back to voting GOP, as I did faithfully for John Warner and other men and women not beholden to the extremists and corporate money.

With the rise of the anti-logic, anti-science, and and anti-everything Tea Party and American Taliban that make up the GOP base today, I suppose it only natural that they'd consume an ambitious man like Romney.

For those like me, who favor both a strong military and strong environmental laws, who consider climate change to be the greatest threat to civilization since the rise of Nazism and the Soviet Bloc, who would confront the Islamists forcefully while fearing any mingling of church and state, what's left?

Certainly not today's GOP. Today's Democrats look, however, more like the GOP I once respected: an agenda to fix our environmental problems, invest in education and research, be forceful but pragmatic in geopolitics.

Where's the lack of agenda there? If Obama has failed--and I fear he has--it has been through the Limbaugh/Rove strategy of blocking everything, even what were once GOP ideas.

The President should have cracked heads, but instead he played the historic role of the nice black man. Pity. We need a head-cracker in such times.

The Way Back to GOP Relevance

So much for what I said in answer to David Brooks. The GOP took a modest pounding, not so much in terms of the popular vote as in their failure to capture increasingly important slices of the voting public: the young, the female, the non-white, the educated, the urban. Today, in USA Today, a disappointed fellow Virginian who is a "prepper" says he plans to stock up on ammunition before Obama outlaws all the guns.

As a fellow firearms owner, I find this laughable. But these same aging white rednecks ran out in 2008 to scoop up so much ammo that stocks ran low.

If the GOP wishes to survive in  a changing America, they need to, in no particular order past point one:
  • Recognize the existential threat of human-influenced climate change and propose a response, with lots of free-market focuses, on curbing it. Denial is no longer an option.
  • Work to enact a Constitutional amendment to undo the People United decision. I have some bitter, better feelings about that one. If I could, I would amend the Constitution to permit only publicly financed campaigns for all national offices. They would begin in October of an election year. Candidates would either be chosen by party-member votes in a nominating convention or in state primaries with a one-month campaign, again publicly financed, before the vote.
  • Apply a Libertarian philosophy to social issues that are matters of individual religious beliefs, such as gay marriage or the nutty idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old.
  • Champion government support for R&D in new industries and high technology while fighting for on-shore manufacturing that will empower those without college degrees. Modern manufacturing requires advanced skills such as computer programming, so support for our community colleges and vocational schools becomes essential.
  • Recognize that fossil-fuel-based "Energy Independence" is a myth that both parties embrace. Wind and solar will never replace dirty fuels in our lifetime. Investment in energy conservation, building a reliable and speedy, if not high-speed, rail net powered by electricity will be a start. Natural gas, produced by the dubious practice of fracking, may buy us 30 years to make a transition to new sources of energy: both candidates talked about 100 years of gas, but clearly they don't read the geologists who write for The Oil Drum.
  • Return to principles of small government that empowers small business, not major corporations who reduce payrolls by outsourcing.
  • Ramp down the military-industrial complex by mothballing half of the Nimitz-class carriers to replace those that retire after 2020. Aggressively develop AI for unmanned combat aircraft and reserve military force to protect only our most vital interests. 
  • Reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, to put a firewall once again between consumer and investment banking.
  • Turn away the racists. A tragedy of Virginia politics is that George Allen, the former governor whose racist "Macaca" remark, leading to a revealing YouTube video that cost him his Senate seat in 2006, could once again be nominated to run. He lost, but that Allen would even be considered today shows how bankrupt modern conservative thinking has become.
If Conservatives wish to survive, they should read more David Frum and David Brooks and James Fallows. Leave Limbaugh, Coulter, Donald Trump, and their ilk behind in the cave, and move ahead.  Will they? I doubt it, and as James Howard Kunstler has often noted, the GOP seems destined to join the Whig Party in the dustbin of history. I differ with him only in his prognosis that "[Hurricane] Sandy was a kind of preview of coming attractions for a different sort of wreckage to come." We still have time, and we may end up poorer and humbled from changes to our economy and climate, but Tuesday's results show that a plurality of Americans still want what Obama, and not the GOP, offers.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hosting a Mixed-Reality Event the Right Way

Location: Conference Room at Work

In late August, the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable held a really interesting meeting in which we interviewed Tom Boellstroff and Celia Pearce, two of the authors of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method.

I wanted to have a local audience attend, and most of them do not have avatars or did not see the need to sit in a virtual space to hear our speakers. With a laptop, a video adapter, and a big screen, I both hosted the local event and, as voice-to-text transcriber for the meeting, connected the virtual and physical audiences. I learned a few things:
  • Promote and arrive early. I always do for such events, using campus e-mail, plus direct appeals to interested faculty, staff, and students. Then I get to the room half an hour before the event in SL begins. This mitigates the usual problems of connecting to SL, teleporting to the venue, and doing sound-checks.
  • Second Life sound is lousy. To compensate, I had my camera location as my listening point, and I positioned the camera between our two speakers and moderator
  •  Focus is key. There was no need to show the crowd constantly. I focused the camera on the speakers, either from in front or just behind, and this avoided any raised eyebrows from avatars dressed like Hooters waitresses or body builders (such avatars were mostly non-academic visitors at the SL meeting)
  • Explain who, what, where. Some of my campus audience did not know the nature of the presenters' book or VWER. It took some quick task-shifting, but I was able to transcribe, provide side-notes orally, and share questions from our audience.
  • Provide interaction! Even with my system lagging, I was able to convey a few questions from campus and get responses from the virtual venue. We followed VWER with some real-life chat about the potentials of virtual worlds.
  • Be serious before, during, after. This is an academic audience. In my 2007 enthusiasm about SL, I wrecked a great chance to show good content to my audience of nearly 20 at a campus conference. What went wrong? Blathering about "the next Internet" and showing how easy it was to dance and change avatar appearance (to a Wynx Whiplash gorilla avatar, no less) was the stupidest thing I have done since my 21st birthday.
The audience on campus came away impressed by the professionalism of VWER, and they learned a great deal about the topic (read the transcript here). In other SL demos, the interface or world got in the way. Not that day, and I'll apply my tips to every "mixed reality" event I host from now on.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cory Ondrejka's Vision, 8 Years On

Location: Reading Desk

I have had a great deal of academic fun reading Ondrejka's 2004 article "Escaping the Gilded Cage: User Created Content and Building the Metaverse" (get a copy here). I'll provide a few page references below, but not a works-cited list (this ain't no formal article, yet!).

Hamlet Au mentioned it over at New World Notes recently, and I decided to have a look at the creative fire from an era when the investor-utopians, and not the CEOs and bean-counters, planned to build something akin to Neal Stephenson's metaverse from Snow Crash:
This article will argue that creating a defensibly real, online world is now possible if its users are given the power to collaboratively create the content within it, if those users receive broad rights to their creations, and are able to convert those creations into real world capital and wealth.  This would be the Metaverse of Stephenson’s imagination. (Ondrejka 4).
Ondrejka, a supporter of Cloud Party, is still at it, and I like the way that new virtual world has seized the creative fire that Second Life, with its balky interface and legacy code, may never achieve. Cloud Party already has an avatar building kit, and while the results do not match what we have in 2012 SL, they are impressive for a world so young. As I get ready to play Patterns for the first time, however, I also wonder if it's too early to count Linden Lab out of the game.

What did Ondrejka want in 2004? Here are a few claims he makes that excite me still. I won't focus on the author's economic musings. They are fascinating, but I'm more concerned with his arguments about engagement and immersion.

User-Generated Content: Give Me Sandbox AND Arena

As Marcello DellaCarpini, my Vodacce character from the game 7th Sea, would say, "Two famous Vodacce sayings apply to such matters. First 'When in doubt, just make something up and say it with a straight face.' Second, 'It is never really fun until someone is caught on fire, run through with swords, made into an pincushion for archers, or eaten by monsters. Preferably someone you cannot stand.' "  Marcello made those both up, of course, on the spot for good RP. Creation, both verbal and physical, are essential:
People want to be perceived as creative by customizing their surroundings. People want to have their moments on the stage. In many cases, it seems that users are just waiting for access to the right tools (Ondrejka 9).
Due to the in-world tools and lack of a submission process, Second Life’s users have been able to create an amazing amount of content. At the end of May 2004, users had created more than one million objects, over 300,000 objects with scripted behaviors, and over 300,000 pieces of clothing (Ondrejka 10). 
I have long argued that UGC is the "special sauce" keeping me interested. I can destroy things in a thousand games, but in how many can I make them?

Eventually, both sorts of play will co-exist. What we call on my weekly Nerd Night "the minimum daily requirement of violence" in games will only take us so far.

If game designers want to attract my sort of relatively well-heeled customer and hobbyist, they need to consider two sorts of sandy spots where a type of "play" occurs: the sandbox and the arena.

Emergent and Predictable Behavior:

Ondrejka notes that when one drops and object, one expects it to fall. To fall back on a favorite expression of mine from Snow Crash, designers must not "break the metaphor" by, say, letting folks "beam in" to any location. Though many sims in Second Life support that type of movement, it's more predictable that one would walk or drive from a fixed point to the destination; this is what the original Linden Lab "telehubs" wanted to do.

Not breaking metaphors, whether gravitational or spatial, is predictable behavior.  Ondrejka contends that successful metaverse must support behavior that only emerges with creative play (15-16). In my OpenSim House of Usher simulation, for instance, I had no way to injure other characters when I was in the role of Roderick. I found that, however, I could rid myself of over-inquisitive guests by pushing them off the edge of the virtual region I rent at Jokaydia Grid. This was a software bug in OpenSim, but it served my purpose: through emergent behavior, I'd found a way to drown nosy and suspicious visitors to The House of Usher.

So When Do We Get our Metaverse?

Emily Short, working with Linden Lab on a new and non-SL narrative game, notes in a Gamasutra interview that the sort of game Ondrejka calls for would be lovely but it is not currently available:
Something that I tended to think was unfortunate about certain MMO storytelling... you get these narratives where the NPCs have lots of really emotive things to say to you, and they want to throw you into this narrative. Then on the other hand, your interaction with the characters played by humans -- even if they're inclined to play it in a very role-playing way and they're not running around shouting trollish remarks and that sort of thing, even if they've entered into playing that role, because of the way it's structured, none of the conversations you ever have with them are ever going to be acknowledged by the story as meaningful pieces of the story.
I have no time for childish players who type in text abbreviations or talk in voice like extras from The Jersey Shore. I am a snob. I would not even consider RPing in the local game shop; my preferred groups are guys I've known for 30+ years or a bunch of fellow PhDs who were with me during graduate study. Neither group is trollish but both can be a bit silly, to add humor to a gamemaster's crafting of a scenario. Neither group is childish.

So how can a game engine ever let players into the story as co-creators, as can happen in an SL roleplay sim or tabletop RP? One of Short's commenters noted that we'd need AI that could serve as a "dungeon master."  When will that occur?

Quantum computing, a gleam in the eye of many of us, recently got a public boost by the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics. With processor speeds that fast, we may see something like the magic of Stephenson's vision realized.  Until I have that sort of power in my palm or my laptop, I will read the dreams of Ondrejka, Rosedale, Short, and Stephenson and keep hoping.

Top hat tip to Hamlet Au, for covering both Ondrejka's and Short's ideas.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Patterns and Creatorverse: Speculations

Location: Linden Lab Web Site and New World Notes

At New World Notes, I have been eagerly watching, and contributing to, both the discussion about Patterns and the one about Creatorverse.

Now VWER will ponder what these mean for educators. Watch the videos first for Creatorverse, and then Patterns:

A few stabs at what all this may mean:
  • I am fond of the term "shared creative spaces" that CEO Rod Humble employs. But creative for whom? Shared by whom?
  • Creatorverse, as an iOS app, will give K-5 teachers (in particular) new tools for sharing content. My wife really likes what she sees there. Linden's signature product, Second Life, cannot be used in K-5 and even an "over the shoulder" use means getting the application approved by the censors and finding a rig hefty enough to run it well.
  • Creatorverse looks drop-dead easy. Ease will mean adoption, since both SL and OpenSim clients are too complex for my wife's  setting. Teachers don't have time.
  • Patterns may be easy, but it needs hardware similar to Second Life to run. My own MacBook Pro does not meet the specs. Not good.
  • Patterns also looks a lot like Minecraft. What will distinguish it and lead those in Minecraft to switch? Those  not using it to choose Patterns first?
More on what educators have to say, in light of the VWER discussion, soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Ethics of Ethnography: A Transcript

VWER - August 30, 2012 
Location: VWER meeting

Image courtesy of Wrenaria

On August 30, authors Tom Boellstroff and Celia Pearce met to discuss their book, Ethnography & Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of MethodThe transcript of their voice interview with AJ Kelton is now available here.

