Monday, March 30, 2009

Virtual World Best Practices Conference

Wow its over and I am still mentally going through everything that I saw at this conference. But needless to say seeing all the wonderful things being done in Second Life and other Virtual World systems is exciting. There was just no way to be everywhere at once and the best I can do here is present a few comments and pictures. The presenters are putting up outlines of their talks and slides at the best practices Wiki here.

Rather than try to recap everything,
a few general impressions. First the conference was extremely well run with surprisingly few crashes, considering the number of avatars present at any given time.

While the conference was mainly held and dealt with Second Life, one track did look at other virtual world systems. For example here is Nicole Yankelovich presenting on Sun Microsystems wonderland project, which I have blogged about earlier.

In the same vein there were virtual tours of Beyond Space and Time's Forbidden City, a tour I went on. It is visually stunning and photo realistic and I high recommend it as a great resource for anyone interested in Chinese culture.

It's not to use the latest 3D world buzz word interoperable with Second life and from my perspective it is not a virtual word in the same sense as Second Life. Everything is controlled and you can't build and somehow to me that lack of spontaneity makes the experience less immersive than Second Life; there is no sense of being embedded in a larger world.

I did not get to see this, but people interested in accessibility issues ought to check out Max the guide dog designed to help persons with limited vision cope with Second Life which after all is highly visible. Along the same vein, Nichole Yankelovitch mentioned what looks like an interesting Autism site located physically not too far from me at at University of Missouri. This particular project is called iSocial. This system uses Wonderland so it is not accessible through Second Life.

The talks I was at involved the main presenter using voice rather than chat with background text banter among the avatar's in the audience, and I found myself listening to the presentation, taking pictures and dealing with several chats at the same time. Now that may seem rude but remember several things in SL, the avatar can do all these things while looking perfectly still to the speaker. Secondly the chat generally became entrained to the speaker's topic.

In some cases the presenter was clearly comfortable with this, in other cases the moderator would monitor the chat and relay questions to the presenter. The one thing that did mar a few presentations was sound quality. One otherwise good presentation was very difficult to listen to because the sound was too distorted and I think presenters using voice need to pay close attention to the quality of their equipment and how they use it.

Here is maybe an extreme case of my screen while at a presentation. Those who have seen my computer screens in RL or for that matter my cluttered RL office desk will probably chuckle at this.

Most of the talks
were formatted pretty much as standard Avatar sitting and listening to the main presenter while watching power point type slides. I think this was a good strategy since there were lots of new Second Life participants and getting the hang of SL camera controls can take a little time. The most interesting alternative was a walk about presentation by Dona Cady (RL) and Don Margulis (RL) where the slides were on separate panels and the avatars had to teleport to the presentation site high up in the sky. Since the slides were on large panels there was no fussing with camera or slide viewer controls. So again sometimes simple things work best.

This presentation
also did a nice job relating virtual worlds to the sorts of paradigms common in oriental cultures. The slides by the way are wonderful and I hope the presenters get them up on the conference Wiki for others to see.

The talks tended to be theoretical or taxonomic in nature rather than quantitative but they all raised lots of neat questions. For example Shailey Minocha and colleagues from Open University gave a fascinating talk on realism versus fantasy in Second Life and how that might relate to the design of learning spaces.

What they found suggests that spaces for social interaction tend to be filled with familiar stuff couches and tables, "vending machines" etc, while less realistic and more metaphorical spaces can be effective for discussions. For example a discussion about test tube babies had a series of test tubes for the avatars to sit in during the discussion.

Other talks dealt with applying pedagogical models to virtual worlds or dealt with the importance play as part of the learning experience. I particularly enjoyed Max Chatnoir's talk where she emphasized this in terms of science in Second Life.

The themes of her talk were some what echoed in a really interesting study by on the effectiveness of collaboration by Jason Breland and colleagues in the use of virtual world systems by architecture students.

Also these two talks were among the most quantitative; Max had some wonderful data on visitors to Genome Island and what they do, much of it very fine grained as she builds sensors into many of her objects. So she can infer for instance, what tasks she has assigned her students are the most challenging in terms of the amount of time they spend on the task or with the object.

Breland's study was almost an analysis of variance type study that attempted to control for experience in determining the effectiveness of collaboration. I think an expert on ANOVA could help Breland and company with their design but they have an interesting approach to getting at some good answers to important questions.

The conference was really intense and even when I got away, for instance to go back to my SL lab to do some scripting, I found myself talking to conferees. And I drank copious quantities of coffee. So to the left is my mug.

But there was plenty of play as well...that's part of learning right? There were lots of fun avatars among the participants and presenters.

Pathfinder Linden from Linden Labs was a constant presence.

Here I am in a Kimono, I either wore this or a two piece pants suit.

Lori Vonn Luster

Here is one of the presenters, Jonathon Richter, during his talk. Those Salamander people really are dedicated. Imagine the effort keeping that skin moist!

Continuing the herpetological theme, this dragon kept asking for cookies.

Of course as any good conference there was a big party at the end. So to close things out we all went to a club for dancing. Now this was pretty new experience for me since I am not a particularly social critter in real life but it turned out to be lots of fun in spite of a fair amount of lag due to lots of avatars in a small space. Plus I had to dig a bit to find an outfit that was a bit more suited for the event. Fortunately I had just the thing.

Here is a general party shot. As people danced there was lots of local chat and it was more fun than I thought it would be. What was interesting is the parallel with real life in that more women danced than men. In real life I am very self conscious about my dancing...but not here and I didn't even work up a sweat.

Of course a party called for switching out the coffee for a glass of...

OK just one.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Configurable Caminalcules!

One thing I wanted for my Caminalcules
to is allow for the instructor to configure different genetic systems via a note card rather than a menu system. Turned out to be pretty easy and so in amongst Best Practices Workshops, I've been squeezing out time for this.

So here is an example of a pair of Caminalcules who have indulged in a little bit of dihybrid Mendelian interaction. I'm making little activity pens or corrals (as Max Chatnoir suggests) for them partly to keep them in but because when the pups are "born" sometimes they don't end up right side up. Visitors can move them around with fear that they are going to escape!

I need to give them some sort of movement but that will need to wait and I will probably introduce that option in a couple weeks when I script my Caminalcule evolution activity.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Caminalcules Spotted at Genome Island!

No need to panic. I sent Max Chatnoir a pair of them for her to break as a beta tester, which she very nicely did in about 1 minute. So made some changes based on her feedback. The Caminalcules can now do various modes of inheritance and can either mate with each other of self fertilize as any proper organism for genetic studies ought to be able to do. Did I mention they also do linked genes? The picture show Max with her first brood. There had been a problem with permissions which caused a bit of grief until I tracked the problem down.

This coming week will see lots of frantic designing and building for the Caminalcule project including plans for a build on Genome Island once the prototype build is finished at Carmine. But a good part of today and Saturday I will be at the Virtual World best Practices Conference. Oops! Starting in about 10 minutes.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

OpenSim and INTEL's ScienceSim

A group from INTEL has been busy setting up a virtual world called ScienceSim using OpenSim and so over the last few days I took a little look. First about OpenSim: OpenSim can use a scripting language based on lsl and indeed you can use the standard SL viewer for OpenSim sites. However OpenSim is not centralized as is most of SL but is run on servers owned by different people and groups.

According to the OpenSim wiki, OpenSim:

  • Supports creating multiple 'worlds' in a single application instance.
  • Supports multiple clients and protocols - access the same world at the same time via multiple protocols.
  • Extensive ability to customize your avatar, both with custom clothing, skins, and attached objects.
  • Realtime Physics Simulation, with multiple engine options including ODE, PhysX, Bullet and more.
  • The ability to create content real time in the environment using in world building tools. What you see is what you get.
  • In world application development using a number of different languages, including LSL/OSSL, C#, JScript and VB.NET

You can have your own virtual world offline on your own computer or link a server so that people from the outside can visit. Plus its free and you don't have to pay $L to anyone. So let's see, I am at the $40/month tier so that means I pay $480 + $88 or $568/year so maybe it would pay to use my tier money and get my own server and load OpenSim. Also OpenSim has some really cool extensions to LSL. Check these out.

Of course the flip side is I have never run my own server and OpenSim is buggy at least when using the current SL client so it would be very difficult to bring freshmen or sophomore students into an OpenSim region. For example I had great difficulty teleporting and my avatar sometimes would not be easily controllable. How much of that is due to problems with the software vs the servers and connections is not clear to me. As an alternative to the SL viewer you can use a viewer called Hippo.

First getting there- You need to set up an account via the ScienceSim adminstration page. But read these instructions and follow them carefully. You will need to make another copy of your Second Life shortcut, rename it and change the target. Remember that OpenSim is not Second Life so that you need to register a new avatar. ScienceSim prefers that you use your real life name for your avatar; I chose to register Simone again since I am not working in ScienceSim's grid but did register with my carbon based world name.

When you open the log in page, the left hand side has a list of regions run on private servers linked to the ScienceSim grid but I recommend just logging in. It may look at first like you are going to Second Life but you are not!

When you first launch your viewer to enter ScienceSim, you get a default female avatar which you can customize just as in Second Life. But while visiting ScienceSim decided to keep things simple. So here I am rezzing at ScienceSim's orientation site which serves as your default home.

There are four regions in the main ScienceSim grid Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein, the world map is shows just those four regions. However there are currently 46 regions in total as shown here, which is a bit confusing. But it makes sense when you consider that these other regions are not really set up for the most part for public display but used for visualizing scientific data.

Here are some various screen shots I took on my first visit:

Einstein Region

Kepler Region

Newton Region. This shows part of the amphitheater. There also an observatory build in ScienceSim from where you can teleport to some of the other regions connected to the grid.

There is kind of a fun marble launcher and several other goodies like that in the main grid but right now there is not a whole lot to see.

Since I am a biologist I was particularly hot to see some of the biology being done there and sent an inquiry to the site master and got a nice response inviting me to the user's meeting on Friday. Unfortunately people got really confused as to what time the meeting was so it really didn't happen as scheduled.

However I did find a friendly group of users and they invited me to join their discussion and then later on met some other users at the amphitheater. They use Skype for much of their conferencing so I had to download and set up skype on my machine but that was pretty painless and the sound quality was excellent, much better than SL's voice.

One of the people I met is Aaron Duffy who a grad student using OpenSim to simulate the population genetics of ferns and since some of my training is in population genetics, was interested to see that. So today I went back and he graciously gave me a tour and demo of his work which is just starting. His project superficially resembles the ecosystem working group effort in Second Life, in fact Aaron got onto his project from exposure to that group.

This is Aaron and in the back ground are shown the 3 basic stages of the fern life cycle. The tall structure that is not entirely in the frame represents a sporophyte. The upside down "hat" to the left of sporophyte stem is a gametophyte and the brown ball partially hidden by Aaron is the spore which of course is produced by the sporophyte. Guess what gametophytes produce. Hmmm.

His simulation tracks the details of the genetics of the population as the population evolves over time. So for me this was really neat to see. Right now he is working on interpretative slides to make his project more understandable to non population genetics geeks.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Today Kira Cafe hosted a presentation by Nicole Yankelovich from Sun Microsystems about Wonderland, an environment for creating virtual worlds. Wonderland is quite different than Second Life in a number of respects. So I will briefly summarize my in world notes.

The handsome nautilus to the left is Joshua Linden by the way.

Wonderland is free and developers can make either open source or proprietary applications. One can create data driven worlds or programmatic worlds. Also it has modules that allow you to create just bits of functionality e.g. an audio recorder or a microphone. In fact a big push for her group in Sun is in audio for virtual conferencing. For example, one can dial up or down bandwidth from telephone quality to CD quality for internal meetings. Thus one can get a really immersive experience

Suns' vision is different than Second Life since rather than one big world, Wonderland is decentralized and the idea is to have the possibility of a federation of worlds.
As for how big a world can wonderland make, version 0.4 could only support 20 users and scalability is an issue. Her group is aiming for worlds with several hundred avatars.

Right now they are in the middle of doing their fourth developer release 0.5 version. This involves a complete rebuild with better avatars and graphics.

Sun is very much interested in the education market, and its use for data visualization and teaching. There is also a wireless sensor platform (this is way cool) for bringing real world data into a Wonderland World for processing or visualization. Sounds like Wonderland has a lot of potential given that it is JAVA based and open source. Perhaps learning system providers such as Blackboard and Angel Learning Systems should check this out.

The Wonderland group is not directly involved in interoperability issues between virtual worlds but perhaps one of their community will pick this up.

Makes me wish I knew JAVA!

By the way Friday, Simone will be at Intel's Science Sim for a visit and blogging session.

Related Links:

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Voyage of the Beagle in Second Life

So much science in Second Life and so little time. But today I took a little side trip following Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. This is a wonderful build and very appropriate for the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.

The basic idea is to put the clues together to release Darwin's Muse, a Galapagos mocking bird, Mimus trifasciatus . I hesitate reporting too much so as to not spoil the fun. I did the voyage by myself but this is an ideal resource for collaborative learning. There is, for instance, a fun puzzle which took me wayy to long to solve. Don't feel handicapped by not knowing much about the real voyage of the Beagle. You still have to find the clues even if you are like a biology geek like me who read the Voyage in grade school.

