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.

Advertisements

The SLENZ Update – No 79, May 10, 2009

BEHIND THE FIREWALL

Is this the  the  route

education will take?

CWRU

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 secondlife.com).

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.

The SLENZ Update – No 26, November 18, 2008

A personal view

Can we unlock Ivory-tower gate?

cheguevara

I sometimes get the feeling  that some educators move into places like the web and virtual worlds in order to keep the lock on the gate or keep “control” of the world of learning – in other  words keep the learning  behind the ivory-tower  gate  – in a universe which is expanding learning opportunities exponentially outside the normal education system.

Google Search and the wikipedia system, as unreliable as the data  they dredge up or record sometimes is, has made information available to (initially) anyone who writes/reads English, and has access to a phoneline and a computer; almost any old computer. For  many the advent of the web as we know it today has made the ivory tower virtually irrelevant for true learning.

Communities of interest/barriers which tertiary institutions thrive on – and which I once thought were the reason for universities: where else could one easily meet girls with the same interests who were away from home and available? – have given way in many cases to web-based social networks, which today are more pervasive and often more tribal than fraternities or sororities. The ivory-tower communities of interest also encompass the professional groups which have grown out of tertiary institutions to ensure the closed-shop enclave nature  of some intellectual/professional pursuits and thus increase the workplace value of a tertiary education.(eg law and medicine).

But the barriers, which started to break down in the 1960s with the call for the establishment of “free” universities without examinations or structured courses, or in some cases attendance – even though re-erected by academics wanting to protect their patches – are threatened with complete demolition by the web with its virtually-free, anytime, anywhere  knowledge and/or propaganda.

Today anyone who can read and write can educate themselves, given the will, the discipline, a computer and a web link. But they still can’t get the piece of paper that would  allow them to be recognised as a “practitioner”: Medical associations and other groups, created alongside the English-speaking ivory-tower system, do all they can to keep the foreign-language/university educated, self-educated and non ivory-tower educated hoi polloi out, citing lower education standards in the university/country of origin/culture differences, or  non-recognised credentials.

I had hoped – and this is a personal, non-academic view – that there was a new force/ideas afoot with the Edupunk movement in the US, but alas I think I might have been mistaken and what is happening in SLENZ might be closer to the future, where the whole process of the creation of the SLENZ project has appeared to have been democratised, transparent and allowing input, albeit guided,  from all. It is also in many ways directed at adults who  the ivory-tower system has often conveniently bypassed.

sararobbins1

I feel that even some of those in the edupunk movement [The revolution will be syndicated (http://blip.tv/file/1441388/)], in proclaiming their attempts to break the ivory-tower barriers and break out of what they see as the stifling, red-tape ridden, zombified (LMS) systems are doing little more  than trying to preserve their academic power by taking the nuts and bolts  off campus, while hypocritically still keeping their roles as paid academics within their institutions. Their middle-class methods may work in a society where  computers and broadband gigabytes off-campus are virtually free, but in fact, also serve to alienate those who are the true revolutionaries in education and elsewhere, who are working completely (and often anarchically) outside the  ivory-tower system, like many of the bloggers on the web.  The edupunk movement, also like many of today’s great, well-washed, middle-class don’t seem to understand that Che Guevara was a “real revolutionary” who got down and dirty, not just a model for a tee-shirt logo.
To me the edupunk attack on zombie systems in Ivory-tower education reeks of the faddish criticism  which  often surrounds Bill Gates and the Microsoft Windows operating system. They both “suck” but if it wasn’t for the Ivory Tower system we wouldn’t have academics who could freely attack it by biting the hand that feeds them, and if it wasn’t for the ubiquitous Windows system we might not have the cheap PCs and the Web as we know it today.

Although, like PhD candidate and VW researcher, Sara Robbins-Bell (SL: Intellagirl Tully), I would be loath to have a doctor who had trained and graduated only in SL, or done his study through blogs, perform surgery on me,  I still think there is space for a much wider appreciation of the learning choices and desires of the students outside the ivory-tower system; learning through peers and users, even bloggers,  rather than academics. No longer can we view learning  in this way as second class to piece of paper with “graduate” on it.

The problem, however, for the self/web-educated woman/man is how to ascribe a recognised/accepted, standard measure to one’s capabilities in order to secure one’s first, paid employment. After that, of course, one  should be able to secure employment on the basis of work experience and references.

These thoughts on where education is going and the on-going need to develop critical literacy in the learning population in general, if we are going to benefit as much as we should from the educational possibilities of the web in all its forms, were brought to mind by two blogged articles and videos which I am grateful that academics Leigh Blackall (SL: Leroy Goalpost) and Dr Scott Diener (SL: Professor Noarlunga) pointed me too.

Although long (54 minutes and 55 minutes) they will reward you by giving you an inside view on where web-based education in 21st Century US could be going. The first, a streaming and streamed video presentation at the New Media Consortium, suffers from 15 minutes or so of old-hat waffle posing as SL theatre which is fairly old hat, while in the second, Sara Robbins-Bell, starts well  on where education is  going for the millennials but then fudges the issue with her solutions, which I personally felt were more about keeping academics in control than in actual learning for students. Her reference to the on-going need for critical literacy education hit a nerve though.

Leigh, a SLENZ “learning designer”and educational developer with Otago Polytechnic, said, for him, the significance of  “zombies, edtech survival and edupunk ” [“The revolution will be syndicated” [(http://blip.tv/file/1441388/)]  was:

  • Innovative approach to live presentation in the education technology sector.
  • Primary content was developed outside SL and so an example of reusability and accessibility.
  • Use of a Zombie Flaming theme as an ice breaker in a live presentation in SL.
  • Zombies as a kind of homage to some SL pop culture and griefing fun.
  • Streaming Blip.tv videos into SL.
  • Generation of Machinima from the presentation (more accessibility and reusability).
  • Inspired after event edtech blogging interests.

For another report on the presentation go to http://cogdogblog.com/2008/11/07/revolution-is-syndicated/

Meanwhile Diener,  [http://scottdiener.edublogs.org/], who has created the the Long White Cloud island in SL (Long White Cloud/31/38/27) for Auckland University, returned from the Educause 2008 conference, “overwhelmed with the sheer bulk of information I encountered. “

tower&cloud

Describing Sarah Robbins-Bill presentation, “Social Media and Education: The Conflict Between Technology and Institutional Education, and the Future” ( http://hosted.mediasite.com/hosted5/Viewer/?peid=5eb9cd4798a4488288e0b6d117f5c99c) as a highlight he said she presented “a quite challenging picture of the future of higher education in an era of rapidly expanding, free, and leveraged technologies” before “highly” recommending that one should view it. Some of you may have seen it in the Educause 2008  link files posted previously, but you haven’t it is well worth the time spent with it.

In his blog Scott also recommended a new online 2.1MB book, “The Tower and the Cloud – Higher Education in the Age of Cloud Computing,”  edited by Richard Katz. Click on book cover.