Thursday, October 17, 2013

Some Numbers to Ponder

Though I did get an A+ in the one statistics class I was forced to take (and perversely, enjoyed immensely) I'm no number-cruncher.

So I "ran a few numbers" today, while watching the verbal pie-fight at NWN about the Linden Lab terms of service and how it might be influencing content creators.  It would seem to me that a better test of Linden Lab's success or failure would be how many new content-creators are coming into the platform. A few high-level departures now won't do much, in terms of establishing a trend.

There is a clear trend to ponder in SL. I pulled these figures from Grid Survey's rankings of private estates in-world:

Date/ Number of private estates / Change from previous entry

10-18-10 / 24791
10-31-11 / 24432 / -359 regions
10-14-12 / 21504 / -2928 regions
10-13-13 / 19582 / -1922 regions

I suppose there's comfort in the smaller decline from 2012 to 2013.  What does the overall trend portend? At some point, there will come a tipping point. What the Lindens do when their world is no longer profitable enough to satisfy their Board remains as mysterious as anything else that comes from their offices.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Linden TOS = Theft?

Location: State of Shock

The new Linden Terms of Service raised many hackles at today's VWER meeting, which I agreed to host as Kali was away.

Note the clauses here:
"you agree to grant to Linden Lab, the non-exclusive, unrestricted, unconditional, unlimited, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, and cost-free right and license to use, copy, record, distribute, reproduce, disclose, sell, re-sell, sublicense (through multiple levels), modify, display, publicly perform, transmit, publish, broadcast, translate, make derivative works of, and otherwise exploit in any manner whatsoever, all or any portion of your User Content"
I'm glad I'm done teaching with Second Life. Never again. And the Lindens must have good lawyers. Vassar still has content there; the new TOS means that Lindens could use Vassar's logo or re-sell it, if one applies the TOS literally.

Yet another reason to set up one's own grid and distribute the work under  a Creative-Commons license.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

VWER Educators Discuss the Linden Discount

Location: Back in Second Life, Briefly

On August 15, I guest moderated the VWER meeting and decided it was time to chat about the new tier discount in SL, to see what others think or are doing.

The complete transcript of our meeting can be found here. Meanwhile, it's safe to say that a few "wants" emerged from our meeting, even as Linden Lab reinstates its discount:
  • An educational continent: this was on the Linden radar in 2010, before the company suddenly fired its staff who supported education.  We'd get a lot of synergy from proximity, and we'd also be able to rent parcels smaller than an entire sim, in a setting with others like us.
  • Linden staff tasked to support education: As in "full-time and on-call." The software vendors I deal with, as I pay them far less annually than what we'd pay in discounted Linden tier, have these helpers by the phone during US business hours. Many at the VWER meeting felt that Linden Lab could afford concierge service for education, too.
  • An educational portal online: It's just an embarrassment to show educators and administrators the socially focused SL Web site, let alone the racy content of Marketplace. We need something that looks like education, not reality TV.
  • Fixing permissions for group builds: We need a new level of permissions so that student builders (who graduate) can not only transfer content to a team but cede "Creator" setting so the content can be exported, backed up, and linked for builds.  While we are at it, how about some off-world backups of the IP we create?
Great ideas, all. I am not holding my breath.

Though I personally think it's too late to bring education back to SL, or even reversing the continuing loss of land-mass in the once popular virtual world, if the Lindens are serious about it, these steps would help.  There are other choices out there beyond OpenSim; Educators now can export virtual-worlds content to worlds employing Unity 3D content.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What Rod Humble Saw

Location: Linden Lab Secret Facility

Now we know the CEO's experience with the Oculus Rift. I think the new-projects team went right out to Vesuvio and got plastered.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Usher 2013: What the Students Would Change

Location: Pushing back from keyboard

Note: To my readers who have followed the blog, it will go fairly quiet now, with perhaps an occasional post from time to time. I'm not in-world enough in SL or OpenSim to justify more, and my other writing beckons.

Thanks for all your comments and ideas over the years.

My students had a lot to say about my final experiment with virtual worlds. I'd suggest these critical remarks, following what they liked, may help others playing with interactive fiction using virtual worlds or other technologies.

As you read them, you'll notice conflicting desires. I suspect the most popular sort of interactive literary experience will steer between constraint and complete freedom. I'll leave that up to others to try.

Too Much or Too Little Freedom?
  • Although the freedom of virtual simulation enables a more personal experience with the story, the freedom is to the detriment of the author’s intent. By providing so much freedom in the story, the meaning behind the story gets lost. In addition, the agency given to the avatars permits characters to get lost, die, or make another mistake that removes them from the storyline.
  • One thing that was detrimental about having so much freedom was the fact that we could go anywhere we wanted even when we were not supposed to. There were several times that I ended up In a room I wasn’t supposed to find, or followed Madeline upstairs when she was trying to do something secretively. That may have been a glitch in the software, or we may have just been too clever, but it made the experience a little confusing.
  • Having read the story prior to the interactive experience, I felt that the simulation lacked depth because it did not hold the same meaning that Poe intended it to, which I find to be an injustice to the great author. In fact, the storyline in my experience not only lacked depth but also action because most of the simulation was dialogue among the avatars. Though the conflict in Poe’s story involves a live burial and revenge, the conflict in my simulation simply had to do with Madeline’s doctor not being exactly who Roderick thought he was. This ultimately led the online story to not be extremely engaging.
  • Even though the story was quite interesting, the final outcome was limited – Madeline either lives or dies. A simulation of a story with broader plot and more characters might also result in better experience. 
  • If I could fix anything about the way this final was conducted, I would make the simulation contain more action. We reached a certain point where I got bored with the large amount of conversation and the lack of more engaging activity. Maybe in the future, this final exam simulation could contain a battle of some sort. The characters could fight a ghost trying to attack them or a doctor trying to take Madeline away for experimenting, or have some other type of fun and unexpected action-based conflict.
The Setting
  • I thought the setting could have been improved. The House of Usher is supposed to be a scary place, however the larger, open rooms, bright Victorian furniture, and wider hallways failed to frighten. I would have liked to see the house’s hallways and rooms more damp, dark, and crowded. This virtual house also wasn’t as effective as Poe’s writing because a depiction of the setting makes it evident that Poe’s descriptions are now clich├ęd. 
Adding Interaction and Giving Out the Clues:
  • More accessible clues would have certainly been helpful: perhaps hints to secrets hidden around the house or scavenger hunt-type clues. At a certain point during the simulation, I felt stuck given the information that I currently had and was not sure how to proceed—notes that led me to specific locations would have helped keep me on the move. In addition to this, interactive items would have been more than welcome and probably a lot of fun. I felt useless in the crypt when I was being shot at by the doctor and did not have a weapon. The ability to use objects, especially weapons, would definitely have made me feel more integrated into the story. The more that a character can physically do, the more lifelike a simulation feels.
  • I also think that searching for clues and interacting with the house could have been a bigger component. Speaking with the actors playing Roderick and Madeleine was an important and interesting part of the experience, but got a little repetitive and boring during the first half of the simulation.
  • I think that the clues that we found were not really helpful in the simulation because they did not really direct us to a solution in any way. There were also too many of them that did not pertain to the plot. Instead Roderick and Madeline could give us clues to help us find the Easter eggs within the simulation
Final Top-Hat Tip

One sad coda to my work of 6 years with virtual worlds: not a single student mentioned the Usher project in their formal class evaluations. In fact, I believe that the time spent preparing for Usher hurt my other teaching, and thus my evaluations overall.

