One of the classes I’ve been teaching this spring has been dealing with interpersonal CMC, and as part of this I have of course been talking about avatar-based communication. Based on my experience with bringing newbies into SL, I knew that I had to find another example of a 3D Virtual World to use with this particular class that had 89 students. During the 5th annual Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education Conference (March 15-17, 2012), I ran into John “Pathfinder “Lester, and I was reminded of the Jibe platform created by ReactionGrid .
Pathfinder is currently Chief Learning Officer at ReactionGrid Inc., but worked for LL/SL for five years where he led the development of education and healthcare, and I’ve actually met Pathfinder a couple of times in RL too – even here in Denmark :-) I’ve been following Pathfinder’s work with alternate Grids/worlds since he left LL, and I consider him a true innovator and visionary within the field of 3D Virtual Worlds.
So on March 19th, I decided to try to bring my class into Pathfinder’s Jibe world. Being used to many technical obstacles with SL, I did not know exactly what to expect. As it turned out only a few of the students had any experience with 3D Virtual Worlds (and only from WoW and The Sims), so I was admittedly a bit worried. However, from a technical point of view things went very well – I was really impressed with just how easy it was for the students to start using Jibe! Some of the students had to install a Unity3d plugin (the player), but that didn’t cause any problems and within minutes from showing the students the url, they were in-world gaining their first experiences with navigating a 3D-avatar. I have rarely heard students laugh this much in class!
All the students on laptops managed to get into Jibe without any problems, but a few of the students use iPads, and sadly Jibe/Unity3d doesn’t work on those yet. I did try to see if I could access Jibe via Chrome in the AlwaysOn PC app, but no ;-) In user forums on Unity3d I’ve read about attempts to jailbreak the iOS and work around the plugin need, but this is not a solution I’m going to pursue or even recommend to my students, so for now we’ll have to settle for using laptops, and that’s ok.
These 2. semester students had a very limited knowledge of 3D Virtual Worlds, and even though I did demonstrate SL, being able to access and play around on their own in such a world really enhanced their understanding. They did find the whole idea of using 3D Virtual Worlds for serious purposes quite exotic, and it will take much more time (and practice) to convince them of the virtues of such communication media. However, based on this very positive (especially from a technical point of view) experience, I will try to learn more about Jibe and consider if I can somehow use it in my future classes. Compared to SL, Jibe has three very important features that makes it an interesting platform in relation to my (often times very large) on-campus classes:
- The platform easily holds 100+ participants
- The platform is browser based
- The platform is very user friendly – at least in terms of initial UX
For demonstration and first hand experience of avatars and 3D virtual environments, this makes Jibe very interesting. Further, Jibe supports industry standard 3D modeling programs and scripting, and that could also make it an interesting tool to use for some of the more advanced classes where our students have to learn this, and perhaps this could mean that more colleagues would take an interest in this type of technology. As much as I love SL, I really think that the future of 3D Virtual Worlds will be browser based, and to further enhance interoperability standards are a must, so Jibe really seems to be heading in the right direction.
Here’s a short introduction by Pathfinder, and be sure to follow his blog, if you want to learn more :-)
On ReactionGrid’s own blog there were some interesting news today;
- An open source version of Jibe is underway officially today. LearnNC & ReactionGrid are partnering to allow teachers and students to qualify for no cost editions of Jibe.
- Jibe-Enterprise is now available for corporate training, meetings, collaboration and more.
- Jibe-Blend is also underway. Jibe-Blend is a real-time shared collaborative building system which allows users to model in Blender and stream their work live into a Jibe/Unity3D world.
Since December 5th, I’ve been running an in-world PD-class for students from The Master’s Program on ICT and Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University. It is my fifth course of this kind for the MIL Program, but this time around there are some significant changes. First of all, I have the great pleasure of running the course with my friend and kindred spirit, Inge Qunhua – a very talented Danish educator and in-world designer. Secondly, I will not be using this course for my PhD, but as a researcher I have of course set some research goals, and in this case I have been investigating the use of different classroom settings. As part of this, I have just finished a build I call “The Identity Maze” that I will be using in a forthcoming in-world class.
In my PhD-project, I have three analytical units; people, places, and practices, and the maze is based on some of the key findings regarding the people unit. In this sense, the maze is meant to showcase some findings consisting of impressions from the students that participated in my PhD-work from 2007-2010 combined with relevant theoretical input that I also refer to in my PhD.