Pearce, Boellstroff, and their coauthors have accomplished something important with this work. The ethics of working in virtual worlds should be paramount for anyone who calls him or herself an ethnographer. As I have opined here before, many folks in Second Life call themselves "educators," but what does that mean?

Whatever one's institutional affiliation or lack of it,  when doing research on human subjects, even those behind avatarian masks, two our VWER guests find essential the following points. The ideas were paraphrased by our transcribers, including me. Any faults are then our own, not Tom's and Celia's.

The Dangers Amateur "Ethnography"
  • "There is a danger…folks calling themselves researchers and publishing screen names of subjects" (Tom)
  • "one (person doing research) had sexual and romantic relationships (with subjects)" (Celia)
  • "One must have good research design and take care when generalizing. So there is no difference (between face-to-face and virtual research)" (Tom).
  • Both Tom and Celia use their real-life names in parts of their profiles to let subjects know who they really are. They do not use ALTs to conduct research.
  • "The popularity of people claiming to be ethnographers can undermine our work" (Tom)
One person at the meeting claimed that the point just made "sounds a bit elitist," and I'd prefer to say "no, it's merely professional." Anyone can turn a wrench or even replace parts on a car, but it takes a lot of professional training today to become a professional mechanic. The same is true for researchers.

Anonymity of Subjects:
  • In Indonesia, because gay men are ostracized, I often get pseudonyms from those I interview. This does not invalidate the research…and we cannot assume the same online " (Tom)
  • "My research ethics committee wanted paper signed copies and I could not do that, so this was new for the committee to get their head around" (Celia).
The book will provide benchmarks for all of us. I hope it starts a long and much-needed conversation as more and more virtual worlds emerge and researchers visit them. Even ones that be dressed as pirates, like Celia, and have that in their profiles! Avast!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hair Gets in My Eyes

Location: EMO-tions Fashion & Hair

Thanks to my friend  Grizzla, shown in the shop here with me, Iggy is equipped with some 2012 hair.

I'll miss my 2007 dreads (I reckon). They increased my avatar rendering cost considerably.

And that old hair never got in my eyes! What fun is that? The style from EMO-tions is called "Grunge" and it suits me well. Teleport to the store and have a look at some decent male hair.

Serious question: do any men in Second Life own shirts?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What Educators Want in a Virtual World: All

Location: VWER meeting, Aug. 2

Late in July, I published my lists of wants for in-world features and technical features for a educational virtual world that I would build, had I time and money enough. Then I put the issue before 23 members of the Roundtable. Here is their list of wants:
  • Cross-platform & mobile friendly
  • Non-mesh build options
  • Cross-world travel and inventory control
  • Accessibility for users with visual and hearing impairments, such as easily visible icons, as well as text-to-speech and speech-to-text support
  • Media on a Prim (MOAP), including Flash support
  • Integration with Kinect & similar interfaces
  • Ability for students under 18 to access content (with my caveat of "freedom of, and from, adult content)
  • Better system for notecards
  • Working economy where content creators can be paid for their work but as JeanClaude Volmar warned us, "Just don’t make the economy so tightly coupled to the creator to render objects useless like it is in SL."
  • Avatar puppeteering and webcam support
  • Better permissions systems to allow more flexibility with collaborative builds
It seems we do "want it all," and many VWER members want a virtual world as a primary tool for teaching.

As readers know, I tend to agree with VWER participant Alan Sandalwood, who noted "I worry that we would try to do everything in VW; It’s a tool to be used judiciously."

My own students say a version of this: "what's the point? Our parents pay high tuition to be taught by a PhD in a classroom." For them, VWs are worthwhile for limited simulations or a field trip to see content otherwise unavailable. Other educators will use the technology differently and, in many cases, in transformative ways.

To read the Aug. 2 transcript, click here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Killer App That Killed iPhone for Me

Location: Verizon Store

image credit: screen capture from Google Streetview, on my campus near Westhampton Lake.

I'm not a gadget boy, but soon I'll make the shift from a flip-phone to a smart one.

And it won't be an Apple product. Why? Google Street View.

When Apple, for perfectly logical reasons, dropped Google Maps from their iOS 6 plans, they dropped me. I tend to by loyal--fanatically--to the Mac OS, and I'm a long-time hater of stodgy, backward Microsoft (Kinect and their fabulous two-button USB mice excepted).

As a tech user, there are some features that I refuse to abandon, and Street View is one of them. I have used it when traveling abroad to find a car-rental place or hotel that I'd never have found in the maze of York, England's medieval streets. Before Street View, I once walked to the wrong town looking for my car, just outside Bath. After Street View, I led a bunch of friends directly to the right restaurant in Istanbul, London, New York City, and San Francisco. My e-mail to Apple reads:
I am about to get my first-ever smart phone. My wife loves her iPhone 4, but without Street View being integrated into the OS tightly, Apple has lost me as a customer. I'm a 20+ year loyalist to the Mac OS, but I'm drifting away with iOS.

Just a word of advice to the geniuses at the Genius Bar: give me back Street View...now.
So yeah, it matters, Apple. I don't want to have to leap through three hoops to get Street View. I want it instantly, when I click on an address. The Phone app on the iPhone does that so well, with a "call" button in Google searches on Safari.

Instead of working with a competitor or launching a bunch of Apple vans to canvas and photograph the planet (how DID Google manage that?), Apple gives us a "flyover" view that won't help me find a restaurant or business from a human's-eye perspective.

Make my new phone an Android, please, Mr. Verizon Man. And if you show me a Windows Phone, my next post here will be written from jail after a headline reads "Professor arrested after stomping on crappy phone from stodgy company late to party where they never innovated anyway."

But Google? Bring  it on.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Who IS a Virtual Worlds Educator?

Location: SLED List

It may be easier to say who is most assuredly not.

A few weeks back, a colleague in VWER asked me "who is an educator" in a private IM.  I replied "well, if you teach at an accredited school..." but then I realized that some folks provide education to others in informal circumstances.

A story about Saj, one of my best students ever, came back to me. Saj is an Indian national who graduated to become a well known economist. He credited his considerable talent in mathematics to informal tutoring done, at a dining room table, by a retired professor who would work out equations by hand for a dozen Indian boys.  The teacher used recycled "green bar" computer paper for the teaching, and one by one he would write down equations and solve them for a horde of pupils who watched and memorized. They had a hunger to learn: Saj learned his "maths" by this method, and he had to watch the professor's work upside down, since Saj was the newest pupil and could not get close enough at the table to see the equations in their proper orientation.

