Oculus Rift in Second Life: nice to have but not enough for a breakthrough

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So I bought an Oculus Rift virtual headset and ventured into Second Life using the special viewer. This was rather frustrating using a MacBook Air 1.7 Ghz, Intel HD Graphics 5000, but things went a lot better with a MacBook Pro 2.5 Ghz and an Intel Iris Pro for graphics.

I got no motion sickness as the environments were rather slow – a tranquil Japanese sim, an Italian one, a stunningly beautiful beach scenery with a few avatars. It was captivating to be immersed  this way, looking down into a fascinating tropical sea, up to birds in the sky and high rocks. Or flying and looking deep down. On the other hand the interface is still difficult to use as you cannot see the keyboard, the first person view is imperfect as one looks down without seeing legs and feet. Small imperfections in the scenery or the scale of the objects seem to become more important as it stops the “suspension of disbelief“.

I guess it will get better, especially as there is a new Second Life in the making. Yet  I wonder whether a virtual headset version, even perfectly implemented, will attract that many more users. The immersion into another body and into artificial paradises appeal to a niche. We live in times of short attention spans and people love to integrate the digital closely into the ‘real’ physical environment, so mobile augmentation possibly has a future on a mass market, but this is not what this Second Life virtual experience is about. My guess is that virtual headsets will make user-generated virtual worlds even more appealing for the existing fan base, but they won’t convince the mainstream to embrace these environments – unless new applications and use cases are discovered.

Update:  I also noticed how important audio is in such a highly immersive environment. The Oculus makes you notice so much more of the virtual environment. It’s as if when you use one of your senses more, you also need using at least one other sense more intensely.

 

What I learned after all those online courses

Listening to Stephen Downes discussing Massive Open Online Courses (see previous post) I felt the need to make an overview of the online courses I participated in during these last few years. Downes inspires me a lot and I fundamentally agree with the discintions he makes between connectivist MOOCs which are more community-driven and so-called xMOOCs which are more institutional.

However, this won’t stop me from participating in all kinds of online learning, whether the teaching is in a top-down institutional style or rather in a more freewheeling learner-centered style.

Here is am incomplete list of what I tried out since 2008:
– CCK08 as mentioned in the previous post. This first experience in 2008 was the most impressive one and determined my attitude toward online learning.  The course was very learner-centered but also overwhelming and completely different from traditional education.
These days I’m attending on an irregular basis ConnectedCourses which is another connectivist course.
– Awakening the Digital Imagination (2011): A Networked Faculty-Staff Development Seminar coordinated by Professor Gardner Campbell, Virginia Tech. This was a great experience, I participated as a member of a small cohort in Second Life. We used the MIT textbook The New Media Reader and read texts such as the famous “As We May Think“ by Vannevar Bush. This course was not massive but very open with a small group of highly motivated and kind people. Just learning to know these folks in itself was very enriching.

– Coursera-courses: Professor Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University recently taught History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, while being very critical about xMOOC-like features such as multiple choice questions. She also incited the students to reflect in a free way and to share their insights also outside the boundaries of the Coursera universe. I paid for a certificate. It was a way to motivate myself to complete the course – and yes I finished the course. You can read my final assignment here on MixedRealities.

Other more ‘typical’, institutional courses at Coursera I completed were Gamification by Professor Kevin Werbach of Wharton, University of Pennsylvania and a Computer Science 101 course by Professor Nick Parlante of Stanford. Stuff I looked into seriously were Buddhism and Modern Psychology by Professor Robert Wright of Princeton University and Understanding Media by Understanding Google by Professor Owen R. Youngman of Northwestern University.

On the Canvas Network I tried another approach. Various experts taught in a more classical xMOOC style about Doing Journalism with Data, but I gathered a small group of fellow journalists to have weekly discussions about the course (at my newspaper, during lunch hour). I blended online learning with meetings in the physical space (I don’t see much difference).  I guess I invested more time and effort in the course than I would have done without the meetings, but I can’t say I really completed it.

–  Introduction to computer science and programming: this is an MIT open courseware which I started in 2011 but I never got very far. Why did I fail? Maybe because I was trying to do it alone, or because I was trying out too many courses at once. The abundance of free courses of high quality makes me feel like a child in a candy store, and I underestimate systematically the real cost of these courses, which is time.

– Howard Rheingold courses: Howard is the guy who invented the notion “virtual community”, a writer about digital culture and digital literacies, an artist, a community builder and a teacher. I learned about him in Second Life – I guess it must have been in 2008 – and I participated in various courses of his Rheingold U community. The courses included Toward a Literacy of Cooperation: Introduction to Cooperation Theory, Think-Know Tools and Introduction to Mind Amplifiers. In these courses we used asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter.

