Apr 08

Testing a Google Map – Virtual/Real Travel

Testing embed code for a Google map I created that shows the real life locations that I have visited to give presentations or learn more about Second Life, virtual worlds, and Web 2.0, and social media. (Hint, they’re all the same thing.) The lighter blue markers are places I traveled to “virtually” to attend or present.

View Larger Map

Does it work?

Update: Ok looks like that worked. The map makes a couple of points clear to me. First, the stereotypical perception that everyone heavily involved in Second Life or virtual worlds or web stuff is a closet shut in geek who never leaves the house clearly isn’t true. I do leave the house, lately more than I’d like to. Which leads me to the second point, that I’m feeling rather unhappy about doing so much flying and driving to talk about virtual world and web based technologies with people face to face. It just doesn’t scale, for one thing, it’s exhausting for another, and even though I’m very grateful my employer sponsors my work related travel, it’s also expensive. Don’t think I can pull a Christian Renaud from Cisco, who told us at the Dr. Dobbs Life 2.0 Summit that he would no longer be giving presentations in the flesh to cut down on needless travel, but I’d definitely like to travel less and still reach my audience. Hm.

Last point maybe the most important though, and that is, if I think back over all the things I’ve attended or presented at, virtually or in person, I think in terms of _content learned_, being on task and not just socializing, but learning about the topic we all reportedly gathered to discuss, the virtual events win hands down. The social networking at real conferences is just as crucial, I think, to one’s professional development and success, but in terms of actual _learning_, I seem to retain more, pay closer attention, and stay on task when attending a virtual conference session as opposed to a real one. Maybe that’s just me, but an interesting thought anyway.

I hope to show this map on Monday when I and some colleagues give another Second Life Bootcamp workshop at the US Distance Learning Association Conference in St. Louis. I think it demonstrates how crucial the discussions about Second Life and other web based technologies have been to my professional development over the last year.

Update2: Last edit, I swear. This is missing a ton of events I’ve attended with real world location counterparts, and another ton that only happened in a virtual world, no idea how to map those. You also have to zoom out to see the ones on other continents. I feel so.. virtual worldly. 😉

Apr 08

Virtual Worlds 2008 – A Very Mixed Bag

As promised, I finally got my photos from Virtual Worlds 2008 uploaded to Flickr, better late than never, right?

As I went through the images, I tried to remember exactly what about the event left me so.. cold. It wasn’t really the people, I was thrilled to see many friends again, Aldon Huffhines from the Orient Lodge, Dave Elchoness from the Association of Virtual Worlds, Grace McDunnough of Phasing Grace, Kenny Hubble from Loyalist College, and Prokofy Neva of Second Thoughts were welcome sights indeed. No amount of virtual interaction ever replaces real hugs and shared drinks and these are people who inspire me, whose blogs I read and events I attend because I have enormous respect for their intelligence and insights. I’m quite annoyed with myself that I forgot my camera and got no pictures of these friends except for Ken the next day.

Virtual Worlds 2008 - Ken Hudson on the left
Ken Hudson (SL: Kenny Hubble) on the left.

It was also good to see some folks from Linden Lab in the flesh again, Pathfinder with his ferocious energy and unflagging support of education in Second Life, Betsy who I’d met recently in world, and Ian who does a very wonderful elevator pitch of the Second Life grid branding strategy.

Virtual Worlds 2008 - Second Life Grid Booth

I even spied Philip having a sit down chat with someone in the front of the room (before the Open Source panel, which I’ll talk about later) and he looked more tired than the last time I saw him, but well all the same. It’s a good reminder that the folks at the Lab aren’t all knowing gods, despite what residents would like them to be, but flesh and blood people who get tired and overworked like the rest of us.

Virtual Worlds 2008 - Philip having a chat

Good too to see the folks from Metaversatility, a name that seemed more apt than ever given the number of platforms, worlds, and offerings on display at the expo.

