Welcome to BiblioTech – the podcast about emerging technologies for academics. Your host is Rochelle Mazar, an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
Every month you can listen in as Rochelle talks about what’s new in technology and what academics should be paying attention to. It’s hard to keep up all of the new software, tools and gadgets. That’s where Rochelle comes in.
Episode 16 – Virtual worlds and virtual objects
In this episode Rochelle considers the role of virtual worlds and virtual objects in higher education. (Running time: 12:39 mins).
If you’d like to get in touch with Rochelle about something you heard in the podcast, please
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This episode features the following Creative Commons music and sound effects:
- How it begins (theme music) by Kevin MacLeod, Incomptech
Welcome to episode 16 of BiblioTech – the podcast about emerging technologies for academics.
Are virtual worlds a dying technology – or even possibly a dead one?
In this episode I consider the role of virtual worlds and virtual objects in higher education.
There was a point, some years ago, when virtual worlds looked as though they were the next big thing. Google introduced its mini virtual world, Lively; many universities created virtual campuses in Second Life. There was a sudden, intense interest in Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games like World of Warcraft. After some initial experiments, interest generally waned. These worlds were interesting at first, and certainly they were beautiful to look at, but what on earth could you do with them? Lively is now defunct. Online campuses might as well have had tumbleweeds blowing through them. People came to visit all those beautiful empty rooms, but no one could work out what to do there.
Is there a future for virtual worlds in higher education? I hesitate to try to predict, to be honest.
I will always hesitate to call any technology “dead”. Online tools go through waves of popularity, and things that stick usually do so because their core metaphor resonates quickly and on a large scale. Sometimes (well, to be honest, quite often) the stated core metaphor of a thing doesn’t resonate, but if we tweak that metaphor, then we fall in love with it. System messages probably wouldn’t have resonated with us, but electronic mail certainly did. For every concept, bit of technology, or format we throw away as passé or silly or pointless, a time comes when it might be exactly the right thing to help us do something we need to do.
As a culture we are quick to jump on the coolest bandwagons, and equally quick to discard things we once thought were cool but now embarrass us. Sometimes we let valuable things go in the process. We can’t always anticipate what will be the right tool for future projects and needs, and we often aren’t sure how we need to tweak a core metaphor to make it work. I won’t predict anything. All I can do is look at where we’ve been, and what we might do, and what opportunities we might have missed.
So what about virtual worlds in higher education? Are they still worth thinking about? Has anything changed?
There are lots of good reasons why virtual worlds failed to take off the way everyone thought they would some years ago. Some of those reasons are purely technical. Virtual worlds are hard on the processor and require lots of RAM to run properly. Unlike other forms of online communication, you can’t do much else when your avatar is running through fields of sparkling flowers. They also come with a built in learning curve; each world has its own rules, its own interface, and its own methods for interacting, moving around, and building spaces. Much as with art, there’s a feeling that only certain kinds of people can be really creative in a virtual world: technical people, computer people, programmers, people who are “good with that stuff.” Many others, intimidated by the controls, won’t even try. With a twelve-week term, it’s difficult to introduce students to something so foreign and expect them to get anything significant out of the experience. Doing something too radically different is hard.
One of the key reasons why Second Life in particular has failed to take off is financial: it’s expensive to own land there, into the thousands of dollars. They didn’t make it easy for instructors on a shoe-string budget to do anything in there. Second Life is a budget proposal and a commitment, not the experimental place it needed to be. It was difficult to stick your toes in; they wanted a way into your wallet first.
I’ve always been interested in virtual worlds, ever since they were text-based. I saw them as very much akin to reading, writing, and thinking. When I read, I construct something in my head; in a virtual world, I construct things so that others can experience them the way I do. Text-based worlds were full of potential in the same way a blank page is full of potential; with the right ideas and tools, you can take your reader anywhere. You can make an argument and show your evidence. You can demonstrate what you’ve learned. Graphical virtual worlds bring a whole new set of possibilities to the table.
We get very literal when it comes to virtual worlds; it’s a place, so we build buildings and rooms, we create seating arrangements. Many times we simply recreate the physical world in a virtual one.
