Sunday, 13 May 2007

Reflections on Second Life and the symposium

I'm currently doing a few pieces of research work on the use of Second Life. Their recent symposium provided a useful source of contacts and information, as well as a reality-check on what I'm doing and the way I'm doing it. Some reflections, and pictures by Roo, Anyaka and Beewebhead.

On being there, and here... 

It's kind of odd, a few days after a "blended" real world (RW) / Second Life (SL) symposium. Even though I participated from my house, I do feel oddly - and absurdly - like I've been away to a conference and have returned. Not sure why; maybe it is a combination of:

  • being aware that I was virtually "attending" a real conference, being held far away, and immersed in it. The audio, the video streaming, and so on.

  • the chance to communicate with a whole new bunch of people I haven't met before, and to follow their comments on the speakers, both during and after the event.

  • a change being as good as a rest.

  • doing an ongoing bit of work in SL and thus feeling like I'm "in a work environment" such as an office, surrounded by fellow workers 

What's more odd is that this is the fourth such event have been in, in SL, but the first time it's felt like a proper "real" symposium, more than an online experiment which may or may not work. I certainly don't miss the long trip there and back, and the several hundred pounds it would have cost me in flights, connections, hotels and post-conference drinks. And my carbon offset will be a lot lower than any of the real, atmosphere-destroying, attendees and speakers :-)

On the plus side, I get a lot more out of the actual session. In the RW version, I'd have had to sit there in total silence, whether the speaker was engaging, relevant, or boring and waffling. In the SL version, you have the option of dipping into the backchat and contributing, adding another level of discussion. "Questions and debate at the end, please"? Nope, we're discussing what you said, while you are saying it.

Here's an interesting picture to mess with your mind, from the RW event (or the RW part of the same event. Whatever.):


What you see is real people in the real symposium hall. At the front, a real speaker is about to take to the stage. On the screens are the SL versions of the event. But people are also crouched over their laptops (even after being asked not to blow the wireless bandwidth), in some cases participating in the event they are RW-present at within SL, and in others they are watching avatars in SL controlled by people in the RW (some in this room, others elsewhere in the world) watching them back in the RW at this event through the video feeds within SL. Still with me?

On deciding to use Second Life...

The comment which received much agreement in the Cybrary backchat was "I view SL as a prototype of a much more capable future 3D environment." by Martin Pattle. I think he's right. SL is interesting, and has lots of features, but has scalability issues and a problem with the relatively small number of active users within (compared to the vast number of net users).

However, the attitude of "I'll wait until the thing that replaces SL comes along" that some people take is bogus. For there will always be something bigger, better, faster, more immersive in the future. That's why it's the future :-)

It's the same when people say this about the current generation of games consoles; "I'll wait until the PlayStation 4 comes out". Why? When it does, then are you going to sit back, again, and wait for the PS5? And then what - you'll permanently be "waiting for the next better thing".

If you think it may be useful, or interesting, then it is worth trying, even just a bit, now. SL has been around for a while, and is very likely to be around for a while still, so it has (a) proved stability and (b) there is little danger of investing resource in something that then becomes unusable. The bottom line is that textual descriptions of SL don't provide a good enough idea of what it is like to use, and it's only through using it that you'll be able to make a more informed decision on whether it is practical for your application.

On whether Second Life is a game...

Does it matter? If Linden Labs turn round tomorrow and say "It was a game all along", then does that change the previous experiences you have had in SL? No. I'm getting increasingly annoyed that finite conference time is repeatedly used up by people asking "Is it a game, or not?".

A more interesting and revealing question is, perhaps, "Why does it interest or bother you if SL is a game or not?". From experience with getting video games used in schools, I wonder how much of it is the worry that some people have of finding a game (notion: fun) mutually exclusive and incompatible with learning.

On whether Second Life is Web 2.0...

Here's Stephen, in his "reality check" presentation:


Again, does it matter? Am not saying there is catalog-angst here, but there does seem an over-keeness to decide on a whole range of things that SL is, and what it is not, before considering its use. I'm not sure that's a healthy way to assess technology.

Now I've said it doesn't matter, I'll contradict myself with an opinion :-) Yes, Second Life is Web 2.0. You can socialise, network, and create content that looks good (as opposed to the aesthetically dire output of many MySpace offerings). The symposium links through to related user-generated content. Second Life can also be mashed-up with other applications. Example: in the same way you can create dinky cards in the Moo service using images (content) from your Flickr, Habbo or Bebo accounts, so you can with Second Life. Libsecondlife is a software library that can be used in a third party application to communicate with the servers that control the virtual world of Second Life. Yes, it's pretty much Web 2.0. Moving on...

On Second Life and other online environments...

Stephen was right; there are plenty of other online environments, and there have been for many years. And, rather than blindly assume that SL is the one-size-fits-all for whatever your learning or library application, people should look at - or at least be aware of - other online environments of potential use. Mike Ellis notes that:
What is happening with Second Life is the opposite - here, the technology is already in place, and people are trying to find ways to use it. Usually this is dangerous.

Good point. So why is SL much lauded and liked by many people, and why is it currently used by so many educators and librarians, over other online environments? Some indeed will be trying to find a use for SL; some will be influenced by the high media exposure of SL; and some will be attracted to it because their peers (either colleagues, departments or institutions) are using it. For positive reasons, and negative (the fear of being "left out" or "left behind" or appearing to be a bit, y'now, Web 1.0).


But there is also an analogy with the game Halo. This was released to universally rave reviews (Edge, for example, gave it 10 out of 10 for only the fourth time in its history), and it was lapped up by all but the most ardent PS2 fanboy. But, Halo wasn't unique.  Every element of the game, from the plot, to the weapons, the soundtrack, environments, physics, bosses, collaborative features and so on have been done in other games. What Halo did was to make many of these facets better, and made the integration and inter-dependance of these facets better too.

SL reminds me of Halo. It is not revolutionary. Most, if not all, of the features in it can be found in certain other online environments and in various virtual reality attempts over the years. Avatars? Check. Text-based dialogue? Check. Currency? Check. Building stuff a la The Sims? Check. But what SL does is to bring them together in a more coherent, easier to use, relatively untechnical and more fun (or less frustrating) fashion than many other systems.  

SL also has the advantage, unlike those VR projects from the 90's, that most people now have broadband at home. So, it's possible to create and use recognisable and complex avatars and structures within the online environment, without suffering severe lag or having to compromise functionality to an unacceptable extent.

On whether Second Life is "useful"...

Define "useful" first of all.

Within the context of enhancing the portfolio of services offered by libraries, there are some good reasons for at least exploring SL, and some reasons (and attitudes) for leaving it alone. There also seems to be a lot of librarians and educators who are using SL. As well as the estimated "500 active librarians" building stuff and providing services and support within SL, there are also quite a lot of real world universities and colleges offering services, content and education.


How much of this will "stick" will remain to be seen. But it should be noted that, in online terms, some have been around a while now. SL itself is not as new as many people think, the beta version was made publicly available in 2003.

On this timeline issue, I tend to look for the "Year 2 curriculum e-purveyors" (yes, I know that's clunky) most of all. These are technology-based services that have been offering curriculum-related learning (the core stuff, that policy-makers fret about the most, that leads to examinations) for more than a year. In other words, they weren't just a one-off pilot, and year one was successful enough to deem the technology appropriate for another year. Longevity breeds confidence.

If there is a mass of these e-purveyors using a specific technology, then it gets very interesting. That's what I'm trying to determine over the next few months, with concrete examples that demonstrate "usefulness", in SL. If you've got such an example, then please get in touch; cheers.

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