Friday, 30 May 2008

The ultimate OpenSim standalone installer

I have an idea. I wonder if it's possible?

We have a stack of dusty old PCs cluttering up the place at Uni. Their old network sockets have been stolen by the shiny new computers, and without a network connection, they're pretty useless. So useless, in fact, that their hard-drives could be wiped without anyone getting upset.

So, this is the idea:

Somebody clever creates an magic installer CD that I can boot up an old PC with.

The installer CD wipes the hard-drive and installs the Debian OS+OpenSim standalone+Second Life client.

I reboot the PC and it automatically loads OpenSim and connects to it via the Second Life client (preferably running full screen for maximum tidiness).

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Eduserv's 2008 Second Life Snapshot

Eduserv has just published John Kirriemuir's latest snapshot of Second Life use in UK HE/FE:

Apart from the fact that my contributions seem to have had words inexplicably added or removed (almost certainly by me), making me sound a bit daft, it's a great report.


Susan Greenfield worries about the impact of technology on our future identities in her article in this week's New Scientist magazine.

She defines three types of identity:
'Nobody' is the hedonistic, impulsive self.
'Anybody' is the collaborative spirit, working to serve the identity of the group.
'Somebody' is about personal achievement.

Greenfield's concern is that the 2D, screen based lives that we are all increasingly living will lead to the overdevelopment of the 'Nobody', as our imaginations are spoon-fed literal representations. I'm sure there are plenty of people queuing up to dispute many of Greenfield's arguments, but the expertise of a brain scientist should never be dismissed without some careful consideration.

She concludes the article with a message of hope for our future identities. She adds a fourth type of identity, the 'Eureka', which is defined by those 'Aha!' moments achieved during a creative process. She imagines a future in which a balanced individual flips between all four types of identity, with creativity central to our well-being.

The only real issue I have with this article is that it proposes a strategy for the future that has already happened. Design education consciously and deliberately strives to achieve a balance between the unrestricted and impulsive (Nobody), the collaborative teamworking, subject specific or audience satisfying (Anybody) and the personal achievement of the author/producer (Somebody). We glued all this together with many, many 'Aha!' moments (Eureka).

Our first Open Habitat pilot study ends tomorrow, and we are just beginning to digest the data, but it is clear that individual and collective identity is bound together with the creative process. Greenfield's identity work provides a useful framework for helping us to understanding the significance of creativity in relation to identity in virtual worlds.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Exploring incorrect behaviour

I can't let today's meeting go without a blog post.

We had scheduled a project meeting in Second Life to discuss a few things, and the plan was for us all to meet and do voice. However, as is to be expected with these emergent technologies, all did not go to plan. Three of us could speak and hear, one of us could hear but not speak, and one of us could not hear, but could see what was being typed. Oh, what fun.

What I found fascinating was the range of complex, hybrid modes of communication that we all devised to manage this situation. On the face of it, the meeting was a technical disaster, but it was such an interesting - dare I say it - elegant and beautiful exploration of incorrect behaviour that I just find myself feeling really good about the whole experience.

The 'exploration of incorrect behaviour' is a phrase that caught my eye when I was re-reading Terry Mayes & Sara de Freitas e-Learning Models Desk Study* recently. It is something that is very familiar to us in art and design education. We actively encourage our students to take risks, make mistakes, and generally feel OK about messing it all up. Through reflection and analysis of the mess they create, we help them to recognise the unexpected opportunities that emerge. A positive re-evaluation of a seemingly disastrous experiment often leads to moments of pure clarity, as a solution to a completely different problem or a brand new line of inquiry becomes apparent.

So, my moment of clarity is this:
Voice is bad because of the 'satellite delay', which ruins the critical timing required for an effective conversation.
Text chat is bad because it is easy to misinterpret the tone of voice of the author, leading to paranoia.
Voice is good because it allows you to gauge the mood of the speaker.
Text chat is good because it gives you time to make a considered response, and can support multiple simultaneous threads.

Today, I enjoyed the bit when we were all typing, but we could hear the laughter over voice that reassured us that our words were being received in the spirit that they were intended. So, maybe voice in Second Life is best used as an augmentation of text chat. No one is allowed to speak proper sentences like in real life, but you can laugh, groan, tut, huff, maybe even the odd exclamation would be OK. No issues with timing. All the benefits of text. No need to switch from your fantasy character to the 'real you' if you don't want to. Less unfortunate misunderstandings.

Well, it's worth trying at some point.

It might be a disaster, but that fine. A positive re-evaluation of a seemingly disastrous experiment often leads to moments of pure clarity...


Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Atelier Method

I was pleased to hear our Dean mention the master apprentice model yesterday in a meeting (I'd like to thing that he's been reading my blog posts, but I think he's probably too busy). He also mentioned something called the Atelier method, which I'd not heard of. A quick bit of Googling, and I discover that this is an educational model with many similarities to the sorts of things that we have been discussing in relation to the Open Habitat project.

The Atelier is a studio where an artist works with a small number of students to progressively train them to become professional realist painters. They were big in France in the 19th century, apparently, but continue to this day. This system places great emphasis on an instructivist approach, and has much in common with approaches such as intelligent tutoring systems. It is a bottom up approach, with students completing progressively complex tasks in order to master their technique. However, where it rings true with me is in the way that the master painter/tutor individually tailors the programme of study to each individual student. This seems to link with the constructivist goal of maintaining the zone of proximal development. I also like the fact that the independence of the painter/tutor from any institution or central governing body, means that he or she has complete autonomy in their teaching methods, unrestricted by the requirements of external validators.

I think that the framework of the Atelier model is attractive (particularly the emphasis placed on the studio), but the rigidity of the instructivist approach and the over-dominance of the master, perhaps limits the potential for peer learning and discovery based learning.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

A&D Pilot - Day 5

The day started with an unforeseen problem. Second Life was down, and remained down until 11.45.
Instead of the planned in-world activities, I handed out the project briefs, and asked the group to express a preference for one or more of the briefs. Interestingly, the 'Shrine to your avatar' brief was by far the most popular.
We then had a general discussion about Second Life and the projects. I went round the group and asked them to talk about what sort of work they had been producing this year, and I made suggestions about how this might translate into SL, and how it might link in with one or more of the briefs.

I then got everyone to search for Second Life on Flickr and YouTube, which was quite useful for helping them to get a sense of what is possible. I also pointed them towards the Second Life News Network to check out the latest news. By complete coincidence - honestly, I had no idea - SLNN had a story about the Brooklyn Watches art gallery project, illustrated with a snapshot of my hologram of Clive Egginton. Everyone thought I had set this up to blatantly show off.

When we finally got into Second Life, I organised a quest to test out collaborative building. I got the avatars to pair up and set it so that their partner could edit their objects. I then asked them to build a bridge together over a small river that I had terraformed. This proved problematic. The whole permissions thing complicates shared building, and the students found that they couldn't edit each other's objects as easily as they would have liked to. I then got them to revoke their partner's ability to edit their objects, and asked them to repeat the exercise, this time dividing the labour more coherently. This proved to be less confusing and more effective. When all the bridges had been built, I got them stand in the middle of their bridge, select their objects, and turn physics on. We all laughed heartily as the bridges and the avatars crashed into the river. I pointed out that if they had taken a copy, they could have rebuilt the bridge, but now it was too late.

The rest of the day was spent working on initial ideas for the projects. I did some one-to-one stuff, addressing some of the particular issues that were emerging for individuals.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Final project briefs

I've adjusted the project briefs that we are launching tomorrow, based on some observations of the things that the students have been up to so far. One of the students is doing some work based on his graphic novel work, so I've added the 'Building on success' brief to give him a framework to develop this. This brief should also make it easier for those struggling to see the point by linking the virtual world to something familiar and personal. The second brief that I have added is designed to give permission to the fantasists in the group. The 'Abductive reasoning' brief is about jumping in at the deep end and doing something totally weird and different. I think this will appeal to a couple of the more adventurous builders in the room. I've also emphasised the collaborative possibilities a little more clearly. Here are the 4 briefs that I will hand out tomorrow:

BA(Hons) Graphic Arts & Design
School of Contemporary Art & Graphic Design
Leeds Metropolitan University

Open Habitat project briefs

Please choose one or more of the four briefs detailed below.
Start date for all briefs: Monday 12th May 2008
Deadline for all briefs: Friday 23rd May 2008

There will be a prize of 25000 Linden Dollars for the best overall solution to one of these briefs.
(Please note: All content that you generate in Second Life is subject to copyright laws. You must only upload your own images, or images that you have the right to copy.)

Project brief 1 - Individual
Your task for this project is to build a shrine to your avatar.
This shrine may represent your ongoing experiences in Second Life. Your shrine might be a way of exploring and developing your avatar’s ambitions. Your shrine may be a place of refuge for your avatar. It may be a place where your avatar shows off. It may be your avatar’s inventing shed. It may be a gallery of portraits of your avie. It can be pretty much anything you can imagine, as long as it expresses the essence of your avatar.
You should use your allocated plot on LeedsMet island to develop this work.

Project brief 2 - Collaborative
Reality Jam
Reality Jam is a project that Cubist and Kisa are working on for the International Symposium on Electronic Art 2008. We are using the following quote from the isea2008 website to guide us:
“While the reality effects of photography had forced a re-evaluation of the conventions and concerns of painting as well as of perception in the mid 19th century, the realistic aspirations of recent visualization and experiential technologies (e.g., in animation, gaming, immersive environments, mixed/augmented reality) are forcing us to reconsider our registers of the ‘real’ in our media and our everyday lives.
The confusing of the real and the virtual through seamless transitions and the perpetual obfuscation of the edges that demarcate them are increasingly the focus of scientific research as well as of creative works. The improvisational nature and interference potential of such ‘reality jamming’ - i.e., this pressing together of the real and virtual in a context where their distinctions are deliberately obscured - open further possibilities for research, scholarship and creative production.
In this theme, we also seek to encourage artists and researchers to explore the ways in which the ‘virtual’ presences and experiences of folklore, religious beliefs, magical rituals and science and media-fiction interact with and counteract the lived experiences of the ‘real’. Scholarly presentations, art works and research in the areas of virtual, mixed and augmented reality, not restricted to the technological platforms and equipment that enable such experiences, are especially encouraged.” -
Your task is to work together with one or more collaborators to produce artwork that follows the theme of the Reality Jam exhibition.
You should use the dedicated collaboration area on LeedsMet island to develop this work.

Project brief 3 - Individual or Collaborative
Building on Success
Reflect on the work that you have produced this year. Consider the things that have gone well, and the things that you have enjoyed. Think about the nature of your practice and the underlying themes and theories that you have been exploring. How might your practice translate into 3D?
Your task is to produce a 3D exploration of your practice (or combined practices).
You should use either your allocated plot or the dedicated collaboration area on LeedsMet island to develop this work.

Project brief 4 - Individual or Collaborative
Abductive reasoning
“Abductive reasoning, as described by Darden professor Jeanne Liedtka, embraces the logic of what might be. Designers may not be able to prove that something ‘is’ or ‘must be,’ but they nevertheless reason that it ’may be.’ This style of thinking is critical to the creative process.”
[Creativity that goes deep. BusinessWeek online.]
Forget the work that you have produced this year. Forget that you are supposed to be a graphic designer. Imagine what might be possible in a virtual world when the restrictions of your personal history and your chosen discipline are removed.
Your task is to work alone, or together with one or more collaborators, to create all that you choose to imagine.
You should use either your allocated plot or the dedicated collaboration area on LeedsMet island to develop this work.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

A&D pilot day 2.2

A couple of the students that I'd excused to go to Whitby turned up today to catch up on what they had missed. We didn't have much time available, so Graham and I condensed the whole of day 2 into an hour and a half.

One really significant thing happened today. When the students logged into Second Life for the first time, for some reason they didn't end up in Orientation Island. They got plonked down in some seemingly random location on the mainland. I can only assume that all the Orientation Islands were full. Either that, or Linden Lab heard us moaning about Orientation Island and decided to take it away from us.

In many ways, the students were less equipped because they missed out on the OI tutorials, but the transition was just so much smoother. It felt like the process of discovery proceeded at an appropriate pace, with a calm, steady series of poignant questions asked and answered. Yesterday, it felt like the Orientation Island had grabbed our students by the ankles and dragged them backwards through every hedge of 'essential skill'.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Art & Design Pilot - Days 1 & 2

I'm knackered.
Day 1 - Morning.
The network in the whole building was down. A switch had blown over the bank holiday weekend and no-one had noticed. We didn't care because we were using OpenSim standalone.

Day 1 - Afternoon.
The OpenSim standalone stuff was great. Each student had their own lag-free, empty, private island to take their first steps on. The students found it easy, and I felt like I had some useful influence over the class. They took a photo of themselves like it was the first day of school, all in their Ruth uniforms. They built a tower. Graham did a great building demo, impressing everyone without saying a word. They built a gallery and put their own work on the walls. They doubled up on one computer and built a den and hid in it. I kept emphasising the core stuff like the camera move and snap to grid and all that, but really, I hardly said anything much. I didn't need to. They were all clever enough to discover it all for themselves. After a couple of stress free hours, they were all pretty confident builders. Faced by the overwhelming heat on a very sunny day, two students built a giant ice cream cone and we all left the room to try and buy a real one. Dave W saved the receipts for our lollies.

Day 2 - All day.
The network got fixed. I lost 3 students to the Whitby trip, but they're coming in tomorrow to catch up.

After a quick recap in OpenSim, we played a name game with marker pens and a whiteboard table that I accidentally invented (details to follow) and the students read a handout about the importance of choosing the right name:
Then they signed up to Second Life.
They signed into OpenSim using their newly acquired Second Life names (you can log into OpenSim standalone with any name you want).
We linked up the OpenSims over the local network so that two avies at a time could share an island and learn how to chat and IM. That created a real buzz as the multi-user thing kicked in.
The avies played hide and seek, and cheated using the minimap.
Finally, it felt like the right time to log into Second Life proper, and the Orientation Island experience wrenched the students away from me. Although I increasingly felt like I was loosing them to another educational approach that I objected to, I was heartened by the confidence of our no longer Noobs. Within seconds of appearing on Orientation Island, one of our students was giving advice to another avatar. Our lot knew that they were ahead of the game on that island, and they showed none of the signs of anxiety that I have always witnessed in previous SL only inductions. They enjoyed themselves for a good hour and a half before gradually TPing onto some random mainland location.

After the fiddly task of giving money, making friends, joining group and teleporting everyone to the LeedsMet sim, we tested out Grahams auto e-portfolio tool sign-up prim. Each new avie clicked on the magic prim and an account was created for their avatar on our bespoke web 2.0 thing. Then they all grabbed a plot on LeedsMet and marked their territory by exercising their building skills. Then it was a quick trip the LeedsMet FAS to see Graham's recreation of our RL art school building, and then Graham chucked a bunch of landmarks at everyone and they ventured out onto the mainland. Then we had all had enough, and we went outside to enjoy the last of the glorious sunshine on the hottest day of the year.

When my brain comes back online, I might be able to work out what the significance of all this is. But for now, I'm happy with the vague but overwhelming feeling that something very significant happened yesterday and today.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Risk Assessment

I know JISC are keen on risk assessments, and rightly so. However, there are only so many things that you can anticipate going wrong when you're writing a bid several month before the actual events start.

We have the first major event of the project starting tomorrow, and two new risks have emerged.

It seems that the LeedsMet based server that hosts our e-portfolio tool has stopped working. If we are lucky, this could mean that the server has just crashed and needs rebooting. If we are unlucky, it means that the whole of the network in our building has gone down, and we won't be able to do any Second Life stuff until it's fixed. We won't find out until tomorrow.

The second risk that I could not have anticipated is the annual student trip to Whitby, which my colleagues decided to organise to coincide with the second day of the pilot. I only found out about this after all the students had signed up for their place on the coach. Whilst I think I can persuade our pilot students not to go to Whitby, I feel a bit mean depriving them of their annual social jaunt.

So, after analysing these unforseen risks, I have quickly come up with some plan Bs:

If the network is down, then we will stick with OpenSim standalone (which needs no network) until it's back up again. We'll need to concentrate on developing more advanced building skills earlier if we have more time in OpenSim.

If the students are tempted by the Whitby trip, we can counter this by offering an alternative social event at some point during the pilot. We may need to offer bribes in the form of free alcohol to achieve this. I'm guessing this may be tricky to claim back on expenses. If the worst happens, and a substantial chunk of our students decide to jump on the coach and eat whelks by the sea on Wednesday, then I'll just have to repeat myself on Thursday.