So an accredited position does not an educator make, the material or virtual worlds.

But what makes  you NOT a educator? In the recent SLED-list discussion of Linden Lab's decision to offer SL through Steam, many participants fretted about rising graphics requirements for the virtual-world client. Then one soul chimed in:

"Game gfx have always been scalable. Just for the few that plop down a couple  hundred dollars on a new GeForce will gain the full experience.  Best $200 I ever spent!"

Easy for him to say! Imagine an educator telling students, "to take the course you must own a desktop PC and have this graphic card, or buy one, for something you will never, ever do again while enrolled here."

I have begun to reply to this SLED participant several times by e-mail, but I don't think I could do so politely.

Clearly, this person has not recently taught at a college, where nearly all students employ laptops of various, and usually middling, sorts. Nor has this person taught at any K-12 schools, where budgets are strained and computer replacement cycles run in the five-year range. While volunteering at one middle school in our city, I found that to order a replacement USB mouse from Central Office took six weeks.

Sure. Drop in a new graphics card, class! While a professional might spend that amount for a desktop upgrade...let's be serious. This is not the voice of any educator I know.

So let's try this an a definition: an educator is someone who not only works in an educational setting, be it a lecture hall or a dining-room table. An educator also understands the facts on the ground in these settings: what students need, what they can or cannot do, their level of motivation.

I am sure that a student like Saj would find the money to buy a new graphics card, if that were what he needed to excel in his studies. But most of my charges? It would mean dropping the class at best, grumpily slogging along and slamming me in my evaluations, at worst.

Now here, from the same discussion, in the voice of an educator:

"Interestingly the lowest res graphics game ...Minecraft...is incredibly popular...I don't think kids expect good graphics as much as they expect engaging learning, challenges that are relevant to their lives and acceptance that the world today (Google and the information repository it can search in your pocket) is different from the world 50 years ago (where you had to remember a lot of stuff). "

A new graphics card is a pain in the butt; engaged learning will pull the learner alone to all sorts of challenges, including those posed by rapid technological change.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Favorite Merchant, Rediscovered

Morris Mertels Shop 2/2 
Location: Second Life Marketplace

I'm not fond of Second Life Marketplace. It makes the virtual world less a world. I do use it for last-minute purchases as well as window-shopping for a visit in SL. I salute creators like Laufey Markstein of Trident, who keep a storefront going. I like to stroll through 3D objects and not simply look at photos of them.

The closing of Morris Mertel's in-world store, some time back, saddened me greatly. But there is good news of a sort.

Back when I was first building the House of Usher,  Morris was kind enough to supply it with a nice fireplace! After sitting on a few demos and buying items from Morris, I blogged about the good designs and let him know. He reciprocated with some nice gifts. I don't know that we'd have "met" in quite the same way had he not possessed an in-world store.

Linden Lab made a mistake in forcing so many creators to abandon in-world commerce. After all, the Marketplace commissions are paid in the money the Lindens themselves mint. That pricing scheme only means that merchants earn less.

But at least Morris maintains a Marketplace storefront. So visit 3D Dreamworld Studios for your medieval and renaissance furnishings, including the rats I have so enjoyed using at the Virtual House of Usher.  If Morris does not have it, I bet Laufey does. So go do some shopping!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bringing SL Back to the Conference Room?

Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

Celia Pearce image from her Web site
Tom Boellstorff
image by Olivia Hotshot

I'm pleased that VWER will again host Tom Boellstorff, author of Coming of Age in Second Life, and Celia Pearce, author of Communities of Play, will be guests at a special meeting on August 30, 12:30 SLT. To teleport to the venue at Bowling Green State University in SL, click here.

Tom was an excellent guest before, and we'll all put questions to him in a voice-chat event hosted by AJ Kelton. I'm reading Pearce's Communities of Play now, and I'm looking forward to the two scholars next project, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method.

This time, with two noted scholars and a venue that could be comprehensible to those without avatars, I have offered to show the meeting in one of our conference rooms on campus. Faculty and staff should then see the potential of virtual worlds for the sorts of meetings that would be hard to arrange and moderate on the fly in real life.

Given my experience with conferencing software, I also feel that virtual worlds offer a better venue that encourages less passivity. There is something powerful about embodiment, even as a cartoon character, that gets folks to talk back in a meeting.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

From Scratch, Key Elements for an Educational Virtual World, II

Location: VWER meeting

In my last post, I focused on the in-world features of an educator-built virtual world. Next week we'll debate that as well as this second big aspect of design: technical requirements. My suggestions for a virtual world that would please students and not hurt faculty evaluations:
  • Laptop + Wireless: Desktops are as dead in dorms here as are land-line phones. If an application cannot at least run on a laptop untethered from any cables (power cables too: students travel light) the application may as well not exist.  Students will seek out a desktop work station for projects requiring high-end apps, but the don't and won't own such. Try requiring students to visit a lab a few hours weekly, outside of class, to log into a virtual world many would find "creepy" anyhow. I'm glad I'm not you when evaluations are given.
  • Fast, Easy Start: the world must be drop-dead easy to install. No tweaking the viewer, no need to upgrade video cards. It must work right away to retain the attention of students and protect the course evaluations of their faculty.
  • Cross Platform: The Mac OS has jumped on my campus from 5% in the mid 90s to at least 40% two years ago. I now hear, but don't quite believe, it's at 70%. Clearly, any virtual world for students in higher education must work on a variety of operating systems and types of hardware, thus:
  • Browser Based: Cloud Party's use of WebGL as its basis trumps Second Life, which in its current form is nigh impossible to run in a browser. Making the world browser-friendly eases the leap to tablet computing, if this part of the market does replace the laptop for many users.
What have I forgotten?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

From Scratch, Key Elements For an Educational Virtual World

Location: Thinking Cap in Place

After my few posts about Cloud Party and Glitch, I began pulling together a list of features that I'd want in a virtual world if I had unlimited funds and time to build one myself.

