Project Wonderland: Good Avatars Make Good Neighbors

Stanley Kubrick, or Arthur C. Clark, was wrong: Video conferencing, over phone lines or the Internet, will not become the most popular way to meet visually at a distance. Virtual 3D immersive environments will.

Wonderland

Sun Microsystems's Project Darkstar and the Wonderland Toolkit for building 3D spaces show why virtual reality, with avatars representing the real people who are present, is better for business and education than video conferencing. How can this be? How can a game-like environment be better than seeing the real thing?

Shortcomings of Video Conferencing

Most of us have seen "the real thing" and perhaps have wondered why interactive video conferencing is not more common. A few reasons why this may be:

 - Video conferencing is difficult to set up correctly for a group (yes, we know that iChat is as easy as toasting bread for one-to-one). For formal meetings where quality of transmission is vital, a video technician must be involved in most cases.

 - Facilities for video conferencing are expensive, so the number available on any campus will be small -- and, thus, distance becomes a factor in the decision to use it.

 - The better the video gets, the more it can seem weird: For example, if one person is conferencing with a group, then the group may see just a close-up of the one person. The person can appear to be almost in the room and sitting at the conference table -- but she's not, and so she violates social rules about where she looks and to whom she appears to be speaking.

A representation of a person that's too close to real can be more disconcerting than engaging. Xerox Parc tried having two geographically distant offices appear to be adjacent in a meeting room, but the spookiness factor was one reason this experiment was not continued.

How Virtual is Better

Having a peek (through video conferencing) into a room is not the same as being there, nor even as good as seeming to be "there" in a virtual environment. In a virtual environment, you see your own avatar, your other self, right there in that space. You are situated. You see and hear things from that vantage point, and so seem more present than in a video conference. In a video conference, you are stuck at the peephole in to the room; in a virtual environment, you can move and talk as if you were in the room; you are a holograph of a sort.

Sun's Darkstar

We can see these advantages of the virtual world in Sun Microsystems' MPK20 (MPK is short for Sun's Menlo Park Campus), built on the Darkstar stack (http://research.sun.com/projects/dashboard.php?id=168) and made 3D by the Wonderland Toolkit (https://lg3d-wonderland.dev.java.net/).

When you walk into the conferencing room in MPK20 via your avatar, you see a large conference table with chairs around the table and some other avatars sitting in some of the chairs. All eyes are on a large video panel in the conference room. On that video panel, resolution is as good as real-life, but by being once removed (Good Avatars Make Good Neighbors) from the panel, the psychology and communication seem natural.

First Wonderland Education Space

Project Wonderland has just announced its first education space, created by Boston College, The University of Essex, the University of Oregon, and Saint Paul College. Jonathon Richter of the University of Oregon said: "The launch of Project Wonderland on Media Grid (http://mediagrid.org) is a signal of a sea change in human learning potential. Connecting the 3D learning assets of Project Wonderland to the Media Grid and providing accessibility will now allow MERLOT's Center for Learning in Virtual Environments (CLIVE) vision to sprout in earnest." (Dr. Richter is a researcher in virtual environments and Director of the Center for Learning in Virtual Environments).

Second Life has been the most-mentioned virtual environment, and has become a cultural phenomenon, even serving as a "set" for one episode of CSI New York. Yet most educators ask either about what to do in Second Life besides chatting with a flying rhinoceros or whether Second Life is safe. Wonderland answers these two questions by the addition of individual space controls and by allowing these controls to create spaces appropriate for business of education uses. In other words, the spaces are sequestered just as classrooms are from other campus activities.

A Strong Collaborative Team

Richter, in an e-mail after the announcement, talked of the value of the MERLOT community's experience in online teaching and learning and how the community will help guide the evolution of this new Wonderland space. Aaron Walsh, Director of the Media Grid and Immersive Education Initiative (Media grid is open source, supported by the Grid Institute, a for-profit organization), opened the June 20 event launching The Education Grid, "a subset of the Media Grid developed specifically for academia." Avatars teleported in from various regions of SL to take a tour.

None of this would be possible without the ongoing commitment of Sun Microsystems to open education. Sun helped coordinate this launch through its Sun Immersion Special Interest Group (Sun ISIG).

Richter went on to say, "We're investing in Wonderland now because we estimate that, while environments such as Linden Lab's Second Life will continue to have advantages, this platform is going to be a major contender in education as a preferred platform for K12 and higher educational use within just a few years."

Nothing could be more important to higher education in this century than telepresence. But, humans are extraordinarily sensitive to how that presence is created psychologically. Second Life demonstrated without question (just as video games do) that the MUVE (Multi-User Virtual Environment) approach has got it right. People choose to go there in large numbers to meet people, to gather, to see friends, to learn, build, make money, and take a mental vacation from their physical "real-world."

Formal educational use of MUVEs, however, has been slight, so far. Still, the Wonderland collaborative -- universities and colleges, Sun Microsystems, the Education Grid, MERLOT -- can put a twinkle in your eye.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (http://www.aaeebl.org), serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: http://trentbatsoneportfolio.wordpress.com/ E-mail: trentbatson@mac.com

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