Social Presence and Immersive Environments

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Virtual worlds are considered immersive environments, and as such, it’s not unexpected that the element of social presence plays a rather important role. Virtual worlds have an advantage over traditional forms of distance learning in this area, since the avatar is represented by many of the familiar visual and social cues humans are used to. In Aragon (2003), social presence is defined as the “degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships” (p. 59). Immediacy, or the “measure of psychological distance that a communicator puts between himself or herself and the object of his/her communication,” can be conveyed by physical proximity formality of dress, physical proximity, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues, as well as verbal (p. 59). This can apply directly to virtual worlds, since players are given control of all these social conveyances, and it is important because it lends to the immersion of the game.

What’s interesting, however, is that some research suggests the human interface control is not as relevant as one might think. A study in Aymerich-Franch (2010) revealed that participants who played a game by using their whole body did not experience any significant difference in presence or emotions than participants who played with a joystick. This implies that body-dependent systems such as the Wii and Kinect may not necessarily be more “immersive” to players, if we define immersion as a combination of social presence and emotions, and that we should look to other attributes when determining what makes one game more immersive than another. I would suggest that we should look more at the content of the virtual environment itself, than the human interface used to connect to it.

In another article by Lin (2010), an exploration of gender differences on game enjoyment is examined, as well as personal identification with the character. I feel this article misses the point, particularly when it claims that players are more likely to enjoy a game when the character they are playing is “morally justified” in the story or plot. In other words, a hero fighting for some sort of moral good. This seems logical, until one realizes that some of the top selling games like Grand Theft Auto don’t fit this mold, though one could argue that much of the villainous violence in these games follow a storyline causing the player to sympathize with the character. The genius of games like World of Warcraft is that both sides have sympathetic characters and heroes, and reasons for engaging the rival. The article sidesteps this issue by admitting that yes, some players are the opposite — even a significant number — and attempts to explain why. It seems self-contradictory.

I’ve been sporadically on Second Life since 2005, though only started taking it seriously since 2010, taking time to identify important locations, learn some scripting, and so on. I figured this was all worthy of a “rebirth” so I ditched my old character and created a new one. I think Second Life profiles are an important, yet perhaps underused element of social presence in a virtual world. They can serve to tie the avatar to a real user behind the screen.

People are a lot more prone to do things in Second Life they wouldn’t normally do in person. This is really nothing new, and applies to virtually all communication on the Internet. I think there is a degree of accountability that comes into play and prevents some severely offensive behavior when avatars are specifically identified with real people, but when there is full anonymity, it is rather chaotic and anarchic.

References

Aragon, S. R. (2003). Creating social presence in online environments. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2003(100), 57-68.

Aymerich-Franch, L. (2010). Presence and emotions in playing a group game in a virtual environment: The influence of body participation. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13(6), 649-654.

Lin, S. (2010). Gender differences and the effect of contextual features on game enjoyment and responses. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 13(5), 533-537.

Sculpties and Meshes in Second Life and OpenSim

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Imagine a drafting class. Students are designing buildings in AutoCAD, laying out blueprints, and modeling the architectures. The teacher then tells everyone, “Okay, now add your buildings to the virtual city.” The students save their files, load up a program, and import the models into a virtual world. Within a few minutes, the world changes from a blank landscape to a rudimentary, populated town. The teachers and students can now walk around the town, examine the buildings, note areas needing improvement (“this wall’s bigger than the other” or “the ceiling here is lacking structural support”), and participate in a collaborative environment where teachers give prompt feedback to the group, and students can share their work with their peers.

It’s just one of many practical uses of virtual worlds in an educational setting, which goes beyond simply exploring the environment, to actually constructing content that can be assessed and evaluated. However, being able to import models constructed in third party utilities requires some additional work.

In Second Life and OpenSim, content is made using primitives: basic building blocks consisting of boxes, cylinders, cubes, pyramids, etc. that can be twisted, stretched, and otherwise manipulated, then linked to other primitives to create sophisticated objects. The method has a fairly low learning curve, but is limiting in how detailed models can be.