Virtual Worlds 2008 - Metaversatility Booth

And great to talk with the folks at VastPark, who actually remembered me from the beta test of a few weeks prior, and who were quite enthusiastic about their plans for open beta and new parks for us to explore. I met some of them later at the SLCN.tv party in the New Yorker hotel and that was quite a bit of fun.

Virtual Worlds 2008 - VastPark Booth

So why then did I eventually leave Virtual Worlds 2008 with a colder heart than I had when arrived? I can’t quite put my finger on it. A couple of years ago I would have been thrilled to think of a room full of booths offering a variety of platforms, services, and tools for virtual worlds users. Back then, I was one of those evangelizing educators that Gwynneth Llewelyn mentions in her latest post, excited by the possibilities, fighting to get Second Life recognized as a legitimate place for educators to explore, research, and teach in, and I’ve since brought literally thousands of educators, students, and friends into the world and continue to do so. But for the first time since my wild ride with Second Life began, I feel.. hesitant. I’m still giving the talks and workshops and bootcamps, I’m still the driving force behind the SL project at my university, and working to increase collaboration in SL among educators in the state of Ohio, but after returning from NYC, I have a heavy sense of foreboding.

The first chill came when I was talking with Grace about the fact that Interoperability was no where to be seen on the agenda. As I explore each new world and work to recreate yet another Fleep (if the name isn’t taken, the internet suddenly seems to have more Fleeps than when I was born), I’m reminded of how _tedious_ it is that I cannot take my avatar from place to place, that I have to re-brand and re-create in each location, re-buy clothes to project the right image (in case I want to demo it at work, these teen worlds seem full of inappropriate for work clothes too), re-build my home, apartment, space.. I do not have the time for all of this duplication of effort. Interoperability is KEY to the success of the metaverse, everyone agrees.

But wait! Sibley from Electric Sheep was there at Virtual Worlds 2008 to tell us that the Metaverse is.. well not dead exactly, but it ain’t going to be here any time soon. More depressing chill. If you’re a fellow VW traveler, philosopher, and junkie like I am, then be sure to check out his slides from the presentation and subscribe to his blog, he promised at the conference that there would be more to come there soon as he continues to think out loud about the future of virtual worlds.

Virtual Worlds 2008 - Sibley from Electric Sheep Company

The long and short of his talk, though, was that the steps needed to make the metaverse a reality is extremely messy stuff. The technical hurdles alone are complex and complicated, but the _social_ changes are perhaps even more challenging. The Electric Sheep Company is without a doubt a leader on the cutting bleeding edge, and much of what he said had the ring of truth to it. The bring you back to earth, stop being such an idealistic Pollyana, cold hard reality ring of truth. Thanks, Sibley, for ripping the rose colored glasses from my face. 😉

But truly, all I had to do was look around the room to see the truth of what he was saying. Here I was in Manhattan, attending an event that darn near broke my travel budget bank, surrounded by suits and hawk nosed business types talking about the “compulsion cycle” by which a developer can keep a users eyes glued to the screen, becoming ever more brand loyal, and always buying more stuff – virtual or otherwise.

Virtual Worlds 2008 - Sign board

Grace called Interoperability the belle of the last Virtual Worlds ball, but this year’s belle sounded an awful lot like “exploiting kids” to me. Nickelodeon, MTV, and Mattel talked about how to get past moms as gatekeepers (a fellow from Whyville spoke up and said in his experience, there ARE no gatekeepers, parents using PCs as baby sitters aren’t even aware of what their kids are doing in Whyville unless the KID brings the parents into contact with it – remember when you liked your parents and wanted them to come play with you?), talked about how to capitalize on the fact that parents think ANYTHING interactive must be more educational than sitting in front of the boob-tube (an assumption that I think needs some serious examining), and how best to advertise all of their many many “properties” – virtual and real, television and toys, games and brands to these young consumers, how to get the parents’ credit cards linked, how to monetize and exploit this dream (delusion?) I’ve been working so hard to build.

The lawyers were there too, to advise developers, not users. Benjamin Duranske of the Virtually Blind blog about legal issues in virtual worlds was there, looking young, smart, chic, and passionate. While I thought his presentation was actually pretty balanced in terms of developers vs users rights, his theme like the other virtual law sessions I attended boiled down to developers protecting themselves. Questions like, do developers have a responsibility to try to prevent fraud? Should users have rights to their creations in these worlds? Should players who cheat in game worlds be prosecuted? Should companies settle disputes between users or residents? Overall the answer appeared to be that the more a developer interferes in the virtual world, the greater their liability, therefore best to act like a phone company or ISP to better protect oneself from litigation. Very little talk of self governance mechanisms, very little talk of protecting users rights, very little talk of the implications these decisions have on community, on creativity and innovation, on the future of the metaverse.

Education was entirely absent from the Virtual Worlds 2008 roster. I ran into some fellow academic types like Kenny Hubble, but we had no place on the agenda. In one of the kids worlds panels, I heard one woman talk about the educational content of some of these games, but I think that was it other than the Second Life folks talking about the success of education in their world. No where in the kids worlds sessions did I hear about how to incorporate education into all those hours they hope to replace the Saturday morning cartoon with, I didn’t meet any educators working with these developers, I didn’t see any evidence that any of the companies there plan to incorporate any social good beyond being better consumers into their products – sorry, “experiences”. Where on earth were the colleges and universities, the professors and researchers, at Virtual Worlds 2008? Where were the philosophers and those interested in issues of self governance and user rights and non-profit uses and activists and all the people working to extend the positive social benefits of virtual worlds to the real world? Other than the folks I mentioned at the outset, I didn’t see them.

Truly, it was so chilling.

All was not lost, though, the very last session I attended end up being in many ways the highlight of the conference for me. The Open Source Virtual Worlds panel had representatives from Qwaq, Sun’s Project Wonderland, and three fellows working on Open Sim projects.

Virtual Worlds 2008 - Open Souce Panel

Qwaq and Sun are both focusing on a business and educational market, and I was glad to hear _someone_ talking about the kinds of things I came to hear, like technical implementations that might help enhance collaboration in virtual worlds. The Sun demo was particularly interesting, it seems they’ve done quite a bit of work on how to effectively integrate audio and voice (SL Voice users know how dicey it is), and we saw how a meeting taking place in the virtual world could “call out” to someone on a cell phone and bring them into the conversation. The phone user was represented by an orb that could be “picked up” and carried by another person in world – effectively transferring the call from the group conference to a private conversation – and then “dropped off” on another user in world, again transferring the call to another person. This visual representation (quasi-avatar?) of a phone-based participant in a virtual world conference/meeting opens up interesting possibilities, and it made me quite anxious to check out the Wonderland project.

But more importantly than the demos, it was the conversation that erupted in the middle of the Open Source panel that saved the Virtual Worlds 2008 expo experience for me. Jani Pirkola from realXtend began talking about the work they are doing to make avatar movement more natural, animations that actually detect the doorknob, etc. when from behind me Philip Rosedale of Linden Lab piped up and praised Jani for the work they are doing, since avatar animation is an especially tricky technical problem.

Philip’s mere presence and the substance of what he said seemed to have an electric effect upon the room, suddenly everyone was perked up and at attention. The panel format suddenly turned into a dialogue as audience members jumped in with thoughts and challenges. Zha Ewry of the Architectural Working Group joined a sometimes heated and _competitive_ conversation with Philip and Adam Frisby of OpenSim and Deep Grid about the future of the open source projects, how they will effect virtual economies, and protecting virtual assets.

Funny enough, I actually have a short video of some of this. Somehow the camera got switched to movie mode instead of picture mode, so I inadvertently captured about 50 seconds of the Virtual Worlds 2008 – Open Source Virtual Worlds panel as I fumbled about trying to figure out why the darn flash wasn’t going off. The first segment is part of the demo of Sun’s Project Wonderland, unidentified speaker #2, Philip Rosedale of Linden Lab is speaker #3, Zha Ewry of the Architectural Working Group is #4 (I think), and Adam Frisby of Open Sim is speaker #5.

I don’t know if you can tell by those clips how much energy was in that conversation, but it was the only time outside of the private conversations with friends that the trip to New York felt _worth it_ to me. It was exciting to hear evidence of the debates that must be raging between all these developers, enthusiasts, professionals, and geeks about how exactly these virtual worlds will be implemented. One step at a time for each project, but so many projects and worlds being developed simultaneously, that it’s hard to wrap your mind around just how much work is taking place behind the scenes already, and we’re just in the first few seconds of this Brave New World.

But even then, in the bit of excitement and hope and positive energy I felt at the end, there was reason to feel the Big Chill that permeated the expo for me. Prokofy has often spoken of the dangers we face in these early days of virtual worlds and metaverse dreams and in the excited voices of these boys and men, I heard the architects of my worlds talking of code that is literally transformed into law WITHIN the worlds regardless of what the law might say OUTSIDE the world – I can not give someone a no copy, no transfer object in Second Life under any circumstance because the law of the code prevents me from doing so – and I wondered who was talking with them about the _social and cultural_ implications of their decisions. Even I, one who has just spent the last two years almost entirely devoted to exploring virtual worlds, could barely follow the conversation and technical jargon to grasp at what the outcome of their debate might mean to me, or to a professor, or a university.

In the end I’m not sure what to make of it all. I was very very glad to see my friends and there were bright spots in those few days, but I came back to overflowing inboxes with seemingly hundreds of requests for information or speaking engagements or workshops about Second Life and I can’t help but see them all in a new, far more cynical light. I think Virtual Worlds 2008 ended my Virtual Worlds Honeymoon, and that makes me sad indeed. I already feel that I’ve been working my tail off but I guess now is the time when we must really roll up our sleeves, figure out how to make these virtual worlds work, technically and socially, smush them into the Metaverse we dreamt of, still lead a balanced Real Life, make it financially worthwhile without selling out our souls to MTV, and continue to work on figuring out how these virtual worlds can make our real one a better place, for ourselves AND our kids, who hopefully will be learning more than just better brand loyalty in the worlds we create.

We have a _lot_ of work to do.

Apr 08

Sustainable digital living?

I’m poking my head up like Punxsutawney Phil after a week of troubled connectivity due to travel, power supply and video card problems, office relocation, and general chaos following a trip out of town. I’m still about 400 some messages behind on email, most of which aren’t spam per se, and the to-do list appears to be miles long.

Virtual Worlds 2008 was interesting – not fantastic, not exciting – but interesting, and I have pictures and notes and all sorts of things I keep thinking I’ll post about when I catch my breath, and I don’t have time at the moment so I’ll leave it for now. But the last week has me thinking about how absolutely overwhelming all of this digital connection can be. I’m definitely not the first to post about this by a long shot, I know, but I think it’s been a while since I let so much pile up without attending to the daily maintenance and now that I’m trying to dive back in.. good heavens.

Beyond the sheer volume of things I need to click and type and drag and drop and upload and convert and format, I’m also reminded of the sometime tenuous nature of all of this technology. Travel for a few days and be stuck with really flaky and intermittent net access and it’s like being crippled. Power supply fan and video card fan both die on your main box and poof, that’s more like having a limb severed, or at least a chunk of your brain out commission.

After 9 days of limited access, I suddenly came face to face with how much maintenance work all these sites, services, networks, and worlds really are – and though it mostly feels like good, honest work that engages me and enriches my life, I wonder if it’s really sustainable? Is it reasonable? Balanced?

It’s like a treadmill, you’re fine until you miss a step and then, buddy, look out.

This is me stumbling to catch up. Mass apologies if I haven’t responded or replied to something yet, I’m getting there. =)