Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dream On: Space Travel Musings, 2012

Location: Chair-bound, looking up

There was a time when pundits predicted hundreds of thousands would live in Earth orbit or further up the gravity well by the year 2000. The Dream did not last much beyond Richard Nixon's cancellation of the last three Apollo missions, but from time to time it crops up again.

The latest incarnation comes from the Space Island Group's vision for their company. To quote:
By 2020 more than 20,000 men and women will be working aboard these orbiting Islands, and 10 million more high-paid specialists will be supporting them on Earth. That 20,000 number will double each following decade. . . .SIG's larger stations will grow their own food, recycle their air and water, and have their own onboard engines and guidance systems. Water mined from asteroids by "Space Island" will be converted into hydrogen and oxygen rocket fuel by sun-powered converters, letting these Islands travel throughout the inner solar system. Metals mined from asteroids will let the stations grow without bringing materials up from Earth.

What will Space Islanders find on these asteroids and on the planets they visit? Will they find life where its now least expected? Will they find remnants of past visitors? What incredible structures will they build in space, freed from the gravity chains of Earth? 
 I want so hard to believe this possible, as I did in the 70s when I read Gerard K. O'Neill's book The High Frontier.

Why do I feel gun shy? It could be that the last time a visionary group promised me world-changing wonders, it was Linden Lab and the potential of Second Life. Like Spooky Mulder in the X-Files, perhaps I do want to believe. But as with the childish hopes for Apollo's legacy and adult ones for virtual worlds, I do feel the pull of SIG's promise.

And, frankly, reject it. These sorts of wild projections only lead to a new generation of disappointed teenaged geeks. At the same time, one can be a bit more optimistic about goings-on for the High Frontier:
  • Space X's plan to launch their Dragon Spacecraft to the International Space Station
  • China's upcoming Shenzhou 9 mission
  • Sir Richard Branson's plans for the maiden voyage to suborbit for Spaceship Two
  • Planetary Resources' deep-pocketed plan to mine an asteroid.
As I watched live at NASA, however, the Space X launch was aborted, just as the ignition sequence began. We will have many such disappointments, and worse, on our way to what NASA liked to call "our destiny in space."

At least the spacecraft did not blow up, and Space X's team worked quickly and professionally. Today, they got the rocket into orbit and I wish them stunning success in reaching the ISS. As a firm that operates more like a Silicon Valley start-up and less like a huge government agency, Space X gives me some guarded hope that they will, with marginal improvements, get their next launch right.

That such events are happening in the midst of a global economic downtown actually gives me a bit of hope that, if matters improve, we may see the first glimmers of a new technological revolution. Because as cool as the Internet is, we remain chair-bound or fixated on our palms.

Neither are the places for heroes, explorers, and world-builders. I'd prefer to dream on.

image credit: Wikipedia's entry on the L5 Society

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This is No Way to Run a Railroad

Billy Badass Fails 1/4  
Location: Watching Linden Lab Run Things Into the Ditch, Again.

I'll again try to host my meeting of the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable tomorrow. Our title for the meeting is "What will you do with virtual worlds on your summer (or winter!) vacation? (TAKE TWO!)"

When last attempted, the Grid was down and only one lonely avatar made it to the Roundtable venue.

Then we rescheduled promptly, so we could at least talk about holiday plans before the Summer (or the antipodean Winter) break fades away. But Linden Lab has other plans: three days of work and "some regions may be taken offline and remain offline for extended periods of time."

I cannot imagine our newest educators in the group being pleased with this.  At the same time, Premium members are promised a "latest Premium-only perk. . .a fully interactive railcar that you can ride across more than 80 regions of the Second Life Railroad. Up to four people can ride and explore on each car!"

Well, wheeeee to that! I could not even get four of us to log in last time, and I certainly have had rotten luck crossing sim borders in my own vehicles.

What a fiasco this virtual world is becoming, for any serious work.  This is no way to run a railroad, even a fake one.

Hat tip to Prim Perfect for alerting me to this in an aptly named post, "There have been better weeks for Second Life."

My summer plans: beef up the Jokaydia Grid build for Fall. After all my prognostication about mobile apps in the last post, my department chair asked me to teach my first-year seminar again, and I most likely have missed the deadline for the iPad Initiative grants. I will run the Usher simulation again for my class...somewhere.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mobile: Shiny? Yes. Hyped? Yes. Fad? No.

About the image: Got your own SL meme? Thanks to Hamlet Au for alerting us to this hilarious meme. Have a crack at adding your own caption here.

Location: Before My Crystal Ball

The other day at VWER, a colleague who should know better claimed that tablet-based computing is a fad on campus, the newest and shiniest object for technologists and administrators. I disagree, even though I have long resisted using a tablet.

