Second Life – Simulations#1: Watch the monitor my darling while the gentlemen go by…

Five and twenty ponies trotting through the dark,
Brandy for the parson and bacchy for the clerk,
Laces for the ladies and letters for the spie,
Now watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by.

(Rudyard Kipling. The Smugglers Song.)

The virtual world can be used to train people in customer service, managing conflict resolution, science, architecture, medicine and much more.

Probably the most well publicized simulation was created by Ken Hudson of the Loyalist College’s Virtual World Design Centre for the Canadian Border Services Agency. Post 9-11, the agency could no longer send student border guards to the actual border crossing to gain first hand interviewing experience. Due to heightened security concerns students had to role-play interviews within the college environment. The students were struggling with this aspect and the pass rate for students dropped. Instructor Ken Hudson decided to recreate the border crossing in Second Life. The students then ran interview simulations in the virtual world. The result of this role-play interviewing caused a dramatic improvement that could be measured. In 2007 student’s interview skills (without the Second Life simulation) had the average grade of 58%. In 2008, after the use of the simulation, student’s interview skills averaged 86%, showing an improvement of 28%. (See New World Notes for the original story).  Check out the following YouTube video (also shown on Wagner James Au’s blog) this provides a sense of the simulation conditions for the students:

Two thoughts intrigue me about this simulation. One is the thought about smugglers attempting to carry illegal goods across so-called ‘real world’ borders. Smuggling has changed from the days featured in the romanticized Rudyard Kipling poem above. An example of this is the ‘Cocaine cast’ story’ where a man tried to smuggle cocaine compressed into a plaster cast for a broken leg.

The second thought revolves around using Second Life to create a virtual border post, intriguing when one of the wonders of Second Life is that it is multi-national and has no border controls… But then, perhaps the new ‘mature’ sims will have controlled border crossings? And then, that begs the question what would a virtual world smuggler smuggle?

The gift of a coiled snake! (Some thoughts on blogging.)

Studying while wearing my Cutea Benelli Bogonic Skull Protector
Studying while wearing my Cutea Benelli Bogonic Skull Protector

I am awash with articles to read, papers to write, presentations to make. I resorted to studying in Second Life as it was quieter, just the sound of a script playing a sound loop of lapping waves in the background. I also donned my Cutea Benelli Bogonic Skull Protector to assist the erratic loops of my own brain waves. But the best thing I discovered is that my cup of green tea never grows cold in the virtual world.

If you blog, your blog plays on your conscience if you have failed to write in it for a while. It has a way of rankling in your mind. Rankle is a wonderful word! Take a look at it over on The Free Dictionary. Not that I feel my blog is a festering sore (!) as this definition describes but I relate to the idea that it is like a coiled snake!

My (very kind) solution to blogger’s conscience is to create a page on cyberloom that contains a little guide to help select blogging software if you are starting out as a blogger! This means yes, you too can experience the rankling of a blog playing upon your conscience. You too can sense the coiled snake of an unwritten blog post snoozing in your brain!

I would also provide every blogger with a bogonic skull protector but they are very rare items treasured by those who own them (so unlikely to appear on eBay). I found that the soothing hum that emits from my skull protector eventually sent my avatar to sleep! If you start to blog be warned! You will also find yourself operating a keyboard when under the influence of a sleepy head.

cyberloom falling asleep at the keyboard
cyberloom falling asleep at the keyboard

A beginners guide to free blogging software lurks on the Blogging Tips page of cyberloom

Creating an avatar army

People love the idea of walking into a picture and being able to walk around a tree to see what’s behind it. In a 3D world with the help of an avatar you can do just that! You can walk away from the fixed camera view, no longer passively tied to following where the film director or camera person wants you to look, instead you can look wherever you want to look. The very idea of being able to walk into a picture raises a sense of wonder and curiosity. Of course, the reality of how to achieve this brings us back to earth with a bit of a bump. To achieve such a 3D view you need to download a program to your computer, and then figure out its controls. The wonder can evaporate very quickly when people recognize they must employ tools, and considerable patience, to achieve the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ effect.

I wanted to move my students as quickly as possible over this bridge of curiosity and into the 3D space of Second Life™. This meant mass producing avatars, creating both males and females so that I could give each student an avatar in the first class. I churned out these avatars until I got a message from Second Life saying that I appeared to have exceeded the avatar allocation for my household! (I made 10).

Clubgoer, Girl Next Door, Professional & Gamer Girl
Demure female avatars: Clubgoer, Girl Next Door, Professional & Gamer Girl (All avatars skins have permanently attached underwear!)

Opening a Second Life account
The process for opening an account involves registering with Second Life then downloading the client. Once you have registered you must go to your email to collect a password and/or click on an account activation link. There are a range of entry points to the Second Life platform and they vary slightly from each other. These entry points also land you at different orientation stations and some are better than others. I recommend people go to Orientation Station (slurl: Orientation Station, Scholar 110, 102, 25) because that is the least crowded orientation I have found (less lag to contend with) plus it has simple clear graphics, and lots of space to practice walking around.

Musician Guy, Gamer Guy and Professional.
Prim male avatars: Musician Guy, Gamer Guy and Professional. (Also with glued on undies!)

Problems with registering before or in class
If you try and get your students to register their account beforehand, you will find some do it while others won’t for various reasons. If you register in the class then each student must access their email immediately. Many people still use home based email and don’t know how to access it remotely, or they can’t recall their password. Sometimes, it takes a few hours to get your confirmation through to your email account. The result can mean an uneven start for the class with a couple of students twiddling their thumbs unable to proceed at all.

Musician, Ruth (hiding away in 'extra outfits' folder), Girl Next Door (with jeans) & Gamer female.
Female Avis with birthday suit skins: Musician, Ruth (hiding away in 'Extra Outfits' folder in your inventory library), Girl Next Door (in jeans) & Gamer Female.

How to mass produce avatars
To prepare for the class I created a mass of Google email accounts and then went into SL and registered each account individually. This is a tedious process but well worth it by the time of the first class. Each student was given a temporary avatar with password and even an email address if they wanted to use it.

Boy Next Door, Clubgoer, Gamer male (wearing the Woodland Elf skin) & Musician male.
Male avis with birthday suit skins: Boy Next Door, Clubgoer, Gamer male (wearing the Woodland Elf skin) & Musician male.

Meet your avatar
We used the new avatars created by Linden Labs with their fixed appearance of set clothes, shapes, skins & facial expressions. I also discovered some of these new avatars have permanently attached underwear! Of course I did not realize this at first and spent a good chunk of time with a student who had acquired a freebie dress that made her avatar’s bra show. I clicked away using edit etc and scratched my head wondering why on earth the bra could not be shifted! I guess these particularly respectable avatars are aimed at business people entering Second Life for a meeting; people too busy to fuss with their appearance and clothing? Or people afraid they might suddenly lose their pixel sized threads in the middle of an important virtual presentation?

Ironically, the results convey an embarrassingly obvious newbie-ness, just like the earlier Ruth avatars with their ice cream dolloped hair and purple shirts. Still, these avatars worked fine for the first couple of classes, leaving us free to concentrate on movement and communications. The students now all have their own personal avatars to play around with and I have worked out how to remove underwear when necessary! The answer is to simply swap skins with a less shy avatar from your inventory library!

A gray matter: educating seniors in Second Life

SploLand figures by demarco Spatula
SploLand figures by demarco Spatula

I am currently running a ‘hybrid’ class using Second Life, exploring the platform with my students to examine it’s potential for distance learning. I have just six students, seniors from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and we are lucky enough to use a small, but superb, computer lab in the University of Southern Maine library. I see the class as experimental (that is a pompous way of saying this is the first time I have run it, and I plan to run it again, but I might change things!) I aim to share some observations here on my blog and perhaps break down some of the assumptions that we all have about older computer users.

Second Life is a large, and often awkward program to learn, and I suspect that a person’s first couple of hours largely determine whether they will ever return to it. With this in mind I wanted a hybrid class with both face to face and online meetings, to help overcome the initial obstacles, and provide the opportunity to easily share experiences.

I had a great deal of information to impart at the start of the class, not only did I want to get students into the virtual world as quickly as possible; I also wanted to discuss the concept of virtual worlds and ‘immersive environments’. I had little idea how they would react, and was expecting some resistance to crop up at any moment. (After all, these students had not grown up on computer games, avatars and instant messaging.) Instead, I discovered the most open, and enthusiastic minds I have ever encountered in a classroom!

nanopin and bucky bowling ball by demarco Spatula
Detail: nanopin and bucky bowling ball by demarco Spatula

Presumably 3D environments are where the so-called ‘Digital Natives’ would have an advantage over those of us who might be described as ‘Digital Immigrants’. I imagine Digital Natives would be very at ease, and able to pick up a program like Second Life rapidly. In turn, I suspected seniors might struggle with the unwieldy Second Life client, and I wondered if they might simply give up the effort? Fortunately, my concerns about seniors struggling through this initial learning phase were completely wrong!

