Reviewing My Second Life

Suke sitting thinking_001

Yesterday I added a post to Cyberloom, and I realized that it is three years since the last post was added to this blog! All I can say is time flies when you are preoccupied! Today, I have been reviewing some of my 190+ earlier posts. The reason for this review is that my friend Suzanne asked me to send her the link to this blog. Gosh, I thought how to guide someone through a blog about a peculiar hobby visiting the Metaverse? Well, Suzanne, I hope that this post will help.

I began writing this blog in 2008 when I was an Adult Education student looking into online education for my Certificate in Advanced Studies. One of the first things that hooked me into the virtual world was the discovery that I could interact with it. In an early post, I wrote about this in a piece titled: Living in a Painting: Introducing Second Life and Windlight. I had discovered I could take photographs and adjust the lighting in a virtual 3D space reached by my computer. Strange that this machine of glass and metal and tiny computer chips could open up such a vast and visually imaginative realm.

 

Sands of Time_006
Majilis al Jinn. Sands of Time by Calein Flux

 

I have a few preoccupations when traveling in the virtual world. The first is an ongoing interest in adult learning in its various manifestations:

Self Directed Learning Exercise #2: Virtual flying

Maslow’s ghost in a virtual world 

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

Another recurring theme concerns a stack of sketchy questions about who we are as we connect with each other across the room, across virtual space and multiple time differences? Here are some of these posts:

Social Presence Theory & Second Life

My blog is my connectome…

Fear of the ‘Stopping Point.’

 

Ars Simulcra_001
Reunion by Andrek Lowell 

 

Virtual Art is another area that fascinates and my approach to the work of Metaverse Artists stems from when I was a photographer working in London, and I would help artists by photographing their work for publicity purposes. I soon found that Second Life was teeming with incredibly thoughtful and talented artists. I also saw that there was a problem in that if you did not enter the 3D online space via your computer, you could not see and experience the work of these artists. This lead me on a mission to record the work of virtual world artists, here are just a few:
Archetypal Robots and Giant Donuts

“its not real art is it?”

The happy jellyfish tree

Love Dot

Over the years, I have created a series with the title: “Second Life – Why would you go there?”

Second Life – Why would you go there? #1: To look at books!

‘Second Life – Why would you go there? #2: To be creative and express myself!

‘Second Life – Why would you go there? #3: Deep Sea Diving 

‘Second Life -Why would you go there?’#4 Foul Whisperings 

‘Second Life – Why would you go there?’#5: To practice Tai Chi in Narnia

‘Second Life-Why would you go there?’#6 To enjoy the nocturnal art of architecture

‘Second Life-Why would you go there?’#7: To stand at the edge of the underworld 

Second Life – Why Would You Go There? #8 – To be a dancing banana

Second Life – Why Would You Go There? #9 – To walk into panoramas (and perhaps even take a ‘kinetic’ shopping trip?)

Second Life – Why Would You Go There? #10 – For Weird Fiction on Halloween

Image locations in Second Life:

Majilis al Jinn. Sands of Time by Calein Flux

Reunion by Andrek Lowell on display at Ars Simulacra: NMC’s SL Artist Showcase Island

 

Older Gamers (Level 50+) & Summer Gaming MOOC

I have signed up for this summer’s Games Based Learning MOOC which is examining the use of ‘gamification’ in educational settings. I have been thinking about running a class that looks at online gaming for ‘older gamers’ as well as the many wild and wonderful claims that are being made about the benefits of ‘brain fitness games’.

To launch this post here is a short definition of Gamification as supplied by Wikipedia:

“Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems. Gamification is used in applications and processes to improve user engagement, return on Investment, data quality, timeliness, and learning. The word was coined by Nick Pelling.”

Gamification.Wikipedia

Background
I taught Second Life for several years to small groups of 6 people at a time. these classes ran in sessions of 2 hours a week for 8 weeks. Student’s ages ranged from 50 to 90+ and the average age was around 72.

The classes were enormous fun to teach and sometimes quite challenging. I touched upon what I perceived were the positive implications of playing Second Life for brain health back in a 2010 blog post titled: Second Life – Why Would You Go There? #8 – To be a dancing banana. The classes were arranged with everyone sitting at a PC in the computer lab snd my instructor PC screen was projected in front of the class. This often caused an initial ‘perception-in-a-swirl’ moment for people, a visual shock that required conscious deconstruction and (if all went well!) perhaps even a speeded up ‘learning moment’. This was because many in the class were more used to TVs and their single viewing vantage point on screen. In class students saw each others monitors revealing various angles of the same scene generated by each avatar’s own camera view.

Two avatars sitting on the roof top drinking herb tea
Two avatars (students of Second Life) sitting on the roof tops drinking herb tea

So the students sat side by side in a room full of monitors which in turn simultaneously portrayed each student as represented by their avatars in a parallel virtual world. They collaborated with each other and shared many funny moments together. Students had to accept that everything was somewhat unpredictable and out of control. Technical glitches and quirks would cause us to suddenly have to adapt our declared plans for the day and see us switching destinations and activities in-world at the last minute. Despite the technological balancing act students appeared to enjoy and feel safe exploring the virtual world together. They helped each other to problem solve and remember repetitive actions (important for older gamers) while I assisted anyone who was more challenged by the activities in hand. Beyond providing basic technical training and assistance; I saw myself as their guide in a foreign land, helping them avoid the tasteless and rather daft and dubious ‘adult’ areas whilst seeking out educational, beautiful and fun locations.

It was a ‘happening!’
Over time I began to see the class had more in common with a ‘happening‘ than anything more traditionally educational. Students tended not to go ‘in-world’ from home. I did set up two times a week when I was available to meet them online but only a small number of students ever found their way into Second Life by themselves. The majority clearly enjoyed the classes with the group and guide and did not see themselves going off and exploring alone.

Those few who managed the computer set-up, online connection, application download and virtual world login did become independent virtual world citizens in their own right. Unfortunately, Linden Labs proceeded to make a number of peculiar business decisions that ultimately deterred most of these adventurers from using Second Life. In particular the SL viewer went through a wide range of updates and changes (ironically aimed at making the application more user friendly…) that meant people had to keep relearning the dashboard and menus. Perhaps if Second Life had kept support up for the older standard viewer with upgrade and downgrade options they would have sustained interest? Google allows this upgrade/downgrade option for its products and keeps this option for some time before fully switching to its new (thoroughly tested) dashboards. An approach like this would have dramatically helped my students (and no doubt other Second Life users?)

Golden Oriole freebie TV created by Oriolus Oliva
Watching TV in the virtual world. Golden Oriole freebie TV created by Oriolus Oliva

What next?
Eventually, Linden Labs cut their subsidy for educational institutions and educators packed up their inventories to migrate to new smaller worlds. There are now so many virtual worlds available in the educational virtual world universe that it is comparable to making a choice on what to watch and where to go on American cable TV. This seems to be an exciting, yet somewhat unstable period for virtual worlds and education. Technological stability is a necessity for educational settings and often the best applications require powerful up-to-date computers. As I look at options for the those who have leveled 50+ years in the area of fun, educational and challenging games it is important to stay in touch with the fact that many are using computers that are more than 3 years old.

Working on Kunst Himmel's iMak 3.0 computer
Working on Kunst Himmel’s iMak 3.0 computer getting ready to launch WOW

This is just a quick summary of my experience of working with Second Life and older gamers, this is my stepping off point into new learning. This brings me to one of the aspects that intrigued me about this summer’s Game Based Learning MOOC and that is that it appears to be particularly geared towards World of Warcraft (WoW). This seems to be a highly structured virtual gaming world. However, I cannot judge this virtual world / game without finding out more about it first. Inevitably exploration in WoW will cause comparisons to be made with Second Life and before seriously contemplating introducing this game to a class of older learners/gamers I need to play it myself. So wish me luck!

A ‘Click’ explanation of ‘Immersive and Interactive Virtual Art’

Here is a machinima by L1Aura Loire aka Lori Landay, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at Berklee College of Music.

The machinima titled ‘CLICK’ explains what  ‘Immersive and Interactive Virtual Art’ is while showing us the work of virtual artists. The work shown is part of the University of Western Australia’s 3D Art and Design Challenge exhibition.

Steaming into Viewer 2

Sunset over the dreaming spires of Oxbridge Caledon
Sunset over the dreaming spires of The University of Caledon Oxbridge

If you feel the need to brush up on the finer points of the official Second Life viewer then perhaps it is time to take a stroll through the grand halls of the University of Caledon Oxbridge?  This Steampunk influenced location applies the theme of a Victorian museum crossed with a university, placing tutorials inside glass cabinets which are then organized into topic areas within ‘colleges’. Volunteers are available to help the true newbies who can be seen wandering wildly in circles bumping into walls and threatening to crack the glass of the display cases (possibly on the verge of abandoning Second Life forever). I observed a ‘Professor’ rescue one confused newbie (who was holding a shopping bag, the new newbie ‘give-away’) by offering guidance, plus words of encouragement, before dispatching them on their way across the campus.

Oxbridge orientation
The University of Caledon Oxbridge orientation starting point

Once you have landed at the university’s orientation starting point follow the arrows to each of the colleges listed below:

College of Avatar Motion
Walking, Running, Flying, Sitting Down, World Map, Using landmarks and Short Range Teleports.
College of Camera Control
:
Camera Controls, Keyboard and Mouse Controls, Screen Controls and Mouselook
College of Communication:
Chat, Instant Messaging, Friends, Groups, Voice Chat, Setting Up Voice Chat and Etiquette
College of Finding:
Finding Things, My Inventory, Find Window, Search All, Search Places and Classifieds and Search People
College of Avatar Customization:
Varities of Avatars, Shapes and Skins, Changing Clothing, Outfits, Attachments, Clothing Layers, Appearance Mode, Animation Override
College of Money and Commerce:
Linden Dollars, Using the Lindex, Buying Lindens, Buying Things, Free Stuff, Opening Boxes, Prims, Land

'Try Sitting' in the College of Avatar Motion
'Try Sitting' in the College of Avatar Motion
College of Camera Control
Preparing to focus attention in the College of Camera Control

At the end of the orientation you arrive at the Caledon Library of Oxbridge. This is the place to visit if you are remotely interested in researching Steampunk as it provides all manner of 19th Century book resources. You can seat your avatar in the library and read books online, simply click on the appropriate bookcases for web links links that will open your browser at gutenberg.org. Topic areas include 19th Century Art & Fashion, Children’s Books, Science Fiction and Proto Steampunk, Science & Technology, Fantasy & Fairytales to name a few. One bookcase is labeled as Steampunk Information and this takes you to Steampunk related blogs (beware a couple of these links are broken). Finally, avatars without premium accounts can find free digs on the university’s campus, other avatars with a little spending money can rent rather classy accommodations in the Oxbridge Mews.

Oxbridge Mews
Oxbridge Mews (note the penny farthing icon and number, a little homage to the mysterious show 'The Prisoner' with Patrick McGoohan.)

Note:

Desmond Shang – Founder of the University Caledon Oxbridge

University Caledon Oxbridge tutorial created by Carl Metropolitan.

A note to Oz

I am on the second day of an Eve Online trial. While this is driving me a little crazy, it is also food for thought as it reminds me of my own Second Life (SL) newbie experience. As a SL user, or should I say ‘believer’, I find myself inevitably comparing Eve Online and Second Life. (By the way, I join the tribe of ‘SL Believers’ who all see what Second Life is in its current state whilst experiencing tantalizing glimpses of what it could be if it took a couple of shimmies to the left…)

Eve Tyrannis
Eve Tyrannis

Delving into Eve Online I find I must wade through quests that double up as tutorials to learn this complex game. Eve Online’s various controls and information features seem complicated to use and employ poor quality typography. The only way to begin to make sense of everything is via endless repetition. The same must be said of SL i.e. it also can only be understood by repetition but the various SL viewers try hard to reduce complexity.

Note I say Second Life viewers… there are so many that it is getting a little confusing. Which viewer shall I encourage new students to use? Which viewer do I know well enough to teach? The orientation stations I like to send students to have not updated themselves to explain Viewer 2. I am tempted to promote the Emerald viewer because that viewer is a logical evolution of the old SL viewer (which means many resident created orientation stations are still relevant). As I have a class coming up soon I decided to check out the official Viewer 2 tutorials and test the whole ‘newbie’ experience with Second Life for myself. My sign up for a new avi went very smoothly and I landed on Welcome Island where the Viewer 2 tutorials were excellent. However, I was stumped at the end of the tutorial when I found myself confronted by 4 destination choices: Shop, Explore, Socialize or Help. What to pick?

Welcome Island's four destinations to complete confusion
Welcome Island's four destinations

I opted for the first destination ‘Shop – Update your look’ and I was startled to discover that the ‘Go Shopping’ teleport placed me under the sea! I had to walk around a bit before locating a sad little dock area. This had about six items on display, all demo clothes for female avatars plus a 7-Seas fishing rod dispenser. I could purchase the clothes for L$25, very cheap (except when you are a newbie with no money). A miserable experience which made Dusan Writer’s recent post Show Up: Your Guide to Helping to Improve Second Life all the more relevant. Dusan quotes Oz Linden’s recent entreaty to SL residents to help Linden Labs by providing “productive useful input”. I hope it is productive  to suggest that the initial destination areas for newbies in Second Life are perhaps the most important locations in this entire online 3D world? A decent web site checks all its links are working and pointing the user to the right content. Linden Labs is responsible for Welcome Island, this is the first point of contact for new customers; you would think they might check those 4 initial destination teleport sites are worth the visit? Eve Online might not have a very accessible dashboard but it does provide magnificent visuals for newbies with views of majestic planets, and graceful space rockets gliding across starlit heavens. At least while you are floundering around figuring out the controls you are doing it against a fabulous backdrop. On the other hand newbies to SL might be stunned into a state of boredom and confusion never to return having drowned their avis on a failed shopping trip.

Welcome Island to water logged shopping area
Welcome Island sends newbie to water logged shopping area

Note to Oz: it seems once a destination is selected on Welcome Island there is no turning back?

Perhaps Linden Labs could allow newbies to get back to Welcome Island?  At the moment you must pick one of those four destinations and good luck with that.

  • A ‘back’ button would mean being able to get away from a bewildering location. (See update below).
  • A ‘back’ button would make it possible for newbies to retake the Welcome Island tutorials.
  • Consider creating high quality and engaging initial landing areas for newbies with helpers available to answer questions.
  • Remember that newbies won’t be able to provide ‘productive useful input’ because they don’t know how to (or because they have left following their initial underwhelming experience and will never return).

I know it is unfair to compare a formula driven game like Eve Online with the free form world of Second Life but there are many common experiences relevant to both. After all, Second life was born out of the union between science fiction literature and the video gaming industry; and those not-in-the-know still think SL is a game. That debate aside, it is a simple fact that all online 3D worlds must manage this unavoidable ‘newbie’ introductory phase and create a positive experience for their customers. Newbies must:

  • Learn the ‘logic’ of their new virtual environment.
  • They must master their control panel or dashboard.
  • They must absorb and understand unique vocabulary.
  • They must master certain fundamental techniques so that they can travel around and communicate as soon as possible.

For an online 3D virtual environment to engage its customers successfully:

  • It is essential that new users grasp these basics at a rewarding pace (not sure that the pace needs to be fast but it does need to be rewarding).
  • The relationship between reward (the sense of ‘getting somewhere’ and of making purposeful progress) whilst learning the new application must counterbalance the inevitable frustrations of learning that same new application!
  • If people enjoy the learning experience they will invest more time and money and willingly engage in the repetitious learning sequence until it eventually becomes second nature.

Now, I am off to fly my space ship over at Eve Online… just need to figure which is the front and which is the back end of my ship, that might help the steering thing? I will leave you with some happy snaps from Second Life’s Welcome Island.

Welcome Island
Welcome Island and new look newbie avatar with big tissues in her pocket
Oh no... that parrot keeps repeating everything I say!
Oh no... that parrot keeps repeating everything I say! Oh no... that parrot keeps repeating everything I say!
Welcome to that embarassing 'Sit here' experience
Oops I am sitting on the sign... (Welcome to Second Life and that uniquely embarrassing 'Sit here' experience.)
Intro to flying in Second Life
Hitching a ride on the white goose in the Welcome Island flight training area

Update to this post.

Thanks to Doreen who left a comment on this blog I discovered that there is a ‘back’ button in Viewer 2. (This is a big help though the button could be improved a little.) It is useful for folks traveling around SL as it allows you to return to a location you have visited at an earlier time. However, it will not let newbies return to Welcome Island and requests that they head over to Help Island Public instead. This is probably aimed at preventing ner-do-wells from harassing newbies on Welcome Island (they can harass newbies on Help Island Public instead).

To make use of the back button:

Locate ‘Places’ in the control panel on the left of your screen and then select the tab ‘Teleport History’ and you will see the locations you previously visited. Teleport History is a little simplistic in that it will not return you to the precise place you teleported from, it always takes you to the official starting point of a location.

Teleport-History in Viewer 2
Teleport-History in Viewer 2

Second Life – Why Would You Go There? #8 – To be a dancing banana

Bananas in Rubik Cubes dancing at Muddy's
Dancing banana avatars (wearing Rubik Cube skirts) enjoying a bop at Muddy’s Music Cafe

Q: Second Life – Why Would You Go There?

A: To be a dancing banana…wearing a Rubik cube skirt (of course).

These Dancing Banana avatar outfits were given to Friday night guests at Muddy’s Music Cafe. Music provided by DJ RayJay Baxton & Hostess Jaide Xue who was on hand with banana wearing wardrobe tips.

Now, what is so special about dancing banana avatars you may ask yourself? Well, I will give you a theory to ponder…I arrived at this theory following three days of attending the SharpBrains Virtual Summit titled ‘Technology for Cognitive Health and Performance’ held back in January (you can see the agenda and list of speakers over on the SharpBrains Summit site). One message we heard repeated at this conference was just how important it is for our brain health to experience both novelty and challenge as we age.  In recent years there has been considerable publicity for various brain games and a few fortunes have been made from the electronic versions of such games. The publicity has hinted that these games may prevent mental decline and keep our brains young etc. However, research does not prove that playing these games is quite the easy solution we would like to believe for avoiding diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The SharpBrains Summit suggested that we need to adopt a similar approach to brain fitness as we have towards cardiac fitness (both are related to each other). Brain fitness tends to reflect our lifestyles i.e. exercise, eating right, social relationships, getting enough sleep plus finding challenging and novel ways of stimulating our aging brains with new learning. I would like to add to this recipe the importance of a sense humor and playful imagination. Now (with a fanfare of virtual trumpets) this is where the banana avatars enter onto the cognitive stage.

Banana avatar (with Rubik cube skirt)
Banana avatar with Rubik Cube skirt (the skirt rotates through a range of color combinations).

As I have mentioned before, I teach Second Life to seniors with the average age of  72 though I often have older students including a sprightly 90 year old. (The 90 yr old told me that she loved to travel and Second Life gave her the opportunity ‘to go traveling’.) I believe Second Life has the capacity to provide layers of  ‘brain fitness’ experience. For a start, there is no doubt that it takes time to master the Second Life interface. I heard that IBM considers it takes 90 minutes of training to get its staff up to speed to enter the virtual world for a meeting. I am quite certain that it takes those same IBM staff days before they feel comfortable and confident enough to go gadding round Second Life without assistance. Linden Labs are endeavoring to make the whole user experience easier especially for newcomers. However, the fact that it is tricky to master presents a stimulating mental challenge, and it is the type of challenge that helps with brain fitness. Second Life (inadvertently) provides layers of ‘brain-gaming’ experience because once someone has mastered the basics they can then begin to explore the platform where they will inevitably encounter many puzzling challenges. These challenges are tied to running the technology (their own computers plus the platform) necessary to witness and participate in the vast array of visual sights. Students also find themselves laughing at both themselves and each other as they struggle their way through the surreal landscapes on their computer screens. After all, once a person has mastered how to wear a banana avatar, it is difficult to remain serious as you play this immersive 3D brain game. By the way, if you are reading this post and are unfamiliar with Second Life please be assured that you do not have to turn your avatar into fruits and vegetables to play! The banana avatar epitomizes the brain game perfectly as it provides both novelty and challenge.

Exploring Omega Point
Exploring Sweetlemon Jewell’s Omega Point in Second Life

Second Life is largely created by its users, and many of  these users are remarkably creative individuals who have collectively turned much of the platform into a vivid and highly imaginative space. However, if truth be told, many of these Second Life locations require us to use our problem-solving skills to witness the scenes in their full glory. For instance, when we visit a location such as the wonderful Macbeth Island we must solve various incidental puzzles to follow the play as it unfolds across the island’s moody landscape. Layers of thought are piled into the installation turning it into a cerebral Photoshop of Shakespearean ideas. Hidden triggers are embedded in objects to activate your entrances and exits from the various scenes, books loaded with notecards triggered by virtual touch lie scattered about, each scene draws us further and further into the depths of Macbeth’s disintegrating mind. (See ‘Second Life -Why would you go there?’#4 Foul Whisperings for more information about Macbeth Island. )

The Path of Temptation on Macbeth Island in Second Life
Virtual Macbeth – The Path of Temptation on Macbeth Island

As users of Second Life, we become fluent with its interactive pie charts, scripts, and animations, and we are not concerned by the fact that we must often experiment before we can interact with different objects within its 3D spaces. Perhaps there is even a little embarrassment that the world is so complicated to use? Blog post after Second Life blog post speculates upon the potential of the application (for education, training, meetings and socializing, etc.) while also mulling over its complex interface. Well, maybe we are looking at this from the wrong angle? Perhaps figuring out how to move about and participate in this virtual environment is an essential part of the whole experience? Sometimes when I am teaching my classes, I think if I could take an MRI of the room by scanning down from the ceiling, the MRI screen would show our brains lit up like a smoldering forest of little wildfires!

Goldfish Attention Loops and Webinars…

Webinars tend to be dull to look at and tedious to listen to. They largely depend upon the skills of a moderator who hopefully has an engaging voice (qualities that are often lacking). Webinars also tend to be formulaic and predictable and, as my last post observed, they are rather sorry objects to look at. The poor visual quality of webinars goes a long way towards explaining our  ensuing attention drift and poor memory recall.

Visual scan on 2D webinar wall
An attempt to show the movement of attention when viewing the two-dimensional webinar screen.The red arrows indicate the short 'attention loop' generated by webinar viewing.

This short visual attention loop is very similar to the movement pattern of a goldfish swimming in a fish tank. The fish swims from one end of the tank to the other, as it reaches the end it bumps into the glass wall of the aquarium, and turns  to swim to the opposite end of the tank. It then meets the glass wall at this end of the tank and swims back, and so on, ad infinitum. (Does the fish’s brain contain enough memory to know it has been to the end of the tank and back already?)

The Goldfish Attention Loop
The Goldfish Attention Loop

In the case of humans staring at a relatively unchanging computer screen, the low demand of the webinar ‘goldfish attention loop’ triggers us into finding something more visually stimulating  to look at.  Based purely on anecdotal evidence it is well known that people open up their email while ‘attending’ an online meeting or training. Others simply carry on working, making phone calls or chatting to colleagues.

Now, when we look at the 3D environment of a virtual world depicted upon our computer screen our eyes can peer into a synthetic distance. This gives us the illusion of space and by adding the visual representations of familiar objects, we can create an ambiance, or mood, to this virtual meeting space. These extra peripheral visual details plus the use of additional ambient sound effects assist concentration and we end up remembering more as a result!