Never work with kids, animals or avatars: Part 1, The ACCAN Conference

In September I was pleased to attend the ACCAN Conference in Sydney, for debate and presentations about the future of Broadband in Australia  - remembering of course that it is we who shape the future –  and how the building of the structuring of the National Broadband Network (NBN), might play out At the dinner, Keynote speaker Genevieve Bell, located in Dublin, was beamed in via the virtual world platform Vastpark. These pictorial mementos tell the story more quickly than  words.

The head of NBN Co, literally, (CEO Mike Quigley).

L-R Avatars of Malcolm Turnbull MHR, (Opposition spokesman for Broadband, Communications, Moi, Genevieve Bell (Intel), Senator Stephen Conroy (Federal Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy)

Were there technical hiccups? Yes, the opening and closing of ports at UTS and the lack of sound flumoxed the remote (Melboure) avateers, who were relying on the audio cues. Chris Zinn from Choicequipped that the avateering made the Thunderbirds look like Olivier! Solid back up from the ACCAN team helped smooth things out.

The unflappable ACCAN team, Elise Davidson and Richard Van Der Male

Bruce Joy from Vastpark has written an amusing piece about it all. For me, the event will be remembered as the day Senator Conroy and the Hon Malcolm Turnbull got their avatars (no wings).

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The ‘natural avatar’ and the ‘plastic avatar’

I was recently asked to consider an immersive collaboration platform that utilised what I term a  ‘natural’ avatar, that is, a streaming video representation of one’s real self via the use of a webcam on a digital body.

Logically, it would seem that this is a better solution than an entirely graphically produced avatar, as the subtle range of behavioural cues conveyed by a real face leads to more effective communication. However, asserting that a video image is ‘real’ (albeit electronic code and pixels) and that a graphical avatar is artificial, does not convey the complex relationship users have with different forms  of embodiment. Studies undertaken at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (SVHIL) show that our brains do not necessarily know where ‘reality’ ends and ‘virtual’ begins and that when we meet an avatar in virtual reality, we treat them as real.

Furthermore, researcher Nick Yee’s studies found that a person’s graphical avatar can sometimes be a better expression of ‘self ‘than what cognitive scientist Andy Clark describes as ‘our biological skin bags’ . A Cerebral Palsy group’s participation in Second Life (CBS 2008) confirms this: via a shared graphical avatar, they were able to jump, dance, ski, skateboard and communicate with others without real world constraints; they reported feeling ‘more themselves’ as a result.  It can be expected that other physically challenged groups could experience corresponding benefits.

In another SVHIL survey series, ‘The Proteus Effect’  participants were assigned avatars opposite to their physical type, (short were tall, tall were short, attractive and less attractive), then people were given a set of negotiations. When the negotiations were repeated in the physical world, the kind of dominance the tall and attractive people displayed in the virtual world was carried over.

These findings suggest that digital self-representation can have a powerful influence on behaviour, particularly in the link between online and off-line behaviour, for example of a Cerebral Palsy group in Second Life, who were observed to have greater self-confidence and a more positive outlook as a result of their graphical avatar’s freedom of movement and social interaction

In view of this, I  advocate that avatar trials, and there are many underway,  should not be underpinned by the  dichotomous construct of ‘real vs unreal’. What is preferable is to acknowledge that boundaries between real and virtual are diminishing, made manifest through established trials but equally by observing online behaviour, from Facebook’s long social shadow which sees users developing a circle of online friends, to the thriving trade in digital objects for personalising and identifying online presence, now according toindustry analyst kzero,  $4bn plus industry.

I prefer to use the as a distinguisher, the term ‘natural’ to describe a webcast avatar , and the term ‘plastic’, in the sense of moulding and extending, for ‘synthetic’ or ‘graphical’ avatars. This preserves the integrity of ‘real’ in both the online and the off line world, and that hazy part which lies between.

Remembering that post-human theorist Kathryn Hayles dismissed the material body as an accidental flesh prosthesis, Nick Yee points out that virtual worlds allow us to confront this accident directly by offering us the possibility of alternate embodiment which might suggest ‘novel metaphors for social interaction and work’. Why not, he asks, have a scribe in a meeting embodied as a white board? Imagine that a team leader was a campfire, emitting a glow and emanating ‘warmth, drawing the team near’? What new ways of thinking might ensue if working groups inhabited one avatar instead of each participant having their own, or avatars were reduced to strips of colour to convey mood. Expanding the conceptual ‘self’ may be the key to finding innovative ways to develop teams, break down hierarchical (and other social) barriers and problem solve. Accordingly,  a ‘natural avatar’  is not always the best solution for the project at hand (unless, as a platform, it can harbour a range of avatar options).

