I just concluded the first day of my first-ever Second Life Community Conference. This year, the conference is held in Boston – so that made it easy for me to go. I’ve tried to summarize here the sessions I attended, along with the perspective of a relative newcomer to Second Life. This is going to be a long post, so click for the full story….
What a day it was! There are nine different tracks in the conference – Education & Research, Govt & Nonprofit, Live Music & Performance, Business & Enterprise, Health & Support, Fashion & Deisgn, Communities & Social, Live Music, and Technical & Open Source. Each track has concurrent sessions running in a wing of small meeting rooms on the fourth floor of the hotel. The only time all 200 or so participants are together are for the keynote sessions, held in the Imperial Ballroom (a cavernous space that looks like something out of the Gatsby era).
Mapping out your day at the SLCC is something of a challenge since there are sessions in just about every track, at every hour, that one might find interesting. How to choose? During some slots, I bounced back and forth, like a ping pong ball, trying to get a whiff of multiple sessions.
Here were my favs of the day:
Dusan Writer. Topping my list was Doug Thompson’s (SL name: Dusan Writer) post lunch talk, where he tried to give valuable perspective on Second Life and where it’s all going. Dusan Writer is the man behind the popular (and very thoughtful) Metaverse blog. In his talk, Dusan did a terrific job of lifting our gaze and reminding us of the larger context, how far virtual worlds (and Second Life, specifically) have come. His discussion of the implications of cross-flow of information between the 3D virtual world and the web were really thought provoking (“SL shared media value isn’t surfing the web in-world, think the other way around, what happens when SL is exported to the web?”).
Games – he reminds us – have more and more relevance and he spent some time talking about the notion of “narrative architecture”. What is the framework in which the story is told? Stories – participatory stories – and the how augmented reality can be used to tell stories.
He reminded us that Second Life now exists in a higher tech universe that it started in (witness: semantic web, native 3D in browser, cloud computing, decoupling from mouse & screen, surface computing). The rise of social media has certainly impacted all of us (“it’s not social media, it’s social space”).
Philip Rosedale. Philip Rosedale, the creator and, now, CEO, of Linden Lab gave the keynot address for the day. He and the organizers made a late-breaking decision to attend the conference in order to give his talk, live, rather than piped in remotely, as was originally planned. He flew into Boston on a red eye flight and, consequently, his address was delayed from the original 8:00 am start time to 10:30, resulting in a complete reworking of the morning schedule (with email announcements sent very late the night before – program corrections handed out). Talks that were planned for one-hour were suddenly given 15 minutes. Unfortunate that his responsiveness to the community ended up feeling like a lack of respect to fellow presenters.
Rosedale – appropriately enough – gave an insiders’ talk. He knew his audience well and attempted to address their specific concerns with remarks laden with jargon and insider humor. He summarized the new Linden Lab strategy as “Fast, Fun and Easy” and talked about the importance of “getting back to basics” and “recapturing the lead”. I know that I’m new to the Second Life community, and therefore don’t understand the full context of his comments, but I did not find it inspiring. There was a twinge of the desperate to it – as well as the sound of someone who’s been trying for a very long time to please a fractious and opinionated crowd. Although I did think his emphasis on the SL economy was well placed since it’s probably the most reliable indicator of the community’s growth and health.
One of the things he talked about (with a note of exhaustion in his voice), which rang very true to me, is the enormous complexity here. The management and governance of a virtual world as vast as Second Life is, indeed, a bit like governing a real life country. His comments and answers to the group’s questions certainly reflected a deep and abiding understanding of that complexity.
The big news, delivered in his keynote address, is the decision to close down the Second Life Teen Grid. Since the main grid is for adults only, and includes mature content, Linden Lab built a separate, tightly controlled grid for teens, 13-17, which is passionately used by quite a few pioneering educators. Rosedale attempted to explain the complicated engineering reasons behind the decision (versioning the viewer between the two grids) and expressed hope that this decision to jettison the Teen Grid would push everyone to come up with a better and expeditious solution to getting teens involved in Second Life. There was a lot of unrest and murmuring through the crowd.
Janalee Redmond and Joan Combs Durso, Epoch Institute. In the Business & Enterprise track, Janalee Redmond (SL name: Jennette Forager) and Joan Durso (SL name: Devon Alderton) – along with a virtual appearance from their colleague Patricia Murphy (SL name: Pamela Clift) did a fabulous job talking about doing business in virtual worlds. Jenn and Devon have been guiding new business people into virtual worlds for years and they have, literally, the instincts of a horse whisperer (Jenn is long-time Dressage rider and horse trainer). Their wise counsel for bringing people new to Second Life is to respect the processing speed (of both the machine and the individual), gain their confidence, and help them to find a common language and a personal path. Jenn Forager is the creator and host of a fabulous weekly educator’s group called Immersion:Tools.Jam that meets every week (Tuesdays at 9:30 SLT), in world, to share virtual ideas and strategies.