Sometimes that’s a good thing, the very best thing we could have done. Imagine if a new building on your campus were planned and constructed first in a virtual world, before all the final decisions were made. You could tour it, see where the problems will be, provide real feedback. Not everyone can picture buildings based on blueprints, and sometimes you need to experience something to know that it’s wrong. If the podiums in your new lecture hall are in the wrong place, you’d see it immediately in a virtual space, and have the chance to correct it, rather than realize the mistake the moment the construction is complete and you first come in to teach.
One of the trade-offs in an entirely online course is the lack of face to face interaction. Second Life did one thing really really right; they synched up the audio and the video experience to make it feel like you’re actually in the same room. Not only do your avatars sit together; you can switch on a microphone and talk together, too. Not wait your turn and push a button, either, it’s real talking all at the same time. And because your avatar’s ears are factored in, you will hear the people on your left on your left side, and the people on your right to your right, just like in the real world. And as talking avatars walk away from you, their voices get softer until they disappear. It’s both the oddest and the most familiar experience to sit on a bench in a park in second life, and hear two people having a conversation as they come up over the hill on one side of you, walk in front of you chatting away, and disappear over another hill, their conversation going with them.
You can recreate a synchronous seminar online, complete with bodies, voices, and interaction. You can interrupt each other. You can see when people are talking by watching their lips. When you need that kind of connection, that sort of immediacy without keyboards, a virtual world can provide it, and provide it well. For people who cannot attend physical meetings, virtual worlds can be the greatest gift.
Recreating the physical world has more advantages than just seating arrangements and virtual tours. No one said you had to recreate the real world to scale. So you can build the human circulatory system so large your avatar can walk through it and stop at all the critical points. You can build DNA, cells, or a beating human heart. You can go on a guided tour of a virtual testicle. The physical world can be made supremely manifest in virtual space in the ways we need it to be; it can be our seminar room, our expanding irises or our future office space.
But virtual space doesn’t have to mimic the real world at all. Virtual space, like installation art, can be anything, but the rules of physics and the logistics of renting and painting don’t apply. Some of the best virtual spaces move beyond the concept of space altogether. They move into conceptual territory.
Build a space that doesn’t exist; something historical, something mythological. Something that could be, if history or religion had been different. Build an experience or a feeling. If you teach nurses, you’ll appreciate the fact that you can create a space to help students build compassion for patients who are afraid or in pain. There is an installation in Second Life that gives the visitor the experience of a psychotic episode. There is a place where you can flip a switch and see what the world looks like to someone who’s colour blind. I think it’s possible to build the concept of postmodernism, or, for the library scientists, library anxiety. Virtual worlds give you a very unique kind of canvas; it’s interesting as an instructor, but even more interesting as a student. To build, you have to research and understand. To build collaboratively, you need to explain, design, and divide up work. Building an idea in a virtual space is a unique, un-plagiarisable, unforgettable assignment. It’s not easy, and it requires lots of support and thought. But for the right course, it might be exactly the right kind of tool.
That’s the view from the inside of a virtual world; but there’s an interesting inversion going on. There’s a second half to this story. What was once only virtual is increasingly also physical. We built the real world inside virtual space, and now we can bring virtual objects into the real world.
3D printing is rapidly becoming cheap and accessible, and each new generation is getting better and better and producing objects that are true reproductions of their virtual originals. It’s a simple concept: just like a 2D printer recreates an image line by line, a 3D printer prints an object, generally in plastic, layer by layer. This is as close to a transporter as we’ve ever been: someone at the British Museum can scan fragments of pottery and create digital objects out of them, we can interact with those objects in a virtual space, then we can download and print them out on a 3D printer. We can have versions of those fragments to touch, examine, and put back together. Fragments of bone found on a dig in Africa yesterday can be reconstructed in class by undergraduate students tomorrow.
As with virtual worlds, this technology doesn’t just help us create teaching aids. Students can design objects based on textual descriptions, eye-witness accounts, or sketches, and print them out for class. They can recreate stone tools to scale, or print out an object to explain a literary theory. You can take those objects and use them in the real world, build something new. Or mash them together, scan them, and make new digital objects to populate a virtual space.
I’ll never tell you that any technology is dead; it’s possible that it’s only resting until the rest of the world catches up with it. What’s the future of virtual worlds? I can’t be sure. But I wouldn’t write them off just yet.
That’s it for this episode. Have you explored virtual worlds? Do you see a role for them in higher education? Let us know by posting a comment at the bottom of this podcast’s page at University Affairs dot CA. Until next time, I’m Rochelle Mazar.