The courses were neither free nor massive: about thirty people worked together and had intense interactions, culminating in a last session which was self-organized by the co-learners. I finished almost all those courses (I even took several courses more than once). The Rheingold-courses are very interesting: they are community-driven and try to emancipate the learners while at the same time Howard is being much more than ‘just a facilitator’.

– Project based learning: contributing to an actual digital artefact is a great way to learn. In yet another group facilitated and inspired by Howard Rheingold, I contributed to an online Peeragogy Handbook (Peeragogy as in how to learn peer-to-peer).

– Miscellaneous online courses: I’ve quite a history of learning how to code online. I tried Codecademy dabbling in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery and PHP. I like Codecademy, but it’s very different from the other courses I mentioned here – what seems to lack is a real sense of connection to other participants (even though there are learner forums which are very active). Treehouse is another great, video-based and interactive place to learn coding, but again not much of a community.

The more expensive and intense option was the O’Reilly School of Technology where you get feedback by a tutor (again not really community driven). Even though I’ve a good insight now in the very basics of web design, I cannot consider myself as being a web designer or developer. In order to achieve that, I would have to actively build something of my own – and I lack time and motivation to do so.

So, what did I learn?

I’m 55 now and I’ve a more than fulltime job. I also was deeply influenced by the connectivist MOOC in 2008. So what I learned was to put myself in the center as a learner and to have my own objectives, while reaching out to others who I assume have different objectives and perspectives.

Mostly my objective was to learn new concepts and ways of thinking in order to look at the world in a different way. For instance, I learned that computers and networks can amplify our brains. I discovered that people can learn a lot outside of the traditional institutions: fan communities learning Japanese in order to immerse themselves in the world of manga culture, people who learn scripting and 3D-building as ‘residents’ of virtual worlds, or youngsters learning everything about video as part of some YouTube subculture.

Often these informal ‘educations’ are far more efficient than the programs prepared and implemented by professional educators. It reminds me of Ivan Illich and his book Deschooling Society, but then again I must admit I went to college myself were I graduated in applied economics and philosophy. I still feel very grateful for that ‘institutional’ education.

 

How one gets tired of virtual worlds

Reacting on my previous post about Second Life veterans uniting, draxfiles asked on this site and on Facebook:

Interesting how some folks get “tired” of a world unlimited in its creative possibilities, a world that is continuously mind-boggling in the sense that folks make awesome things and yes: a LOT of them are a lot better than what was done in the hype days. The creative forces that are marveling at the tools that Linden churns out [xp tools, ALM model, etc] and use them = I am in awe of them and the monthly video show is not nearly enough to cover this bustling life. I simply do not understand how you get tired of it: it is like saying “I am tired of this pencil and this piece of paper!” :) Come on the show Roland and help those of us [in the audience of the show] who are pushing the envelope every day understand what this means!

Well here we go. Of course I agree that new tools are making new things possible (such as using Second Life on a mobile device or on old machines), and more is to come when Oculus Rift will release its VR-headset on the broader market.
However, people get tired because well, that’s life: people evolve, move on to new jobs, expand their families and end up with less time and energy. But there is more: Second Life and virtual worlds in 2007/2008 were technologically speaking less sophisticated, but there was this feeling that ‘this is the new thing’: the online world was evolving from 2D to 3D, and websites or social media feeds would become just a part of this encompassing 3D-metaverse.

Embassies, corporations, news wires and other media, religious institutions entered Second Life because it was the future. Then we all know what happened: the end of the hype, mass traction not materializing, corporations and institutions did not find out how to use this new space. The new headlines now claimed that Second Life was dying or that is was just “a niche of a niche”.

While it’s not correct to say Second Life is dying (I hope), I think it’s true to say that it’s a niche-activity. Will it finally gain traction during the Oculus (or similar devices) era? I’m not sure. People are tired and stressed out: this is an era of fast dipping into media feeds (Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, SnapChat… ) not of long immersive media-experiences (at least when you’re not a young student). This argument has nothing to do with technological breakthroughs but with how we structure time in this first part of the 21st century.

So, when we speak about people getting tired of immersive worlds, this is what I mean: we have such limited time and right now and quite possibly for a long time these worlds will remain a niche industry. While you can probably find a job quite easily as a Facebook-marketing expert, I’m afraid it will be difficult to market your skills as a Second Life guru.

This being said, yes I’m impressed by the new energy and developments which are to be found in virtual reality and virtual worlds (both concepts being rather different). So, can one be impressed and tired at the same time? I think so.

Second Life veterans unite

I remember, in the good old days of the Metanomics show in Second Life, that we discussed a study about what happens when people have to leave a virtual world. You get a virtual diaspora, groups of people settling in new virtual worlds, and eventually you get tensions between those groups and people who already ‘live’ there.