Bonnie Mitchell and Anthony Fontana. Bonnie Mitchell (SL name: BonnieMitchell Miles) and Anthony Fontana (SL name: AnthonyFontanta Chevalier), Bowling Green State University (BGSU), gave us a tour of their virtual university campus (SLurl) and talked about the various gadgets that they’ve developed through their work with the faculty and students at BGSU. Among the highlights – an art gallery viewers Heads-Up Display (HUD), a media viewer that displays multiple videos, and a Campus Navigator. They talked about a wonderful scavenger hunt that they organized as an Earth Day Event for students where the students all wear backpacks that register when an object had been found (the hunt was given a special tone of urgency by the fact that the island was flooding while they searched). They also shared a very helpful wiki site that they created to orient new SL users.
Janyth Ussery. Janyth Ussery (SL name: JanythKU Techsan), Texas State Technical College – along with her virtual colleague, Chris Gibson – demonstrated a very slick looking virtual learning system, called Vushi, which operates within a virtual world, like Second Life. It’s a backend database, plugged into the frame of the virtual world and it gives the instructor a very elegant HUD that can serve as the dashboard for all of those time-consuming class management functions. Using Vushi facilitates class-level functions, which makes teaching an entire class in SL much less work. For example, once your students have all registered in the Vushi system you can easily look up their real life/second life names and see their profiles, manage group chat, and – my personal favorite – group teleports!
Joff Chafer. Joff Chafer (SL name: Jeff Fasnacht) gave a heart-stopping demonstration of how he is creating blended reality, by superimposing avatars into a real space and filming it. Just for a moment, I could glimpse the future. Chafer, Coventry University in the UK, and his colleagues are members of the Avatar Repertory Theater group who have stages a number of popular productions in world, included Alice in WonderSLand. You can read more about their work on the ART blog.
Pooky Amsterdam. Pooky Amsterdam, one of the most prolific producers of machinima (“Machine” + “Cinema”), gave us a whistle-stop tour of the history of movie making in virtual worlds, complete with sample footage and a lot of insight into the best tools for the job. Really fabulous.
Peggy Sheehy. I’ve heard Peggy speak before and, as always, she is a force of nature. Peggy talked about the various lessons and activities she’s built for her middle schoolers on Ramapo Islands. Her blog site is full of terrific stories about their teaching and learning success with virtual worlds – well worth a look.
Here are a few of the projects that Peggy dazzled us with: a virtual flea market where students go in to shop (with a budget). The items are marked with prices such as “$L86, 19% off” – so that the students have to do the complex calculations. Great aside on this one – when the first period class went to the flea market, they put up notecards with their calculations, weakening the math requirement for the next students. Thinking quickly, when the Period 2 students arrived, Peggy explained that the first period kids had added the calculation notecards but “I’m not sure if they’re accurate…”
She talked about an amazing sounding Health and Fitness project, around body image. For this one, students create an avatar that looks like them, then, in a second session, they create a “media-beautiful” version of that avatar. Then, on the third day they are asked to create a “media-beautiful avatar”, but, this time, switch gender. Then on day 4, they are all encouraged to return to the avatar with which they feel most comfortable and discuss the experience. Here’s her slide deck on that one.
She talked about an immigration unit they’d done with a replica of Ellis Island, where the students have to wait in line, get interviewed, wear period clothing, and get a feeling for what it was like. Based on a student suggestion, Peggy and her teaching colleagues designed the lesson so that the students role play – with half acting as immigration officers and half playing the role of immigrants. On day #1, 35 % of the immigrants “pass” and get into the country. On day #2, the students switch roles and, interestingly, 99% of the immigrants gain access to the US. As Peggy says, “That’s empathy.”
Another of her activities is built around the novel Of Mice and Men. The students conduct a mock trial where the roles of witnesses, attorneys, judge, jury, court reporter and news reporters are all held by students. Peggy tells us the story that when she went into the English class to explain the Second Life activity they would be staging together, students started rummaging around in the backpacks, getting out their copies of the novel. When she asked them what they were doing, they said, “We’re getting out the book to read.” “But,” says Peggy, “You’ve already read it!” To which one student replied, “Yeah, but if we’re going to do what you describe, we’re going to have to really read it.”
As Peggy explains it, Second Life is a “consequence free” environment. No one knows who you are and you can experiment with yourself. Peggy strongly encourages teachers to include students in the planning conversation for any virtual worlds activity – as she put it, the best ideas come from the kids. You can view slides from Peggy’s various presentations here.
And now, onto Day 2. Whew.