The texture map for the "sculptie"

An example of a "sculptie" image

Second Life and OpenSim also support “sculpties.” Sculpties are 3d models derived from colored graphic maps. In OpenSim, you can import terrain files composed of grayscale images. White indicates the highest elevations, while black indicates the lowest elevations. Sculptie maps are kind of like that, except with the additional colors more detail can be passed into the program to represent complex 3d models.

I’ve had mixed results with sculptie creation, particularly in OpenSim. At best, the tools for easily creating them are overly simplistic and don’t contain the features many students would probably require. At worst, the setup for sculptie support is more complicated than it should be. It’s certainly doable, but we have to keep in mind the less technical teachers and students when integrating this technology into the classroom, and the last thing we want is a teacher spending an inordinate amount of time trying to cross the bridge between the 3d modeling software and the virtual world.

The same model in OpenSim

A model made in Plopp SL

One tool I found intriguing is Plopp SL, a very easy-to-use program for simple 3d modeling and sculptie creation, aimed at young kids. Most modeling programs use a simulated three-dimensional space for sculpting objects, but Plopp SL allows users to just draw their objects the traditional pencil way, and the program then “inflates” the object like a balloon so it takes on a three-dimensional quality.

After that, you can export the sculptie map and the texture map, and load them up in OpenSim with the Imprudence Viewer (soon to be the Kokua Viewer). However, when I tried this, I ran into some problems when I tried importing the model. Shown here is an example of a doll I made in Plopp SL, which created the above sculptie textures, and how it looks in OpenSim itself. As you can see, it doesn’t quite render correctly in OpenSim. Maybe there’s some configuration setting that needs to be tweaked, but needless to say, I’m not entirely thrilled with sculpties after these experiments.

However, Second Life and OpenSim have now added basic support for meshes. A mesh is a collection of different shapes that make up a whole object. In most 3d modeling applications these are developed using wireframe models. Both virtual world applications still have a ways to go, but progress is being rapidly made.

A rendered model contrasted with its wireframe. Created by Jocelyn Zeller.

So why do we want meshes instead of sculpties? Manipulating and linking primitives together has allowed the creation of some amazing work in Second Life/OpenSim, but there’s tremendous value to being able to create models using standard industry tools. Meshes allow direct compatibility with third-party 3d modeling programs our students use like Maya, Sketchup, and AutoCAD. All a student has to do is save their model in Maya (in the COLLADA format), and upload it directly through the Second Life viewer.

Other open source virtual world applications such as realXtend, a fork of OpenSim, and Open Wonderland have had mesh support for a long time. But Second Life Viewer 2 is the first Second Life viewer to support the mesh environment. OpenSim is not fully compatible with it yet, but it’s getting there. The Kokua project is building a new viewer based on Second Life Viewer 2. It has a sleeker interface than the old viewer upon which others like Imprudence, Hippo, and Phoenix are based. support. Kokua is the successor to Imprudence, and will be incorporating many new features, while remaining fully compatible with OpenSim and Second Life.

I believe there will be value to allowing our students to access Second Life in the future, so having a viewer compatible with both Second Life and OpenSim will be important. This may involve modifying the viewer with a whitelist of acceptable regions, or putting some other filtering utilities in place, but gaining access to the learning opportunities in Second Life will become an invaluable asset in our students’ future learning. This is one thing which prevents me from adopting realXtend. Which it is immensely cool, feature-rich, and visually appealing, it is heading in a different direction than OpenSim. It has its own viewer which is not compatible with Second Life, although the ModRex project aims to allow realXtend-OpenSim compatibility. It is still new, and whether that will translate to Second Life remains to be seen.

A demo of realXtend’s mesh and animation capabilities. Looks quite a bit better than Second Life/OpenSim, doesn’t it?

Getting Rid of Groupwise

We are currently in the process of migrating our email system from Novell Groupwise to Microsoft Exchange. This is going to be a huge transition, but we’ll be able to do it with no downtime for the teachers and students, and the migration should be pretty smooth. Many of the new features will be very cool, particularly the new Lync Messenger which will replace Groupwise Messenger.

Check out this presentation that was delivered to administrators detailing some of the aspects of this migration.

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