In fact, my students have found their way around the client surprisingly quickly. I saw this initial period as having two phases. The first phase being the introduction to the SL client; the second phase being the application of the client to explore the virtual world. I obviously wanted to get to this second phase because that would be the more rewarding experience. I knew that the 3D world, with its metaphor for the real world, would facilitate an intuitive learning experience. (Especially when compared to learning a 2D computer program like Windows with it’s desktop metaphor.) The students rapidly understood the need to tie the experience of learning about the client to practicing with it. This meant that we did get into the highly amusing phase 2 of the introduction quickly.

I also built in as much support as possible to help the students take their first steps in the virtual world:

1. The class began in the computer lab, followed by online assignments where students meet up with each other in the virtual world. Students then return to the lab to report on their experiences; we then explore new aspects of SL before students head back online.

2. In class the students can watch my computer screen on a projector observing the connection between the client controls and how they affect my avatar.

3. Each student was provided with a temporary avatar in the first class. This meant students could copy what they saw on the projector and immediately practice it for themselves.

4. The class was provided with a study guide in the form of a website that students can run in the background when using SL from home. This website displays class organizers (to act as reminders and prompts for each class). There are also tips and tutorials (using photographs taken in SL) plus links to additional external tutorials and articles of interest etc.

5. I aim to get into SL at regular times at least twice a week so that I can meet the students online and see how they are faring.

Gray Matter and White Noise Gallon Cans by demarco Spatula
Gray Matter and White Noise Gallon Cans by demarco Spatula

If the students were younger I probably would not provide as much help because I would assume that they already knew what to do. However, after reading the report sponsored by the British Library, and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), titled Information behaviour of the researcher of the future I am less certain that youth makes learning SL that much easier? That is, this report points to the fact that many assume that the ‘Digital Native’ student has an understanding of technology, and how to apply it. The report uncovers the fact that Digital Natives tend to know how to use a wide range of software in a superficial fashion, but they have a shallow comprehension of how to apply technology. I then read some follow up blog posts by teachers and college instructors that pointed out this is something they have known for some time. (See the excellent post on this topic at Open Education: ‘Digital Immigrants teaching the Net Generation – Much Ado About Nothing. )

The OLLI students in my particular class have a surprising depth of experience with computers, their spectrum of knowledge covers using the very first computers, working with DOS and macros, to the early stages of the Internet. In other words, computer literate Baby Boomers have developed an extraordinary degree of understanding, patience and resilience when learning new software. So grandparents may have a greater openness, and sense of adventure, than their grandchildren when it comes to learning something like Second Life!

Images found in SploLand home to interactive museums of: Science, Human Perception and Humor. Science Exhibits and Exhibitions. (slurl: SploLand 185, 91, 26,)

Also take a look at this! Technology Use to Come by Matt Vilano who references my class in Campus Technology Magazine. (Thank you! Matt).

The Internet: Is it raw power?

Eye of the hurricane on the NOAA island
Eye of the hurricane on the NOAA island

“The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created–created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.” – John Schaar, futurist.

Sitting in a hurricane simulator (with music too) on NOAA
Sitting in a hurricane simulator (with music too) on NOAA

I was toying with Schaar’s quote, exchanging the word future with ‘Internet’ (I include the World Wide Web under the Internet heading here.) It is intriguing to play with the idea that the Internet is the future. The quote exposes a dilemma of labeling, i.e. naming and defining something that is in a state of constant evolution and change.

watching the Tsunami wave
Watching the Tsunami

If you consider the Internet in the context of this quote you can see a creation that keeps mushrooming in size, growing at an exponential rate. As it grows it evolves and changes. As we draw close to pinning summaries and definitions to it, it alters yet again. Now perhaps, we can claim the Internet (and its web) have become like the world’s oceans? Maybe, we can even go so far as to say the Internet has become a force of nature in and of itself? It appears to have grown so colossal that it has leapt beyond our ability to micromanage its mass. Just as the future is beyond our control so is today’s Internet.

Tsunami simulation and avatar doing the snake dance
Tsunami simulation and avatar doing the snake dance

What is the Internet beyond the machines and programs with their archives of information and endless chat? What has it become as it transcends the boundaries of clever software and smart devices? Every time we comprehend what the internet has turned into it poses new questions. Is it a place? A tool? An idea? A community? It is all these things and more, a giant protean shape-shifter born out of its own questions and answers. It has become a location for perpetual invention, a future that each of us can touch and mold. It is a great Tsunami wave of information. Does that make it an intelligence? A shared mind? Raw power?

Tornado on Tornado Island
Tornado on Tornado Island
Links to these locations in Second Life:

Twiddling with Twine

Twine buttons can be personalized by uploading images from your hard drive
Twine buttons can be personalized by uploading images from your hard drive used to be my favourite place for stashing away bookmarks. It worked well for a long time, it was great to just click on the tab when I found a useful web page and store it away for later. The problem in the end was that I stored so many links it ceased to be useful. I tried altering my tags to create a more streamlined system but found myself stunned by the tedium of reorganization.

Then I read an article in Wired magazine (May, 2008) by Clive Thompson titled ‘Information Overlord’ addressing the problem of internet induced information overload. Thompson mentioned a web application called Twine that he had just discovered, and cautiously recommended, so I decided to investigate it for myself. At that time Twine was not publicly available but they invited people to write and ask for an account. I duly typed a polite request and they let me join in. (Nowadays you can simply send in your email address, and they will send an invitation with a little warning that the application is still in beta mode.)

Twine makes some grandiose claims about being Web 3.0 and there are some intense discussions addressing this claim percolating on the web (Twine Disappoints After Semantic Web Hype and Why I Migrated Over to Twine.) I have no clue whether it really is Web 3.0 or not, and I am not sure I even care as all I want is a decent bookmarking system. (I know I am revealing a touch of the I want the elevator to work but I don’t want to know about the little cable that holds it up syndrome.) After all, all I want is to be able to find the things I have stored away.

Public Twine
Public Twines

You can set up as many Twines as you like, tag information and write notes about each bookmark if you feel like it. There is a choice about making your Twine public or keeping it private, and you can join other people’s public Twines sharing bookmarks across several twines. I like Twine’s user interface and I especially like being able to select images for each Twine header, in addition each bookmarked page is saved with a thumbnail picture. The application does much more than I have described here; one of its coolest features (for me anyway) is that it sends me an email that reminds me about my own recently saved bookmarks. Emails also arrive supplying me with notifications of posts by other people on the public Twines. Seems a useful application to me so far, I encourage others to see for themselves and have a twiddle with Twine!

Also see cyberloom’s earlier post on managing information overload ‘Librarians will inherit the world!’

Sanctuary of Secrets

“He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

I am not exactly sure of the translation of Templum ex Obscurum but I think it is something along the lines of ‘Sanctuary of Secrets’ or ‘Temple of the Obscure’. This shadowy island demands a lot from aging graphics cards (like mine) but the immersive moodiness is worth the laptop burn. When I arrived it took a while before my avatar eyes could adjust to the gloom of the temple’s cave like entrance.

Bronze sigil knight in Templum ex Obscurum
cyberloom the female sigil knight exploring Templum ex Obscurum

In many ways Second Life is Templum ex Obscurum!  It takes time for new people to adjust their minds to this enigmatic virtual world. Certainly there are many secrets hiding in the shadows, and many obscure desires (and other rather more obvious ones) being acted upon by multitudes of anonymous avatars. Ah! But humans love mysteries, and the unknown just adds suspense and gossip to the adventure.

Sigil Knight in Templum ex Obscurum
Sigil Knight stretching her wings in the temple

This virtual world attracts artists, and artists like visual metaphors, they deliberately play with these oracular code carriers. The strange thing about Second Life is that it truly reveals so much of what is hidden away in the physical world. Ironically, highly purposeful individuals (who declare they have no time for artistic expression) often produce the most revealing metaphors of all! For in a 3D world we communicate from within the visual language of imagery i.e., speech and text lie encased within the pictures on our computer screens. As I write this I am thinking about the symbolism of a university who owns an island in Second Life, this island is divided in two by a moat; thereby, keeping classrooms and student’s to one side and well away from the university buildings! For now there is one lone bridge that crosses from one side of the island to the other but I wonder if it will become a draw bridge? My reason for writing about this, is not to explore the divisions of universities with their Shakespearean intrigues, but to illustrate the obscure constructivism of Second Life!

Sigil Knight discovers the secret of breathing underwater
Sigil Knight finds a secret place...

In my photographic exploration of Templum ex Obscurum I saw other avatars exploring the shadowy places. I guessed these were Second Life photographers who were , like me, looking for photographs to take back to the bright pages of the NPIRL photo challenge on flickr. Everyone I encountered worked with quiet concentration and avoided the small talk of local chat. I was surprised when I wandered over to a nearby island and someone spoke to me. Standing amongst the crumbling walls of an old ruin I met none other than Cuwynne Deerhunter, the caretaker and hospitable owner of Templum ex Obscurum. (I had seen him walking around the temple earlier replacing old waxy stubs with newly lit candles.) What a pleasant chap he is too! He is in the midst of building on Cariwynne (the home of Templum ex Obscurum) and he even shared a secret building project with me! I am sworn to secrecy, and if you try and uncover this secret you may find yourself being devoured by piranhas!

Sigil Knight in trance
cyberloom reviewing the secrets and metaphors of her own mind...

Templum ex Obscurum was built by Baron Grayson

Female Bronze Sigil Knight created by Flea Bussy of Grendel’s Children