It will be a long time, if ever, that I use this technology with undergraduates. I don't expect SL to thrive again in the way that it was thriving when this blog began, in its original format, in 2007. That said, I wish those in SL's niche-universe good luck. If something like SL becomes popular with the somewhat jaded and very careerist students I teach, I'll give it another go.

Until then, so long and thanks for all the prims.

Friday, May 24, 2013

House of Usher 2013: What the Students Liked

Location: Far from virtual worlds

For what will most likely be my final teaching experience with virtual worlds, I tried to add depth as requested by the last group, in Spring 2011. Notably, I added more clues, plus a real-life scavenger hunt / mystery on campus. Second, I added a combat system and some dangers to the House of Usher.

I want to share the experiences and advice of the class this year, but I will do so in two posts.

First, what students had to say went well. Each bullet point comes from a different student.

As others with more support and energy than I have build virtual-worlds simulations, I hope this feedback will guide them. It was fun, but, frankly, too much work give how my job is structured. I doubt I would take on a project like this again, if I had to build it all from scratch.

Be that as it may, thanks to my actor-volunteers and students.

  • I felt that speaking on the screen, rather than with our mouths made the simulation more immersive. It made the simulation feel a little more game-like and controlled. Though we could say whatever we wanted, we had to be careful with our words, because it was up to the reader entirely to decide the tone of our words.
  • Unlike the short story, the simulation did also provide me with an extra way to see into the characters’ minds: diary entries and notes. One particular example of this is a note written by Madeline, which states, “I do not think that Roderick is correct in providing me with Laudanum. I fear that it will not assist me with this malady of walking about at night. I would prefer to lock my door." In reading this, my player discovered a distrust of Roderick that Madeline does not make public. Playing as a character in a simulation allows for more direct access to the other characters themselves, though it remains impossible to fully delve inside of their minds.
  • The amount of detail that went into the virtual house eased the immersion into the world of Poe. Because of the elaborate design of the virtual world, I was able to notice any important hint or clue that could help me with my task. For example, by reading the letters and journals that Madeline and Roderick wrote, I gained a lot of information about their respective illnesses and Madeline’s doctor. In addition to the copious amount of detail that the virtual setting offered, it also allowed me to create my own story.
  • I was sucked into the recreation of the Fall of the House of Usher to the degree that it felt ‘abnormal’ being in the real world. There were many factors that allowed for such an amazing experience. To begin with, the ‘cast’ of the story in the virtual world was dressed in authentic looking attire which one might have worn during the 19th century. Other than a few slipups, the characters conversed (through chat) in a manner similar to what one might expect from the people of the era.
Simulation Vs. Media With Deterministic Endings
  • For the vast majority of us who read stories or watch movies for fun today, these art works are onetime thing – rarely do we watch a movie or read a story again. Developing simulation for movies and stories might change this. If a story is, for instance, simulated with multiple outcomes, the audience will try and change the end of the story from the original work, possibly to avoid a danger their favorite character faces in the original story. This might require more than a single attempt.
  • This technique of storytelling has been employed in many video games over the years. In the Mass Effect trilogy for example the players actions could change the outcome and would be carried over three games something not possible in a two hour movie or even a long book. The atmosphere of the original [story] is kept in the simulation along with the added mystery of the final outcome.
  • What I found impressive in the simulation was its small details. For instance, you need to say a password as the code to open the door in crypt. Though this advanced technology was not available at that time, it was particularly interesting when you typed in the password in the chat column and the door opened. You could virtually sit down, drink absinthe, and light a candle. The horrific sound tracks in the game really exaggerated the melancholy and dark atmosphere, which is something the film and original novel did not have.
  • In “The Fall of the House of Usher” there was a lot of mystery surrounding the characters. Roderick’s actions were completely unexplained and readers finished the story with more questions than they started with. The interactive experience gave some insight into why the characters acted in certain ways. Unlike a movie, the student is not watching one person’s interpretation of a story. Instead, the student’s interpretation is combined . . . . with the teacher’s interpretation.
Augmented Reality: The Egg-Hunt
  • I believe that the scavenger hunt that we went on to get the eggs added to the experience of the final by adding the mystery or giving an insight into what we would see in the final. The hunt could be considered the prologue to the final.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Commencement 2013: The Avatars Walk!

University of Richmond, Richmond, VA.
Location: Robins Center, University of Richmond

image credit: Boston Public Library at Flickr

I have reflected here before on the temporary and invented community that a college campus provides.

Today, my last group to use Second Life for an entire semester graduated. As a commencement marshal, I got to be up near the stage to help seat, direct, and congratulate our newest alumni. It's bittersweet to see them leave, as they were curious and interested students.

When I took my favorite walk of the year, from the ceremony back to my office to hang up my cap and gown, I thought about how time passes.  Today was wistful and perfect day, with light cloud, cool breezes, but warm-enough sun to remind us it is Spring in Virginia, the best time of all here. One colleague nearing retirement said to me "the years pass at first like telephone poles from a car window, then the pickets of a fence, then railroad ties."

As is always the case, the campus is boisterous near the basketball gym where the thousands of parents, staff, and students gather after the last diploma has been conferred. My walk in my academic robes takes me, in stages, further and further from those happy sounds and into the clear light of a quiet May afternoon. Soon the brick buildings--our campus looks like Hogwarts--loom in the clear daylight as if they'd been there for centuries.  Eventually all sounds, save those of Nature, are muted.

It's a ritual I never miss each year.

Next month, I'm going to return to my own alma mater's 30th reunion, partly because of the mark the education there left on me.

Thirty years!

Yes, in time in all becomes a blur. I suspect we'll all look back on the early days of virtual worlds that way, too, and say "that only seems like yesterday!" Moreover, I hope my students recall the strange experience of exploring SL as a possible future for communications, as they struggled to master the art of writing in academic settings.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Deformed: Virtual Worlds & 1970s Computing History

Mother of All Demos
Location: Watching Douglas Engelbart's "The Mother of all Demos"

image credit: New Media Consortium at Flickr

Many of us who have dabbled with virtual worlds have wondered how they could form a constellation of networked systems, in much the same way as the Internet's servers do today. Whatever the fate of this niche technology called virtual worlds, from the failure to run on mobile devices to the inherent boom-bust cycle of Second Life's particular brand, the road not taken always beckons.

There is an historical precedent here, and it's one that has a happy ending. Could the same be true for virtual worlds?

Today's Internet: Clarke's Law in Action

For a moment, consider the complex and delicate magic that occurs whenever we use the Internet. My university server talks fine to Google, for work such as the just-completed Usher project. Whenever the Outlook mail client randomly eats student file attachments sent to me, I smile. Ah, Microsoft's wonderfully Byzantine and wonderfully doomed, technology, eating even its own Word files. Cue Apple and Google, as the Ottomans on the horizon, slowly gobbling up a once mighty empire.  Good riddance.

Then, because of the lack of monopoly that Microsoft coveted and almost got, I have the students try, try again with Gmail. Excede's servers send me the results and, once I type, transmit my thoughts--profound or inane--from home travel via satellite to Google.  When I send notice of this post to interested folks at Twitter or Facebook, the servers hosting that data all "talk" to one another.

Types of Gardens and a World-Wide Web, 1975?

Compare that to virtual worlds technology, ostensibly part of the Internet since that is how we access it. Second Life, InWorldz, and many others that share core technologies could, in theory, speak to each other. Had development not branched off as it has done, Linden Lab and a few other grids might have pioneered a system for avatars and inventory to travel from world to world.  That happens with OpenSim Hypergridding, a technology that John Lester promoted, before his work for Reaction Grid turned to Jibe-based 3D worlds.  But "interoperability" died years ago at Linden Lab, and it seems unlikely to return.

