SLENZ Update, No 136, September 17, 2009

CAN NEW ZEALAND USE THIS LESSON?

Texas shows the way forward in

virtual world education …

UTSLcampus

John Lester (SL: Pathfinder Linden) and Leslie Jarmon (SL: Bluewave Ogee)
meet in front of the virtual version of Johnson Claudia Taylor Hall
at the University of Texas System.(Picture: Pathfinder Linden)

The New Zealand tertiary education system  should probably be looking at  following the virtual lead of the University of Texas, although perhaps not on  a such a grand scale.

After four years of research and “toe-dabbling” the University of Texas has  launched its State-wide 16-campus system into Second Life  as part of a year-long project that will bring students, faculty, researchers and administrators into Second Life to explore the use of virtual worlds as “an innovative, low-cost approach to undergraduate instruction.”
At the same time the New Zealand  tertiary education system remains at the stage of “toe-dabbling” with the arguably  successful SLENZ Project slated to finish at the end of the year  and the OpenSim ONGENS New Zealand National Grid Project simmering – one might unkindly say bumbling – along in Alpha mode with inadequate funding and resources despite a small band of hard-working devotees doing their best to create a homegrown virtual world and build support across the whole New Zealand university spectrum.

That the Texas lesson, created by the UT System Transforming Undergraduate Education Program initiative, is being taken to heart, however, can be gauged from the fact that 0ne of the main ONGENS “builders” and virtual world enthusiast,  University of Auckland academic Dr Scott Diener (SL: Professor Noarlunga), describes it as “an astonishing development … in scale and concept.”

But despite some tardiness here all is not lost. The UT research into virtual world education  is to be made freely available to educators/researchers around the world and there will be opportunities for collaboration with the UT campuses, something New Zealand educators should look into.

Biggest challenge

The University of Texas’ Dr  Leslie Jarmon (pictured right), Faculty Development Specialist and Senior Lecturer in the Division of Instructional Innovation & Assessment (CIE/DIIA), at the University of Texas, at Austin,   co-founder of the Educators Coop in SL, and the primary investigator for this statewide  initiative, told Linden Labs’ John Lester that the  the biggest challenge to gaining approval for the  initial  one-year, 50-plus-SL region launch of the project  had been  finding the most effective language and concrete Second Life examples  to craft a proposal that would be heard by key administrators. JarmonLeslie

In a lesson for  New Zealand educators seeking virtual world education funding, she said, “When an opportunity arose, a real time demo of Second Life using Voice with real educators and Linden Lab officials answering the Chancellors’ questions right there on the spot was more effective than 100 pages of textual description. Very pragmatic, concrete, visionary ­ at the same time.”

Another key challenge, she said, had been rigorously ensuring that the provision of the virtual infrastructure for 15 campuses (9 academic campuses; 6 medical health science center campuses)  and information and training support would  not dictate which direction each campus would take as they discovered and created their own unique learning and research journeys.

“We’re meeting this challenge with the overriding mission of creating together a virtual learning community,” she told John Lester. ” Virtual worlds are a new human dimension for educational activity, and we¹re constantly exploring and learning alongside one another.”

“Step-by-step in this evolving system-wide virtual learning community, all of these players — and especially our undergraduates — will be seen as learners with expanded roles: learners as scientists, learners as designers, learners as researchers, learners as communicators, and learners as collaborators. We see endless possibilities on the virtual learning horizon.”

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UT campus Leads meet Second Life officials in Austin Texas to lay the foundation
for the Virtual Learning Community Initiative (VLCI). (Picture VLCI)

SLENZ Update, No 133, September 01, 2009

CARTOON  OR SUPER-REALISM

Do the graphics really matter

in virtual worlds?

… and is Blue Mars really the third generation?

Blue Mars 2050 … does super-realism matter?

I have always wondered just how much the graphics matter in virtual worlds: I know my personal preference falls into the super-realism category when it comes to graphics but I’m well over the age of 30 and even as a youngster never had much time for cartoons or comics.

I ‘ve been enamored with World of Warcraft for years as well as the latest Grand Theft Auto offering. The CryENGINE (R)2 graphics,  when proposed for Entropia  Universe, really turned me on. I’m also intrigued  with the possibilities of Lenova elounge, by Nortel, and the  latest offering from  the MellaniuM stable,  the Furnace, and love  today’s graphics in Second Life, especially when seen through some of the better viewers on a high-end computer. I also felt  the failure of Google’s Lively to get any traction with any age group was due to the cartoony style of its graphics.

However, the digital generation, unlike the digital migrants or my generation, the digital dinosaurs, seem to have no problem with cartoon characters or environments: Look at Habbo Hotel (135,000 m users). Although accurate figures are notoriously hard to come by the best estimates from the industry-leader in understanding the marketing dynamics relating to virtual worlds, British-based Kzero, suggest that 57 percent of the estimated 579 million people who are registered users of MUVEs around the world, are children.

Virtual Worlds ‘not a passing fad’

As Victor Keegan reported in the UK Guardian almost  all of the 39 percent growth in MUVE usage reported by Kzero for the second quarter this year came from children.

“Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars,” he said. In this largely unreported cartoony VW  flood poptropica.com – aimed at five- to 10-year-olds – had 76 million registered users; among 10- to 15-year-olds, Habbo (135 million), Neopets (54 million), Star Dolls (34 million) and Club Penguin (28 million). The numbers start tailing off among 15- to 25-year-olds – apart from Poptropica (35 million), underlining the likelihood that as youngsters get older they will be looking for more sophisticated outlets and for ways to link existing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace to more immersive virtual worlds, he  said, arguing that virtual worlds “are not a passing fad”.

Do those digital generation figures mean, however, that Second Life,  described by  Larry Johnson, CEO New Media Consortium, as “the most currently evolved of the virtual world platforms … the seminal first instance of what the 3D web might look like”,   could  be beaten to a pulp in the marketplace, either by  virtual world  offerings which have even more realistic  graphics  or  over the long term, as the current generation of teens and tweens become adults,   by cartoon worlds like Habbo Hotel.

But, although, we’ve also seen the growth of  the Second Life software-based, opensource OpenSimulator environments, such as OpenLife, OsGrid and ONGENS among others, the arrival of behind-the-firewall applications such as Nebraska and offerings from other stables such as OLIVE Forterra, Twinity, Wonderland, Kaneva and peer-to-peer offerings such as Vastpark , Second Life at the moment, like Microsoft before it, seems to have the critical mass, the content  and the graphics to carry the game among adult MUVE users for at least the next five years.

That doesn’t mean to say that Second Life  wont have competitors in the  short or the long run.  It currently  seems to be moving  to ensure that it can beat this competition by  again emphasising  real life applications;  in some ways it is moving away from its core  user-base, of mainly nerdy, older (as compared to the popular teen and  tween worlds)  fantasists, first movers, former lounge potatoes, weather-bound, shut-ins  and others who delight in interacting with each other around the world, but at a distance.

Mainstreaming Second Life

Although apprehensive about some of the future plans the Lindens have for Second Life, which I feel will, in many ways, destroy the things which contribute to its attractive game/play/art/on-the-edge  feel,  I think the Linden move  to promote training and education uses of virtual worlds and its expressed goal of mainstreaming  through “extending the value of Second Life beyond the virtual world (through) helping Residents more closely integrate Second Life with their daily lives” are  correct moves in  an economic sense.

As Larry Johnson, summing up the growing momentum of Second Life and virtual learning, said in April this year, “I think it’s safe to say now that nearly every college and university has some sort of project in Second Life.”

For many users, however, that is probably the “boring’ direction. And it probably means that many  early Second Life adopters are already moving or will move on to other more edgy worlds taking their creativity – if not their content – with them.