The people unit deals with the avatar phenomenon, with what it means to learn through a virtual 3D body, and how this affects the identity of the learners. In my PhD, I use a combination of theories ranging from learning theory (primarily Wenger, 1998), media theory (primarily Bolter & Grusin, 1999) and theories from the field of tele-presence (primarily Schroeder, 2010 and the MIT journal on Presence). In Wenger’s Social Theory on Learning, Identity plays an important role in the learning process – learning is basically an ongoing identity process, a process of becoming. Since the beginning of my PhD-work back in 2007, it has been evident that a medium such as SL challenges the learners’ identities in a manner I’ve never seen in more traditional 2D Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), and so it makes perfect sense to focus on Identity when learning in and about 3D Virtual Worlds.
I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to building in SL, but I do build from time to time, and the process of visualizing/materializing your thoughts and ideas, is really what sets SL apart from other VLEs. It can be fun, engaging, frustrating (where’s the undo button!? ;-), and sometimes very rewarding. The pictures below show the process of building the maze.
I did create a paper-draft with measurements of the maze, but as usual when it comes to creative work, the work itself tends to rule on its own, and standing in the build, feeling it so to speak, forced me to reconsider parts of the maze. Once again, I was reminded that what works in theory, doesn’t necessarily work in practice!
I decided to use a mixture of textures, most of which are transparent (blank, red, and white). Walking in a maze can be quite claustrophobic, so I decided to make all walls transparent. I also think the transparency gives you a nice feel of the surroundings and of other avatars. Because of transparent textures, the maze looks different from different angles/POVs – and I think that aligns well with the whole identity issue. Some of the transparent textures are deliberately white, indicating that there is more to be seen, and hopefully this will poke the curiosity of the visitor. Evidently, skilled SL-users can overlook the whole maze with their cameras, but still …
Anyways, being an amateur isn’t always easy; when I wanted to share the build with Inge, I somehow messed up the permissions, and now this original is copy only – no edit :-( So, Inge has kindly offered to rebuild the maze (based on my blank prims), and hopefully we’ll soon have a fully editable copy …
So, what’s the point of all this? Well, I intend to use the maze in a class on Thursday, 5th of January. In this class the theme is Identity, and we will focus on the students’ impressions of being avatars, and what this means in relation to learning. On our regular classroom platform, I’ve set up a couple of slides that focus on some theoretical issues (based on the course literature). After this short introduction, we’ll walk-and-talk in the maze.
Back on the platform, I’ve created a 20-question-board. For now, when you click on the question marks, you’ll see a Joker, but on Thursday, 17 of the Jokers will be replaced with relevant questions (there are 17 students). If the student chooses what turns out to be one of the remaining three Jokers, the student can talk about anything in relation to the theme, otherwise there’ll be a tricky predefined question.
And so, on this final day of the year 2011, I leave you to pause and reflect on this quote by Chuck Palahniuk:
“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.”
Happy New Year to all of those who have shaped me; especially my precious in-world friends who appreciate mixed realities and thus mixed identities – I cherish you all :-)
Disclosure; this is by no means intended to be an analysis of Lego Universe – that would not be fair at all. It is simply a reflection on my first experience with this MUVE.
I’m not a Gamer, I never have been, and I doubt that I ever will become one. Nonetheless, I do try to keep an eye on what colleagues are doing in the gaming sector, and yesterday I had the opportunity to try out Lego Universe in relation to the 2011 Virtual Worlds Graduate UnSymposium (VWGUS).
The Virtual Worlds Graduate UnSymposium’s blog.
The VWGUS is organized by a team of dedicated educators who have a special interest in using different kinds of MUVEs like MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds. This year’s symposium ran for two days, and I joined in for the session about Lego Universe conducted by Knowclue Kidd.
I don’t know Knowclue personally, but I’ve heard of her work and seen her at the Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education conference.
Participants at the VWGUS2011 in the ARVEL CAVE area.
Even though I didn’t know the first thing about Lego Universe, I was definitely smitten by Knowlue’s enthusiasm; you could easily tell that she’s a dedicated teacher! While Knowclue was talking about her work, we were encouraged to create accounts, download clients, and log in to the game. So, as I understood it, the gameplay is that inside the Lego Galaxy some sort of evil force is tearing through the galaxy and breaking everything. It’s the player’s job to join Nexus Force and save the universe, and the first stop is to build a Lego brick rocket that will enable you to leave the starting point and join the other players in groups and quests.
