Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Terra Nova recap

I've been meaning to put together a short list of the topics that I discussed on Terra Nova during my stint last month as guest author. I mentioned a few of them here -- most notably, the interview with Rebecca Nesson on her Harvard Law School/Extension School teaching experience in Second Life -- but there were a few other excerpts from posts and comments that I submitted to Terra Nova which I also want to record here, along with links back to the full versions.

In addition, I am including links to a few interesting responses that others made, but unfortunately cannot include every one -- a few threads received several dozen responses apiece!

Comment: Virtual worlds, MMOs, Taiwan and China:
Issues that potentially limit virtual/electronic interaction are China's constantly evolving regulations and restrictions on Internet use in the country, and the ability of authorities to close down local websites, block individual sites or domains overseas, and even monitor traffic and messages for certain characters and phrases that the government doesn't like (e.g., names of dissidents, "Taiwan independence", etc.). These controls -- part of the so-called "Great Firewall of China" -- are only partially effective, but potentially limit the ability of local Internet users to see information that goes against the official line. Local media outlets that publish alternate interpretations of Dynastic or Republican history can be shut down, while Taiwanese and foreign sources can be blocked. ...

The other issue which limits exchange between Taiwan and China are the different character sets in use in the two countries. Standard spoken Mandarin in China (putonghua, or "common tongue") is very similar to Mandarin spoken in Taiwan (Guoyu, or "national language") but Chinese use simplified characters (jiantizi) which impacts typing, search, software installation, Web design, and game design.

What this all means for game and VW developers is that they cannot simply sell and support the same product in Taiwan and China. Localization is required, and in China, special sensitivities have to be taken into account.

Post: Second Life's infrastructure issues prompt an open letter to Linden Lab

My follow-up comment: "I don't believe Linden has to worry about residents abandoning ship. Where would they go?"My second follow-up comment: Proprietary virtual worlds/"Is giving up SL for another virtual world an option?"

Post: Evaluating virtual population projections:
... Can we expect the number of users/residents for individual virtual worlds to double every few months, or every year? Will hundreds of millions of people also have a virtual presence in just four-and-a-half years, as Gartner suggests? If not, when will a majority of "active Internet users" also be active virtual users?

In my opinion, growth in virtual platforms will continue, but at more restrained levels, owing to demographic usage patterns and technical limitations. For instance, in the United States, converting 78 million baby boomers to active MMO gamers or SL participants will be difficult. Most boomers are well below retirement age, and finding the time to join virtual worlds in between existing family and work responsibilities is difficult. Moreover, the boomers, and for that matter, people of all ages already have ample leisure time distractions, including television and traditional Internet use. And even if millions of boomers suddenly wanted to plunge into virtual worlds, perhaps attracted by some killer virtual app or community, would they be able to do so? ...

My follow-up comment: Gartner virtual world projections:
"I am very interested in seeing what types of SL competitors emerge, and how the features and functionality will differ. Ease-of-use will be critical to building support for new VWs, not just in terms of the client UI, but also for the 3D building tools. The company that develops a tool that makes avatar or 3D object creation as easy as Blogger makes creating a website will usher in a massive wave of adoption and interest. I am also interested in seeing how standards affect competition."

Post: 3D media in 3D worlds:
... I mention these examples to illustrate the shift in popular views of 3D animation. This technology was once remarkable. It is now so common that it is taken for granted. Hollywood movies, kids' programming on television, and even advertisements are the most conspicuous examples, but these may soon be joined by a crop of next-generation 3D media formats that are being developed by academic labs, hobbyists, and a few adventurous media companies.  Examples include Video Mods, NewsAtSeven, and Machinima. I recently wrote an essay about these and other emerging media technologies, "Meeting the Second Wave: How Technology, Demographics, and Usage Trends Will Drive the Next Generation of Media Evolution," but what I am interested in discussing with the Terra Nova community is how these formats, programs, and characters might be integrated with virtual world experiences.

We know that people make friends, form teams, and respond to pitches for products and services within virtual worlds, paralleling experiences in the real world. Is it reasonable to assume that other real-world communications habits -- such as listening to, watching, or interacting with mass media -- will be transferred to virtual spaces in the years to come? If so, what 3D formats will be able to gain traction, and how will the personalization options and creative freedoms available in virtual worlds lead to new formats and usage patterns? In Second Life, there have been some very creative marketing experiments using interactive 3D buildings and objects. But why don't we see Pororo, Buzz Lightyear, the cast of Red vs. Blue, and other 3D "stars" in Second Life or other virtual worlds?

Post: Virtual reality and higher education: Another perspective:
... There are other virtual world/virtual reality technologies [besides Second Life] that can support instruction and classroom activities, and this week we will get a perspective from someone who is using these alternate technologies to teach. The interview is with Aaron Walsh, a programmer and instructor who has used modding software and other tools to create VR classrooms for courses at the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College (the inset photo is from one of his experiments, and depicts "students gathering in the virtual Egyptian environment"). His VR classes are part of a larger effort that he is leading to develop a standards-based educational platform called Immersive Education. ...
My follow-up comment:
One interesting aspect of using WoW or Unreal Engine as the basis for classroom sessions, is that both platforms are optimized for fighting/killing/combat. That's not a bad thing -- it certainly serves as a hook for younger students, potentially flattens out the learning curve, and helps with customization-related tasks, thanks to the large developer/support base. Nonetheless, it seems to me that using these tools for instruction is a square peg/round hole type of situation. Of course, instructors can neuter the fighting nature of these platforms, while emphasizing the engines' communication, teamwork, and design capabilities.

Second Life, on the other hand, is a platform optimized for creativity. That can be a disruptive force, but it also appeals to many institutions. It allows customization of environments and objects, and lets students be themselves in a way that might not be possible with many gaming-based worlds.

At some point there may be virtual worlds or VR platforms that are optimized for education. My question for the group: What does "optimized for education" mean to you? What capabilities, characteristics, tools, cost considerations, etc., are most important to teaching students in a virtual world or space?

Overall, the Terra Nova blogging experience was a good one. I've blogged about 3D technology, MMOs, and virtual worlds on my I, Lamont blog for three years, and have sometimes talked about virtual worlds on Harvard Extended and my Computerworld blog, but my month on Terra Nova was a great opportunity to discuss and debate these issues with a formidable audience of academics, experts, and enthusiasts.

Many thanks to Aaron Delwiche, Dan Hunter, and Greg Lastowka for extending the invitation -- and I hope to keep on contributing to the newer threads in the future!

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