If you go, dress appropriately, my normal dress in SL is much too fancy and just to be safe I removed my Geisha hair attachment and skin and donned my Science Friday shirt.

There is lots of wildlife some of which are clues for the game and plenty of poisonous snakes which of course I think are cool. Here is a cobra. I don't recall Darwin mentioning cobras in Voyage, but I ought to check that. Needless to say good thing the SL health option was not on, else I would have died several times over from snake bites.

Of course there are the Galapagos tortoises, pretty much in scale. Here's one with Opuntia cactuses. The focus of the build goes beyond evolution and natural selection to include Darwin's hypotheses about coral reef formation and if you want you can even go diving.

You also get some nice details about the wildlife Darwin encountered and a bit about how Darwin was influenced by the then new geology of Charles Lyell.

Here is what every well dressed avatar
needs in her wardrobe:

By the way the interface includes a supply pack that provides you with a compass and journal. Both are lots of fun.

And if you get four keys and release Darwin's muse, you get the Darwin Prize which includes several goodies such as the Beagle in a bottle which now takes a place of pride in my lab, Second Life lab that is.

I suppose, now the creationists will follow suite and probably put up a Second Life Creation Museum. I wonder how they will show the intelligent designer. Oh I forget, you're not allowed to infer anything about the nature of said designer.

If you have A Second Life viewer installed you can visit The Voyage of the Beagle sim at:

Saturday, March 14, 2009

First Life Bursts In...

Second Life from my perspective is meant to enrich the rest of our lives and in that spirit some people watch for the first robin but I watch for the first...

First Bee...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Virtual Worlds-Best Practices in Education

I will be attending, but not presenting at this conference in late March(27th -29th)...look for Simone. Not sure where in SL it will be held. They do have a rack on simulation and gaming so I plan to be learning (I hope) and blogging.

Go to

for registration and schedule information.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Visit to Kira Cafe

I really do need to blog more about some of the places and workshops I visit. One of my new places to visit is Kira Cafe sponsored by the Kira Institute. Kira Cafe is for discussion of science and more. As the institute's mission statement notes:

The Kira Institute's mission is to investigate distinct views of reality, taking off from one central question: “Starting with science, what else is true?

The Institute holds lots of workshops/discussions related to this theme. Some of them are ongoing. For example the other week I attended a really interesting one about the role of virtual environments in scientific visualization as part of an ongoing workshop called Relocatable Laboratories in the Metaverse (ReLaM). This workshop dealt with Open Sim and the Science Sim by Intel.

Today was a weekly science discussion called Nymf's Science Circle which was hosted by Darkeagle Darkstone (left), in real life a computer science instructor in a Californian community college. The discussion revolved around the theme of how virtual reality environments such as SL can help persons with disabilities. Quoting from the note card:

" There are people here, who in real life are strapped into wheelchairs. Here can the walk away from the isolation and prejudice the face in their day to day lives. Here they dance, fly, and mingle. Their bodies here are not ravaged and mangled by disease or genetics in the Virtual worlds. Their speech is not slurred or laborious; we accept them here like everyone else. We discover that they are valuable and treasured friends. "

I was particularly interested in discussion related to use of SL by persons with autism (called in the discussion autists)

Kira has a packed schedule of events and you can view them here. You can visit the Kira campus in Second Life at

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Building Frenzy...

Well not really. But one real nice thing about doing Second Life projects is that there are so many different things to do. So, if you OD on scripting there is always something to build. I like doing both and I decided that maybe when I dream about scripting that it is time to do something else. So last night I played a bit more with Blender and sculpted a pair of very simple guard cells for my photosynthesis project.

This picture shows the result. Probably the sort of thing a master builder would snort at but they are pretty dramatic. Guard cells have a much more complex form than what I show here so for advanced students I might want to show that. Right now these are phantom and the visitor has to walk through them to enter the photosynthesis module. And since Mat Chatnoir has already asked about this...yes eventually they will be scripted to open and close: eventually ;-).