Initially, I was very happy to see that I could use my regular online name – for me this really is my first point of identification.
Ok, so in this universe, I’d be a small brick figure. No worries, from playing around with my alts in SL I’m used to experimenting with different appearances. Also, if we had not been pressed on time, there seemed to be plenty of possibilities to customize the look. But then the next step was to choose a new name!? Why, what was up with that? How was I to find the other players (avatars from SL), hmmm ….
Reluctantly I accepted a new name, and the game could begin.
Wauw! The first thing that struck me was how beautiful this universe is. Let’s face it; regardless of how much I appreciate SL, the first impression is oftentimes very grey and very laggy. In this universe I was almost overwhelmed by the colors, sounds, moving objects, dialogue boxes, and all the many things happening all at once. My fingers immediately hit alt + arrow keys in an attempt to control the camera/my POV. I had no luck with this, but it could be simply because of my inexperience. Another thing that struck me was the pace; everything seemed to happen in a very upbeat tempo, other characters were running around fast and furious trying to smash “enemies”. Not knowing exactly what to do, I tried to do the same, but with the unexpected consequence that I often found myself lashing out/hitting other characters, when all I wanted was to chat with them – no, I’m really not a gamer ;-)
I noticed that many of the other characters were running up towards a platform in the distance, and so I followed, smashing everything I met on my way. Here we met, Bob, a NPC, who told us to unlock our imagination by collecting 6 “imagination power ups”. Still not having a clue, I simply watched and copied some of the other characters’ actions, smashed some more objects, and actually managed to complete this first mission resulting in moving up a level. Very motivating to be able to progress so early in the game :-)
According to Bob, the next mission was to find Sky Lane, who could teach me how to build a rocket that I would need to leave this place and join the others in the Nexus Force. Again, I looked at the other characters, and I did spot Mrs. Lane, but I simply couldn’t figure out how to get to her. I went back to Bob, but he was not very helpful … and so I gave up. Anyways, it was time to leave the game and go back to SL to finish the session.
Evidently, I had spent a little too much time in the Lego Universe, because the in-world session was ending, and I decided not to participate in the next session that was about Quest Atlantis. One game was enough for me in one day.
So, what’s the takeaway from this experience? Well, if nothing else, I learned about my own shortcomings and habits/expectations when it comes to MUVEs. It should be noted that I only spent about 20 min. in the Lego Universe, so my reservations are not targeted against this particular environment. Yet, having been in SL since 2007, I’ve become accustomed to some in-world/in-game features that proved to be very important for my initial (and perhaps overall) experience.
First of all, there is the name-thing. When I entered SL, I could choose at least my first name almost freely (provided someone else hadn’t already taken it), which gave me the opportunity to use my regular handle and that way establish the first connection/identification with my avatar. Entering a (Lego) universe, where “my” name had absolutely no reference to me, seemed like a setback. However, I suspect that in the case of Lego this has to do with issues of security, a way of protecting the youngsters for whom this game is intended. In time, I’m sure the players learn to identify with their new names.
Second, my positive experience of SL is very much depending on my ability to change my POV. To me the embodiment in SL is mainly based on vision, sure there is the build-in sound of walking, but that seems more like a distraction because it doesn’t really resemble walking (at least not compared to my RL). There are also the build-in sounds of flying and teleporting, but again I find it hard to relate to those (probably because I obviously lack RL comparison). So, to obtain the sense of embodiment that to me relates to the degree of immersion, I usually rely on vision. Further, the ability to change POV, zoom and orbit influences my orientation and navigation. As mentioned above, it could be that it is possible to control the POV in Lego Universe, I just didn’t figure out how to during my short visit …
Third, in SL there is no gameplay, nobody tells me what to do, what the purpose of being there is, how I should interact etc. In SL, it is still “my world, my imagination” on a whole different level than in other MUVEs. When entering a game-world it is crucial that the gameplay appeals to you, that you find it relevant, accept the terms, and literally play by the rules. In all fairness, I’m not exactly the target group for Lego Universe and judging from the talk by Knowclue, her pupils clearly like this universe very much. Sadly, Lego announced just a few days ago that they will be terminating Lego Universe by the end of January 2012. I don’t know where that leaves Knowclue, but given her engagement and enthusiasm about this, I’m sure she will find other virtual universes to explore to the benefit of her pupils and colleagues :-)
While humbly accepting “Bob’s” harsh verdict on my lack of imagination in that particular universe, I leave you with this machinima created by Knowclue and some of her pupils: