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: 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.