Second Life is not closing down or forcing huge groups out, but there is this other phenomenon that people get tired after a few years. They look for something else and lose interest, or at least they reduce the time spent in Second Life. However, for many of those ‘old’ residents, Second Life changed their lives in some way, and they feel a need to meet up with their old friends and former fellow-residents.

That’s what happens on Facebook, where veterans launched the group Second Lifers for Life. People compile lists of names, remember those who passed away, discuss what they’re doing these days. Maybe it’s not really like a diaspora but more like former classmates meeting again. There is even a little bit of drama, with people complaining about the initiative and telling others they should look at the future, not the past. But then again, maybe it’s by meeting again that new projects will be born.

Mindmapping Oculus Rift

I’m still working on the Oculus Rift coverage and will meet users and developers. I made a wiki mind map (so you can add, change to it) about Oculus, using sources such as the Oculus subreddit and Wired Magazine.

Scanning the reviews and reactions it seems obvious that Virtual Reality is back again. The application go far beyond gaming and new exciting developments can be expected such as haptic feedback and eye tracking.

So here is my fledgling mind map:

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Create your own mind maps at MindMeister
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Second Life 2.0 will be interesting, but no breakthrough for the multiverse

Quite some excitement among virtual worlds fans: Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, confirmed that they work on a new virtual world. They won’t let themselves be restrained by concerns about backward compatibility with the eleven year old Second Life as they want a fundamentally better virtual world and not just incremental improvements. CEO Ebbe Altberg of Linden Lab said that the ‘old’ Second Life will continue and new developers are being recruited for the new project. In the meantime, the founder of the Lab, Philip Rosedale, is working on yet another new virtual world, called High Fidelity.

More can be found on New World Notes and on Living in a Modemworld.

I cannot help being excited about these new developments, yet I don’t think we’ll see a spectacular growth in virtual worlds usage. My impression is that Linden Lab tries to benefit from the excitement around Oculus Rift, telling the world that the biggest open-ended and user generated virtual world is Second Life. However, people outside the fan base of Second Life are sceptical (as reading the discussions on Reddit makes abundantly clear).

My guess is that the niche of users of Second Life and OpenSim (the open-source version of Second Life) will be dispersed over three worlds now: the old and the new Second Life and Rosedale’s new project, but that the whole open-ended user-generated virtual worlds scene will remain a niche-thing. Will it change in a few years time when motion trackers, body sensors and 3D-cameras will become more mainstream? Maybe, but it won’t be next year.

Second Life fans often say that the lack of traction of virtual worlds is because of the learning curve and the difficulties in using mouse and keyboard to navigate those worlds. I think the real difficulty is the identity-play: the fact that people represent themselves by avatars which may be very different from the physical person using those avatars. For some this opens a world of creativity and exploration, for many others it’s just a bit creepy, especially in ‘serious’ (for instance work-related) contexts.

The other issue with these worlds is that they tend to be very time-consuming. Social networks and mobile communications help people to navigate from the physical to the digital world in fast bursts of time – checking updates, having a facetime of Google Hangout videotalk etc – but without spending hours immersed in a virtual environment.

Both these behavioral phenomena – preference for short time span interventions and for seeing ‘the real other’ – make widespread usage of open ended virtual worlds a tough sell.

A future for virtual worlds after all

The virtual reality head-mounted display Oculus Rift makes virtual worlds folks dream of a bright future. The Rift exists now as a developer version, but a consumer product could be available in 2015. Second Life is anticipating on this rather thrilling development by releasing a Rift-compatible viewer:

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Read more about it on the New World Notes.

Maria Korolov on Hypergrid Business refers to an article in Wired about the inside story of Oculus Rift with the quote ‘I think I’ve seen five or six computer demos in my life that made me think the world was about to change. Apple II, Netscape, Google, iPhone … then Oculus. It was that kind of amazing.’ (Brian Cho, a young partner at Andreessen Horowitz).

Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Second Life, is working on his very own virtual reality which is compatible with Oculus Rift: High Fidelity. At the recent Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference (videos on HyperGrid Business) Rosedale said something very important about the inspiration for this project, as reported by Wagner James Au:

I remember reading Snow Crash feverishly and how it helped me to understand Second Life. I just bought Ready Player One and I can imagine how it inspires the next generation of virtual worlds: haptic feedback, the possibility to reflect the facial expressions via the avatar, chatrooms which are separate virtual spaces rather than text-based instant messaging boxes etc.

I’m not much of a coding or a hardware person – I prefer old-fashioned reading, and somehow reading Ready Player One and thinking about what’s going on in the virtual reality industry makes me believe there’s an almost unimaginable future waiting for us.

