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.

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