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 45, February 10, 2009

SLENZ pilot progress

An outsider’s view …

The creation and melding together of the design and development phases of the SLENZ pilot programmes has proven a slightly more difficult process for the SLENZ team than initially envisaged.

“We are making progress, albeit slower than I anticipated or would have liked,” joint project leader Terry Neal (pictured right)  said recently. “The focus over the last couple of weeks has been agreeing the processes, terminology and templates that will enable us to work together effectively for the design and development phase of our project.

“Once we have finalised these, we then need to use them,” she said.

photo-terry-1From the outside – and part of my brief is to view the project from the outside – one of the difficulties facing the team producing the three pilots – in  midwifery, foundation learning and Second Life Orientation – has been  the confusing number of platforms (Second Life, IMs, blogs, emails, googledocs, wikis)  being used by team members to disseminate their ideas to each other.

Although the pilots are still at an early stage it appears, at times, that team members are not talking “in the same virtual room”  although this is probably through no fault of their own, and is possibly a feature of every virtual  world “team” effort as opposed to VW individual efforts.  The problem is, however, that the oft-quoted proposition that in virtual worlds the learner is more important than the teacher/researcher/creator might be forgotten, with ever-widening, more ambitious ideas being put forward  and the possibility  that the goals of the pilots might be buried by words.

This is not to say that the ideas are not excellent,  but at times, in my view, grandstanding, reinventing wheels (a New Zealand habit), and widening the scope of a pilot, rather than containing it, can reduce the effectiveness of  a project and lead to the initial aims and goals being, if not  forgotten, glossed over.

The problem appears to be compounded by the fact that SLENZ is a temporary team with the members physically removed from each other who, once the project is over, will go on to do their own things: the academic life blood after all might be said to be publishing papers and individual recognition.

Significant milestones

Basically, I believe, as team members, we need to recognise that each of us will get something more valuable out of the collaborative team effort, rather than from our individual contributions, if we get onto the same page  and work in the same virtual room with the same language, even if on different campuses and with different world views. We will also lessen the workload.

As Neal said in her most recent project update, and this probably applies to all virtual world collaborative education projects, “We need to effectively refine and merge … and agree our terminology because (we) are using quite different terms for the same things.”

Despite the difficulties the team has already  achieved some significant milestones with its initial reports and discussion documents – the SL Literature Review,  written by Dr Ben Salt (research and evaluation), Dr Clare Atkins (joint project leader, pictured lower right), ) and Leigh Blackall (learning designer),  is being picked up by  a noted peer-reviewed virtual world journal – and obviously will achieve other major milestones in the future.

Despite my criticism of the proliferation of communication channels the documents I am alluding to are worth reading, and contain good ideas for anyone working in education or doing research on the creation of learning opportunities in  MUVEs.  With the team currently concentrating  on the midwifery project Blackall has posted his thoughts on the overall process at http://learnonline.wordpress.com/2009/02/04/producing-educational-resources-through-second-life/ and at (http://learnonline.wordpress.com/2009/02/09/slenz-midwifery-ideas-for-stage-1-virtual-birthing-unit/ );  Atkins has used googledocs – although some are not publicly available at the  time of going to press –  to share  “SLENZ User story Stage 1” ( http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dcr62szf_4gnvmm3mg&invite=c7c87wm), drafted guidelines (http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dj2k8bp_19dk3m4vfx&invite and a template) and a technical specifications document (http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dj2k8bp_20cnsg5hc2&hl=en); and Sarah Stewart (lead educator) has put the midwifery pilot into context by detailing what she and her colleagues know of their students, such as learning preferences, motivation and access to technology, and clarifying what the learning objectives will be for each stage (http://sarah-stewart.blogspot.com/2009/02/thinking-about-stage-1-of-second-life.html) and (http://sarah-stewart.blogspot.com/2009/02/context-of-midwifery-education-and.html)

Unenviable task

There  already has been agreement between Atkins and Todd Cochrane (developer) on such things as a template, naming conventions and version control, both within and outside Second Life.slenz-workshop-0051

Despite the “foundation learning” pilot appearing to be on hold while the midwifery pilot has taken precedence, Merle Lemon (lead educator) has been busy talking to the other academic collaborators to enable her to feed their needs into the pilot as well as determining how to make intra-team communication more effective.

The next major step, according to Neal,  and one might say unenviable task,  is for Atkins to translate the thinking of various members of the team on the birthing unit  into the technical specifications/production plan for further development of the guidelines for the birthing unit and templates.

Salt has done an initial draft of the evaluation process and is currently  completing it in more detail.

Finally, according to Neal, the team needs be ready to seek ethics approval in March.

Neal concluded,  “While our process and template decision-making is taking longer than I had anticipated or hoped, it is worth taking the time to get this right and will set us on a stronger course for the next 11 months.”

-written by Johnnie Wendt/John Waugh

ESSENTIAL READING!

Are avatars really useful?

adzel-dragon_009

This is essential reading and I really mean essential. Even if you don’t read another thing on your computer  this week there are two articles/blogs that as an educator you must read.

I referred to one  in my previous blog (SLENZ Update, No 44)  by Caleb Booker ( ROI in Virtual Worlds 1 – Why Webcams Fail (http://www.calebbooker.com/blog/2009/01/27/roi-in-virtual-worlds-1-why-webcams-fail/)

The second is his followup, ROI in Virtual Worlds – Anatomy of an Avatar (http://www.calebbooker.com/blog/2009/02/03/roi-in-virtual-worlds-anatomy-of-an-avatar/)

His thoughts, which he is the first to admit are “off the cuff”, make sense to me on a variety of levels. They are easy to understand and they mirror my own virtual world reality.  That said, they also provoke considerable thought, and I would think will provoke lots of valuable discussion if not changes in attitude.

ROI in Virtual Worlds – Anatomy of an Avatar, is  the second of a series dedicated to answering why virtual worlds are a good alternative to existing technologies;  and how one can  best get a Return On Investment (ROI) from virtual world ventures.

Booker  argues initially that avatars yield returns on several levels: 1. They allow people to “see themselves” taking part in the experience; 2. Your perception of who is participating is greatly enhanced; 3. Open and honest communication between employees is greatly facilitated; 4. You always have an ice-breaker; and 5. You’re always ready for work.

Later in a reply to a comment from  Nic Mitham, of Kzero, he simplifies this in a business environment  to: 1) Real user engagement; 2) Increased customer contact;3) Improved employee relations; 4) Easier initiation of sales contacts; 5) Happier, more productive employees.

And I’m also indebted to Booker for the following  link from Collegehumor.com  which compares avatar creation on the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 consoles.

He comments, “their observations are brief and superficial but what I like about it is that this is very much the knee-jerk reaction from outside the industry echo-chamber -you know, the place where customers come from!”

Ten facets in 70 VWs

intellagirltully1Sarah Robbins (SL: Intellagirl Tully) (pictured at right), as part of her dissertation research, has noted 10 specific facets  that occur in the  70 virtual worlds that  she has studied over the past 18 months. She has published  her useful  chart of them here: http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=pgKqGR6eOiPOKjMG9f856Sw For more info about the facets: http://ubernoggin.com/archives/383

Robbins (www.ubernoggin.com and http://www.intellagirl.com) is a PhD candidate, Ball State University and director of Emerging Technologies, Kelley Executive Partners, at Indiana University.

The top 11 according to…

Promoting his new ebook , Virtual Worlds for Business Nick Wilson ( pictured) of CleverZebra.com has released an interesting teaser identifying what he considers the top 11 virtual worlds technologies for meetings, training and wilsonnick2collaborative work which he believes will change the way we work. http://cleverzebra.com/virtual-worlds

There are some “old” standbys on the list and some interesting and unusual new choices: his reasons for his choices are thought provoking.

His list includes:   ActiveWorlds, OLIVE, Protosphere, Quaq Forums, Second Life, web.alive, Multiverse, OpenSim, Project Wonderland, 3DXplorer, Vastpark.