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Is There a Second Life for Virtual Worlds?

Some say the virtual real estate bubble has burst, but next-gen technologies and niche applications may breathe new life into virtual environments.

Looking back at predictions about virtual worlds, the first question that comes to mind is, "What were they thinking?" Just a few years ago, virtual worlds were credited with the power to transform the universe. In 2005, Forbes quoted a Wharton (PA) professor as prophesying that virtual economies and virtual currency trading could "redefine the concept of work, help test economic theories, and contribute to the gross domestic product in the US." In 2007, research firm Gartner predicted that, by 2011, 80 percent of all active internet users would have some type of "avatar," or virtual self. Another outlandish prediction, this one from market research firm DFC Intelligence, forecast that, by 2012, virtual worlds would produce $13 billion in revenues, 40 percent of which would come from trading virtual assets.

Used since the late 1990s in military and medical applications, virtual worlds first gained mainstream media attention when Linden Lab released Second Life in 2003. While other worlds, including open source environments, have launched since then (examples include OpenSim, Blue Mars, Open Wonderland, Open Cobalt, and Unity), Second Life remains the largest general-purpose virtual world--with its own currency, Linden dollars, which can be used to buy, rent, or trade land and goods. (For an overview of some early educational uses of Second Life, see "Just Ask the Avatar in the Front Row," CT May 2007.)

Yet, in the eight years since its debut, Second Life has lost much of its vitality. Most commercial companies have quit their virtual world operations. A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 8 percent of online teens and 4 percent of online adults visit virtual worlds. And, after an initial rush to set up campuses in Second Life, many colleges and universities are quietly tapering off their usage. Judith Doyle, an associate professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD University) in Canada, notes that "there is a drop in the popularity of Second Life as an environment for teaching." Likewise, Mario Guerra, an educational technologist at the University of Texas at Austin, says that "it's been a down year for virtual worlds at UT."

University faculty point to a number of reasons for the decline in interest: lack of technical support for maintaining virtual environments; a steep learning curve in using 3D immersive technologies; the inherent limitations of virtual worlds in conveying certain types of content; budgetary restrictions--the list is long. It has hardly helped that Linden Lab did away with educational discounts for the software this past January.

Pedagogy, Planning, Preparation
"Part of what went wrong is that a lot of people tried to replicate a real classroom in Second Life, instead of asking, 'What can I do that I cannot do in real life?'" says Reneta Lansiquot, an assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology (City Tech). Her advanced technical-writing courses require students to use Second Life to design and write instructional manuals for such topics as the solar system, hydroelectric power, the human brain and lungs, and tornadoes. But she's quick to point out that Second Life is most effective when it's added to regular classroom instruction. "It doesn't take the place of good pedagogy and good lesson planning."

Make it Work
Though virtual worlds like Second Life have lost some luster, educators and technologists say they still have value for higher ed. Here are four ways universities can make the most out of virtual environments. 

If anything, online courses require more rigorous preparation, and are more time-consuming to develop, than their real-world counterparts, writes Finnish scholar Eero Palomäki in his 2009 thesis "Applying 3D Virtual Worlds to Higher Education," one of the rare academic papers on the subject that describes, step by step, what it takes to produce a college course using 3D virtual worlds as a tool. It's not a task for the faint of heart: Any educator who takes this route must grapple with, among other things, bandwidth limitations; firewalls; intellectual property rights; technical competencies like scripting and building; subscription and maintenance costs; the costs of hardware, software and other equipment such as headsets; and the lack of interoperability with other technologies.

"A major question in using virtual worlds in education is finding appropriate value-added educational applications," Palomäki writes. "Two challenges have been identified. First, determining situations in which virtual world learning presents value beyond what traditional education can provide. Second, determining how to effectively utilize and adapt these worlds to support learning."

In other words, is it worth going to all that trouble? Being selective makes all the difference, asserts David Smith, a City Tech entertainment technology professor and colleague of Lansiquot. "Although Second Life comes with a lot of promise, people underestimate the sweat equity involved," says Smith, who is the mastermind behind CityTech Island, the school's campus in Second Life. "They don't realize how much work it is. There are certain things it's going to be very useful for, and other things it's not. It's certainly not useful for simulating a real classroom."

Daniel Jack Livingstone, a lecturer and researcher in game technology and computer science at the University of the West of Scotland (UK) strikes a similar tone of caution, noting that adopting virtual worlds without looking carefully at their drawbacks is "a recipe for disaster."

OCAD University's Doyle is outspoken about the shortcomings of Second Life, contending that its basic values are at odds with those of higher education. Two elements in particular pose problems for teachers, Doyle says: the political structure and the idea of real estate ownership. "The metaphor of individual ownership is based on a consumer-driven, capitalist model and doesn't reflect the collaborative environment we try to create in the school," she says. "Students don't identify with the clothing, the architecture, or the shops as part of their own experience, especially when they're used to sharing models like open source code and wikis. This cognitive or cultural disconnect is part of the problem."

Another source of discomfort, Doyle continues, is that the entire structure of Second Life is built around real estate purchasing. "People own their assets and every last thing they build. It's difficult to marry this with the IT structures of the school. Identifying what's owned by the school and what's owned by the student creates a huge administrative problem."

Virtual Fantasy, Real Problems
And then there's real life, which has a way of disrupting the best-laid virtual plans. For the 2009-2010 academic year, as part of its Transforming Undergraduate Education program, the University of Texas System funded--with much fanfare--a virtual 49-island archipelago in Second Life for cross-campus collaboration and instruction. Billed as the first of its kind in the world, the $250,000 project involved 16 campuses. The virtual archipelago included three islands per campus and one central location for administrative activities; each island cost $700 and carried a $1,770 annual maintenance fee, according to public statements issued at the time.

To date, few of the project's 11 ambitious goals (which include collaboration, virtual learning directly tied to course objectives, and the creation of at least one virtual research site by all non-undergraduate campuses and medical and health institutes) appear to have been met. "The university put a lot of money into the virtual real estate and trained a point person on every campus," says UT's Guerra, the project's current principal investigator. "It wanted to create a community within the university system that would help each individual campus, and to see if there was any collaboration among campuses. We didn't see as much collaboration as we wanted."

Students didn't jump at the chance to build virtual worlds either, Guerra adds. "When virtual worlds don't tie into the coursework, they don't work. Students don't understand the connection."

Given the economic downturn and a grant that lasted only a year, some UT campuses have stopped using Second Life, Guerra says. In his view, the main reasons are users' lack of knowledge of the technology, along with inadequate technical support. "A lot has to do with the learning curve of using Second Life," Guerra says. "But a lot also has to do with the enthusiasm of the instructor. An instructor who knows Second Life and has the gadgets can teach well. It's harder for someone who doesn't know the system. We do provide some support, but not much."

Cutting-edge technology is critical to an enjoyable and effective virtual world experience, and few universities have the resources to provide it or the staff to support it. "Technical problems are currently a major issue related to virtual world usage," notes Palomäki in his thesis. "Using adequate computers and equipment are only one side to this problem. Another is the availability of IT support for the educators and students."

The Next Big Thing
Ultimately, virtual worlds might find their sweet spot in medical and therapeutic applications. Among the growing body of scientific research on the effect of virtual environments on brain function, some evidence suggests that virtual worlds might be helpful in rehabilitating patients with brain injuries. Walt Scacchi, a senior research scientist at the University of California, Irvine's Institute for Software Research, is developing a protocol for what he calls "tele-rehabilitation" through game-based virtual worlds. He contends that virtual environments can support tasks such as remote observation, tele-consultation, role-playing and identity switching through avatars, device data collection, device software updates, and collaborative product or prototype development.

For OCAD University's Doyle, the future of virtual worlds will be determined by their capacity to record motion--and that's improving all the time, she says: "Motion capture is going to become more ubiquitous and affordable than it has been. People can record their movements and upload them to virtual worlds. It will be possible to create an avatar that reflects your own personality and gestures, and that will maximize the creative potential of these new tools."

Motion capture will add reality to simulations and enhance the reliability of research projects, adds Doyle. In studies of distractibility, for example, the ability to track eye movements in virtual environments--such as how long people look at a certain object and how quickly they return to what they're supposed to be doing--can help determine how users respond to various types of content. In turn, this can reveal which instructional techniques are most effective. "This motion stuff is going to be big," Doyle predicts. "It's like the invention of indoor plumbing."

War of the Worlds

Are there any serious alternatives to Second Life? It depends on whom you ask--and what you measure. Anthony Curtis, professor of mass communications at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, estimates that there are more than 100 virtual worlds on the internet. However, the amount of activity within these worlds, including Second Life, appears to have stagnated. According to Linden Lab, the developer of Second Life, new user registrations were flat in the first quarter of 2011, the number of simultaneous users was just 80,000 on average, and user hours were down from the previous year.

While some educators are disillusioned with Second Life, they're wary of jumping to other platforms, noting that many alternatives lack Second Life's technical sophistication. Commercial virtual worlds include Kaneva, Twinity, Active Worlds Educational Universe, and Blue Mars; open source options include OpenSim, Open Cobalt, The Education Grid, and Open Wonderland. None of these has found much traction among educators or, for that matter, the general public: Hypergrid Business reports that the 40 largest OpenSim public grids had a total of about 200,000 individual users in July 2011, although the magazine acknowledges that precise numbers are hard to come by.

Many educators prefer open source virtual worlds, with OpenSim by far the favorite, because it is compatible with the architecture of Second Life. The University of the West of Scotland (UK), for example, is closing its island in Second Life in favor of OpenSim. And at Stanford University (CA), OpenSim simulations are a lynchpin of the institution's biomedical research.

"I'm a big fan of the open source movement in general, but there has to be a critical mass of people willing to take up the development process," says Patrick O'Shea, assistant professor of instructional technology at Appalachian State University (NC). "I can see OpenSim taking off--it can be a cost saver and it also personalizes things. The philosophy of using virtual environments is starting to take hold. A lot of institutions are starting to see the weaknesses of asynchronous applications like Blackboard. So they're going to turn to personalized applications."

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