SLENZ Update, No 150, November 17, 2009

The potential: “Daddy, Miss America wont share her toys.”

Obama vision could be crippled

by rich, greedy US institutions

… and commercial interests who want an arm  and two legs.

Birthunitdemo131109_0021. Sharing knowledge – The Gronstedt Group begins tour  of the SLENZ birthing unit.

The more time I spend in Second Life and  other virtual worlds the more I become convinced  that  SLENZ  joint leader Dr Clare Atkins (SL: Arwenna Stardust) is right: Collaboration and sharing is the key to success in  world education in virtual worlds.

But its not just collaboration within the United States, or New Zealand. It’s collaboration around the world.

The rich, big universities of North America and Europe might be able to afford to go  it alone, but for the smaller and the often poorer tertiary institutions of  the United States,  countries like  New Zealand, and Third World countries – if they even have reliable, affordable Broadband services – don’t have the luxury of NOT collaborating and sharing,  both at an institutional level and at an academic level.

The creation of complex builds, huds, animations and all the other paraphernalia of teaching successfully in a virtual  world, as well as aquiring the skills/knowhow to use them  can cost megabucks: to not share them under OpenSource and Creative Commons license with institutions and academics around the world would seem to be me to be both profligate and selfish. It also could regarded by some , particularly when sold at a high price or with an exorbitant  license fee attached, as both  neo-colonialist and  greedy capitalism of the kind that brought about the most recent crash of world markets.

Second Life behind the firewall

The collaboration thoughts, although first ennunciated  for me by  Dr  Atkins, were brought to mind more recently by  five things: the move by the Lindens, admitted an avowedly commercial organisation,  to  promote Second Life behind the firewall, previously Nebraska, to  commercial, Government and educational institutions at US$55,000 a pop, a princely sum for many cash-strapped institutions around the world;  President Obama’s Cairo vision, proclaimed in June;  a visit by the KiwiEd group to the University of Western Australia, Second  Life site; a Train for Success Gronstedt Group  35-avatar tour of the SLENZ Project’s virtual birthing unit on the Second Life island of Kowhai; and  finally, but not least,  the one-hour keynote address on copyright  by  Harvard University  Professor of Law Lawrence Lessig to  EDUCAUSE09 in Denver earlier this month.


2. Sharing the knowledge: Lessig’s certificate of entitlement.

Obama told  the world,  “We will match promising Muslim students with internships in America and create a new online network … ” something  which  Second Life arguably has been  doing for sometime with  the collaboration already  occurring between individual academics and many smaller institutions creating an “online network, facilitating collaboration across geographic and cultural boundaries.”

The problem with his vision is that  US commercial – and often Government –  interests  have almost always  worked against  facilitating collaboration and sharing across geographic  and cultural boundaries. Look at Microsoft software. Look at Apple and ITunes licensing. Look at software regionalisation. Look at the record industry. Look at the book industry, where rich English language publishers in the UK and the US split the world into at least two markets.  Look at the way copyright law has moved into  education – and science.

But its not a new phenomenon. Look at banana republics, created out of Boston,  as a rather ironical and destructive facilitation of collaboration across geographic and cultural boundaries.

Triumphs of reason

On the other hand there are triumphs of reason over idiocy. Look at the rise of the ubiquitous PC, compared to the Apple computer, even though using a proprietary Operating System  the rise from the “underground” of  Moodle, compared to say Blackboard; the slow advance of bilateral free trade agreements, even if not the much desired mutilateral  free trade agreements, instead of the trade siege mentality,  which  affected most of the world in the 1930s (and still threatens); the growing popularity of Linux compared to proprietary Operating Systems; and finally the astounding growth of  Wikipedia compared to Encarta or Britannia.

Despite my misgivings I have been heartened over the years by the surprising degree of co-operation and collaboration that has been happening in virtual worlds. That is despite the actions of  those  few Scrooge McDuck-like educational institutions which have purely commercial interests at heart and appear to run closed shop operations, sharing with none.

I was even more cheered recently by a visit to the University of Western Australia when I found that  university, which is in the forefront  of Australian virtual world education, was entering into bi-lateral  virtual “free trade” and/or “free exchange”  agreements with  the likes of Stanford University and others. This mirrors the agreements put in place  by  Scott Diener (SL: Professor Noarlunga) at the University of Auckland with the University of Boise; and Judy Cockeram (SL: Judy-Arx Scribe) and  her work with architects around the world;  and those “handshake”   agreements  or informal sharing arrangements put in place by a myriad of other relatively smaller institutions who have already recognised the benefits of world-wide collaboration.

3.Sharing the knowledge – KiwiEd group tours University of Wester Australia site.

And then there is the SLENZ Project, which 18 months ago adopted as its ruling credo,  complete transparency, with OpenSource under Creative Commons license for all its virtual educational products, developments and knowledge in the hope that others would be able to build on the team’s work. Even though the adoption of this credo was probably due more to the persistence and bloody-mindedness of a then non-Second Life “immersed” and relatively sceptical SLENZ Learning Designer Leigh Blackall than anything else, it has worked and is working.

One has to  agree now that Blackall was right, even though  there is obviously a place for fair payment to commercial (virtual world creators, builders, developers etc) interests, something Linden Labs has recognised  with its protection of its own virtual world product lines (and  unfortunately those created and developed by its residents, even if Creative Commons, full permissions and OpenSource) behind  the walls of Second Life.

Linden Labs is not alone, however, in usurping user/creator rights.  The way  they have covered the issue in their rather draconian and very American Terms of Service is little different from other major US on-line social networking services: if you put it up on their service, they own it.

Virtual World Free Trade/Exchange Pact?

This is despite, or perhaps in spite of “renegades” like the  onetime Arcadia Asylum, making all her magnificent “builds” available to “anyone to use anywhere,  how they like, even blowing it up.”

Like  the tyrants behind the old Iron Curtain the Lindens realise that keeping  control of their residents’ creations inside  their world (and keeping them there), guarantees that they will have to stay there unless they want to pour their creativity, time and work down the drain and start a new virtual life elsewhere.

This leads  me to the thought that President Obama, although paying lip service to “collaboration across geographic and cultural boundaries,” needs to put his Government’s money  where his mouth is and promote a world-wide free trade/exchange agreement for  virtual world education if not for virtual worlds themselves, guaranteeing rights of both personal ownership of  individual products when created or bought in a real world sense,  but also opening up US educational institution virtual knowledge and creativity for the rest of the world to freely add to, and build on.

The President  has the vision  for a better on-line world – which could lead to greater understanding between peoples through education.

If he does nothing except talk. Nothing will happen.

And, I believe, we will find the major educational institutions moving more behind their Ivy Walls – if they are not already there – and American educational institutions (and others in UK, Germany, Brazil etc) adopting  a siege mentality   even though  virtual worlds (all virtual worlds, whether emanating out of the US or China or anywhere else) will only fulfill their true potential of levelling the playing field for all educationally if they are free and open to all.

That is something America can do for the world – all worlds.


SLENZ Update, No 133, September 01, 2009


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 – 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 79, May 10, 2009


Is this the  the  route

education will take?


The CWRU virtual campus. Picture: Courtesy  Eduscape – Education in Second Life

University and tertiary institution administrations like to play God – or so I have been led to believe – so the experience of Case Western Reserve University, established 1826 in Cleveland, Ohio, in taking some of its Virtual World activities behind  a firewall could prove illuminating  for us all.

It also will provide  an opportunity for control – none of that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’roll, scantily-clad or naked avatars, and griefing,  that some conservatives see as the whole of Second Life – data privacy, confidentiality,  IT security, and, according to Wendy Shapiro (pictured right), the university’s senior academic-technology officer, in an Amanda Linden article in “EDUSCAPE – Education In Second Life”,  fulfills   two of the most important elements of a private educational Second Life “1) a multi-age platform and 2) privacy”.shapiro, Wendy

And when you host your own universe, as Shapiro noted, according to Marc Perry, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “you get God privileges -You can control everything. You can control who comes in, who gets kicked off. You can control whether people walk or fly.”

CWRU,  the first educational institution to deploy the behind-the-firewall version of Second Life, codenamed ‘Nebraska’, in partnership with The New Media Consortium (NMC),  announced the move at the annual summit on technology and collaboration, CollabTech, held both on Case Western Reserve’s physical campus in Cleveland and their eight-island virtual campus in Second Life.

The reason for the partial move behind the firewall,  according to Perry quoting Larry Johnson, chief executive of the New Media Consortium, a Texas-based higher-education-technology group, is because CWRU’s medical school is interested in performing research involving personal medical histories (and) could use a private environment.

“I think that it’s going to solve a lot of issues that many institutions have with using virtual worlds in general.,” Johnson said. It’s the first step in allowing universities to begin to build their own grids.

“Another function would be programs that focus on both adults and kids,” he said. “Right now, adults need to undergo background checks to access the Second Life teen grid.

This would aid another use Case envisions for the ‘Nebraska’ environment which would involve the campus Hispanic club providing mentors to Cleveland public-school students in the online virtual world.

By the way Second Life is still  interested in getting participants in its beta program for the standalone version of Second Life (Contact: business at

Military training

US Air Force_002

The US Air Force’s MyBase in Second Life

Meanwhile Federal Computer Week recently published an interesting article the handful of  US Government agencies who have turned to virtual worlds to create programs that bring together the best aspects of Internet-based training and the traditional classroom.

It gives an overview of three, two of which will obviously become mainly behind firewall applications:

US Air Force: The Air Force’s training command entered the world of virtual learning in December, 2008, with the launch of MyBase,  in Second Life, with an aim to enhancing Air Force recruiting, training, education and operations and meet the education and training needs of future members of the Air Force. MyBase is currently open to the public but the Air Force plans to establish a secure site to provide virtual education and training, such as certification and degree programs, and later a second secure site to re-create operational environments. For example, it could re-create an air base in Iraq where service members could go to train and also meet others with whom they would deploy.

US National Guard: The Guard started the programme –  a virtual world designed to support training, education and collaboration across government – from scratch two-and-a-half years ago as a training and preparedness program for service members and civilian emergency managers. Lt. Col. Gregory Pickell, chief of the Joint Advanced Concepts Division’s Training Technology Branch at the National Guard Bureau, and in charge of the U.S. Nexus programme, believes it has a broader government application. “We found that the virtual word has the ability to bring people together in ways that are not possible in the real world,” he said. “If you have distance-based education, training or collaboration requirements, Nexus gives you more value for every mile between you and your audience.”  U.S. Nexus was developed for the Guard by Engineering and Computer Simulations. It will enter its beta test phase in June, with an initial operational capability slated for November. One of the objectives of U.S. Nexus is to redefine access to traditional distance-earning applications, making it easier to locate the appropriate course without Google searches or text links. Pickell said, aabout 80 percent of online courses are unknown to the user community because they are located at a university or behind a military firewall. “Our job is to find those applications and bring them into the [U.S. Nexus] parallel world architecture.” Users would access applications in ways that make sense to them, such as a firefighter taking a recertification course at a virtual firehouse. U.S. Nexus supports simultaneous training of geographically dispersed people at a lower cost than bringing them all together in a single place, Pickell said. DOD and the Veterans Affairs Department have discussed using U.S. Nexus to coordinate care for injured Iraq war veterans. The Defense Acquisition University, with more than 320,000 students worldwide, plans to use Nexus for a variety of requirements, including avatar-to-avatar synchronous classroom delivery.

Testing other VWs

US Navy: The Naval Undersea Warfare Center set up shop in Second Life about a year ago. “We have a responsibility… that we look globally for new technology,” Paul Lefebvre, technical director and senior civilian at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport, said. “This is technology that has potential for a lot of applications.” As the Navy’s undersea research and development lab, NUWC Division Newport was tasked with delivering better products to the fleet, Lefebvre said. “So we’re looking how to apply things like Second Life to the fleet,” he said. This includes how to use virtual worlds for operational testing, training, collaboration, product development and design work. This summer, NUWC Newport is planning an experiment that will create a virtual submarine attack center. Some fleet participants will take part in the exercise virtually, where they will access simulated scenarios and perform their mission in a virtual world. Others will take part traditionally, without the immersive experience. They will compare the results of the test to see how participants fare in each. In addition to Second Life NUWC  has tested OpenSimulator, Sun Wonderland, Forterra’s Olive and Qwaq Forums.