History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education

I’m participating in the course History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, the proceedings take place on the Coursera platform and the Professor is Cathy N. Davidson (Duke University). It’s not yet another course for professional teachers only:

This course is designed for anyone concerned with the best ways of learning and thriving in the world we live in now.  It’s for students, teachers, professors, researchers, administrators, policy makers, business leaders, job counselors and recruiters, parents, and lifelong learners around the globe.

The course is massive, online, open and free, it contains videos, quizzes and assignments, yet it is different from many other Coursera, Udemy or edX-courses: Professor Davidson tries to transform her class into a community and the learning which so often is that of a ‘Doc on a Laptop’ into peer-to-peer learning. In this way her project is very related to the Peeragogy Handbook.

I’d love to be part of a reading and discussion group about the course, we could do that in Second Life, Google Plus or another platform… If you’re interested, let me know, I think it’s not too late to sign up for the course.

Digital Game Based Learning MOOCs: Join in September!

So nice. We already had the connectivist Massive Open Online Courses – based on learner-centric, distributed activities using a syndication engine to connect the various events. Then came the xMOOCs – more top-down like massive courses, experimenting with auto-grading systems. Now I learned about gMOOCs – game-based MOOCs.

gmooc

Have a look at this very rich presentation by Sherry Jones and Kate Caruso (great videos!):

A MOOC with a trailer:

rgMOOC 2 will run between September 2, 2013 to November 10, 2013. In fact, this is already a second round, and the course will explore the rhetoric of first person games and the immersive sandbox game Minecraft. You can find the registration form here.

Interesting: they’ll explore Minecraft as sandbox game. Second Life is still quite huge, but sooo unfashionable, even among academics, so it seems. Or is it too wild and libertarian for educational use (unless you invest heavily in some closed island) – and what about OpenSim?

I think I’ll participate or at least lurk in this rgMOOC. So many themes are relevant for all content creators, not only game-producers: I’m sure journalists and bloggers will learn a lot during this course.

Are our attention spans becoming longer again?

There has been an eerie silence on this blog for the past weeks. I was immersed in various learning projects. I had to focus for longer times, and this made me switch my attention away from social media streams, unless I could focus on certain topics via Twitter lists for instance.

howard rheingoldSo what is the learning about? I’m still absorbing stuff I learned at the various courses facilitated by Howard Rheingold (there’s a new one coming up about Mind Amplifiers). Also, I attended a real life class featuring Howard in the Netherlands (more about this in a later post, but that’s where I took the picture), where he discussed the major findings of his book Net Smart (which can be considered as a long and deep study of attention practices). In this part of the learning it’s all about forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat and Twitter.

– The other part of my learning is about tools for digital stortytelling and data journalism. I made a good start on Codeacademy, but somehow I need the intervention of real tutors to continue the learning process. So I decided to take courses at the O’Reilly School of Technology. They even deliver certificates for professional developments. I do realize it are not the certificates which are that important, but it’s a kind of an interesting gamification element. The ‘school’ offers a nice interactive coding environment and tutors evaluate the homework and give feedback.

Crucial technologies I want to master: the components of HTML5 (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), jQuery, and for stuff such as web scraping I need a language such as Python.

Data Journalism is something we’re learning at our media company, and our teacher is Peter Verweij (who was so kind as to include the very basics of using spreadsheets in his program).

– Finally there is a big experiment of helping a newsroom to adapt to the age of never-ending social media streams, community interaction and digital storytelling.

Frankly, all this is pretty exhausting – but at least it forces me to focus for longer periods of time on the same subjects. In this sense it’s immersive – when one is trying to meet some Python course objective, times passes very fast – it’s like playing in some 3D environment.

Is something changing?

These last few years I got the impression we were evolving from longer, immersive experiences to sequences of fast dipping in and out of media streams (status updates, tweets etc). In that context I was not surprised an immersive envrionment such as Second Life was stagnating. It quite simply takes too much time and our attention spans were getting too short for this.

But think again. Maybe we once again want something more. People start complaining about the ‘Facebook-experience’. They start reading books such as Net Smart or meditate about mindfulness. But there’s also something going on at the technology-side of things.

Philip Rosedale, Chairman of Linden LabPhilip Rosedale (archive picture), the founding father of Second Life, has a new company, High Fidelity, to create a new kind of virtual reality platform. True Ventures invested in the company. It’s about a new virtual world enabling rich avatar interactions driven by sensor-equipped hardware, simulated and served by devices (phones, tablets and laptops/desktops) contributed by end-users. Virtual worlds watcher Wagner James Au on New World Notes says that Rosedale is not alone: others are working hard to create new virtual reality platforms: “Overall, this feels like a real trend, made possible by continued leaps in computer power, especially related to 3D graphics, and their continued drop in price.”

But maybe this new trend is also driven by the need of balancing the short attention bursts by longer periods of mindful attention…

Read also: 

True Ventures about the investment in High Fidelity.