One of those worlds just might be Blue Mars 2150 which  is scheduled to launch into its open Beta phase tomorrow, September 2. Or, of course, it too might join the virtual world scrap heap which is already littered with virtual worlds which have been created, promoted, and sometimes marketed,  and then faded away over the last few years. Remember Outback?

From the preview above – and remember it is a promotional video -  Blue Mars’ graphics are stunning, as are its partners.  It to obviously wants to cash in on the fact that the average social website user today spends $US148 each year, a figure that can only rise.

Blue Mars 2150, which  describes itself as the third generation of virtual worlds (also here) and like Linden Labs is based in San Francisco,  has already secured joint ventures with numerous leading academic institutions around the world, including the National Association of College Stores, with its 30,000 plus members, TERC, the National Geographic Society Alan Watts, NOVA and Smithsonian Institution.

It remains to be seen just how successful  Blue Mars 2150 will be. My belief is that unless someone comes up with something like “interactive, shared, controllable, lucid dreaming”  the Lindens are going to be very difficult to knock off their perch.

The SLENZ Update – No 115, July 22, 2009

Upcoming Aotearoa New Zealand events

ONGENSWELCOME_001

GNI Project Symposium ’09

An invitation has been issued by Melanie Middlemiss to the GNI Project Symposium ’09 to be held from  8.30 am – 5 pm on Friday, September 4, 2009, at the  School of Business, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Online Registration is free but must be completed before 5pm, Friday, August 14.

The one day symposium has been designed to bring together academic and telecommunications and internet industry leaders to discuss current and future issues relating to convergence in the ICT and Telecommunications arena.

Discussion topics will include: Next generation networks and LTE convergence; Evolved Packet Core; IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS); Applications and services; WiMAX-LTE; Architectures and standards for service development and operation, such as JAIN SLEE; Multimedia telephony and service convergence; Integration of real-world services and applications within virtual worlds and augmented reality systems; Convergence of the network core vs. convergence on the application layer; Next generation web and telecommunications services;

The Global Network Interconnectivity (GNI) Project was established at the University of Otago in 2006 to develop expertise, provide knowledge sharing and conduct activities supporting new ICT technologies that contribute to telecommunications, multimedia, and information systems convergence.

The Project currently runs  the alpha release virtual world Grid ONGENS.

This is an experimental Grid set up in the ONGENS Test Bed Facility between Otago University and Canterbury University to explore the possibilities of Virtual Worlds and Web3.D technology.

This grid is currently running the OpenSimulator software, and utilises the high-speed KAREN (Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network) connectivity between New Zealand’s tertiary institutions, and research organisations.

The GNI Project plans to develop this Virtual World Grid into a New Zealand National Virtual World Grid initiative, and is seeking funding and expressions of interest to be involved in this project.

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One of the “development” sim islands in the ONGENS virtual world

Teaching and Learning +

eFest 2009  conference

efest

The New Zealand  Teaching and Learning Conference and eFest are joining forces for 2009. The combined conference will held Wednesday,  September 30 – Friday, October 2, 2009 at  UCOL in Palmerston North, New Zealand. It will have an  “Open Space” unconference day on Tuesday,  September 29.

The conference themes are “Teaching excellence – excellence in teaching” and “The changing role of the teacher in the 21st century”. 2009efestlogo

Speakers at the conference proper are scheduled to include Dr Angie Farrow (pictured left), a senior lecturer at Massey University, New Zealand specialising in drama and creative processes, and a playwright, Colin Cox, Colin Cox, currently the only Master Trainer of Neuro Semantics in the world,  Helen McPhun, a learning and development specialist, Dr Lisa Emerson, a Massey University lecturer and recipient of a Prime Minister’s Supreme Award in  2008 and Paul McElroy, chief executive at UCOL.

Angie FarrowThe two principal sponsors are: Ako Aotearoa, the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, and UCOL.

You can download the registration form here.

The SLENZ Update – No 111, July 08, 2009

New spirit of NZ tertiary ‘cooperation,

collaboration’ across  virtual  worlds

ADA Keynote Conversation 001-1

ADA Symposium Poster

With New Zealand tertiary institutions – polytechnics and universities – sometimes at loggerheads with each other  its good to see a  spirit of cooperation and collaboration in their working with  and within virtual worlds.

This was brought home to me 10 days ago when The 6th Aotearoa Digital Arts Symposium, Critical-Digital-Matter, supported  by  the Victoria University School of Design, of  Wellington,  New Zealand, and by Creative New Zealand, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, None Gallery, De Balie Centre for Culture and Politics, Amsterdam, Leonardo Education Forum, and Otago Polytechnic, chose  Mike Baker’s (SL: Rollo Kohime) Wellington Railway Station build on the Nelson-Marlborough Institute of Technology’s Second Life  island of Koru, as  one of the venue’s for a keynote international debate.

This was as part of the three-day symposium’s examination of  the critical intersections between digital materials and art practice in a bid to determine the relationship of the digital to matter. Other issues explored, included:  How do we forge connections beyond art practices? And, what is the role of critical discourse in contemporary art practice?

The symposium featured a keynote presentation by internationally-renowned sound and intermedia artist Phil Dadson, and a remote conversation with London-based media theorist Matthew Fuller via De Balie, the centre for Culture and Politics in Amsterdam.

The “Keynote Conversation” was distributed through real life and Second Life as a live broadcast between London, Amsterdam and Wellington with projections screened at ‘Debalie’ in the centre of Amsterdam, on a screen at Goldsmiths College in London and Victoria University in Wellington. Interestingly, Victoria University leases space in the real life Wellington Railway Station, looking down upon the concourse space in which Baker have been carrying out his dance work for the past two years.

The initiators of this event were Eric Kluitenberg (Amsterdam) , Su Ballard (Wellington) and Matthew Fuller (London) with additional guests.

The other conference sessions included materiality in digital art; developing critical discourse in a small digital arts community; and forging connections beyond art. A wide range of artists and researchers from Wellington and around New Zealand presented their current projects.

ADA Discussion 006-2

Conversation across the world.

The new spirit of collaboration between tertiary institutions in the virtual world field in New Zealand was noted by the  joint leader of the SLENZ Project, Dr Clare Atkins (SL: Arwenna Stardust) at a recent regular SLENZ team meeting on Koru.

But it is also expressed in the cooperation and collaboration taking place  in what is scheduled to become the new New Zealand national virtual world grid, ONGENS, a development virtual world project which was initially launched by Otago and Canterbury Universities.

Although still virtually just out of OpenSim embryo  the ONGENS  virtual grid’s collaborators already include  Auckland University (12 sims), Weltec, NMIT and SLENZ among others.

The ADA symposium followed another successful Second Life  presentation by Mike Baker to the PSI#15 conference, in Zagreb, Croatia, from Koru’s Wellington Railway Station  (Baker as Rollo pictured below) which is becoming known in academic and dance circles around the world for his  “In the Company of Strangers – Negotiating the parameters of Departure in Urban Spaces; a study of Indeterminacy and the Roaming Body.”

The title of his Zagreb presentation with participants both in Second  Life and real life was: “Misperformance: Misfiring, Misfitting, Misreading.” The title appeared rather fitting given the trauma of a previous presentation at Stanford where Second Life crashed during the key part of his address. Fortunately he was able to finish in Skype.

rolloZagreb_022

rolloZagreb_013

rolloZagreb_009

The SLENZ Update – No 101, June 18, 2009

Is there really virtual world

promise in peer-to-peer

… at this stage?

As if,  worrying whether the soon-to-be-released Second Life Viewer 2009 will  require educators to completely revamp their techniques and training of students, was not enough, we still have to wonder whether we might not have backed the wrong  horse and that the possible peer-to-peer virtual world competition for Second Life -  both public and behind the firewall – waiting in the wings, might not provide better applications.

We already have Entropia, Forterra(Olive),  Twinity, Wonderland,  Croquet, Prototerra, Kaneva, Hipihi,  and others  in the virtual world arena but just when one might have thought that Second Life and the Second Life-based OpenSim worlds – OpenSim, OpenLife, OsGrid, and smaller players like ONGENS, etc – were holding their own for education purposes,  at least one and perhaps two of  the Open Source alternatives to Second Life appear to be  breaking through, although they don’t have numbers yet.

The latest food for thought on this issue came from Feldspar  Epstein, of  The Metaverse Journal, who  explains the difference between the OpenSim concept, and that of Open Source such as  “Open Cobalt” and “Solipsis”,  as being that essentially while  OpenSim grids are designed to be served from a common point,  Open Cobalt and Solipsis implementations are designed to be served from many points – they are both peer-to-peer technologies.

“Open Cobalt (based on Croquet technology) consists of two parts: a browser and a toolkit,” Epstein says. ” The browser is used to view the 3D virtual workspaces created with the toolkit. Each workspace can live on a separate personal computer. Workspaces are real time and computationally dynamic, and each can host multiple participants. Additionally, individual workspaces can be interlinked into a private and secure network of work spaces.”

Attractive features

Epstein lists a number of  attractive Open Cobalt features, particularly for researchers and  educators, as: Open source licensing (MIT);  deeply malleable, collaborative space; runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux; internet access is not required; it can run over LANs and Intranets;  private and public environments can be created; in-world text, voice and video chat, web browsing (VNC allows access to browsers like Firefox) and annotations; Access to remote applications via VNC; Navigation between virtual workspaces is possible using 3D hyperlinks; Mesh, texture, media, and whole avatar imports.

An alpha phase Open  Cobalt download is available here and further information is available here. The beta release is due this year, and a full implementation is expected to be released in 2010.

Meanwhile the efficacy or on-going  viability of the French Telecom-developed Solipsis is more murky, although according to Epstein it is about to go into beta testing but I would question this.

A search of the net would suggest otherwise.

On Solipsis netofpeers.net  it  is revealed,  in a link from Professor  Shun-Yun Hu, of  the University of  Taiwan, that although Solipsis is a pure peer-to-peer system for a massively shared virtual world with no central servers,  only relying on end-users’ machines, the initial Solipsis project  ended some time ago when the core team left the project. The original Solipsis web site is available here. Although the dowloads are available there appears to have been little real activity since 2005, and the developers’ page is here but a number of the links appear dead.twinverse

More recently, however,  Joaquin Keller, has started TwinVerse – a virtual world based on geography, pictured right- and which seems little more than a glorified video and text chat room overlaid on Google satellite pictures/maps of various world spots, and nothing like the 3D virtual worlds, as presented by Second Life or Twinity or Entropia et al, and less than half as interesting.

Speaking of peer-to-peer virtual worlds Epstein doesn’t go into the much-touted Australian startup, Project Outback (from Yoik) which  folded sometime ago after considerable promotion by one of the former Kazaa peer-to-peer network promoters, nor the most viable other offering VastPark. currently in closed beta (downloads here) and based on the OPeN (Univ. of Melbourne) software funded by NICTA, Australia’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Research
Centre of Excellence,  which signed a commercial license agreement with VastPark, in 2008.

Other peer-to-peer possibilities, in various states of array and disarray, include :  Colyseus (CMU); HYDRA (National Univ. of Singapore);  and peers@play (Univ. of Mannheim, Duisburg-Essen, and Hannover).

However, after looking at all the offerings I could find for peer-to-peer worlds ( I may have missed some) I believe that aside from Open Cobalt, which is actually Croquet in another form,  and VastPark, there appears nothing in the peer-to-peer virtual world public domain that is any real threat at this stage to Second Life and open-source Second Life-based products, for credibility, ease-of-use, attractiveness, population, and what I believe is the fundamental key to virtual world success,  immersibility (suspension of disbelief).

So forget peer-to-peer virtual worlds for the moment and concentrate on worrying about  the Second Life 2009 viewer, or perhaps the new adult continent of Zindra.  Just kidding.