It's curious, this set of walled gardens. If today the Internet resembles Borges Garden of Forking Paths, Virtual Worlds resemble something else: the road taken in the 1970s toward personal computing.

I realized that while reading John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said, a history of early computing got influenced by the American Counterculture:
When personal computing finally blossomed in Silicon Valley in the mid-seventies, it did so largely without the history and research that had gone before it. As a consequence, the personal-computer industry would be deformed for years, creating a world of isolated desktop boxes, in contrast to the communities of shared information that had been pioneered in the sixties and early seventies. (179)
The Internet did not begin with Al Gore, whatever he may have claimed. It did not begin in Jobs' family garage and with Steve Wozniak's brilliant hardware hacks. It did not begin at Xerox PARC with the Alto. The personal computer with a GUI and mouse? Yes, we can credit or blame Xerox and Apple for that.

But years before, nearly every element of the modern Internet would have been possible with the Augment system, developed under the leadership of Douglas Engelbart. Yet that development stalled and ended, a revolution stillborn.  I think we can see an analogue for what is going on, at this cultural moment, with user-generated virtual worlds.

Engelbart's Mouse

Want to see what might have been for the Internet? I am convinced that had something like Augment  been made less opaque for casual users, we'd have had an academic, and perhaps consumer Internet in 1975. Engelbart gave a show-stopper of a demo in 1968, with mouse, text-editing with clipboard and copy/paste, multiple files, graphics on screen, electronic mail, hyperlinks tagged to graphics, and remote visitors via a network.  You can see what he was doing with Augment at these videos from Stanford.

The reasons for Augment's failure are complex; Markoff's book does justice both to the creator's vision and his ultimate failure to produce a widely adapted product.  What happened, however, for consumers was the emergence of walled gardens and proprietary systems from Apple, Microsoft, Digital, Tandy, and other competitors forgotten except by historians of technology.

When the Internet emerged, it came late to a culture of desktop boxes that could not, generally, talk to one another.

What if the personal computer revolution had begun with networking? And similarly...

What if Virtual Worlds Had Begun with Interoperability?

I'm writing an article about one group of USENET hobbyists who have made the jump to Facebook, because the old .alt group proved too chaotic and full of spammers, trolls, and other bottom feeders. They also made the leap because, frankly, .jpgs and text import and export well between applications. Text did in Engelbart's day.

Little aside from these, plus Collada files and some other graphic formats, can move between different virtual worlds.  Standards for inventories, for avatar meshes, and for "land" templates are different. In this technology landscape, OpenSim grids serve as today's Augment. Managing a bunch of avatars and a region in OS is hard to master, not stable in my experience except in the hands of a pro, but interoperable. Running an entire campus-hosted grid would be lovely, but it's beyond my time or expertise to learn.

Other products with potential beyond SL's technology, such Unity 3D and Jibe, produce elegant worlds, but they don't talk to other worlds and expert designers need to craft objects. They do offer vast potential, according to OpenSim pioneer Adam Frisby, for scaling, running on mobile devices, and improved grahics.

That sounds great until one considers faculty skills-sets and what it takes to build with Unity or Jibe. As noted  before in this blog, developing for these platforms may be within reach for architecture and engineering students, but at my university, it's challenge enough to get students to juggle multiple e-mail accounts and embed files from YouTube into their blog posts. We faculty lack time and incentives to do more with them, let alone learn 3D applications such as Maya or Blender.  Yet nearly all of us at my school have created content, mostly with text and images and sometimes digital video, and shared it on the Internet.

For all its limitations and toxicity as a brand, Second Life and, lets amateurs with a copy of Photoshop build easily. I'm told that Cloud Party does too, and I will soon try again with Cloud Party's latest build tools. Scripting remains something for those not faint of heart and projects to make visual scripting tools, such as MIT's Scratch for SL, remain as stillborn as Augment.

What it will Take to be Disruptive

Here comes a sweeping generalization, and I'm ready to fall on this sword if some wise person can prove me wrong. Virtual worlds will never be a disruptive technology, in Tim Wu's sense of the term, until they become an interoperable and popular tool for everyday life, as the Web and e-mail have become.

Had virtual worlds begun with a series of collaborative academic ventures rooted in common standards, rather than a group of for-profit start-ups from The Valley, we might have that disruption and a 3D Web today.  Then the profits would follow, because in 1968, who could have foreseen eBay or Amazon or Facebook?

Right now, however, it's still 1968 and we've all seen the potential of a disruptive technology, as those who watched Engelbart's presentation did.

So today, who will build the 3D Web?

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Silence of the Blogs

Location: Blogroll

It's not just this blog that has become quieter. I've noted that Lalo Telling, Tateru Nino, and several other writers who focused primarily on virtual worlds have dropped off my radar. Tateru tweets, and some others post far less frequently than even a year ago.

Is that merely the drift of writers' interest away from virtual worlds? Or has blogging about this topic, generally, ebbed as interest and land-mass in Second Life have ebbed?

Did some in education who were grad students stop blogging as their career needs became a necessary priority?

There are clearly more blogs I should follow. After posting a first draft of this post, I did a quick Google Search and found that Daniel Voyager noted, in December last year, that Lalo's real-life typist passed away. Pity. He was a gifted writer.

One thing for certain: it's gotten a lot quieter around here.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Leaving Las Vegas: 6 Years in Virtual Worlds, Farewell

VWER 25 April 2013
Location: Grading Finals

During the Spring Semester of 2007, this fool rushed into Second Life, something he felt would not only change education but the world beyond. Virtual worlds looked like a utopian technology with lots of zealous folks ready to evangelize the masses.

Six years later, grading what may be my last-ever student projects about virtual worlds and somewhat wiser, this educated fool wonders why SL did not change the world or even higher ed. I've written elsewhere about why SL failed to become that "3D Web" of yore.  Meanwhile, the bandwagon has moved on, the cheerleaders yelling "hurrah!"and "higher education will never be the same!" for MOOCs.

I'll sum up what I've learned about utopian narratives and would-be transformative technologies here, based on not only the last 6 but the last 25 years of studying and writing professionally about technological change, especially that which generates legions of enthusiasts.
  1. Look past the message to the messenger
  2. Wait for results unless you are an entrepreneur or venture capitalist
  3. Be a trailing-edger
  4. Find community locally, not just online
  5. Consider what students have in their hands
Lesson one: Look past the message to the messenger

I first head about Second Life in a story from Wired. That is not a sedate or juried publication; it's the Popular Mechanics of the digital era. Ever the sucker for flying cars and moon bases, I decided "I need to get in early with this technology," not considering that one company, with a closed platform not built for education, held the cards. I trusted the vision of Magic Koolaid provider, Philip Rosedale. Linden Lab's corporate culture and Rosedale's wandering vision both disappointed this educator, along with many colleagues.

Who is pushing MOOCs today? College faculty members? Technologists who embrace the new without considering pedagogy of large classes with little or no contact with faculty? Right-wing lawmakers eager to dilute the power of those "tenured radicals" supposedly in charge of Higher Ed? Boards of Visitors eager to promote a school "brand" without a clear sense of what it will do to curriculum, staffing, or the long-term value of that "brand"?

Ask yourself, and take a deep breath before jumping on the band wagon.

I do wish I'd looked past the euphoria about virtual worlds in 2007 to see who was cheering most loudly.

Lesson Two: Wait for results, unless you are an entrepreneur or venture capitalist

I was not in virtual worlds for the money. As noted just now, I wanted to be in on "the next Web," as many were then pitching SL. In 1993, when I first saw a moving weather-pattern on the Mosaic browser in Dickie and Cindy Selfe's lab at Michigan Tech, I knew I was seeing something historic. In 2007 I thought so again, without applying the very critical-thinking skills I teach my students.

From 2003-06 or so, it made sense for venture capitalists to take a bet on this new technology. It might have become the next Web. Educators, however, need to always place sound pedagogy ahead of tech, which is a suspicious I have about the euphoria over MOOCs at the moment. I saw that same brand of enthusiasm for MOOs in the late 80s and early 90s, literary hypertext a bit later, glove-and-goggle VR from the 80s to the present, and of course, virtual worlds.

While one might reasonably claim that virtual worlds are going to become significant culturally, I'd suspect lots of Magic-Koolaid drinking by an educator who claimed SL will ever again be more than a niche-product in years to come. AJ Kelton of VWER rightly called SL "The AOL of virtual worlds" to the disdain of several Linden Lab staff. AJ was correct, and the Lab staff in question now work elsewhere, after being fired during the first stages of Second Life's ongoing and palpable decline.

Bottom line for me: waiting to see if SL lived up to its hype would have cost me nothing in 2007, and would have saved me time. Had I first taken a class in-world in 2009, I'd have been ready for the myriad frustrations and technical issues that bedeviled a product that seemed very much in Beta up to that point.

Lesson Three: Be a trailing-edger

During the summer I spent with the Selfes and their grad students at Michigan Tech, Richard "Dickie" Selfe, co-founder of that school's CCLI humanities lab, along with wife and fellow scholar Cynthia Selfe, once told me only to adopt trailing-edge tech for teaching and learning. The Selfes were among a group of 1980s pioneers with personal computing in the classroom, and Dickie's lab at MTU was a playful space, with stuffed animals, a coffee machine, snacks, and weekend gaming sessions with Doom and similar titles.  I'm sure that at Ohio State they continue this practice, so influential to young scholars of writing pedagogy in writing-intensive curricula.

At every step, while the Selfes liberally experimented with leading-and-bleeding-edge applications, in the classroom they proceeded more carefully with undergraduates. The older technologies were stable, easier to support, and grounded in best practices for teaching.

My experiences in 2007-8 in SL, and then in 2011 with OpenSim's Jokaydia Grid, taught me the dangers of being on the bleeding edge. My students and I bled. Only Jokay's personal help saved the final exam in 2011, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth for teaching with OpenSim. As for SL, only by 2009 was it stable enough for a class to appreciate. That class was, ironically, my last one to focus on the technology, rather than using it for a single project.

Today, SL as a product is fairly stable, and critical and scholarly work about virtual worlds has emerged to guide our pedagogy. One would be far better off starting today as a SLer with students, given these two changes. Those on the bleeding edge, however, get cut by it.

Lesson Four: Find community locally, not just online

My years with the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable have been good ones, and I cherish the faculty contacts I have made there. That said, the weekly meetings and constant advice did not compensate for a lack of interest in virtual worlds on my campus. With other innovations, from our Writing Consultants program to First-Year Seminars, we meet in person and I have lunch with folks in the flesh. There is no substitute.

Our technologists all had avatars before I did, but they never convinced more than a handful of faculty to try SL. The learning curve, the oddness of avatar-based education on a residential campus, and the lack of incentives for faculty all worked against us.

In the end, SL was an experiment that failed at Richmond. When Linden Lab renewed the 50% discount for education (if you ask the right person!) we declined. Why spend even $150 monthly for a product that might be used once every few years by one faculty member? Meanwhile, our technologists have other more tasks, from supporting Blackboard and other meat-and-drink software to  new initiatives with mobile apps.

Mobile may turn out to be the "new shiny object" for education, but it's not a niche application for students. As for MOOCs? I will wait to see comparative studies of students' learning outcomes in them and outside them. That should have been done for virtual worlds.

Lesson Five: Consider what students have in their hands

The transition to smart phones as students' primary communications tools has changed everything for us. While laptops abound, students use them like big phones: never plugging in the AC adapters, perching them in nooks where Millennnials gather to collaborate, plastering them with stickers to personalize them. I suspect that with a better keyboard, students would do their content creation on fast tablets, since we have ubiquitous and fast wireless everywhere on campus.

None of that I could have foreseen in 2007, since I did not even slow down enough to consider how poorly SL would run on many laptops, especially those not hard-wired to an Ethernet port or plugged into a AC outlet.

Even with desktop connections, students loathe SL's lag. I saw that last week in the finals. Perhaps server-side baking from Linden Lab will make SL run better on what my students still use for content creation--laptops--though not on phones, where virtual worlds simply cannot display with any sort of grandeur.

But by then, Iggy will have left the virtual building.


I'm thankful for an experiment of six years, even if the experiment failed. At least virtual worlds generated two publications for me, as well as a forthcoming anthology I'm co-editing with some chapters about virtual worlds. I don't write the rules, but publications and teaching evaluations are the currency of academia, despite the best wishes of utopians that it be otherwise.

It is always possible that my teaching load will shift again, and my Chair and Department will call on me to teach my course about the history, culture, and future of Cyberspace. In such an event, Iggy and his students will be back. Look out.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Finale for Usher & Teaching in Virtual Worlds?

Location: Virtual House of Usher

Is it to be "that's all, folks," in the immortal words of Porky Pig?  In twenty minutes, I start what may be my last-ever work with students inside a virtual world.

We'll see what the future brings, but for now, I'm betting on the Pig. Here's the final scoreboard from the students. Three students not only found eggs but solved the quest therein. Nicely done, Gunters!  Divij in particular came on strong with his work to lift the curse from his "bad egg."

Monday, April 22, 2013

What Happens When You Listen to Students' Requests About SL

Location: Dead

They wanted a combat system and "consequences" at the House of Usher.

And they got me killed. For THEIR final exams!

The dog did it. The students' avatars toast my demise with Absinthe.

Usher Egg-Hunt Finale

Location: Very Close to Egg #5

No one found that clue, but otherwise, we have winners and a new scoreboard.  I am mystified that none of the quests in the five eggs that were located have been done.

As for the online egg-hunt. The Haikus came in with ferocity, and all of them followed the 5-7-5 rhythm for the poems. All of them were very creative and made me laugh, so all our haiku writers got an extra point.

For the cheesiest line in Ready Player One, Beaumont wins for this one:
"Some time later, she leaned over and kissed me. It felt just like all those songs and poems promised it would." (Cline 372) 
I suppose Cline was being ironic, and Wade is a horny teenaged boy who has really fallen hard for Art3mis. But that cheese-factor here earns five wedges of Gorgonzola. 

Both Leah and Rayna submitted interesting analyses of Poe's descriptive language, in comments both interesting and economical. I do like the sense of decline and decay that Leah sniffs out:
The mood of the house of the fall of usher is definitely a mood of suspenseful caveat. From the beginning of the stories description of the house being decrepit, just barely holding itself together, the story is being set up for the house to crumble. Also the fact that the story begins with Roderick in a similar state as the house (mentally and physically) from the start, the reader knows that Roderick is unstable, and that he’s going to go over the edge at some point in time during the story, we just don’t know exactly when. Also the story of the dragon at the end is a definite give-away of the suspenseful nature of this story. As he reads the book, all of the actions and sounds from the story play out, but slowly. First he hears a sound, but he’s unsure if he made it up or not, then the situation escalates to Roderick speaking to himself and the door being banged down, and then Madelyn finally coming in. these are all very suspenseful parts of a very suspenseful tail, and the warning in the story is unclear, but I feel that it is definitely foreboding of something.
Good job, Gunters. Now on to my swan-song teaching with Second Life's simulation of Usher, for the foreseeable future. Traditional papers are a lot less work, but not nearly as fun.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Online Easter-Eggs for Usher Finals

Location: Place where brains get wracked

Score updates are shown. If you have gotten an egg, it's time to e-mail me the solutions to the riddles they contain. I'll bestow a key icon (like those in Ready Player One) beside your scores above once you have reached that point. Divij, this can be your Art3mis moment--get me that Pet-Peeve violation and you'll vault upward and bask in the glory of a key beside your name.