This summer, my work will focus increasingly on mobile. I'm not going completely back to Flatland. I'll be finishing some work on Usher, both at SL and Jokaydia Grid, given that I might run the simulation again in the Spring of 2013. Yet I'd be nuts to devote much time to these platforms, given the energy generated by the technology that students and colleagues are actually using already.

It's something of an apples-to-watermelon comparison, when looking at virtual worlds and mobile computing. That said, I remain convinced that SL in particular is a "legacy app" because of its limited return on investment. Readers of this blog may have to get used to a few new directions here, but I'll continue to cover my and colleagues work in virtual worlds.

As for this post? I don't think the SL evangelist is teaching on an actual campus today. Here's why.

Reason 1: Students have mobile hardware on them 24/7

When Second Life was being hyped in mainstream media, students were not carrying technology, by and large, that ran it well. As I noted as early as my first class with SL in the Spring of 2007, if an application did not run well on wireless and on a laptop free of an AC adapter, it might as well not exist for students.

In the five years since, that gap has widened as SL and the promise of public virtual worlds remain down in the Trough of Disillusionment. Gartner analysts predict 5-10 years for mainstream adoption.

Meanwhile, after diving in to the Trough in the 90s, e-readers began climbing out. Media tablets are past the Peak of Inflated Expectations, but they remain two to five years from mainstream adoption. Part of that involves standards. No one knows who will dominate the tablet wars that are surely erupt as Windows 8 devices roll out. I don't really care, as I'm still a novice even with my iPad 2. Microsoft has deep pockets and, despite my disdain for their OS before Windows 7, they can build great hardware; my MS two-button mouse is King Mouse, even when I compare it to the sleek Apple cordless I use at work.

Even as tablets begin to jockey for market share, the mobile experience has gone from students' ways of contacting each other socially to the default device for using the Internet. These devices are already "always on and always on you," to quote from Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, a text I'm devouring on my iPad. One after another student tells me, in brief e-mails sent from iPhones, that their laptops are being reserved for times when they have to "type a paper." That means Word, and that means print.

I'll blog more about the reading experience on a tablet later.

Whoever gains (or in Apple's case, maintains) dominance and establishes the standard matters less to me than the fact that SL and OpenSim do not run well, if at all, on tablets.  Unity 3D does for iOS and Android. I cannot make content for that platform yet, and may never do so, but I'd like to try my hand at exploring others' work.

Concurrent to all this churn, we are  moving to tablets on our campuses for consuming media. If Moore's Law holds true, these devices will become better and better at creating content.

One does not wish to be on the wrong side of history, and I think SL evangelists are clearly on the wrong side, unless they are early in their careers and have a Plan B for research and teaching.

Reason 2: Mobile apps directly relate to classroom work

Save for simulations, as I've noted at length here, there are few compelling reasons to use a virtual world of any sort in the classroom. Many of us don't even need a "world" for a class: we need one or two sims and good content.

The bigger world of SL helps this teacher only insofar as it gets me together with colleagues to share ideas. For some social-sciences or writing courses, I could see the advantage of studying a lively online culture, though IRB reviews could be a nightmare for publication. For language classes, live contact with speakers of other languages would be good.

Otherwise, why DO we send students in-world?

For mobile technology, especially e-texts and note-taking apps, the advantage in a classroom setting, traditional, online, or hybrid, are immediate. Students need not lug heavy books to class, work, or bed. The devices link them directly to research sources. Virtual worlds, in comparison, are clumsy add-on apps that do not play with other applications well. Hence the notecards, LSL minefields, database failures, and other peculiarities that keep VWs from becoming mainstream in the near-term future.

Meanwhile, students working with a colleague in Physics are walking around campus at night and pointing their iPads at the heavens. On their screens, Sky Safari. It is intuitive and easy and can be done on the prowl with our campus wireless. Don't try that with a virtual world.

Reason 3: "Fast, Easy Fun"...We got it wrong before

We will all have characters in MOOs. We will all study literary hypertext. We will all have avatars in immersive 3D virtual worlds.

We'll all pilot flying cars on our commutes, too.

None of these technologies were easy for mainstream users. Some were fast, and to me all of them could be fun.

Remember Linden Lab's marketing push a while back, given Philip Rosedale's pitch that SL should be "Fast, Easy, Fun"? Hamlet Au nailed the challenges Linden Lab faced then. I would claim, based on my experience in OpenSim, that the challenges are even higher for mainstream faculty.

Not so for tablets and smart phones. They are fast and easy. Changing apps is a lot easier for a noob like me than was changing my outfit in SL.

And used judiciously, they are fun.  Too many users are addicted to them, but that's beyond a faculty member's control.

Mobile devices as "Flavor of the Month"? Hardly. More like "future main course."