I have also redone the sky box* that my photosynthesis module is in. Originally it was built like the lab where I do my scripting and prototyping as a 20m x 20m x 10m box made from 10 x 10 x .1M prims, plus extra prims for window framing and entrances. My lab module bare bones has 16 prims. But since I currently do my work on my own private region on the mainland I need to watch prim count. You can visit the photosynthesis module in world at

In my inventory I have the infamous mega prim package from Alberto Linden, so decided to play with them. Generally I avoid mega prims because the big ones are really intrusive. In fact one of my neighbors has rezzed a big one for some weird reason and it goes right up to my property line...but that is another issue. My neighbor seems to only speak Japanese and while I typically wear a Kimono, I do not. Fortunately my neighbor did blend it so it is textured the same as the region's ground. A few eucalyptus trees and that mega prim is hidden.

At any rate I put together a barebones box, the same size as my SL lab/office but uses only 4 prims rather than 16. Astute biologists will recognise that it is textured with a scanning electron micrograph of the upper epidermis for a leaf. In fact both the inside and the outside were originally textured the same way which is really cool and immersive but maybe over kill. So I retextured the inside with the same sorts of window textures I use in my lab/office and the result is basically what you see in the first picture showing the guard cells at the entrance to the photosynthesis module.

Also this weekend, worked a bit more on the Caminalcule menuing system so that it is a bit more sensible; I was making things way to complex to follow and so I am having to reorganize the scripting a bit.

You're also welcome to stop by my lab/office at You can also TP there from the photosynthesis landing spot.

* Generally I loathe skyboxes..but creatively textured they do have their uses.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A handy little string function...

For the Caminalcule project I'm finding it easier to represent a genotype as a string because I can easily manipulate strings. But LSL is not real whippy on the string manipulation front.One function I needed was one that would substitute a sub-string starting at a certain position in an original string without making any other changes in the original string.

There are functions that do similar things but they rely on having a recognizable set of characters in the original string as in standard find and replace. But what I wanted was a function that goes to a particular position in the original string where I (or a script) specify where the position starts.

This is important for me because the way I represent genotypes there are some things that change a lot, but somethings may not change very often and yet I want to keep those things together with the more variable stuff-kind of like what happens in a chromosome.

So if I have two sentences:

"The sly big fox is learning scripting." and

"The big sly cat is learning scripting" ,

I might want to change what ever starts at letter 9 with the substring "red". Hence my little function:

replace_string(string original,string sub_string,integer pos).

Try copying the following code and inserting it in to a prim and let me know what you think. Given Blogger's tendency to mess up LSL code, you might have to change a few things by hand. Or IM me (Simone Gateaux) in world and I will send the script to you.

//begin code here
string replace_string(string original,string sub_string,integer pos)
//replaces part of string starting at pos with substring; does not change the original string length
//real handy for me

integer orig_length;
integer length;
string new_string;
length = llStringLength(sub_string);
orig_length = llStringLength(original);
if ((orig_length-1) > pos &&( pos >= 0))

new_string = llInsertString(original,pos,sub_string);
new_string = llDeleteSubString(new_string,pos+length, pos+length -1+length);

else new_string = original;
return new_string;

} //end function


touch_start(integer num_detected)
string newstring;
string oldstring = "The sly big fox is learning how to script.";
string replacement = "red";
integer position = 8; //position start at 0 index so here 8 is the start of "big"
newstring = replace_string(oldstring,replacement,position);
//end code

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Caminalcules III Colorful pups...

This week I implemented a version
of Eloise Pasteure's suggestion to get genetic data into the Caminalcule's offspring, representing the genetic data as a 7 digit integer. This integer has two positions for each locus or allele pair, a dominance term which is 1 position for each locus and an extra flag telling the program whether to process one or both loci when making the phenotype of the offspring. It's a little less compact than what Eloise suggested but easier for me to keep track of.

This version of the Caminalcule will illustrate Mendel's two laws and does not do linkage...yet. The second locus, by the way, has to do with the type and number of black spots on the critter and I just got that implemented today.

Yet to do are some fixes to the menu system- I've had to think carefully how the lldialog function works-and think out the mechanics of Caminalcule mating. How will they communicate and behave? Right now they can detect each other with sensors but I haven't given them an sort of movement. What happens if two encounter each other and they are genetically incompatible? What sort of reproductive system? We already know that some of them are hermaphroditic. Is there also a non hermaphroditic gender? Hmmmm. Stranger things than this happen in nature. You might look up the life cycle of Caenorhabditis elegans, one of the major organisms in modern genetics.

Lots of potential here for getting students thinking about life cycles and gender that go beyond genetics and collaborating with each other. I've also been to several interesting workshops related to Second Life and I will post more on those later.