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 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 88, May 21, 2009

THE ‘OPENSIM’ EXPERIENCE

Worlds of difference  but  ones  that Kiwi

developers should probably try out

My experience in  OpenSim, OSgrid, OpenLife and New Zealand’s own ONGENS would suggest to me that  the variety and usability of  multi-user virtual worlds are really opening up and educators should not rule  out any of the possibilities.

I have not previously quantified/qualified my feelings about the OpenSim movement,  which is based on Second Life software – as opposed to being a resident of Second Life itself –  and I must admit I have had problems in a number of OpenSims, which have at times made me somewhat critical of them

But I am  not as critical as some of the Second Life experience, still having fun, building memories, and feeling it is a “real world” despite the Linden’s often-criticised, totalitarian-appearing regime and changing rules – many changes that I believe, in hindsight, have been beneficial.

However,  Zonja Capalini (pictured right and below)Capalini, Zonja1,  in a recent article, “The Open Space fiasco: six months later,” clearly sets out the benefits and pitfalls of  joining the  OpenSim movement.
At times I feel she is hypercritical of  Second Life but  her article and the comments are worth reading if one wants to really get a feeling of what a move to an OpenSim is like.

But I will let you form your own opinion: I think it is essential reading if you are interested in multi-user virtual environment technology and the changes that are taking place every day.

Although there have been some stability problems in the past the best opportunity for Kiwi education developers to get a look at the OpenSim movement is probably through ONGENS, running on KAREN, but accessible via Broadband internet.

The major thing these worlds don’t yet have for the general user is people, clothes, SHOPPING (products and goods to buy in world) entertainment, both live and recorded, and social networking.

Social networking to me is the major advantage of Second Life.

One can choose to benefit from the Second Life world, with up to 100,000 people on-line at any one time, and make “friends” from around the world, or one can choose to ignore them – become a recluse on your own little island – and get on with building, terraforming or just exploring a far richer environment than any of the Second Life-based other virtual worlds currently have.

For education, however, the opportunity to be on your own server and in an education world  of your own creation might be attractive.

Even if you don’t move now you should watch these spaces.

PS: I’m indebted to SL resident Wendy Steeplechase for pointing me to the Capalini blog.

capalini, Zonja

Update your viewer

For Second Life residents Dessie Linden has announced:  “The third iteration of the 1.23 viewer, Release Candidate 2 (RC2), is now available for download as a mandatory upgrade. As always, this RC may be installed along side any official viewer, and remember… on Thursday, May 21, anyone still using version 1.20 will be required to upgrade to either 1.21 or 1.22.”

It should be noted that the new release viewer also gives you the option of choosing whether you are PG, Mature or Adult, in the first page of preferences.

The SLENZ Update – No 41, January 23, 2009

Xstreet ‘in from cold’

pressconf_007

The Linden Lab’s acquisition of  Xstreet SL and OnRez – the two leading Web-based marketplaces for buying and selling creations for Second Life –  will not lessen marketplace competition, according to Lab executives.

And it could eventually lead to Xstreet SL retail virtual world products being made available to other grids, such as OpenLife, although this is not under active consideration at present.

This was made clear at a Linden Lab in-world press conference (pictured above)  during which there was a frank discussion of just where the organisation planned to take its most recent acquisitions, bought from Virtuatrade and the Electric Sheep Company for undisclosed amounts.

OnRez will be folded into the more successful Xstreet SL entity following the acquisition which Linden executives say, rather than lessening competition, will increase retail competition through an easier user interface – both from a buyers’ and sellers’ point of view – being made available to SL creators and retailers.

Apotheus Silverman and  key members of the Xstreet SL team have joined Linden Lab to integrate the Xstreet SL platform more deeply into SL with  a single, unified SL marketplace. (Press release: http://lindenlab.com/pressroom/releases/01_20_09)

Suspension of disbelief

The more a virtual immersive experience is based on design strategies that combine actional, symbolic, and sensory factors, the greater the participant’s suspension of disbelief that she or he is “inside” a digitally enhanced setting, according to Christopher Dede (pictured), Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, Technology, Innovation, and Education, Harvard University.

chris_dede22Noting that immersion is the subjective impression that one is participating in a comprehensive, realistic experience, he said in an abstract of an article in the January issue of Science that “Studies have shown that immersion in a digital environment can enhance education in at least three ways: by allowing multiple perspectives, situated learning, and transfer.”

But, SLENZers take heart, he added in his article, “Immersive Interfaces for Engagement and Learning”, further studies were needed on the capabilities of immersive media for learning, on the instructional designs best suited to each type of immersive medium, and on the learning strengths and preferences these media develop in users.

Just what SLENZ is doing mate!!

His article is in the subscription only:  http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/323/5910/66 but he can be reached at: chris_dede@harvard.edu

75% SL tasks completed

One should watch out for Dr Steven Hornik’s (SL: Robins Hermano) “Really Engaging Accounting: Second LifeTM as a Learning Platform” when he finalises the research paper.

It will be a unique and important document for virtual world education researchers and providers.

Hornik of the University of Central Florida’s  Kenneth Dixon School of Accounting,  uses SL to teach a financial accounting course titled Really Engaging Accounting   (http://mydebitcredit.com). The aim of the project is to engage students in what is normally a very non-engaging course and ensure they develop basic accounting literacy.

In the course, SL is used asynchronously to help students learn basic concepts related to the accounting equation: Assets = Liabilities + Stockholders Equity; to learn how to manipulate the equation using debits and credits; and to become debits and credits themselves as part of the T-Account Game. They also participate in weekly web-based lectures and other web-based learning.

Taught since the fall of 2007 class size has grown from an average 250 to close to 900 in 2008, with 75-80 percent of the students completing assignments in SL.

hornikstevendr1In a preliminary draft of his study of the course, albeit released inadvertently,  Hornik (pictured left) said the courses have demonstrated that through the use of SL’s building and scripting tools, “environments can be created that in some cases lead to student engagement, and for those cases positively affect student performance”.

This, “in the context of accounting which traditionally might be viewed as the opposite of engaging, provides an extreme example of the power of Second LifeTM to create socially relevant, immersive, engaging learning environments,” he said.

“This study has also shown that time-on-task can far exceed expectations if tools are designed to actively involve the students and allow them to become immersed in the activity.”

Besides, Hornik said, the study also showed that one antecedent to successfully engaging the student is spatial presence.

“Thus, when building and designing environments it is necessary to create places where students are able to perceive a sense of place and a sense of ‘being there’,” he said.

“These virtual places are no less real than a physical world classroom space, the geography is no less real, the experiences are no less real because they take place in a 3-D environment,” he said.  “The results indicate that the more genuine we can make the experience, the more engaged our students are likely to become.”

But Hornik has one  important caution.  It would be wrong to view these new learning platforms completely through rose-colored glasses, he said,  as there can be adverse psychological reactions to these environments, such as dizziness and nausea, and the results of this study show that if student experience these adverse conditions their performance suffers.

“As we routinely test students for learning styles and direct them towards learning material best suited for their styles, we may need to direct certain students away from 3-D immersive environments if it is determined they are having adverse reactions,” he said.

Coming events

January 31, 2009 – 10am SLT – 2pm SLT,  Info Island(http://slurl.com/secondlife/Info%20Island/112/105/33): Alliance Virtual Library Tech Fair 2009. Designed for educators, librarians, museum owners, and others who teach and/or create and provide information and exhibits  to view the tools that are available to  meet and hear  their creators. Speakers: 10am:  Eloise Pasteur, “Developing teaching tools in Second Life”; 11am:  JJ Drinkwater,  “Lowering the Barrier – The Library-Onna-Stick”; 12noon:  Fim Fischer,  Quiz System (Multiple Choice Board); 1pm:  Buddy Sprocket, SLOODLE. A comprehensive trade exhibition will be held along with the presentations.


The SLENZ Update – No 39, January 15, 2009

SL ‘valuable’ for HS science

globalkids

The value of virtual world education for high school students has been demonstrated  in a  recent independent evaluation of a Science through Second Life project run in New York last year.

The project integrated Second Life and a wide range of web tools into a standards-based high school science class in New York City, according to Rafi Santo (pictured), Senior Program Associate Online Leadership Program, Global Kids.(Access pdf of evaluation at http://groups.google.com/group/GKVirtualWorldUpdate/browse_thread/thread/860139ff56a01e29)santorafi

Global Kids is a New York-based organisation that provides a range of international education and leadership development programs in 21 public high schools and myriad online venues. Its MacArthur-funded work is leveraging after school programs, online dialogues, contests, machinima, and virtual worlds to bring attention to voices of youth on the role of digital media in their lives.

The independent evaluation’s key findings on the Science through Second Life project  included:

  • Students’ attitudes towards science-related careers changed positively with the StSL curriculum.
  • Students’ self-efficacy and self-confidence in their abilities to do science-related work increased.
  • Compared to the traditional science curriculum, the number of students reporting being overwhelmed by science class fell by 50%.
  • Low achieving students’ grades improved significantly compared to the previous semester.
  • Students’ collective intelligence skills improved throughout the semester. More students reported that they felt more comfortable working with others to get something done using digital media in the post survey.

For further information on  the Globalkids organisation: www.globalkids.org

OpenLife getting ‘V’ money

openlifesiltop

The OpenLife grid, which  has been proclaimed as a major albeit still small  competitor (45,000 residents) to Second Life,  is going to adopt a virtual currency system, so users can buy and sell items freely, according to VirtualWorld News( http://www.virtualworldsnews.com/2009/01/openlife-grid-to-adopt-virtual-currency.html)

The new virtual currency system is currently scheduled to go live at the end of February, obviating one of the major concerns that the current user base has voiced. OpenLife is currently the largest grid running on the OpenSimulator 3D application server program.

OpenSimulator essentially allows individual users to create their own virtual world “grids” on their own servers that look and function much like Linden Labs’ Second Life. In fact, the technologies involved are so similar that it is possible to use a Second Life client to connect to any OpenSim grid [An experimental Grid, the ONGENS OpenSim Virtual World Grid, has been set up in the ONGENS Test Bed Facility between Otago University and Canterbury University to explore the possibilities of the technology (http://www.gni.otago.ac.nz/index.php/ongens-virtual-world-grid)].

“Exchangeable credits are a popular request from residents,” according to Steve Sima, founder of the OpenLife grid, in a statement to CyberTech News.

“However with interchangeable credits comes a range of new issues that must be addressed,” he said ” After a good six months of consultaton with Openlife users, we’re pleased to say we’re on track to deliver an in world payments solution in the forum of Openlife Credits before the end of February. This will follow shortly after new fixes and implementations in objects and inventory permissions are rolled out.”

The announcement  while it will be welcomed by OpenLife users could put paid to Linden Lab plans to attempt to spread a generic virtual currency through virtual worlds.

… but SL gets act together?

Are the US timezone Sunday “log-in disabled”  periods which have bedeviled Second Life users around the world recently – especially on Mondays in New Zealand and Australia – about to become a thing of the past?

It would appear from FJ Linden’s (Frank Ambrose) most recent update on improving the infrastructure that underpins Second Life (and the resulting forum dialogue) that Linden Lab is still confident it can overcome the problems which occur for all residents within and outside Second Life when user numbers reach 80,000, now a normal US Sunday afternoon and evening ocurrence, which has led to scheduled meetings in other timezones being disrupted when participants haven’t been able to log in. As the outages occur on Sundays they are not a “working” priority/problem in the US.

The easy answer, of course, is for  those in other timezones  to schedule meetings at other times but as more people join the  SL “over-population problem”,  if it is that,  has to be solved.

And that is what the Lindens appear to be doing. (http://blog.secondlife.com/2009/01/12/second-life-grid-update-from-fj-linden/)
While admitting its been a bumpy few weeks, with Level 3 outages, and central database issues, Frank says  “the good news is that LLnet (data center fiber network) continues ahead of schedule and we should be starting traffic migration in the next week. We’ve also made some headway in the area of asset storage. Right now, central database issues are our core focus and have been at the center of most of the recent grid problems.

“The benefits of LLnet are to not only get us off of our dependency on VPN’s for inter data center traffic, but also lay the foundation for diverse internet providers that will allow us to handle an outage on a single provider (currently Level 3) and potentially improve latency,” he says. “Most of our widespread and highest impacting outages have been network related, and that is why LLnet has been my top priority since joining Linden Lab this past summer.

“I expect final testing to be complete by the end of January, and production traffic cutover immediately after.”

Attaboy Frank!  We await the results with bated breath.

Useful link

A selection of books about Second Life (or virtual worlds) primarily  focused  on general descriptions, history, and sociological perspectives, but  also including several how-to guides is at:

http://www.worldcat.org/profiles/srharris19/lists/273349

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