Kansas to Cairo: vanishing cultural differences, or rather avoiding stereotypes?

If there is one thing which seems to be perfectly suited for collaboration and research in a world such as Second Life, it seems to be architecture. If such a project also involves geographically dispersed teams, education, and different cultures, it really becomes a fascinating challenge.

Students from Cairo and Los Angeles used Second Life to design a large open space situated between the Grand Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids of Giza. They had never met in the physical world, using their avatars and lots of other social media to communicate, collaborate and successfully complete the difficult task of creating sustainable urban design solutions while overcoming cultural boundaries. More about this project can be found on ArchVirtual.

Draxtor Despres made a news machinima in three parts about the project (the third part is in the making). One of the things which seems very interesting is a commentary in the video about the fact that people leave their identities behind when they enter Second Life. It’s a bit like leaving your country and becoming a citizen of another country, in this case a virtual one. Of course, one of the questions here is whether Second Life in itself is reflecting certain values, or whether it is value-neutral – being a place for very different cultures – or is precisely that diversity such an ‘American’ value?

It should come as no surprise that public diplomacy experts are interested – to put it bluntly, it provides a way to make American and foreign students work together and to spread certain values, while avoiding discussions about real world immigration issues.

A participant said the interaction was not hampered by external differences (people are like ‘color blind’, people ‘project their inner self’ in their avatar…) and that avatars reflect the inner qualities of people – and guess what, we’re all human beings and not that very different. At the same time though, cultural differences were being discussed regarding the architectural work itself. So it’s not really that there were no longer social and cultural differences – but I guess the virtual environment made it possible to have those discussions while avoiding stereotypes.

Here is part II of The Kansas To Cairo Project:

Existential questions about virtual worlds

It has been interesting to be away from virtual worlds stuff for a few weeks. I had some catching up to do, but at first sight it seems not much has changed.

There is another famous Linden Lab employee leaving the company, Jack Linden. Other virtual worlds are presenting themselves as alternatives for Second Life, such as OpenSim. Blue Mars continues to promote is’s nice graphics and Twinity it’s mirror worlds.

But looking at all this from a distance, it seems the momentum of those projects and companies is lost, at least for now. Outside the feverishly working communities of those virtual places, nobody seems to care. What’s hot right now is Zynga, Facebook, Twitter, the iPad and the epic struggle between Android and Apple, and of course there is Microsoft’s Kinect. People wonder constantly whether Second Life is still around, and as far as Blue Mars, OpenSim or Twinity is concerned, well even most accomplished geeks won’t know what you’re talking about unless they happen to be members of those tiny niche-communities.

I was not surprised at all reading Botgirl’s post about Pew research which points in the same direction:

According to the latest Pew Generations Report, virtual worlds have less participants than any other online niche surveyed and are experiencing no growth. It’s pretty pathetic. Virtual worlds were not just trounced by social networks and multimedia viewing, but even by religious information sites and online auctions. After seven years in the public eye, it’s clear that neither incremental technology improvements nor new ad campaigns are going to dramatically increase the virtual world market in the foreseeable future.

I couldn’t agree more with Botgirl’s solution:

After reading the report, I’m more convinced than ever that browser-based access to virtual worlds in conjunction with social network integration is the most credible light at the end of the tunnel. The way to move virtual worlds from their current isolated backwater into the integrated mainstream is by making them as seamlessly accessible and usable as every other category in the Pew Report. This will also require mobile-compatible clients, since mobile internet use will surpass computer-based use within the next few years.

Wagner James Au at the New World Notes has been suggesting this Facebook Connect option for quite some time now, but in his post discussing Botgirl’s article he says he’s “starting to think there’s an even better way to make 3D virtual worlds more mass market: Integration with Kinect and Xbox Live.”

So I went to watch the latest Metanomics video for inspiration in times of crisis in virtual worlds. As usual there were distinguished guests such as Larry Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of the New Media Consortium, Brian Kaihoi of the Mayo Clinic and Terry Beaubois, Professor of the College of Architecture and Director of the Creative Research Lab (CRLab) at Montana State University, being interviewed by Robert Bloomfield, Professor of Accounting at the Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management.

All these people invested lots of time and money in Second Life projects, at one point they really believed this was an important part of the future (I do not exclude some of them still do believe that). Now they are still very active, but they admit times are different now. The financial crisis made institutions look hard to save costs, but there is more than that. The Gartner Cycle of Hype was mentioned and I confess, being a slightly cynical journalist, to me that sounds like “yes, we completely lost traction, but hey, fancy consultants tell us that it’s nothing to worry about: after the Disillusionment will come the Slope of Enlightenment and we’ll get to the Plateau of Productivity.” Yeah, right. Maybe. Or maybe not.