I plan to put this list of features to the vote with colleagues in VWER, before we hold a meeting about "What I learned from a silly game called Glitch" early in August.
  • User-Generated Content: The killer feature for virtual worlds used by educators. We can make and share our creations in a world that is, essentially, a big sandbox
  • Collaborative Permissions: Creators can transfer full ownership for shared builds so backups and exports are possible. Mixed-permissions builds in Second Life are a nightmare
  • In-World Building with Simple Tools: Again, for collaboration this seems very popular with educators
  • Offline Building with Professional 3D Tools: For advanced builders with 3D modeling skills
  • Local Hosting Options: Educational Institutions like to own their hardware and make backups frequently
  • The Illusion of a Contiguous World: World maps are available for Glitch, most OpenSim grids, and Second Life. In Cloud Party, to my knowledge no map is available
  • Several Means of Travel: All virtual worlds include point-to-point movement such as teleportation.  Those making simulations in a world, however, should be able to turn that feature off, so participants are forced to walk or ride to a destination. Second Life manages this well with settings for parcels and regions
  • Freedom of, and From, Adult Content: This will be contentious even among educators. I'd suggest that pornography is not needed in an educational world, but adult content, such as art-museum nudity or discussions of sexuality, is necessary for many educational purposes
  • Simulations Tools, Including a Physics Engine a Combat System: My students asked for this again and again in reviews of my House of Usher simulation. In realistic simulations, bad decisions have consequences.  Avatars in these settings should get tired, hungry, injured when appropriate. They might be able to "level up" for accomplishing goals in a course or assignment. This idea got suggested in Edward Castronova's Exodus to the Virtual World and I like it a lot
  • Simple Help Tools: Glitch wins on this. The designers' humorous approach to FAQs and the Pet Rock charm me every time I log on.
What did I forget? Sound off!

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Closer Look at Glitch, Reloaded

Location: Cebarkul and Far Afield

I will admit, in starting this post, that some of the material was probably in the pre-Beta Beta (or whatever the heck it was) that I played. But I'm liking the following aspects of Glitch. I'm assembling ideas for a future VWER meeting in which we actively plan beyond Second Life and OpenSim, to the features of the virtual worlds we educators would design.  My last two trips to Glitch have been far better than what I experienced last year and earlier this year. I noted, in my entry about Cloud Party, that the side-scrolling interface and lack of realistic avatars were detrimental to my fun.

But Tiny Speck, who makes Glitch, have added depth to the game by giving players more information in an as-needed and funny way. And a little house to call home. So here goes with the features I like so far:

References at One's Fingertips: An Encyclopedia is available even before the player enters the world. Glitch's cute backstory has some surprising complexity. Thus the entry on the Giants helps a great deal, given the game's location: in their giant heads.

I was able to find out a bit quickly about the paths open to players, because a Glitch (the name of our little peopleoids) must chose a series of linked skills at some point. With the reset I'm back to level 2, but I'm thinking that as before, I'm going agrarian with skills related to animals and plants. Note that one's Pet Rock gives hints. Mine suggested that I become a "Porcine Pleaser" when I clicked the "show me" button below, even as it gave other advice about how to become a more effective Glitch:

There are oodles of skills in Glitch. but from the Web profile for each player, a refresher of what the Glitched learned and can do is as easy as clicking the timeline, as I did for one of the first skills I acquired, Animal Kinship I. Each accomplishment can then be Tweeted. I did that for my Hen Hugger badge. I know the world stopped on its axis when that Tweet appeared.

Simple and Clever Menus: Compared to Second Life clients, with their dizzzying array of choices, Glitch's are straight forward: a "player" menu with a character's stats and links to content, and an "imagination" menu (shown at the start of this post), with choices for learning skills and going on quests.

In comparison, it would take a Type A Cyborg to love the menus in Firestorm, let alone its "Advanced" menu.

Everyone Gets a Home Base and Collaboration Reaps Rewards: For now at least, all Beta accounts in Glitch include a home street. My Pet Rock told me that if I can get other Glitches to collaborate on projects on my home street, I get more benefits and bonuses.

For educators, collaboration is a key to Constructivist pedagogy. So any online environment that fosters it would be preferable to one fostering competition.

Humor that is not Cloying:  Way back when, the Lindens had snowball fights with residents in Second Life and have a shared account called "Pony Linden." Once at VWER John Lester (then Pathfinder Linden) showed up as Pony and explained that Linden employees took turns as Pony to greet and entertain newcomers, even offering rides.

Those days are long over and Pony Linden's account was sent to the glue factory.

Conversely, in Glitch my Pet Rock and every darned menu pokes fun at me and itself.

And, yes, there is a Shrine to a giant named "Pot." I thought I had imagined that last time:

Round of belly and capacious of stomach Pot is the Giant of Prosperity, with dominion over anything edible, cookable, munchable or nibbleworthy. Pot himself is not munchable. Do not attempt to munch any giants.

Every time I log out of Glitch, I'm warned "Wait! You were just about to win the game!"  I think that in terms of learning what a good virtual world should offer, I have already won. I'm far from an overarching theory about why I so like Glitch, in much the same way I liked Metaplace. At this point I only have a suspicion. Glitch lacks the gravity and gore of "serious" gaming, the festering drama that is today's Second Life, and the frenetic chase-the-monkey of most side-scrolling games.

There's some stoner magic at work in Glitch, some parody of Philip Rosedale's dream of a perfect online world. By not taking itself so seriously while fostering collaboration and non-violence without earnestness, Glitch charms. That may be utopia enough.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Round of Applause for the Phoenix Developers

Location: VWER meeting

I was dreading our meeting today. Just the other day, the four officers of VWER tried to hold a voice-chat meeting and it required two relogs and 20 minutes just so we could all hear and speak.

When we do voice interviews, we always have a couple of voice-to-text transcribers who capture the essence of the spoken remarks. This helps hearing-impaired members and maintains a transcript for later reference.

Logging in today, when we'd have about 20 guests and two speakers, I was nervous. A laptop melt-down left our other transcriber out of Second Life. So I had to be the sole typist for a technical topic about research methods and virtual worlds. This too on a day after Linden Lab began a few major upgrades.

The developers at Phoenix had just released a new version of the Firestorm viewer I like so much, and it promised real performance improvements.

And so it did. Second Life became useable again on my rig, and no chat-lag or other bugs cropped up during our meeting.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Great Reset

Location: Back to Petting Trees and Squeezing Chikkins

Yes, I went back to Glitch. And I found that though I'd leveled up (still 4th; that's me on the far right, the only time you'll catch me as a Right Winger :). I had to relearn a few skills I've already had. Is Glitch out of Beta? No, a "Beta" sign still appears at the login page. Housing has been reset, and there are new menus to use. My old skills still show at the Web portal.  And I've been told that I "ascended" with the virtual world's upgrade.

But who cares? Glitch is just mindless fun for me. I can pet trees and pigs, and I can squeeze a few chickens if that is what it takes.

I began with relearning Animal Kinship. It was easy and I got one of their wonderful e-mails to acknowledge my prowess:

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then by learning Animal Kinship I like you just did, and thereby taking on a whole lot of knowledge at once, you have automatically become one of the most dangerous people on the planet.

As we speak, crack teams of ninjas are meeting to decide how best to take you on, a super-computer has been programmed to try and discover your weakness (should you have one) and governments everywhere are quaking in their boots for fear of doing anything that might anger you.

Enjoy the moment.

Here's what you just learned, Captain Dangerous:

Animals can seem skittish until you learn the basics of Animal Kinship.With it, you'll no longer fail at basic animal interactions; petting, nibbling, massaging will happen faster; chickens will consent to be squeezed more than once a day, and you'll lose much less energy to boot.

Anyone who refers to me as "Captain Dangerous" is my friend. I cannot image Linden Lab calling me that. Then again, I cannot imagine a shrine to a "giant" named "Pot" anywhere but in Glitch. I cannot imagine another player bestowing "random kindness" on me anywhere else.

In a week when two SL content creators are engaged in a hideous legal wrangle, and the fashionistas are ready to claw eyes out over it, I'm glad I'm a 2.5D green dude in a monk's black robe. Go with the flow, Grasshopper!

The game creators' sense of stoner humor never ceases to entertain me. And I have a pet rock.

Right on. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Abandoned Tech: The Saturn Rockets

Location: Day-Dreaming about a 1985 Mars base

image source: Encyclopedia Astronautica's entry about the Saturn V rocket

What might have been, had Richard Nixon been a different man, possessing an optimistic vision that matched his calculated-but-brilliant realpolitik demonstrated by the opening to China and the bombing of Hanoi's government to the negotiating table.

I've been thinking of this occasional series since I began shaving with my grandfather's safety razor. It still works great and costs me very little, months into my experiment. Now I own two of these antique Gems (the trade name that fits well). They demonstrate that corporations seeking new markets often over-engineer products and make dubious claims about their improvement. I wish government could do better, but history shows otherwise when it comes to manned space travel.  Odd for me to propose such flights of fancy. I call myself a Neo-Luddite, though as one friend pointed out, I'm better described as a "Reform Luddite" more interested in appropriate technology than in getting rid of technology or curbing its use drastically.

I hope to explain why this Neo-Luddite thinks the US needs its manned program badly, and why it needs NASA for the sort of deep-space ventures that both Presidents Bush and Obama championed.  Both Presidents had NASA contractors scramble to re-invent something we gave up nearly 40 years ago: a heavy-lift rocket suitable for deep-space exploration.

When Nixon canceled the last three missions of the Apollo program, it put the world's most effective--then or now--space transportation system on its way to the scrap heap.  It's a myth that the Saturn V rocket's plans were scavenged from NASA dumpsters, though as Dwayne A. Day noted, records were lost or destroyed along the way. In any case, once the assembly lines for the Saturn IB and V shut, engineers moved on, and the tooling got dispersed or scrapped, there was no practical way to rebuild the mighty F-1 engine or other components without reverse-engineering from a museum piece at huge cost.  Rocketdyne did, as Day notes, save their records and record information from Engineers involved in the F-1 program. Much of the rest of the Saturn, however, would not meet modern standards for alloys and other technologies. A similar rocket today would weigh less and have the benefits of computer-assisted design. That's my hope for Dragon's proposed heavy-lift rocket.

But what if Saturn and its mighty engines had stayed in production, to be incrementally improved or parted out to new NASA and private vehicles?  Most of the pieces for a Mars mission were in place by 1970.

Boeing, in 1968, studied the technology needed to go to Mars by the mid-80s: a Nerva nuclear third stage lofted into orbit by a Saturn V, followed by assembling a Mars spacecraft there. Instead, we got Skylab, then an expensive and tragically flawed pickup truck to low orbit called the Space Shuttle.

Our nation badly needs unity now, and my optimistic side favors a multi-year mission scientific mission to Mars, using the International Space Station if possible to assemble our Mars ship, all this with the aim of resolving the questions about past or present life on the Red Planet. Such a program, paid for by deep cuts in defense spending and, yes, more debt, would have pay-offs in the hiring of technicians and engineers whose work would develop the sorts of spin-off technologies that came from Apollo, including the small computer on which I am writing this post.

We need deep space missions, not merely planting the flag but searching thoroughly and with tools greater than those carried by the Martian rovers. Finding out if we are alone or not in our solar system would, I'd hope, make the texting masses look above the horizon again. NASA's lead can help private industry follow, not to do science but to pioneer, as the pioneers came in the wake of Jefferson's expedition to the Pacific.

And if profit is to be had in space, profit that requires humans to live there, the masses will do more than look up.

They'll go there and we'll become an interplanetary species.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Shadows, Privacy, Restarts in Cloud Party

Location: Shiny Canyon

I had a comparative experience with server restarts in Cloud Party and Second Life today.

But first, some details about the new virtual world that caught my eye.

Mobile access, More than Facebook: 

Usually we skip such reading, but in the CP privacy policy, I ran across references to Google+ and Tablet access. Clearly, the CP folks intend to branch out from their Facebook-centered approach to their world. How far--and the use of "nyms" instead of display names, remains to be seen.

Given the frequent mention of iOS devices in the policy, I assume I'll soon be able to log on with my iPad.

I'll quote the next bit verbatim:

Offer Walls:

Cloud Party games or their purchase pages may display an "offer wall" that is hosted by an offer wall provider. The offer wall allows third party advertisers to provide virtual currency to users in exchange for interacting with an advertisement or for completing a marketing offer that may include signing up for an account with one of those advertisers. These are not offers made by Cloud Party. These offers may be displayed to you based on certain technical information, such as your geographic area or anonymous demographic information.

Does this mean billboards in the game or sidebars beside it? I can live with them, as I do with Google Ads, but I see one revenue model, beyond CP's modest tier, for the firm.

Others with more experience with privacy policies can comb through the rest of the document, but at my first-glance exegesis, it seems standard stuff.

Dynamic Shadows:

They are blocky in my limited experience, but considering how difficult they are to render in Second Life, I'm already impressed.

Fast Restarts:

I could not log onto SL today for our meeting of the VWER. When I did get in, about half-way into our meeting, I got rerouted to an adult welcome area full of furries, virtual prostitutes, a woman cradling a prim baby, and Gorean slave girls. Luckily, they were gray and stayed that way because of the load on my client and the sheer number of logon refugees present.

This sort of collision of worlds often happens when an avatar is age-verified and server issues force a "last location" login to redirect to a welcome area.

Thanks to a VWER member, after I escaped this den of vice I learned how to prevent this from happening again. Let me compare that to Cloud Party, where today the CEO announced a server restart not long after I logged on. I waited to see what would happen.

The app quit and restarted automatically, and I was back in Shiny Canyon, inside my fake home.

I realize that as Cloud Party grows, Sam Thompson won't be available to chat with gamers in Cloud Party. But so far, that hands-on attitude is refreshing. I IMed Sam to tell him of how pleasantly different his restart was from Linden Lab's. Reply? Sam sent back a smiley face :)

Maybe we'll see prim babies and Gorean roleplay in Cloud Party. I hope not, but we'll see.

The Antisocial Network: Facebook Takes a Holiday

Location: Facebook...no. Not Facebook

Well, for me, Facebook is an experiment that has...failed.

I had to create an account to moderate our Writing Center's FB presence, but inexorably my little site drew family members, friends, and status-updates from me.

And I don't like it one bit. So while I can't leave Facebook, I'm not going to update my status for a while, at least until after the November election. I find that at log-in, I'm assaulted with political spam from said "friends" and family, and often it's of the Right-Wing variety that makes my eyes cross.

Or perhaps it's the revelation--hold the friggin' presses--that some dunce who friended me "likes" Wal-Mart, a place I'd as soon crush with Cat D-9 bulldozers as enter for shopping.

Facebook can be useful to maintain distance contacts with old friends, but this year I've made the vow to see friends in person more and even mend a few old fences. In person. Not with pixels or cat videos or posts about some ill-conceived article that I simply must read.

Luckily, I can log in through our Writing Center portal to FB and not even see the wall of status updates. With a click, if I so choose, I can visit my own wall. I can post updates to the Virtual Worlds Roundtable Group. I can certainly access content such as Cloud Party without directly logging in to FB .

And that way I can bloody well avoid all the spam normally seen at login.  What did Bilbo Baggins say at his final birthday party in the Shire? "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."

Meanwhile, I'm going to be doing more of what I've increasingly done all this curmudgeonly year: reading (and learning about e-book technology for my upcoming first-year seminar that will only use e-texts), smoking my pipe, sipping a cold beer in the cool of the evening, and, as has been the case with my explorations of Second Life, not going online as often as I once did.

I never spent a great deal of time at Facebook, no more than an hour each week. But somehow that hour felt like it had been through time dilation.  Having an hour back seems sweet, indeed.

Friday, June 29, 2012

June Road Trip: Fast Ride on Desolation Boulevard

Location: Southern Continent, Route 10

Well, the Lindens fixed something. They really did. I'd heard that sim-crossings have vastly improved. Time for a road trip to test it?

Being both busy and bored, an odd combination, I sent occasional reporter Pappy Enoch in "The Rip Snorter," his "weathered" F-150 pickup truck. Pappy was drunk at the time, so he could not write very much but he did send in some "o' them-there picture post cards from the fake highway." Pappy wrote some captions on the back in orange crayon. Here they am...I mean, are.
It were a dark an' stormy..hell, it were sundown when I done hit the road in ol' Rip Snorter.
Sho' nuff am a heap o' abandoned land on the mainland. Maybe that am why things am so fast!
I done meant to do that. Hoo whee! I are a reg'lar Evil Kornevil! I landed in a house too.

Well, here am sum'fin you ain't a-gonna see every day: Furry Germnasium and some right pumped-up fur.
Go figure the only place that had real fake folks (them furs am bots) is a place selling fake-sex toys. I cammed in because I am shy and all that. There were a Gorean feller too but he would not answer my IMs about whether or not he done got lucky. The gal on the left gots pants that am like a belt. Hoo whee I needs to log in more often.
I FLEW down that fake road. Sim-crossings am first rate now! Try that in yo' fancy pants GTO, Mr. Onnagodadvida!

Verdict: And so I will, in July! Overall, it seems that Pappy encountered much improved travel, but the content on display shows what is happening to Second Life: crappy user-generated mainland builds, lots of vacant land, and the most dots on the map at a sex-themed store in a non-adult sim.

 I hope Linden Lab, if only for the sake of its employees and shrinking cadre of other types of users, can make money this way.

Update, July 1: Tateru Nino reports that Linden Lab has a three-pronged offensive underway to reduce SL's lag-tastic experience. Glad to see they are running scared after all our hoopla about Cloud Party. That's how it looks, even though their projects must have been in the works for months.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Like Jilted Lovers?

Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

image credit: Grizzla Pixelmaid at Flickr

I forget who at one of our VWER meetings told AJ Kelton, aka AJ Brooks, that he acted like a jilted lover when Linden Lab fired its education team and hiked our tier prices. But the simile is apt for me too; it explains some of our community's enthusiasm for Cloud Party, noted in my last post. There's not much at Cloud Party yet. When you cannot sit on your new couch, that shows we have a ways to go. But the will to "go" is there.

Slowly but surely, my own wonder and love for Second Life drained away. For students it was too hard to learn, too slow to use on wireless and their laptops. For me, it meant 200 hours of development for The Virtual House of Usher, a project that we ran a few classes through before my co-developer lost his job, our island closed in SL, and I needed to move on to other pursuits.

I get as much credit, and probably more, in my annual review for a published article. I could have written a few in those 200 hours.

Some of the reaction by SLers trying Cloud Party's new virtual world is predictable: soured on Linden Lab's mismanagement of a once-revolutionary online space, we either wish to punish the Lab or simply try some competition that is easier to master than the largely DIY spaces of OpenSim grids.

At our most recent Roundtable, I found myself spouting these words:

"I have come to hate Linden Lab and don't want them taking my money any more." You can read the rest of our exchange here in the transcript.

I did not get crucified by the assembled educators for saying this. Few SLevangelists were present, so the remarks were civil as we discussed what "special sauce" SL still has. The answers? Good content and community.

Linden Lab is repsonsible for neither of these. Stability, a third common answer, is their doing, but Cloud Party offers that one already with only a few weeks since they opened their world in open beta. The other two will follow.

So how can a firm such as Linden Lab win back our trust? To continue the romantic simile, they cannot or cannot in any span of time worth noting. If we look for exceptions in the history of technology, there is one.

It took decades for Detroit car makers to woo back those jilted by their crappy 1970s cars.

Linden Lab did not sell us a Chevy Vega or similar lemon. It sold us a lovely but doomed Corvair Monza and refused to listen to customers who bought into that dream or decided that they really wanted a Mustang instead. Recent efforts, such as Linden Realms or Wilderness, brought only yawns from our group of educators.

Clearly, Linden Lab lacks Detroit's time and government support. If Cloud Party flops, it's just a start-up firm, but Linden Lab's failure would make big news, even in media outlets that have at best sniggered, and mostly ignored it, since 2008.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why Cloud Party Matters To Educators

Location: Shiny Canyon, in Facebook!

A great number of pixels have been used to praise or critique Cloud Party over at Hamlet Au's New World Notes. True, one needs a Facebook account, and sacrifices anonymity, to use the service fully. Anonymous logins are possible at the link I gave above, but they only permit limited interactions and the avatar's experience and content--as far as I understand--do not persist.

Here are some reasons I think Cloud Party represents the next generation of virtual worlds:
  • No client: this is key to mass adoption. For educators, it means that a student only needs a FB account. That means about 100% uptake for my students.
  • Real life ID: for Millennials, that too is key. They find virtual worlds "creepy" because, to paraphrase most of my 100+ users, "you don't know who is on the other end of the wire."  Their faith in authenticity may be naive, but it's strong and consistent in this demographic. Blame it on 12 years of "Internet Safety" classes rammed into their heads by schools.
  • Users such as "Pussycat Catnip" argued, with me and others in a long string of commentary at Au's blog, that one key aspect of enjoying SL is being able to assume a new identity. For her, Cloud Party's link to Facebook "makes it useless for anyone wishing to explore concepts like identity or self expression." Frankly, that matters little in how I've used virtual worlds, save for the House of Usher simulation, which is a one-off assignment with roleplay.

    Fretful administrators at colleges and universities will like the seeming transparency of Cloud Party as currently configured, though I suspect that "Cloud Party" to be only a marginally better name than the tainted "Second Life" moniker.
    I'd have preferred "New World" or similar, but Cloud Party goes not purport to be an educational tool. Nor did SL; we just took to it, and so did many others with some very different interests and intentions.
  • Easy UI that looks bound for mobile devices: Desktop rigs are the choice for serious games for serious gamers. They are not my students or colleagues, however; gamers here are a very small, and disrespected, part of the student body. When mainstream students do play games, they are more likely to pick up a console or play a casual game on their mobile devices and laptops.

    Cloud Party exploits the metaphors of mobile computing nicely.
    The Control Panel, shown here, looks like a smart phone and, when opened, provides small icons straight out of the world of mobile computing.
  • Perfect Timing. Educators screwed over by Linden Lab's mid-year doubling of tier have been looking for something easier to use than OpenSim. I think something like this new virtual world could do the trick. My Avatar looks like a newbie refugee from The Sims Online, but I can live with that. Building is very much like SL, from what I see. Linden Lab needs to be worried...very worried.
  • Storm Clouds? Right now, unless a browser supports WebGL, it won't run this virtual world. Nor will iOS devices. I am searching for a app to try it on my iPad.  Android users may have more luck. But for now, the majority of computing on my campus is done with laptops on wireless. About 70%, at last report, of new students bring Mac OS laptops.  On my MacBook Pro, Cloud Party runs very well and the fan never comes on, as it does constantly with SL running the Firestorm viewer.

    I hope that Cloud Party pursues access to all tablet OSes, though one wonders if Apple and Microsoft will open their mobile OSes to WebGL; on a phone Cloud Party would not be useful for more than texting. A tablet might be too constrained for building, but given my limited experience, my iPad's screen is plenty big for moving and chatting.  Much of Cloud Party depends on right clicks, so that would need to be fixed for mobile users.
Now for the experience: In two visits, I completed the basic and build tutorials and got a free house in a region called "Shiny Valley." Easy enough for veteran SLers. What about those new to virtual worlds? The tutorials were excellent, better than what I found in Second Life and more akin to my unalloyed joys of the first hour in Glitch. My interest in Glitch waned, I admit, because of the lack of realistic avatars and its side-scroll interface.

Here I am being greeted by Gwenette Sinclair, one of the new neighbors.  I know, it's The Sims kinda-sorta. But shiny!

We immediately went to YouTube to watch this R.E.M. video:

It's nice to feel happy about this shiny new virtual world. I hope the happy dance continues. Come by Shiny Canyon for a visit.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why We Keep Inventing the Apocalypse

Location: Perfect June Day, Not a Zombie in Sight

What follows are a few reflections culled from a longer non-fiction piece I hope to publish in Richmond's alternative weekly, Style. Lately, I've been thinking of our nearly pornographic interest in the End Times. I've noticed over the years in Second Life how popular post-apocalyptic settings have been. They are also very popular in games. And while I've not read scholarship on this subject, I wonder about the continuing popularity among college kids of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in both book and film (see image above) versions.

I tend to prefer stories of rebuilding and survival, such as James Howard Kunstler's "World Made By Hand" novels or the second Mad Max film The Road Warrior. These sorts of invented worlds are a minority: of contemporary doomsday TV series, it seems that only "Revolution" is about the urge to remake the world after it falls apart.

So what makes these bleak futures the current staple of Hollywood, computer gaming, and so much of printed science fiction?  With series such as "The Walking Dead" a sub-genre of SF has gone mainstream. It's a recent phenomenon, too. In my copy of Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, editor Jeff Prucher finds that decade gave us the earliest coinages of the terms “post-apocalyptic,” “post-catastrophe,” and “post holocaust.” Not by accident do those neologisms parallel perceptions that America had entered a gradual decline. As the Rust Belt shed jobs until Detroit very much resembled a set from “The Walking Dead,” I find it curious that instead of the positive escapism that something like “Star Trek” offers, we went dark and largely have stayed there. Even George Lucas got bleak in its trilogy of prequels, a story bleaker than even the acting of Hayden Christensen as the young Darth Vader.

That's as far as I've gotten. Do post-apocalyptic settings give us freedom we lack in day-to-day life? Let us imagine a clean slate and a new start? Or are they just fun as hell, McCarthy's jet-black work excepted?