I can imagine that platforms developed around, but not limited to, the natural avatar, will find greater application.  In order to realise commercial potential, developers need to identify not only those situations where a natural avatar is the most effective presence but also an evaluation of those situations when a natural avatar limits, rather than assists interaction. The more we understand the use cases for ‘natural’ and ‘plastic’ presence, the more confidently we can position platforms for entry into the fast developing education and health sectors.

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In virtual worlds, health is an activity

I have just uploaded the next instalment of Immersive Internet Australia, entitled ‘Focus on Health’, which canvasses the opportunities for delivering health services via virtual environments. By way of an introduction, I includ below, a couple of charts which indicate the depth and breadth of innovation amongst health providers.  Table 1 is my own:

Table 2 was compiled by the folk at Virtual Ability, a non-profit corporation based in Colorado, USA,  with a mission  to “enable people with a wide range of disabilities by providing a supporting environment for them to enter and thrive in online virtual worlds…”

In spite of the evidence,  the serious use of virtual worlds continues to be allude  policy makers. Only last week, an  Australian Labor Party back bencher Nick Champion  referred to a demonstration by the anti-climate-change lobby as “a rally that has all the credibility of a Dungeons and Dragons convention – full of fantasists ” . A reading list including the John Seely Brown’s ‘Harvard Business Review’ articles, and a link to Jane McGonical’s ‘Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World’ are winging their way to him now.

One other indicator of narrow thinking comes,  unlikely, from the authoritative blogger on virtual worlds, Daniel Voyager. Daniel recently posted a list of the 15 top real life companies that are still active …gasp gasp…in Second Life. what is troubling is that he omitted the multi-billion health (and education) industry from his list. These are businesses too, only whereas the corporates may be struggling to justify the Second Life subscription fees, education and health providers have found real purpose in SL and other the virtual environments; they have a deeper understanding as to how online virtual environments can create value: broadly speaking, this is by acting, playing, learning, helping, moving, meeting and so on.

To put it into a simple equation :

virtual +verb = value

(where the verb ends in ‘ing’)


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26 points about virtual worlds for 2011

Here are some ruminations from my research project, Immersive Internet Australia , commissioned by the Smart Services Cooperative Research Centre  and Swinburne University of Technology.

The list is neither exhaustive, nor final. Comments welcome.

  1. The immersive Internet is a generic term for technological platforms that enable a 3D or 2.5D (a flatter perspective) graphic rendering of real or composed scenarios, events, people and places. Simulated environments are hosted on servers and are sold as software, or delivered as a service. Variable elements include graphics, interaction, media input, documentation and presentation tools, scalability and bandwidth. Typically, the more elements, the higher the level of immersion. A fully immersive environment is commonly referred to as a ‘metaverse’.
  2. Users gravitate or enter an environment because of a common interest or purpose, such as collaboration, education and training, co-design, entertainment, industry and community events, and social interaction.
  3. A customisable avatar denotes a user’s presence in the virtual environment. Avatars are the digital representations of their users, they are a means to mediate the action and interact with others who share the virtual space. With high end immersion, avatars hold data, such as profiles and have digital content held in their own repository, an ‘inventory’. Users interact via multiple channels (chat, voice, gestures, and movements) and at the high end of immersion, can share synchronously the common content. The keyboard is used to navigate although new modalities such as gesture are being introduced. Commands create avatar movement, as well as zoom, tracking, and alternate viewpoints functions.
  4. In immersive worlds, users are free from the constraints of their real-world physical status and locality. Yet users are not depersonalised; there is a sense of personal space and entitlement: if an avatar bumps into you, you will step out of the way. People with disabilities report they can be ‘more themselves’ (CBS, 2008)
  5. Virtual worlds are described as ‘persistent’, that is to say content is maintained or even updated by others, regardless of whether a user is logged on or not. Content within the space is created by the platform-developers and/or by users. Items can be intrinsic to the environment (terrain, buildings) or acquired as enhancements (apparel, gifts, inworld services, animation).
  6. Activity in virtual worlds can be recorded as data and measured in the same way as conventional web sites (web-style analytics). Content such as live events, fictional narratives or learning experiences can be captured and edited. In effect, a film clip, these artefacts are called ‘machinima’.
  7. Interoperability and content transfer between worlds is currently limited to a few platforms such as OpenSim and Second Life, which share the same client. Moves towards an industry standard (X3D) are progressing, especially amongst the Open Source community. Some proprietary companies continue to see commercial value in silo-ing their customers.
  8. Numbers of virtual world registrations are notoriously inaccurate as there is no standard measurement. Some figures include Asia; others are skewed towards the Europe and US markets. Another inconsistency is whether a given figure refers to ‘cumulative’ (unique) registrations or whether it refers to ‘active users’ (people who regularly log in). In the wake of an independent standard, analysts use data provided to them by platform companies, which are not in themselves, always verifiable.
  9. The biggest uptake is in the 5-16 ages group, indicating that children find such environments enjoyable places to be and play. (KZERO 2010). This suggests that immersive technologies should be considered as a new opportunity for teaching and learning, and projects. KZERO reports that in 2009, there was a 90% growth in virtual worlds amongst children aged 5-10 years. This suggests that virtual worlds will gain acceptance as an expected mode for online activity for the coming generation of adults.
  10. Virtual worlds are emerging as marketplaces for digital goods, where creating and acquiring virtual (intangible) goods are becoming intrinsic to user experiences. Goods are objects or services that offer revenue streams for platform producers, content makers, and end-users. The management of inworld digital goods and the ease with which they can be traded is now a high priority for developers and publishers across all industry sectors. 2D games, accessed through social networks have firmly established the business case. The Boston-based, industry analytics company, Viximo (2010), predicts the virtual goods industry is predicted to increase by 51% in 2010-2011, accounting for 20% of all US games software revenues in 2011.
  11. The education and health sectors are the standout areas of virtual world innovation. Over 100 Australian institutions use virtual environments for learning. In the area of science and engineering, virtual environments show promise for modelling and controlling complex system.
  12. In the business and enterprise domain, virtual environments are being explored but are not yet core to companies’ strategies. One obstacle to wider uptake is that virtual world platforms are competing with traditional collaborative tools provided by well-established technology companies such as Cisco, Adobe, Microsoft and Lotus with whom there are pre-existing relationships. However, one industry sector showing strong leads is the tradeshow and conference market: clients and customers can ‘meet’ in branded spaces, and view and discuss products and issues. Efficiencies in terms of travel and associated down time, energy consumption, and overall cost reduction are now documented. Moreover, early adopters have reported pleasing outcomes in terms of human resourcing, network building and sales outcomes.
  13. Boundaries between social networks and virtual worlds are increasingly diffused. Immersive environments and social networks share behavioural factors such as reputation, customisation and building communities. Increasingly, social networks have attributes associated with virtual worlds, such as avatars, rooms, digital goods, currency and a managed economy. On the other hand, the success of 2D flash-based games such as Farmville, which are attached to social networks, and played between friends, are creating a stronger awareness of alternative distribution paths for immersive tools.
  14. Motivations to acquire virtual goods mirror those of the physical world: as status, an enabler or an identifier. Digital goods are effective as incentives for behavioural change (Mao and Shi, 2009; Reeves and Reid, 2009) and also for fundraising, demonstrated by Zynga’s ‘Haiti Relief Fund’ and the American Cancer Society’s ‘Relay for Life’.
  15. We are in a transition period. Prominent platforms such as There, and Metaplacefolded in 2009. The well known Second Life now comes in two versions: a business-to-customer (B2C), ‘open’ (that is, publicly accessible), social world and an enterprise ‘closed’ solution which is hosted privately, and sits behind a company firewall. Time will tell if its developers, Linden Lab, can manage both identities. In the B2B space, integration with the enterprise legacy system has not been well addressed. In the B2C space there is as yet, no standout market leader, such as is Facebook has proved to be in the social networking sphere.
  16. There is a notable migratory trend from Second Life to OpenSim, the open source platform. Content from Second Life, may be transferred into bespoke worlds built on OpenSim, and is gaining popularity in the education sector, (eg: Reaction Grid).
  17. Open social worlds present some perplexing issues around governance, as regulatory elements are largely in the hands of developers. Subscribers have limited rights over the environments in which they have invested, and are subject to end user license agreements (EULA) over which they have little or no input. Should a virtual world collapse, users have no recompense for their digital assets, and storage of their virtual assets is usually not an option due to lack of interoperability and IP concerns. Real-world authorities lag behind virtual world practices and are uncertain about how to regulate public virtual worlds, especially where illicit acts such as money laundering, tax avoidance, scams, harassment, and theft are involved.
  18. Stability, useability, security, integration into corporate IT, and the need to set standards are challenging the rate of take-up. However, the more virtual worlds are used, the more their limitations are highlighted, and the quicker progress is made. The next generation of virtual world architecture will likely fix many current shortcomings.
  19. On the positive side, the virtual environments sector is evolving rapidly and a next wave is discernable. Avatars are becoming more lifelike, and many systems accommodate users’ actual faces (Teleplace, VastPark, 3DXplore, ProjectX, Mycosm). A clear separation between business applications and social/game worlds is developing; the former are being designed around corporate activities, with flexibility at the customer end; the latter emphasise virtual goods acquisition and trade as part of their business model. Open APIs will drive participation from third party developers. In this respect, Open Source platforms such as OpenSim, VastPark and Open Wonderland are well positioned for future integration.
  20. Next generation products (2010 onwards) are lightweight and better suited to mobile devices. They are capable of incorporating real-world data such as traffic congestion, shopping supplies, and entertainment events, translated as high-resolution, real-world imagery. As the technology develops, the physical world, enhanced by virtual overlays – augmented real-world environments – will become widely used and compliment screen-based, computer-generated worlds.
  21. Public entities which involve vast amount of accessible data and services, or which attract many visitors, such as museums, parliament houses, art galleries, libraries, educational institutions, government offices, hospitals and tourist locations, are suited to adopting virtual worlds technology. Experiencing such places virtually brings with it, many benefits, both creative and practical.
  22. Tiers of the immersive Internet industry include platform creators, content developers, inworld facilitators, marketing and advocacy support. At the user end, there is invariably an inhouse advocate who undertakes to lobby senior management and CTOs. Without these groups, a virtual world strategy within a given organisation is unlikely to succeed.
  23. In relation to the building of the National Broadband Network (NBN), many Australians are asking what the business case for a super-fast broadband service might be. Virtual environments ought to be considered in such discussions for they are the sorts of technology tools that will enhance existing services and indeed, create new ones. However, they are bandwidth hungry – even lightweight platforms are impacted if user-groups are simultaneously looking at multiple embedded rich media, such as streaming video, streaming audio and presentations.
  24. Promising experiments in virtual health care (Arinthio 2009; Virtual Ability, 2009, Wiecha, 2010), along with the demand for innovation in the e-health sector (Dept. Health and Ageing, 2008) suggest there is value in establishing a nationally-funded program to consider the immersive Internet’s potential for services such as chronic-care programs, the establishment of virtual clinics and using virtual environments to assist the disabled and the elderly.
  25. Virtual environments are another platform for delivering services. If government agencies were to develop an interest in immersive technology solutions, it would be a fillip to the services economy in general, for as an exporter of goods and services, Australia is a trusted supplier. Developing existing exports, such as education, as virtual experiences, not only builds and extends established brands, but may significantly add to the value chain. Project trials are an obvious next step.
  26. A communications infrastructure capable of handling immersive technologies is required in order to meet the expectations of coming generations; their Web will go beyond the connect and share paradigm of today to a system that enables users to experience and interact with data around them. Input will come from everywhere, and data overlays, as we are already seeing in a range of applications on smart phones, will be immersive to a greater or lesser degree, depending on preferences, or as dictated by the jobs at hand.


Arinthio, D. 2009, ‘Daneel Ariantho’s laboratory: A blog about chemistry and healthcare in Second Life’ retrieved July 2009, <>

Australian Department of Health and Ageing 2008, ‘The National eHealth Strategy’, retrieved October 2009, <>

CBS NEWS 2008, retrieved August 2009, <>

KZERO, 2009, ‘Virtual Worlds: 2010 and beyond Report’, retrieved October 2009, <>

Mao, Y. and Shi, L. 2009, ‘From “Dragon Dollars” to Philanthropic Dollars: the Role of Virtual Currency in an Online Forum’s Fundraising and Volunteering Activities’, (unpublished paper), UCLA School of Public Health.

Reeves, B. and Reid, J.L. 2009, Total Engagement: using games and virtual worlds to change the way people work and businesses compete USA, Harvard Business Press.

Virtual Ability, 2009, retrieved December 2009,

Viximo 2010, ‘Viximo Quarterly Outlook: Virtual Goods in 2010 and Beyond’, retrieved April 2010,

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Please don’t mention virtual ‘worlds’: why does enterprise steer clear of the ‘w’ word?

Reading a press release from technology company Avaya, I was reminded of  Basil Fawlty’s desperately funny attempt not to use the ‘W’ word , in this case standing for ‘war’, when German guests come to his stay at his guest house, Fawlty Towers.

The connection ?

In Avaya’s case, it’s the company’s clear decision not to mention the ‘W’ word, in this case, standing for ‘world’. The press release promotes the University of Texas Austin’s newly-appointed Professor of Innovation, Robert M. Metcalf’s use of Avaya’s web.alive platform to deliver his inaugural lecture.

The platform is variously described as a ‘collaboration environment’, and ‘immersive web collaboration platform’, a ’3-D spatial audio and videogaming graphics technology’ and a ‘virtual environment’. Nowhere is the term ‘virtual world’ used.

It’s curious, given that education sector advocacy groups such as Duke University, the New Media Consortium (NMC), Australia’s Virtual World Working Group (AVWWG),  freely uses the term. The IEEE, a 350,000 strong professional advocacy organisation for advanced technology, also embraces virtual worlds. In fact, IEEE usefully lists 29 requirement features for such platforms in the enterpise context, and  ‘virtual world’ is the only descriptive term used.

Australian Virtual 'Worlds' Working Group meeting in progress

Does it matter ? I suspect Avaya is being cautious with its enterpise clients, wanting to play down associations with gaming culture, or the idea of people living online vicariously. However, whilst selling virtual world platforms as merely ‘environments’, or ‘collaborative spaces’, is certainly more anodyne, it misses out on the opportunity to impart virtual worlds’ largess; inviting the corporate community to create their own ‘worlds’ for online collaboration provokes more holistic thinking, suggesting that over and above meetings, such platforms engender structural innovation (organisational and relationship-building), product development, and customer experiences too.

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Real virtuality:when your own name is your avatar

I have bitten the bullet, and created a Second Life avatar which carries my own name; no more hiding behind exaggerated curves for me.

I picked an off-the-shelf avatar, one that  like me, had a lock of hair over the eyes. The problem is that there are sure to be thousands who look just the same, so some modifications will no doubt ensue,  subject to the dreaded time vortex that seems to accompany avatar customisation.

I admit I have an affection for my original avatar, ‘Caliope Voss’, created in the days when Linden Lab decreed that one’s name had to be chosen from a pre-set list.

Caliope Voss

Users could nominate their own first name, making for some intriguing conjunctions. ‘Eaten Gumbo, ‘Fried Fish’, ‘Sleeplesin Seattle’, are amongst those names collected on Vint Falken’s blog.

Many influential  members of the metaverse choose to be playful with their names, as indeed they are with the graphical images they have created for their avatars. People working with immersive health and education domains know that the name Pathfinder belongs to a leading advocate, the wonderful John Lester; while consultant and former IBM luminary, Ian Hughes, is so well established as ‘Epredator’, that his Wikipedia entry contains the avatar name in the title. In both  cases,  the avatars’ identities have developed into valuable brands, with currency that extends into the physical world, as well as into virtual environments other than Second Life, (Lester is based at Reaction Grid).

Pathfinder/John Lester

Epredator/Ian Hughes

With the real and virtual world become increasingly diffused, I wonder if dear ‘Caliope Voss’ will end up buried in a dusty corner in my digital inventory… or will she maintain her status,  in recognition of a quintessential element of virtual worlds, the ability to play. Indeed, now that I have real world identity in the virtual world,  Caliope might be able to relax a bit, and let her alter-ego get on with the serious stuff.


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Wikileaks, the Christmas gift that keeps on giving

Wikileaks heralds the end of secrets. The primacy of privacy is eroding, as anyone on Facebook can attest.  Now the shift has hit governments around the world.  They are shaken and stirred, and gone forever is our tacit acceptance that information held by government agencies should be silo-ed and untouchable. Everyone, all of us, are now accountable for our actions to the new regulator, or rather, self-regulator, that organism that is the global network.

The reverberations have only just begun.

Few would have dared predict that in 2010, the Internet would neutralise the secret service, and the cosy chats of entre-nous diplomacy.

Where once the door to the back room of politics was shut, it will now be forever ajar, but we will need to be wary, as pragmatists may choose Wikileaks over the parliamentary press corps to spread the word.. Wikileaks could even become the new frontier for counter-espionage.

But regardless of whose message is carried, Wikileaks is developing into some new kind of Associated Press, and, in the process, is corralling traditional news media into three parts: press releases, sports news and opinion pieces.

Scoops regarding the corridors of power and its underbelly will be increasingly supplied by a global population of  ‘we, the deep throat’s’. That is, if the Internet remains open….

…this will be our big challenge in the next 12 months.

Season’s greetings !

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New Report: Immersive Internet Australia: Education

I’ve posted my report, (the full PDF version is located under the Immersive Internet Australia tab, profile on education), profiling Australian educators’ use of virtual worlds and other immersive technologies. Hopefully, it is something of a roadmap for those contemplating such tools, as well as a marker of those who already do.

Here’s the abstract :

The idea that virtual environments are places for community engagement has been understood by the gaming community for some time, however the rise of the online world, Second Life (SL),  during 2005-7, brought wider recognition, as fascinated media reported on the more sensational aspects of living in a pixelated world.

Since then, the faint pulse has turned into a strong heartbeat, spearheaded by a bullish kids and youth market that sees constituents migrating comfortably to virtual worlds for social and gaming purposes. Equally, rapid improvements in the platforms themselves have prompted  service providers to consider 3D virtual environments for geographically dispersed or resource-limited communities, or where remote services and collaborative projects are being undertaken.

It is timely therefore, to understand how multi-user virtual environments (MUVES) add value to the education sector.

The report describes those elements which distinguish virtual environments from other collaborative tools, and documents Australian initiatives in education, demonstrating how immersive Internet technologies can engage students not just in learning, but also in knowledge production.

With Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) initiative in mind, a field study establishes a context for further government supported programs.

There are many projects which, due to the space/time equation, are not included – but if you have a project, please drop a note in the comment box. Many thanks  to my colleagues at Smart Services Internet Cooperative Research Centre, my research home, and especially a virtual worlds cohort who have assisted my research. In particular:

Dethridge, Lisa. School of Media and Communication, RMIT, Melbourne Victoria

Driver, Erica. Co-founder, Thinkbalm

Field, Westley. Managing Director Skoolaborate, Director eLearning, Methodist Ladies College (MLC), Sydney NSW

Flavell, Karen. (formally), Treet TV,

Gray, Peter. Public Relations Unit, Linden Lab

Joy, Bruce. CEO, VastPark

Kay, Jo. Principal, Jokaydia, 2009

Linegar, Dale. Virtual Worlds education facilitator, Monash University

McKeown, Lindy. Virtual Worlds education consultant

Millea, Jenny. Program Manager,

Mitham, Nic. CEO, KZERO

More, Greg. Principal OOM Creative; Lecturer, Spatial Information Architect Laboratory (SIAL) School of Architecture and Design RMIT

Quodling, Bob. CEO, Simmersion Holdings Pty Ltd

Rizzo,  Alberto. Director, eLearning Strategies Melbourne Grammar School

Sankar, James. Director, Applications & Services, AARnet

Steele, Cathie. Director, Centre for Health Innovation, Alfred Hospital, Melbourne

Stefanic, Danny. CEO, ExitReality

Smith, Stuart. Senior Research Officer, Falls and Balance Research Group, Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute

Soudoplatoff, Serge. Founder, Almatropie

Teubler, Vincent. Co-Founder, Gogofrog

Wood, Colin. Manager, Partnerships for Learning, Centre For Learning Innovation, Department of Education and Training NSW.

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Are virtual worlds off the boil ?

The August release of Gartner’s 2010 hype cycle for emerging technologies, which sees Virtual Worlds lodged in the pit of the disillusionment trough, has generated some interesting discussion in the blogosphere. VW’ds marketing consultant Mary Ellen Gordon asks why this has occurred, especially in light of Gartners’ much quoted 2007 declaration’ that by 2012, 80 percent of Internet users would have an avatar.

One way to look at this is that Gartner pretty much got it right: the notion of ‘avatar’ needs to be widened, and seen as one’s personal web identity, across social platforms and beyond.

But why does Gartner predict VWd’s  are 5-10 years away from mainstream adoption, when in 2009, it suggested the range of 2-5 years was the more likely marker?   Chris Arkenberg, a researcher at California’s Institute of the Future proffers this insight:

‘The ongoing failure of virtual worlds is due to their failure to embrace the predominant social API’s. Walled garden worlds only work if you have a massive budget and a solid narrative and reward system, ala Blizzard. Otherwise, you have to leverage the social platforms that the first life uses if you want them to feel like the second life is a place they should spend their time.”

Indeed, the diffusion of virtual worlds and social media (a two-way process, each taking from the other) is readily observable, especially when looking at the way digital goods are generated and transacted. Facebook supports a number of 3D apps, remember Vivaty? Smallworlds is a more recent example, and there are numerous others. Cyworld (Korea) has been doing it since 1999, with personalised 3D home pages. In these cases, the motivation for ‘rooms’ is chat and  content sharing ( goods and media) for recreational use.

Smallworlds, integrates social media with virtual worlds – but if virtual worlds are to be mainstream, the diffusion needs to occur at a more systemic,  institutional level…in financial, goverment, education  and so on.

The breakthrough for virtual worlds will come when users will be able to ‘go virtual’ from whatever web page they are on. This will be the litmus test of the two-way diffusion, and will roughly coincide with the time that ‘social media’ ceases to be a feature in itself and instead  becomes intrinsic to our  web transactions across many different business and service domains. It’ll be a simple question: “is what we need to do best suited to being in the virtual environment ?” And if the answer is yes, users will simply go there. Standards will need to be in place, embodied avatars will need to be able to easily migrate from one system to another. One platform may well end up being the industry standard.  And  it will be the launch pad for a thousand(s) plugins that tailor make the virtual experience, according to users needs, just as we have seen with iphone apps.

When the first bank, government agency or hospital launch a virtual worlds platform from their home page, we’ll really know the social/ virtual diffusion has been fully realised. (Tell me which platform it’ll be, I am ready to invest).

Meanwhile, I look to evidence of the use of Virtual Worlds for strategic thinking and international collaboration,  such as the Virtual World Conference 2010, convened by the UK’s Open University amongst others. Here in Australia, our own Open University is seriously evaluating virtual environments, in particular Avaya’s Nortel. The opportunity for engagement and action via virtual environments in remote learning situations is where the driver for in a 2-5 year time frame for adoption lies, rather than a 5-10 year adoption which Gartner is latterly espousing.

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Immersive Learning: on or off the boil?

Immersive Learning was very much on the agenda in Australia in 2008, as this video made by Educationau enthusiastically demonstrates.

A group from Gippsland TAFE, in Victoria, drafted a set of protocols for immersive learning here but, like Educationau, the site has not been modified for two years.

So what has happened in the interim; has the momentum gone? Is innovation  on the wane,  failing to gravitate past the ‘worthy experiment’ stage ? Are educators waiting as platforms gear up for a much better user experience?  Or has the focus shifted to other new tools, such as the integration of social media and geo-location?

With Australian government agencies looking to fund new projects for our proposed superfast broadband infrastructure, (one such program is Multimedia Victoria’s cIIF, Round 2, which has $5 million to develop innovative uses), the time is right to advance the next phase of immersive education. But one government agency representative privately questions whether virtual environments can deliver on their promise.  My feeling is that a SecondLife-centric view prevails amongst the doubters, and as any follower of the platform knows, the service has suffered lately through a range of technical and administrative obstacles, such as with the shutting down of its Teen Grid service, the decision to withdraw SLEnterpriseBeta, its behind-the-firewall solution, and management instability.

Over the next few weeks I will be setting out a clearer picture of Immersive Internet the education sector. In the meantime,  if you have a current project or plans to uses immersive tools and platforms in the education setting,  I invite you to add comments or pass on a link in the the comments box. Cheers.

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