The SLENZ Update – No 98, June 12, 2009

UIC_001

University of Illinois Global Campus entry point

Do SL public health training

applications really work?

US$1.6m to find the answer

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) School of Public Health have secured a grant of  US$1.6 million to fund a study to determine if collaborative virtual environments designed to improve public health preparedness and response planning really work.

The school which is relying more and more on virtual environments for training and education has received the grant from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The results should be of interest to health educators worldwide  given the number of Second Life health applications, including New Zealand’s own midwifery pilot study under the auspices of the SLENZ Project and Auckland University’s Second Life and ONGENS  medical centres.

Under the programme, according to  Virtual World News,  UIC researchers will recruit 40 local health departments from across the United States to take part in the study.

Half the participants will use Second Life to train public health workers in emergency preparedness while the other half will use a traditional meeting approach to planning.

The study’s principal investigator Colleen Monahan, director of the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education at the UIC School of Public Health, said, “We believe that using virtual environments will improve collaboration across agencies and jurisdictions, raise awareness about planning for vulnerable populations, increase the realism in the training exercise, allow participants to participate in different scenarios, and allow emergency responders to return to the training exercise at their convenience for ongoing training.”

The SLENZ Update – No 97, June 9, 2009

‘Exciting’ Kiwi development

Major New Zealand universities seek  funding

to establish  national virtual world grid

nzvwgsm

Proposal pdf here

Three major New Zealand universities are planning to establish an open-access, open-source New Zealand National Virtual World grid based on the ONGENS OpenSim grid which is currently under development.

The universities are Otago University, the University of Canterbury, and the University of Auckland. They have been joined by Telecom in the proposed establishment of the grid which will operate on New Zealand-based servers and will leverage other national investments in IT infrastructure. Funding is currently being sought to support this initiative.

Although the NZVWG will be primarily for research and education it will also offer proof-of-concept application deployments and testing. It is being designed to provide both experimental and routine use of VWs in teaching and research; to develop engaging interactive in-world content customised for New Zealand use; and to develop new context-specific plug-ins, enabling interaction between virtual and real (non-virtual) worlds.

The announcement of the planned NZVWG was made by Dr Melanie Middlemiss, manager of the GNI Project, from which the ONGENS testbed originated and which she runs with GNI technical manager Ms Hailing Situ.

The developmental ONGENS Grid, set up in the ONGENS Test Bed Facility developed by Otago University and Canterbury University to explore the possibilities of Virtual Worlds and Web3.D technology, already has nodes run by the University of Auckland, the University of Canterbury and Weltec. It currently is “open” for avatar registration but because it is in the developmental phase is not as stable as some other virtual worlds. It has about 100 registered users.

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ONGENS uses both the Government-funded KAREN (Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network) system and local networks.

Otago, Canterbury and Auckland Universities along with Telecom have formed a Governance Board for the NZVWG.

The proposed NZVWG will be composed of individual nodes at each University, connected together.

The project has been described as ” exciting” by the University of Auckland’s associate director, IT Services, Scott Diener, who is well known for his championing of virtual world education. The university, which has a two-sim presence in Second Life, is currently is running full test and development servers, hosting 12 islands on the ONGENS grid.

Announcing that further funding was being sought, Dr Middlemiss, said it was hoped to get more New Zealand and Pacific universities involved – the University of Papua New Guinea already has a research site – but it was a matter of finding people who were enthusiastic and dedicated to the development of the NZVWG.

Meanwhile the Government announced as part of the 2009 Budget in May a NZ$16m investment in KAREN to support the organisation’s ongoing operation and transition to a self-funding model.

Welcoming the Government’s new investment “to ensure KAREN keeps operating as New Zealand’s advanced network,” Donald Clark, Chief Executive of REANNZ said, “Such an investment, especially in these difficult economic times, indicates a strong commitment to science and to the investing in the underlying infrastructure of the country.”

NZNVWG

The proposed  New Zealand National Virtual World Grid

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