Now on to NEW clues!

I am having a devil of a time coming up with more riddles, tasks, and such for the Virtual House of Usher Final Exams.  But three ideas struck me as interesting, given the tales we have read and and simulation itself. So here we go. You students must reply in the comments section with your answer.

My judgement will be subjective and as capricious as the contents of Roderick Usher's addled mind. Each of these could earn you one extra point.  Here we go: you tasks, Gunters! Be sure you are logged in with your Google account to reply, or at least put your name into the answer.

  1. Poe was a master of descriptive language. I want you to re-read "The Fall of the House of Usher" and in a comment of NO MORE THAN 300 words (no easy task!) make the best argument you can for the mood of the story, using the adjectives--and no other parts of speech--that Poe employs. +1 point to winner (not your team). If you win, I'll give you a hint about Usher.
  2. Our classmate Carly (now basking in one extra point) called Ready Player One  "cheesy." That is, itself, a fine adjective of its own. So let's have fun with Cline's book. He's a geek like me and can take the abuse. We will have a contest to find the cheesiest sentence in his entire novel. Post your nominations in the comments. Keep in mind that it must be a serious and not ironic sentence. You must do research, but as Wade reminds us (in a sentence that is not at all cheesy) research is easy if  you have no life. +1 point to finder (not your team). If you win, I'll give you a hint about Usher.
  3. There have been speculations since the time of Poe's death about his abuse of the opiate Laudanum. We have some clues about it in the House of Usher, in fact.  I don't know that Poe ever drank Absinthe, but we put a tray of the drink in the House, too. Your task: write a haiku (using formal haiku form) in honor of either drink. +1 point to finder (not your team). If you win, I'll give you a hint about Usher. If you manage to Google and steal someone else's haiku, AND I find out, you'll lose your point...and one more!
Note well: all Gunters who want credit for any of these three tasks must  turn in their comment to this blog by MIDNIGHT Sunday. Cue the fiendish laughter.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Usher Scoreboard Update #2

All is not glum for Divij. He must do the following and he'll easily vault back up the scoreboard:

His quest: +2 points if you can violate a dozen of Dr. Essid’s Pet Peeves in no more than 6 sentences. The paragraph must follow the last paragraph about Sir Ethelred did The Fall of the House of Usher. Show it to Dr. Essid before you visit Roderick and Madeline. If you read your paragraph to Roderick Usher when you are alone with him, he’ll reveal a secret to you and and only you.

Usher Scoreboard Update #1

Two More Hidden Clues for the Egg Hunters

Location: Undisclosed

Here are two final clues for the FYS 100 students' hunts. Since the House of Usher is full of clues (see image above), it is fun to hide a few in the physical world.  Rumors abound that two of yesterday's eggs have been found. I will post a score-board here as soon as I hear back from the lucky "Gunters."

Note that over the weekend, I'll have more posted that will not involve a physical egg but a hunt through the work of Ernest Cline and Edgar Allan Poe.

Clue #5: “Begin at an arcade you should know well by now. You will see us, since George did not chop us down. A week or two ago, we were in the fullness of our springtime beauty. Now we are like the others, except that one of us hides an egg.”

Clue #6: “What’s in my pocket? Everyone asks me but I never answer them. But if you follow my nose to the center, then turn right and think about Christmas greenery mentioned in a carol, you might find a clue!”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Let the House of Usher "Egg" Hunt Begin!

Location: Undisclosed Location

For the House of Usher simulation, we've always included clues in the virtual House itself. Now for what may be the finale for the project, at least in my courses, I've put some real-life clues here and there on our campus. I suppose this is what game-theorists call (awkwardly) "gamification" in classes.

Students will hunt campus for the clues, the first four of which appear here. If they find a light bulb they get a point and a quest that will help them in the Usher simulation.

Even before we read Ernest Cline's light-hearted cyberpunk (that's not a typo) novel Ready Player One, I was calling them "Easter Eggs," in honor of the little gifts that coders leave in games.

In Cline's novel, those seeking the eggs became "Gunters." Alas, the craft store was all out of plastic eggs. They had little containers shaped like plastic light-bulbs for the clues, an appropriate metaphor.

Here are the first four clues, Gunters!

  1. “Above the Court of the Five Lions, and in a place of honors, there is an egg with a song to awaken the dead”
  2. “Climb many stairs to go to a room of Gargoyles. A treasure is there and a magical word”
  3. “In the Jungle, the mighty jungle....” If you can finish this sentence, you may well find an egg to help you on your quest.
  4. “Do not go here to kiss, the legend says, unless you intend to marry him or her. Look carefully, and below the surface for the egg.”

More on the way! Happy Hunting!

Big Bad Wolf and a Pesky Bat: Enhancing Usher

Location: Usher Crypt, looking for Milk-Bones and saying "Nice doggy!"

One thing was clear in Fall, 2011, when I last ran the House of Usher simulation in OpenSim: students wanted more danger.  That means injury and death, things very much in keeping with Poe's tales. The more macabre and premature one's demise, the better!

Second Life content creators have made a number of combat systems that can maim or kill avtars, but I chose Spellfire precisely so I could use some scripted animals from a content creator named "Restless Swords." This animals can also do Gorean-Meter damage, and though that system is simpler than Spellfire, which includes the need for avatars to sleep and eat, I cannot use anything "Gorean" on a university machine, period.

I went to visit Restless (teleport to his shop by the link here) as both Iggy and Roderick to buy some creatures. After some outstandingly prompt service from Restless to get the current updates for the scripted animals, Usher has a wolf wandering the crypts and a bat in the attic.

We'll see what our actors and student avatars do now. There's one weapon in the House, and they'll have to solve some riddles to get access to it, if they wish to defend themselves.

Monday, April 15, 2013

SLers and Paying Attention to Updates

Location: SL Marketplace

As I prepare my swan-song teaching in SL (at least for the foreseeable future) I made some changes to the setting and dangers of the virtual House of Usher.

My last students to use it, in 2011, wanted some real chances of mayhem. I've obliged by adding a roleplayer's HUD to all of the premade avatars, and I set out to spend a few thousand Linden Dollars to add some traps, tricks, and mayhem.

The problem has been that items from Marketplace I ordered have not been delivered. Repeatedly. I think I know why.

Linden Lab recently updated its system for merchants, so they do not use a "Magic Box" server in-world, a remant of the time when the Lab purchased the retailers XstreetSL and Onrez. Now merchants who have read the notices use a direct delivery method. Note those words "who have read the notices" from Linden Lab.

Debates about Marketplace or the coming of direct delivery killing in-world real estate rage, but my concern is elsewhere. Never before have I had a Marketplace delivery to me fail.


Now both items I've purchased for the Usher avatars failed. I'm guessing that the creators have them in a Magic Box that is now useless.  How many other hundreds of small merchants, no longer active in SL, have had this occur because they were not paying any heed?

I'll send the Usher avatars shopping in-world to buy what they need, but the situation brings up a larger question. With the approach of server-side baking what will happen to tens of thousands of SL users who did not get the rather obscure blog post by the Lab, some time back? Firestorm's team has warned us to be ready. Linden Lab, however, has been all wine and roses and one blog post.

Yet even with Firestorm's good advice, I would hazard a guess that many of us don't read the text on our log-in screens.

If what I see at Marketplace, among folks who could be making money, is any indicator, hold onto your prim hats.

Chaos is coming to a metaverse near you. Wait for it.

Friday, April 5, 2013

How Customer Service Should Work: Help from eBay

Location: Boxing up stuff to ship

As a "power seller" at eBay (over 200 auctions in the last year) anything that slows down the process of listing an item means a cascading loss of time.

The company recently revised its photo uploader, so it became impossible to edit a listing while the photos uploaded. Normally that poses no problem, but 2 minutes lost during each of 10 listings means 20 minutes lost.

I asked eBay to change their uploader back to the old system, and very quickly--less than a month--I got this reply from the firm:

Dear sellers,

In response to your feedback to able to edit listing in the background, we just rolled out an enhancement to address that. So now you will able to work on your listing while waiting for photo upload.

I strongly encourage you to test out and let me know your thoughts.

Thank you for your support!

For the sake of conversation, let's compare that sort of feature request to, say, Linden Lab's turnaround time for a problem.  Moral? Listen to your customers.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Historical Precedent: Mobile Computing & Our Unease?

Location: In front of a large screen

image credit: U Penn Library Exhibit, "John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer"

It's a common complaint that any mention of virtual worlds has ebbed in the popular media, and one reason given has often been the shift to mobile devices and tiny screens. Certainly that describes my students' preferences for online devices: about 90% of the e-mail I get from students comes from their phones.

I have met stiff resistance from colleagues wedded to desktop and laptop computers when suggesting that we need to make mobile computing the focus for our efforts with virtual worlds and more. For some historical precedent about this, consider an argument put forward by John Markoff in What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.  In this, Markoff clearly realizes, as Tim Wu did a few years later in The Master Switch, that some technologies overturn entire industries and ways of communicating:
Indeed, the hallmark of each generation of computing has been that its practitioners have resisted each subsequent shift in technology. Mainframes, minicomputers, PCs, PDAs--at the outset of each innovation, the old guard has fought a pitched battle against the upstarts, only to give in to the brutal realities of cost and performance.
As Moore's Law makes our hand-held devices more powerful, I suspect this will happen again. For the latest shift, it will mean that something the size of a smart phone will be our primary computing device on the go or, when attached to  virtual keyboards and easily accessed monitors, nearly everywhere else. Here's a picture from the year 2023:

You enter your office and look at something like a large-screen television hung on the wall above the desk. You speak a login keyword. The phone, linked to the global data-cloud, remains in your pocket as you begin to work, using gestures in the air while in range of the television's scanner.  Windows for e-mail, a spreadsheet, and a calendar appear and you move them around with your hands while you issue voice commands. To input text you simply speak, and the voice-recognition software in the phone translates this to text. You finish just before a face-to-face meeting with colleagues, and walk down the hall. In the conference room, there's another big television, and with voice alone, you begin to talk. The notes taken in your office appear on the wall.

I will be a very late-comer to mobile computing, when I get a smart phone this fall. I don't fancy my iPad all that much, finding it must useful for quick browsing to, say, check the weather or read an e-book.  That may well change. For the longest time, Markoff notes, printing was one of the biggest hurdles for personal computing. When these puzzles get solved, such as providing big screens and input devices for mobile computing carried in a pocket, progress happens rapidly.

In a world with haptic and voice interfaces, as well as a robust data-cloud, we should get ready to say farewell to both desktop and laptop in fewer years than we might imagine. Then, imagine the students' gesture of neurotically clutching their smart phones to see as antique as clutching a magical talisman.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Linden Discount: 7 Desires by Educators

Location: VWER meeting

Last Thursday, VWER covered the contentious topic. On Friday, I reached out to the Linden, Zeeshan Linden, whose name appeared on the invitation letters received by several at the meeting. To date I've not gotten a reply.

So here is the list we generated:
  1. Make an official statement.
  2. Define what an “educational or nonprofit sim” means.
  3. State who is covered: Existing owners or those like my school who left?
  4. Clarify length of required contract.
  5. Permit those returning from an OpenSim grid a one-time OAR import to SL.
  6. Designate an official LL contact for educators and non-profits.
  7. Waive set-up fee for those educational and non-profits who have left SL and return.
The full transcript of our meeting discussion, running many pages, can be found here.

My campus did not receive the offer, and our former island manager is not planning to ask. He notes that we are unlikely to have any budget or support available, even at the old rate.  Faculty are simply not using virtual worlds at my school, and my own work with classes will probably end this semester. I'm on tap to teach a different range of classes for the next few years, with topics that do not lend themselves to using SL or OpenSim grids.

That is not the case at other schools with active programs, so Linden Lab should say something officially, and soon. Their delay and arbitrary offers only deepen the suspicion of those who continue to pay tier for educational and nonprofit sims in SL.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jessica Lyon of Firestorm Discusses Changes to Viewer Software

Location: VWER Meeting

Just over 40 educators and guests at VWER listened to Jessica Lyon discuss upcoming changes that all third-party viewers must make to work with server-side baking and other innovations that Linden Lab will soon roll out.

How soon? No idea, but "soon," as Jessica herself does not know. I'd say "not a moment too soon," as we soon crashed the simulator where the meeting occurred. After a restart, ten of the group never returned.

Thus the current state of SL. If the coming changes mean less lag and more stability, so be it.

The complete transcript of Jessica's Q&A can be found here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Dream of Reason (Again) in OpenSim

Location: Virtual House of Usher

With some instructions from Jokay, I was able to configure the Firestorm OpenSim viewer to log right into the build of Nevermore, transported (far as I can tell) seamless from hosting by Reaction Grid to Jokay's new host.

The transition was really smooth, though Roderick rezzed as Ruth (quickly fixed).  I've now saved his usual outfit as an outfit, replete with skin, shape, hair, AO...something I've long done with Iggy in Second Life but just forgot in OpenSim.

My plan would be to use Jokay's grid as my Lifeboat in case the looming changes in the SL viewer render our campus desktop Macs and PCs unable to run their latest client.

Stay tuned for more about the plant to use SL, one final time, for what may be my last hurrah in virtual-worlds teaching: my final exam suing the SL build of the House of Usher simulation/improv for the History of Cyberspace course.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Iraqi Game of Risk, 10 Years On

Location: Salad Bar, 10 Years On

I will never forget the argument beside the salad bar.

A conservative co-worker in our Physical Plant on campus knew I opposed Bush's war of choice, and he confronted me as I got my lettuce. Students, largely disengaged then as now from geopolitics, looked on at the two old people fighting in public.

"It's going to happen! We clean out the nest!" He said, emphatically.

"Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan, not Iraq, and that brute Saddam did not attack us on 9/11." I try to reason.

"You don't get it! This will be easy! We will turn the tanks right when we are done, and get Iran fixed too." He was gloating, and the students, the age of those who'd be dying in Bush's Middle Eastern game of Risk, were rolling their eyes.

"It won't be so easy; Iraq is a modern invention, a bunch of ethnic groups crammed together by the old Colonial powers. They'll turn on each other as soon as the brute at the top gets two in the hat."

"You are just spouting the typical liberal line." He was done. So was I. I reached for the dressing.

Ten  years ago, it was still the Freedom-Fries Era, of  salad-bar "Old Europe" vs. red-meat "Real Americans."

I was getting a salad, then wrote letters and op-ed columns. He got a burger and put a flag decal on his huge pickup truck.

What does it matter that I was right in the end? It was not a Risk game, and 4,500 dead Americans and God knows how many dead Iraqis later, that nation is a powder-keg. If it does not explode again, it will be the will of the Iraqi people and the resilience of their democracy, purchased with so much blood, that see it through.

Bush went back to his ranch and oblivion. We have that consolation at least about a man who set America firmly on a long-term decline with two wars paid for on debt, tax-cuts in the midst of those expensive conflicts, and exhortations not to sacrifice but to go shopping in defense of what he called a "sacred lifestyle."

Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their minions who massaged lies into a war did not see prison.

Afghanistan remains a missed opportunity, after an ADHD President and his war-criminal Svengali of a Vice President decided a bigger opportunity loomed. Then a clownish and finally, small man put on his flight suit to declare not just "mission accomplished" but, essentially, "game over, baby."

Except that it's not, and our tanks have come home. Yet the game goes on. Memories of tortured prisoners, religious civil war, and dead civilians will linger in Iraq.

My adversary over the celery stalks just says hello now. That was my last conversation with him and I don't need to rub my correct assessment in.

How's that for some shock and awe?

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Sweet Smell of Desperation

Location: Looking at barrel and refusing to be bent over it again

As Linden Lab gradually loses landmass in its virtual world, as shown so graphically in Tyche Shepherd's Grid Survey data, the Lab turns again to a dog it kicked repeatedly in 2010: educators. Hamlet Au broke the story that the Lab is "quietly" reaching out to selected schools and nonprofits who lost their 50% discount on the Lab's exorbitant tier rates: come back, and you will get the discount again. According the Hamlet, the discount works as "a full private island for $1,770 per year, or $3,540 for two years."

 "Please, oh please," Linden Lab might have added. Here's why educators should reply with a firm "no thanks."
  • Fairness to All Customers: Why should some educators get this discount, and not others? While vendors in education do offer volume discounts, it is unclear if the new educational offer applies to potentially large estates: a cap-and-gown version of the Lab's Atlas Program.

    I'd prefer across-the-board cuts for all customers, something the Lab apparently cannot do.
  • Focus on Entertainment, Not Business or Education: I've long felt we made a mistake in thinking that SL would be amendable to education. We educators thought of Linden Lab as just another software vendor.

    When the educational discounts had existed in an earlier era of Second Life, the preferential treatment made sense, as educators were then a sort of "halo" customer for a product the purportedly would be a "disruptive" technology intent on changing the world.

    Today, the Rosedale/Burning Man dream is long gone. SL, under CEO Mark Kingdon, tried to enter the enterprise market and failed, even as the Lab's educational team was fired and the discount for educational and non-profit customers ended. I'd hoped that Rod Humble, with his impressive Electronics-Arts pedigree, would at least restore some sense to an unsustainable revenue model based upon extracting tier payments from a declining user base.

    Instead, since his coming the Lab has clearly been milking SL, not even featuring it as one of four "shared creative spaces" on the Lab's page that points to potential investors and employees. Meanwhile, SL has chased the social-gamer market, with advertisements looking more and more like IMVU's. Marketing counts here. One look at the Lab's images for "what is Second Life" show beautiful people often in romantic embraces.

    I really like this whimsical and sexy image by Strawberry Singh that the Lindens use as the default on their site's home page, but it would elicit laughs in the classroom and worse in the IT conference rooms where purchasing decisions get made. It illustrates how far the Linden Lab strategy has shifted, and I don't think a granting agency or IT department would look at today's SL and say "here is your $150 per month, prof. Go play with Victoria's Secret pixies."
  • A Company and Platform Out of Touch With How Millennials Communicate: I polled my current section of 16 first-year students. Not one brought a desktop computer to campus, and only three own one at their home.

    My residential campus is not typical today, with full-time undergraduate students who don't commute. That said, many of my current students are also computer-science majors. They use mobile technology for everything: laptops for making content and phones plus, increasingly, tablets for communication. SL does not play well on many laptops with wireless and not at all on phones and tablets, barring a third-party viewing with limited functionality. The platform is wedded to the desktop computer that remains popular with the sorts of users who can swap out a video card on a weekend. Students can't do that with laptops, and our labs, where desktops remain available, are not set up for that sort of on-the-fly upgrades.
  • No Sense of the Academic Year: Like the sucker-punch of 2010 this current offer comes, once again, in the midst of the US academic and fiscal year. Budgeting decisions are tricky to time but don't get made, short term, in March or October. The Lab needed to give educators more warning time in each case.

  • Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me: Why should we trust these guys? Here I will turn to a few educators who responded to Hamlet's post. I called the treatment of educators a "buggering" and a wag named A.J. summed up the Linden offer as "Come back. Join our dying world again." Ken Hudson, whose Border-Crossing project had attracted such acclaim before moving his work to Unity 3D, and, notably, still gets promoted on the official Linden Lab wiki, noted that "I love that LL believes we all forgot how they dicked us around. We didn't."
We've not forgotten, Linden Lab, the whip-sawing policies that marked the 2010 buggering. Many of us have moved on, and it's likely my last-ever semester using virtual worlds for a class project.

So, no thank you and thanks for all the prims.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Linden Lab's Project Shining and Educators

Location: Valley of Disillusionment

Of the many vexations with Linden Lab, no other exceeds my anger at their inability to understand how the US academic calendar works.

In October 2010, they threw us all for a loop when they decided to jack up tier for educators in the midst of our fiscal year. At the time, educators reacted with confusion, shock, and finally, justifiable anger. Since then, even SL stalwarts have noted the decline in educators using Second Life with their classes, as evidenced by the dwindling of college & university sims, posts to the SLED list, and lower participation in meetings such as our VWER group.

Now, with the mix of classes I teach, as well as research interests, shifting,  I prepare for what is likely my last-ever use of a virtual world in the classroom. I've planned a suitable finale at the Virtual House of Usher, but then I read the Firestorm Viewer blog, noting an easily overlooked Linden Lab announcement from June 2012 about "Project Shining."

On the surface, the switch to "server-side baking" will reduce one of SL's vexing problems of avatars not rendering properly. That's of interest to every category of user. For the technical details well explained, I point readers to Inara Pey's post on this topic.

Yet once again, the Lab prepares a massive change to its viewer software without considering what educational institutions might do mid-term in a semester. Project Shining will apparently roll out this month, just in time for my students' final examinations involving Usher.  For some schools, it will mean more and finding a Plan B viewer that works on a few computers: lab software often gets changed over summer and winter breaks. This is one reason my school, even during SL's honeymoon era when our IT staff had avatars, never installed any viewer on our lab images.

Now these folks, like many IT staff nationally, have forgotten their SL flirtations and have focused on the new (and more promising) shiny object, mobile devices.  No way I could get an SL-based project on their radar.

Yet thanks to the good will of Evelyn McElhinney of Glasgow Caledonian University, Usher returned to Second Life, with the structure of the House built at Jokaydia Grid and many props added from SL builders such as Morris Mertel and Trident. I've been shopping for a combat system too, all of which would support the hard-working, long-suffering content creators of the virtual world. They are probably the only group to suffer more than educators from Linden changes. Every time a server-code update breaks a script, it means more work for them.

The last time Usher ran for my class, I used my Jokaydia Grid's build, soon to be packed up as a final OAR as I end my work in OpenSim as well. Jokay's grid has moved to OSgrid and I've not yet logged on to check if my Plan B works. Expect an update here, and soon.

Thus I'm not sure we'll use Second Life for the exam. Expect an update on my decision after Jessica Lyon of Firestorm meets with VWER members later today, to talk about what her team is doing to be ready for the big update.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sherry Turkle and Virtual Worlds

Location: Prognosticator's Chair

My students are in the midst of Alone Together, Sherry Turkle's jeremiad about the dangers of technology that throughout her book she calls "always on" and "always on you."

Though few Second Life or World of Warcraft users carry these imagined worlds around in their palm, given the beefy nature of the client software, many do spend lots of time in-world. Turkle's subjects mostly find escape there, and she freely admits that one can use these imagined spaces for "embarking on a potentially 'therapeutic' exercise" (212).  Mostly, however, she focuses on gamers like Adam, on the verge of losing his job, or Pete, who cheats on his wife with in SL, having a relationship with an avatar named Jade.  My students had their worst stereotypes of these immersive environments supported by Turkle's book, which otherwise does such a fine job of critiquing the other from of addiction to online activities, the augmented self of texts, apps, and phones glued to the users' palms.

It would be been interesting to see what she'd make of Fran, the 85-year-old Parkinson's patient, who with her daughter created SL avatars. As Wagner James Au reports, Fran was able to visualize herself standing again unaided, while watching her avatar Fran Seranade do Tai Chi or dance. Soon enough, Fran recovered some mobility.

Tom Boellstorff, author of Growing Up in Second Life, has met Fran and her daughter. He and other researchers are studying what has occurred. It's a heart-warming story of the sort rare in Turkle's book.

I will speculate a bit here, something I warn my students against since for them, the art of extrapolation from solid data may be safer for their grades.  I'll let you readers grade me.

Alone Together began as Turkle's "letter" to her daughter Rebecca. In Paris, Rebecca had spent her time texting and on Facebook, instead of taking in the city's many delights. Turkle was disappointed and has crafted one of the best critiques I've encountered of our relationship with our machines and the loss of such things as "the rewards of solitude" (3).

I hope that my class will remember Joel, Turkle's research subject who is an SL builder, both of content and community. Yet I fear Pete or Adam will stay in their minds instead. I do not possess the professional expertise to question how Turkle's bias might have influenced her writing about virtual worlds, but as a reader, I would have liked more Joels, and maybe a Fran, to balance the negative and all-too-common stereotypes of gamers as addicted, soon-to-be-unemployed, social castoffs.

In fact, I'd go so far, an an educator who has used Second Life and OpenSim grids and SimCity 2000 in class settings, to make another claim. Whatever the validity of Turkle's data, her method of presentation about gamers weakens for this reader her critique of social media, texting, and other potentially addictive behaviors.

That may be my bias, given the ease with which users of those apps can get a regular fix.

Work Cited:

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. New York, Basic: 2011.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Phone Book's Here! The Phone Book's Here!

Location: Front Porch

Verizon's phone book landed on the porch a day or two ago, and only this morning did I get around to unwrapping the skinny little thing. It's like the Ghost of Phone Books Past, to this techno-Scrooge.

In another era, the arrival of the new edition would cause quite a flutter. Misplacing the phone book was also unthinkable. They were not easily or cheaply replaced, and my father guarded it like the Dead Sea Scrolls. In an otherwise chaotic Lebanese-American household, the phone book held court on the telephone table. Nowhere else.

Now phone books are incomplete and small. Verizon banishes residential listing entirely to a Web page, a crowning irony since most of the land-line stalwarts I know are so old that a broom provides the interface for web access in their homes.

Once, however, the phone book provided all sorts of diversions. I've three degrees of separation from musician Frank Zappa, but only one from his phone book. A grad-school friend named Rick, when living in Los Angeles, once had the job of delivering the huge directories to the homes of the famous and crazy in that star-studded town.

At one address, he was ringing the bell when a hippie "who looked like a madman" stuck his fuzzy head out of an upstairs window. "What the hell you want?" he challenged Rick.

"Phone books!" Rick replied, and the hippie's face brightened and he came running, shouting "Oh man! The phone book's here! The phone book's here!" Rick quickly found out he'd delivered Frank Zappa's phone book.  Lord knows what chemically enhanced games were played with the directory.  I know that my friends and I played geeky games of generating random names for role-playing games by picking, in the I-Ching manner, examples from the phone book and mixing examples from white and yellow pages. Names such as "Lorenzo Plumber" or "Scrap Metal O'Malley" resulted, to our geeky delight.

Now the I Ching is online, so I asked of it "What is the fate of the phone book?" With six casts of the stones, I received this answer:
"Waters difficult to keep within the Lake's banks: The Superior Person examines the nature of virtue and makes himself a standard that can be followed. Self-discipline brings success; but restraints too binding bring self-defeat."
History of technology there? Tim Wu's The Master Switch, the text just completed in my course on The History, Culture and Future of Cyberspace, is all about those who establish standards for an entire industry, like Bill Gates, though not just for themselves. Some geniuses such as Steve Jobs foresee needs we don't yet have, and they push others to and past the breaking point to make the vision real and the consumer's need materialize.

In the era of mobile technology, where most of my students carry area codes from faraway lands, there's no sense in a phone book. Discipline is needed, however; my students get so lost in a web of constant texts and other inputs that they do not give sufficient priority to e-mail about classes, and they suffer as a result.
So as be blunder forward, without much direction or a good directory, into this connected era I will miss the nigh-sacred tome on the "telephone table" in my, and perhaps Frank Zappa's, dining room. 

Or, perhaps, another room in his hippie mansion.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Cloud Party Customization For Avatars

Location: Shiny Canyon

I'd been away from Cloud Party for a while, but a conversation during yesterday's VWER meeting spurred me to log in during the meeting.

I'd heard of but not tried the virtual world's new customization features. At login, I found myself in a welcome area, and wearing a new basic avatar greatly improved from the one I'd driven before.

Cloud Party's little smart-phone icon was drop-dead easy to recall after time away,  unlike many aspects of Second Life's bloated interface. I did not recall how to get home, but a navigation app on the phone, much like a maps tool for a physical phone, got me to Shiny Canyon in one smooth teleport.

Back in my stylin' pad there, I decided to try the customization features now in CP. First, I found it hilarious that unlike SL, where most male avatars are hulking body builders, my CP avatar was a skinny white guy. I'm no Hercules in real life, but farm work has made me rather burly and skinnier in the middle. So I buffed CP Joe Essid out to match the actual one.

The process greatly resembled SL's customization features, one aspect of SL that I found students mastered quickly. One can also save outfits and looks, as in SL. The lag was negligible as I did all this from within Firefox. Soon areas of outfit creation will merit a spin. I do not know what "movement" does, for instance. In the hair settings, I rather enjoyed the "stubble" feature for the beard. With hair removed, the avatar got the same swarthy look as this blogger.

Enter, Guido... rather like me but younger. There is no geezer-slider in CP's custom features.

At the VWER meeting, educators were too quick to dismiss Cloud Party for its name and lack of community. I'm not so sure. Despite a name I don't like all that much, anything that runs this well in a browser merits a close look. And without Facebook logins as mandatory (I still use mine) and  a working virtual currency plus marketplace, this world deserves more press from educators.

I'll have to have a try with the in-world building tools, rumored to be difficult. I'll also have to see if the ability to connect islands to make contiguous regions exists, also as rumored.

Shiny Canyon will never be the same.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Linden Lab & Customers

Location: Bizarro World, Clearly

In what other community would rotten treatment be construed as part of a utopian dream? In reading recent posts about sim-closings over at New World Notes, I detect an evangelism that has all but vanished in academic circles whenever SL comes up as topic.

I'll keep an eye on Fearzom and my old parcel, maybe even do a walking tour since sim crossings no longer work well enough for a road trip. It's interesting what denial can do for a former darling of the mass media.

To quote a CEO in Bizarro World, "me lose customers and business! Company do great!"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

PaperTab: A Tablet Made of Paper

Location: Looking for a piece of paper

Have a look at a promotional video about this prototype "paper" tablet.
Imagine the future of this in color; just keep the tablets away from the recycling bin!

An irony here: while virtual worlds such as Second Life stagnate, as evinced in my prior post, the mobile revolution, that these worlds so missed exploiting, thunders on.

Top-hat tip to Tristan Longino, who studied with me in 2001.