Last week we conducted a pilot Second Life training with two “test” subjects for our forthcoming health behaviors study, to be conducted in the virtual world of Second Life. I’ve blogged about this project in an earlier post. In a nutshell, this is an NIH-funded health behaviors study with African-American women who have uncontrolled diabetes type 2. The project team has finalized the curriculum, set out a plan for subject recruitment and secured the IRB approval. My part of the project is everything to do with the subject cohort who will experience the program in Second Life. To that end, in anticipation of the program’s start in May, we have built out the Second Life space (shown above), trained all of the educators, designed Second Life activities, and designed an SL orientation for the subjects. It was that orientation that we tested last week.
It is unlikely that any of this program’s subjects will have virtual world experience. In fact, for the most part, our subjects will not have all that much computer experience. So we will start with
the basics. Their orientation consists of two, two-hour in-person sessions. The first one is an orientation to the laptops and the wireless modem they will use for the program (Macbook laptops and Verizon USB modem devices). At the conclusion of that first session, I take them into Second Life in what I’m thinking of as a passive, “first-look” view. I projected my computer onto the room’s media screen, dimmed the lights, and encouraged them to just sit back and enjoy. I logged into SL and introduced them to Spiral Theas, my avatar. She waved. They gasped.
Then I walked around the island, showed them how she could turn right and left, sit, dance, and even fly. Another gasp. Then I teleported her to Paris and cammed back to take in the full height and majesty of the Eiffel Tower. Another gasp. By this time our test subjects were laughing, joking, asking questions. “When can we go in?” “What will my avatar look like”, “Can you climb up in that Eiffel Tower?” “Are those other people speaking French??!”
We left them there – with lots of questions and anticipation. The next two-hour session, held three days later, was going to be all about Second Life. They came in, hooked up their laptops, and fired them up. Without too much trouble, they all got in-world and met their avatars (that we’d prepared for them in advance). They walked, ran, danced, and sat down. We went over how to chat, how to speak (fiddled with headsets). We opened the map (“oooh, it’s like looking down at the world from a plane!”). We opened their inventory (“where are my clothes?”). We teleported to another location.
It all went so much more smoothly than we thought it would. They were excited, interested, and not at all intimidated by the interface or the complexity. There were some confounding gaps in their computer knowledge that tripped me up. Here’s one that took us by surprise: When we were using local chat to send messages to each other, one of the subject’s messages appeared with no spaces between the words. She asked me how did I get the spaces between the words and I explained that you just hit the space bar when you finished typing a word in order to advance one blank space and type the next word. “Where’s the space bar?”.
Another had to do with physical orientation to the space. I had thought that a projection of my laptop to the front of the room would help them – if they got lost as to what to do, they could look up on the big screen and I could demonstrate. Instead, they kept referring to the big screen over their own, smaller screen and getting very confused about their “view”. After a few minutes of this confusion, I disconnected my laptop. They were then able to focus on their own screens and seemed relieved. Less to manage.
The navigational task that they found the most challenging were (not surprisingly) controlling their camera view. We made a program decision to not have a mouse with the computers and rely instead on the track pad. We figured that since these subjects did not have much in the way of computer experience, learning to use a mouse would be just as much of a task as learning to use a track pad and then we’d have one less appliance to worry about. The track pad is a bit tricky (one finger or two? swipe or drag?) but the element that caught me by surprise was that one of the subjects had longish fingernails and it was much harder for her to use because of them.
By far and away, my favorite quote of the session from one of the subjects was, “Well, I can’t dance in real life, but I can dance in Second Life!”