So is this some convoluted way of saying that I lost all hope virtual worlds will have a bright future after all? Well, it’s convoluted because it’s a complicated matter. As the folks at the Metanomics show said, there is the technology (and the business), but there’s also the community. It remains true that the Second Life community is awesome: highly creative, inspiring people, not just using new technologies but actually living technology.

It’s also true that there’s a lot to be learned in “social technology”, such as using text backchat during live shows, ways to produce chat shows, to integrate live events with video, chat, social streams etc. I actually apply stuff I learned in Second Life in the context of my newsroom, facilitating a virtual community, organizing chat sessions etc. But I don’t use Second Life, because of just too many practical hurdles and a cost/benefit which I cannot justify.

As some of the panel guests said, Second Life and similar environments are a “third place” where you “go” to actually meet other people. But then again, a CoverItLive chat box is also such a third place where people meet each other. I do know the arguments explaining why virtual environments are more intense: the representation by a virtual body means that people actually apply real world principles while meeting each other (maintaining a certain “physical” distance, for instance), implying that what goes on is somewhere in between “just chat” and “actually meeting”. But maybe people just want to attend an online chat event without any hassle, and they’ll use forums to connect with others…

All of which means, for my practice, that I’d love to have a lite version of Second Life or a similar world, very scalable, browser based, and yes, also allowing for using mobile devices. Also, in some way we’ll see further down the road Augmented Reality applications combining the physical and virtual worlds, and maybe the Kinect can facilitate a revolution as far as interfaces are concerned – all of which means that Second Life as we know it will have been a useful stepping stone on the road to somewhere very different.

Metanomics master class in game development

Wow. Tomorrow’s Metanomics show will be extremely interesting:

During this Masterclass on Game Development, guest host Dusan Writer will take us behind the scenes with a panel of guests and look at how games are developed. What IS a game, exactly? How do you develop the rules, stages and rewards in order to make a great game? What technologies do game developers use to display their games? What are the advantages/disadvantages of immersive environments like Second Life? How does a game developer deal with ‘emergent behavior’? How are games ‘monetized’ and what are the new models and decisions that game developers need to make? (Freemium, pay-to-play, subscription, etc.)

Game developers Oni Horan, Colin Nilsson and thought leader Tony Walsh will bring us a view behind the scenes but will also explain the broader cultural context.

As usual, more information about the event and the panel members on Metanomics.net.

Join us for this Masterclass on game development on Monday November 22nd at 12 p.m. Pacific.

You can join in through the main stage in Second Life, or watch a live video stream of the event on the Metanomics site.

Howard Rheingold’s virtual community / social media course 2010

Have a look at the interesting mindmap of this course about virtual communities and social media at Stanford, the instructor is Howard Rheingold.

In fact you can get an overview of the course material using a concept map or this Prezi presentation:

Affordable AR glasses plus virtual worlds on any device gives us…

Let’s do something wild and combine two fascinating developments. The first one is about augmented reality. As I said in a previous post, I’m not totally convinced that looking through a smartphone camera is such a compelling experience. What about glasses? The conventional wisdom says that it won’t work: people won’t put some ugly device on their face and walk around like total nerds (okay, some would be happy to do it, because they are nerds geeks, but I’m talking about mainstream folks here).

But can we be that sure? After all, 3D movies are very popular now, and professional augmented reality glasses can do amazing stuff – but they are very expensive. Well, it seems that prices are coming down: Aaron Saenz on the Singularity Hub talks about $2000 dollar (made by Vuzix). Pretty expensive, but clearly the price is getting lower. Here is the video:

Maybe the idea of staring at 3D-dragons is not exactly your idea of great entertainment, but there is also stuff about publishing and education in the video and the story. This being said, a sure sign that this kind of stuff goes beyond the very early adopters will be when the first ‘adult content’ publishers start using it.

Now the second development: the current experiments of running Second Life in a browser. I could not yet check it for myself, but the first reactions on Twitter seem to be positive. Really Engaging Accounting has a first-hand story about the experiments and this video:

Now imagine to combine both developments. The glasses could ultimately replace the traditional smartphone hardware, and virtual worlds such as Second Life or Blue Mars (more a platform for virtual worlds) will run in the cloud and you will be able to use them on lower end laptops, tablets, and I guess smartphones – and so, in a not too distant future, they could also run in those fancy glasses. So start dreaming about seamless integration of virtual, augmented and physical realities (or at least, read some science fiction about it!), and what it will make possible.

Discovering a virtual mine in the Appalachian mountains

Talking about virtual environments and machinima (see previous post), here is a very nice example: today in Second Life the Virtual Mine is being launched:

The Virtual Mine is a complete 3D virtual mountaintop removal mine created by Deep Down in the popular world Second Life.  The virtual mine, developed at BAVC’s Producers Institute for New Media Technologies with funding from ITVS and MacArthur Foundation, is an educational 3D environment, game, and educational curriculum for teachers, students, and anyone who’d like to learn more about mountain top removal, coal fired power production, alternative energies, and the amazing music and culture in the Appalachian mountains.  Read more about our inspiration and development at the Producers Institute, and our meeting with Second Life Education at the Institute.

Shooting video in virtual worlds and games with a virtual handheld camera

Machinima is a crucial aspect of the use of virtual environments for journalism. It basically involves shooting video inside virtual environments and games, eventually mixing this with video from the physical world. Examples can be found for instance on the YouTube channel of Draxtor Despres.

The blog Phasing Grace now has great news for machinima makers: the development of a virtual camera which can be used in a very intuitive way as a handheld camera in a virtual world or a game. The new development in virtual cameras at the University of Abertay Dundee is developing the pioneering work of James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar using a Nintendo Wii-like motion controller – all for less than £100:


Read Phasing Grace for more details!

More news about the use of virtual & augmented reality in newsrooms can be found in this post by Terri Thornton on PBS MediaShift, where she explains how augmented reality invades newsrooms, kids’ shows and ads.

When game theorists become scary

Games, especially video games and online games, are incredibly fascinating. They can be beautiful, intriguing, social, but in order to become a success, they need to be engaging.

There is a kind of gold rush to games by marketing specialists, human resources experts, experimental economists, psychologists, neurologists, educators, and they all want to find what makes individual and groups tick. Games are being played by hundreds of millions, and staggering amounts of data are being collected about human behavior.

Experts point out how interesting and useful it would be to apply core gaming principles to make people more engaged. They give noble examples such as environmental awareness campaigns. But of course, it’s also a matter of making people addicted to your product or service.

Gaming experts can be so convincing they become scary. Are they really unlocking ways which almost inevitably make people engage? Is this a good thing, or is it a sophisticated way of manipulating people so that they spend time and effort for projects the game masters deem important?

In a TED video released today, game theorist Tom Chatfield explains how games engage the brain. He is the author of the new book Fun, Inc about the gaming industry and how it is altering our society.

Hat tip to Chris Clark on NspireD² for posting about this video.

World of Teachcraft

This seems great:

Title: World of Teachcraft: The Learning Quest

Date: November 2 – December 16, 2010

Location: Rockcliffe University http://slurl.com/secondlife/Rockcliffe%20Library/215/73/23

Campus portion 5 pm SLT Tuesday and Thursday (On Rockcliffe in Second Life)

Reporting over 12 million paying subscribers, World of Warcraft (WoW) is the most popular massively multi-player online role-playing game on the Internet. Rockcliffe is looking for 6 adventurous educators to participate in World of Teachcraft course!

Your Quest: After participating in a 6 week pilot project, you should have experienced, researched and analyzed how this MMORPG could be used in your classroom, online course, after school program or professional development activity.

Your Battleground: Each week, participants will attend a synchronous meeting in Second Life. World of Warcraft will be used for the laboratory portion and online discussions will take place in at Rockcliffe University’s Moodle course.

I loved playing World of Warcraft but I was so addictive I decided to stop. Recently I could not longer resist and I returned with a new character, Wilbear.

Note however that the course also uses Second Life, which is an open-ended while World of Warcraft – to my knowledge – is focused on a specific game experience. I guess World of Warcraft is more popular among younger people, just because it provides well-defined goals even though it allows for a variety of behaviors (for instance catering for players who primarily want to roleplay). The open-ended nature of Second Life is more flexible but makes people wonder “what the hell am I doing here”, so it seems a nice idea to combine both environments in this learning experience.

More information can be found in this page on the site of Rockcliffe University Consortium.

Because I can’t resist, here is the trailer for World of Warcraft ‘Cataclysm’: