I attended the Metanomics series on virtual environments Tuesday afternoon; this epsiode was 2010 & Next – Second Life, Virtual Worlds and the State of the Union.  I observed the virtual broadcast via NMC Teaching island (http://bit.ly/dYFJzi) though the chat, audio and video were all available via the Metanomics website.

One of the panel members was Larry Pixel (RL: Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium); my primary interest in the event was to listen to commentary regarding the future of virtual worlds (and perhaps Second Life in particular) within the education sector.  A few notes, comments and thoughts follow.

A quick summary?  I believe Second Life does and will continue to offer unique benefits that other platforms and technologies do not; I believe the capabilities provide value-added benefit to education beyond what other platforms may currently offer.  If at all possible, I believe educational institutions should maintain their presence in Second Life while exploring other platforms in parallel; I understand that an institution’s presence may need to be reduced to meet budgetary limitations, but I do not believe using the elimination of the educational discount as a reason to leave Second Life is a good or rational decision.

Future of Virtual Environments

Larry commented that an exciting aspect of Second Life several years ago was that, “We all thought we were part of something for/from the future.” (paraphrasing).
He was asked as a followup, “Is it still something of the future?”
Larry commented that he heard, “Does Second Life have a future?”  He believes it absolutely does, but it’s more of a mature technology though.  The future will not be as much Second Life as he may have once thought.  It’s an important technology, but it may not be more of the landscape than it currently is.

My thought was then and still is now that virtual environments simply are not going away, and they’ll be an increasing part of the online landscape as we move forward.  I agree with Larry in that the technology may move into the mainstream MUCH more slowly than early proponents thought it might.  For me, there’s three key aspects of virtual environments like Second Life. First, as Larry noted, the magic of the space is the co-location of individuals; the perception of presence of individual people together in the same space.  That’s not something the current, typical web interface and experience can duplicate.  Second, virtual environments like Second Life “bridge the gap” between game developers and those of us with other areas of expertise; it’s much more possible now for educators to create an immersive virtual experience than it ever has been.  Third, Larry commented that the content makes Second Life stand out from other environments; the quantity and quality of work being done in Second Life just doesn’t exist at the same scale on other platforms, currently.  Plus, in comparison to project solutions or endeavors within education or beyond, Second Life is relatively inexpensive by comparison to an order of magnitude of 5 to 10 times cheaper; it’s possible to build in Second Life what is not affordable through other solutions.  Finally, I personally believe the increasing availability of kinesthetic interfaces – like PS3 motion, Wii controllers, XBox Kinect – will eventually spur future use of virtual environments.

Land Prices, Education & Second Life

Conversation turned pretty quickly to the announcement shortly after SLCC that discount for education and non-profits will be eliminated beginning in January 2011.  Terry Beaubois commented that it’s a matter of the economic times; Linden Lab is going through economic difficulties as well.  Larry seconded that thought with additional commentary.  Linden has taken a pounding in the marketplace; they’ve basically given education a subsidy for six years.  There should not have been an expectation that we deserve or are entitled to it.  Reality is that we are consumers; if we’re paying for any sort of other utility – we’re paying same as everyone else.  Admittedly, many projects will be hurt or hampered by the price increase, but the big projects will survive; they have individuals who can find or obtain additional funding.  NMC has focused on funding the smaller projects – to allow them to survive.  NMC has made arrangements to allow them to commit to their prices for the next two years for their sub-lessees of SL islands.

Alternatives to Second Life

There’s not much doubt that Linden Lab’s announcement regarding the education discount has spurred migration off of Second Life and lead to exploration of other platforms – particularly OpenSim, HyperGrid Business.  Pathfinder Lester has started the Hypergrid Adventurers Club which explores different OpenSim grids and spaces via Hypergridding.  The NMC has had OpenSim for roughly 18 months plus Second Life Enterprise Server; they’re exploring different platforms.  However, in Larry’s opinion, OpenSim is about 3 years behind Second Life in terms of community, development and content.  The NMC has decided to remain in Second Life, “If I’m going to be in a virtual world, I’d prefer one with the most utility.  That’s here [in Second Life].”  There’s too many people doing too many things extremely well.  With all of that said, exploring platforms is certainly encouraged.  Fleep Tuque commented that she “would encourage anyone seriously involved in Second Life to run their own OpenSim . . . You really should do it.  It’s a tremendous learning opportunity.”  She provides a step by step guide for OpenSim installation.

Errata?

There was an interesting discussion regarding the value of “backchat” – the conversation beneath the conversation at conferences etc.  While that may be a separate post, I make two brief comments.  First, the back channel has become a critical part of the conference experience for me; if it’s not active or available, I find myself less engaged and more frustrated with a traditional presentation.  Second, I have witnessed and believe that projecting or disclosing the back channel as part of a presentation potentially chills the backchannel discussion; it’s a back channel; it does not want to be part of the main conversation – leave it alone – let it be the back channel.

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