Virtual Worlds

Interpreting an emerging society where virtual environments are fostering positive evolution

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Location: Second Life, Metaverse, United States

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Global Metaverse

The Rules are changing. Divide and Conquer are archaic concepts in a world increasingly connected through technology. The World Wide Web blurs borders, condones collaboration, disguises differences and encourages empathy. It is an age of communication that demands unification. Virtual worlds have become the meeting place. Whether they are labeled games, social spaces, or educational environments, virtual worlds are powerful forces driving societal change. They are the building blocks of a new global civilization.

Although I am excited about the potentiality of cross-cultural interaction, I also am mindful of the need for guidance as we encounter differences in the legal expectations and social attitudes towards privacy, intellectual property, and free speech. For a global economy to flourish, with new issues involving international trade of virtual assets and currencies, we need to provide guidance to politicians, courts and legislatures.

Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, New York Law School, Trinity University, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have recognized this need to initiate a transnational dialogue to address multi-disciplinary regulatory approaches to understanding global technology while respecting local values. They have organized the fourth annual State of Play IV: Building the Global Metaverse to be held in Singapore on January 7-9, 2007 to discuss future of cyberspace. Experts in all fields, committed to global cooperation in a conversation about the impact of immersive virtual realities on the future of law, politics, education and society will be in attendance.

Conference panels will be streamed live and synchronized with Second Life, There, and World of Warcraft.
Discussion topics will include Virtual Worlds and their impact on:
  • Cross-cultural cooperation
  • Digital property
  • Youth culture
  • Regulation
  • Taxation and digital assets
  • Global journalism

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

3-D Social Construction

“Self-concept is the way in which a person sees him – or herself as being. It is how individuals define themselves to themselves, and it forms the basis for the way people maintain a sense of continuity,” wrote Bernice Neugarten, Professor Emeritus in Behavioral Science and pioneer in the study of aging, long before Second Life became a virtual reality. It is events rather than the passage of time that form the basis of identity development (Vertinsky, 1991) and virtual educational environments offer individuals the opportunity to experiment with different identities.

Since self-concept influences the way people react to events that occur in their lives, we could conceivably reprogram ourselves with a different self-image in Virtual Reality utilizing Tom Robbins’ popular concept of ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.’ The Virtual Social Construction of self is a reflection of how we are treated by others and the way in which society has defined us. In real life, we have much less choice in how we appear. Virtual Reality offers a whole new opportunity - and responsibility to create who we want to be. Spending time within that chosen identity forms a great practice platform for embedding sub-conscious new belief patterns within the individual through repetitive positive virtual events and experiences.

"Learning is really about identity formation - finding out and developing who you are," explains Peter Twining on the Schome Community Forum. Virtual educational environments populated by avatars offer a unique opportunity for students to explore alternative identities and develop new paradigms in social learning communities.

Dr. Wayne Dyer’s best-selling book You’ll See It When You Believe It challenges us to create more fulfilled lives by changing the way we look at things. 3-D Virtual Environments provide a powerful tool for change. We are able to control, not only the way we look at things, but also what others see when they look at us.

And who’s to say which one of your identities is more ‘real’? Sociologist W.I. Thomas (1923) wrote, “If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

What new challenges will these changes entail? And what new opportunities can we encourage?

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Second Life attracts branding efforts

From retail marketing and politics to education and health care, everyone's looking for their place in Virtual Reality.

Although I have already integrated numerous instances of science fiction into the accepted reality in my everyday life, I am still amazed at the speed by which people are drawn into the science-fiction-like virtual realities of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. Modeled after Neil Stephenson’s Metaverse in the 1990s science fiction novel “Snow Crash”, Second Life is a MMORPG that is receiving a lot of press attention lately. Giles Whittell of Times Online reported approximately 400,000 “residents” on July 29, 2006. Today, October 13, 2006 Second Life has 911,356 registered residents. That is phenomenal growth!

Most all of this Second Life Metaverse is user created and exists on over 3,000 internet servers in warehouses a few miles south of San Francisco. Whittell reported that between 150 and 200 new servers were being added each month to accommodate this amazing growth rate.

Second Life creator, Linden Lab's policy of allowing users to retain ownership of their virtual creations is unprecedented in online games. Virtual goods and services are bought using the local currency, Linden dollars. Linden dollars can be exchanged for US currency. Within the past 24 hours, the US equivalency of $345,479 has been spent in Second Life on virtual goods.

Emphasizing creativity and communication, Second Life is attracting the branding efforts of more and more corporate entities.

“Branding is an attempt to garner an emotional response to one's products and/or services,” explains Ethan Allan Smith in his July 2006 posting about The Philosophy of Logo Design. And Second Life appears to be a popular place to create emotional response.

In September of 2005, Wells Fargo introduced Stagecoach Island. The free, multi-player, online role-playing game was developed to teach young adults important lessons in financial literacy.

Last month CNet News launched a permanent presence in a Second Life virtual building modeled loosely after their San Francisco offices, complete with an amphitheater where CNet reporters can do interviews, give talks and stream media in the virtual world.

Toyota has been giving away free virtual vehicles of its Scion model and will start selling them in Second Life to create experiences around their brand.

Adidas adidas (104, 182, 53). [<--SL link] has also opened a store on a private island in Second Life, focused on a campaign for a the Microride shoe. The virtual shoes come equipped with a jump script that allows the user's avatar to bounce around the Metaverse. Outside the store there is a "testing area" trampoline.

Starwood's new hotel brand, Aloft, has chosen to build buzz, brand loyalty and gain consumer input on design, by going virtual first. A prototype of the real hotel on Second Life, will be used to hold virtual marketing events and daily board meetings as well as obtaining valuable input from users.

Harvard Law School and the Harvard Extension School are jointly offering a class in the fall semester, 2006 in Second Life. The course in persuasive, empathic argument in the Internet space is studying many different media technologies to understand how they affect the communication process. Classes take place on Berkman Island, a space in Second Life that resembles Harvard Law School. The island is named after the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, of which Professor Nesson is a founder and co-director. Nesson, the Weld professor of law, is offering “CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion,” not only to Harvard Law School (HLS) students, but also to Extension School students as well as Internet users across the globe.

For the purpose of the Beyond Broadcast conference, an inworld broadcasting center and a 3D replica of the Ames Courtroom at the Harvard Law School was built in Second Life.

Sarah Robbins, a PhD candidate at Ball State University who is studying rhetoric and composition, is also experimenting with a class conducted in Second Life. Robbins, whose avatar goes by the name of Intellagirl Tully, has created a hybrid option for her English composition students, combining classes in real life one day of the week and with online classes in SL on another. Robbins is "very interested in how virtual environments can foster collaboration and community building."

Virtual Reality is also being recognized as an effective tool for political communications. Former Virginia governor, Mark Warner recently flew onto a virtual stage in Second Life in August for an interactive interview that has boosted his name recognition tremendously - especially among the techie population.

The health care industry is not to be excluded from the rush for a virtual presence. There is a group of medical consumers, caretakers and physicians that are working on creating a Virtual Hospital in Second Life to provide information services and activities for all interested people.

There is no doubt. Virtual Reality is having a profound impact on our changing society. Let's become a part of the process that utilizes technology to help create the positive possibilities of the future.

What do you envision?

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Monday, October 09, 2006

In-game voice communication

Project Massive, a Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute study led by Dr. A. Fleming Seay, has spent the past three years tracking the behavioral and social impact of massively multiplayer gaming on the average citizen by polling over 4000 people in the online community. A. Fleming Seay, driven by a desire to participate in the creation of the future, believes that multi-person experiences are the future of interactive entertainment. His studies found that social interaction was one of the most common motivations for MMORPG participation.
In an paper analyzing the study’s results entitled Project Massive 1.0 : Organizational Commitment, Sociability and Extraversion in Massively Multiplayer Online Games, Seay found that the reason for 77% of in-game communication is for the exchange of support and advice. The primary tools used included email, instant messenger, web forums, and standard telephony. In-game voice communication was identified as a feature that many would be interested in using.
Educators on the Second Life Campus appear to be aware of this expressed interest because last week I noticed that a little red phone booth showed up on campus. Apparently Vivox, a leader in integrated online voice communications, is giving away one million free phone minutes to Second Life residents who sign up. The free promotional minutes are good from October 4 until November 1, 2006, allowing Second Life residents to talk in real-time to other Second Life residents as well as to make phone calls from any of the Vivox Phone Booths within Second Life to any phone in North America. Also, residents can engage in live group voice chat on specially located Vivox microphones, supporting up to 5 users at a time.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

"Learning is really about identity formation”

I bumped into an educator avatar named Schomer Simpson in the process of teleporting onto the Second Life Campus. Schomer Simpson (aka Peter Twining, a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Curriculum and Teaching Studies (CATS) at Open University in the UK) responded, “I'm passionate about making education a more positive and empowering experience for learning,” when I queried him concerning his interests. Peter's current research focuses on constructing a new educational paradigm for the Information Age which he calls Schome, a hybrid liaison integrating school and home.

"Learning is really about identity formation - finding out and developing who you are," explains Twining on the Schome Community Forum. Virtual educational environments populated by avatars offer a unique opportunity for students to explore alternative identities and develop new paradigms in social learning communities.

The learning curve may feel a bit steep for those new to Second Life and inexperienced in the technological world of gaming, but I discovered an enchanting tool on the Second Life Campus, designed to help Real Life students practice their Second Life skills.
The teepees and totem pole make this Student Orientation Area easy to spot while flying over the campus.

I used my ‘page down’ key to make a graceful landing at the entrance to the practice stations.

First I walked to the pond and was instructed to use the ‘Camera Control’ to count the fish. The sound of a horse neighing prompted me to visit Jesper the Horse.

I right-clicked a spot on the ground next to him and chose “sit here” from the contextual menu. Then I clicked ‘stand-up’ and moved on to explore the Pacific NW Totem pole. The instructions for that station suggested that I use ‘Movement Control’ to fly to the height of the Totems, circle them, shout out 3 items I can see from the air and then land softly. ( I skipped the shouting part, finding myself to be still soft-spoken even within a text-based virtual communications system.)

The Musical Sounds Station taught how to make sounds and IM a friend. I touched the gongs and listened to the soothing sounds of the rainstick.

Another station introduced me to basic building tools while the ‘Touring the World’ station encouraged me to use the map to locate Amsterdam, Egypt, and Japan. Then I teleported round the world, taking snapshots that I could email to a friend and using ‘notecards’ to describe the locations.

The ‘Native Bird Puzzle Station’ provided another entertaining way to practice using the ‘Pie Control’ and the ‘Build Tools’ to break apart the puzzle and put it back together again.

Then it was off to the ‘Shopping Expedition Station’ to practice the Second Life skills of ‘offering Friendship,’ teleporting, and using Second Life currency. I used Linden dollars to purchase a new hair-do and some new clothing.

An advanced station guided me through the process of creating a Campfire using ‘Build Tools’ to move virtual wood logs to create a campfire.

I think this is an excellent orientation resource for new students. I had fun and learned a lot! I would like to compliment the creators of these Practice Stations. I see the owner's name as Cheryl Wiggins on many of the objects. I believe she is a member of the Second Life Grad Colony (please correct me if I am wrong).

Peter Twining’s visions of Schome have led to the development of the Aspire Pilot, a project that is setting up the basic infrastructure needed to support young adults in developing a community of people who are interested in creatively developing the future of education. Schome is looking at the possibility of establishing an educational presence in Second Life.

Best wishes to all!

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Staying Grounded

As excited as I am about the capabilities and possibilities in Virtual Worlds, sometimes Real Life; with the sun on my face, wind in my hair and my hands in the dirt, is just too good to ignore.

Savoring the last of the September Sunset while sipping some Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon, I reminisce over the beauty of the season’s abundance as I fill basket after basket with butternut, zucchini, yellow crookneck and spaghetti squash. Picking the little Juliette tomatoes becomes a meditation as I search amidst the 6 foot high lush greenery of my “tomato hedge”. This was my first year growing Juliette tomatoes. They appear to be half-way between a Roma and a Cherry tomato, maturing early, producing consistently throughout the season and appearing almost ornamental, with little bunches looking like oversized red grapes.

My mind meanders ahead to menu planning for the upcoming week. I will make a zucchini quiche and some vegetable soup and tomato salsa with generous amounts of freshly snipped cilantro. I want to add apples and blueberries and pecans to a baked butternut squash and the thought of spaghetti squash topped with tomatoes and fresh basil makes my mouth water. I do love to cook!

I line up the baskets of bounty in the center of the courtyard next to the fountain and think about what a pretty picture the arrangement would make, with the bright reds and yellows of the vegetables flanked by deep greens and oranges from a backdrop of perky marigolds. I take a mental picture and tuck it carefully away, along with other private treasures.

Orange light explodes across the horizon as the sun sinks from view. My time is limited. Already the light is growing dim. I retrieve a blue plastic bowl from the kitchen, along with a pair of scissors and move on, to the row of bushy basil.

It may be the last basil harvest of the season so I approach the process as one would a spiritual ritual. My eyes grow accustomed to the impinging darkness. I let the pungent freshness of the basil scent engulf me as I carefully select each leaf, holding the basket of fresh cut leaves to my face and inhaling long and luxuriously. Later I will add garlic and pine nuts and olive oil and parmesan cheese to create the pesto to dollop atop the golden spaghetti squash. I’ll bet it won’t be long before we figure out how to add the sensations of smell and taste to our virtual worlds.

In the meantime, instead of tapping a keyboard, my fingers search beneath the soil for a good hold on the root of a weed that I want to yank out. I know that the weather of the Pacific Northwest will offer me ample opportunity to escape into Virtual Worlds in the next six months. Tonight in my garden, feeling connected with Mother Earth, I immerse myself in the beauty, perfection and abundance of my Real Life.

And tomorrow, once again, there will be time to fly ... in my Second Life.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Escaping the Physical
Transcending Visual Barriers to Success

In a podcast by Second Life CEO, Philip Rosedale commented that Virtual Worlds have a higher density of usage in areas of bad weather & good band width. Cold, dark days in Great Britain, Scandinavia and the Pacific Northwest encourage the Digerati to escape into virtual environments consisting of sunny seaside plazas filled with fountains and flowers while networking with an international community of creative technical leaders. Time zones are transcended. There are events scheduled round-the-clock and round-the-world, with translation software in place to minimize language barriers.

In Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash, characters use a 3-D immersive digital environment to escape a depressing physical existence in a futuristic depiction of what is currently the Western United States. Mr. Ng, a Vietnam helicopter crash victim escapes his paraplegic body in a virtual re-creation of a French Indochinese plantation, complete with rice paddies, while running Ng Securities. A pizza delivery boy (calling himself the "deliverator") escapes his mundane job as a nobody, to become a warrior Prince of the cybernetic Underworld in the Metaverse.

Adolescent patients undergoing solid organ (kidney, lung, and heart) transplant procedures at Children’s Hospital Boston are able to escape some of the limitations of their physical bodies through "identity construction environments," a term coined by Marina Umaschi Bers during her doctoral thesis work in 2001. Bers created Zora, a three-dimensional virtual world, as part of her doctoral work at the MIT Media Lab, providing tools for children to create, chat, navigate, and inhabit a virtual city. Young people were able to communicate with other patients, nurses or doctors with a greater feeling of privacy. With avatars often in the form of cartoon characters with fictional names, many patients reported that they were able to distract themselves from the dialysis, enjoying virtual mobility with more anonymity to discuss embarrassing concerns. Bers received a 2005 National Science Foundation Career Award and five-year grant for her work on virtual communities of learning and care.

Visual Barriers to Success

What we look like does undoubtedly have an impact on how successful we are in life. Some determining factors include:
Kristie M. Engemann and Michael T. Owyang discuss the effects that visual appearances have within the business world in their article "So Much for That Merit Raise: The Link between Wages and Appearance" April of 2005. "In a recent book, journalist Malcolm Gladwell reported the results of his survey of about one-half of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. He found that the average CEO is approximately 3 inches taller than the average American man, who stands 5-foot-9."
Economists Nicola Persico, Andrew Postlewaite and Dan Silverman found that for white men in the United States of the same height, the one who was taller at 16 would most likely earn the higher wage.
Economists Susan Averett and Sanders Korenman studied the effects of weight on wages. They found that women who were obese earned 17 percent lower wages. A typical white woman weighing 64 pounds more than average, earns about 9 percent less.
Hamermesh and Biddle found a person with below-average looks tended to earn 9 percent less per hour, and an above-average person tended to earn 5 percent more per hour than an average-looking person.
Although we enact laws in an attempt to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of race in employment, education housing and the provision of goods and services, The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission cite examples of case studies where laws have not solved the problems.
In fact, in 2004, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received more than 27,000 complaints of racial discrimination, settled nearly 3,000 cases, and levied more than $61 million in fines, according to the most recent statistics available.
The brilliant teenager is passed over for being too young while the experienced applicant is thought to have too few years left. Companies claim to want experience, yet they don’t want someone who is old enough to have had that experience. Timothy Leary's mantra of the 60's of "Don’t trust anyone over 30" is just as limiting as those who become so set in their ways that they will not open to new ideas.

What will happen when we transcend these physical barriers?

Edward Castronova (Associate Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University) discusses Synthetic Economies and the Social Question in a July 2005 paper. He sees a future where mental abilities will dominate over physical attributes as predictors of wealth. With avatar-based educational opportunities and business relationships, the sources of these unfair inequalities of age, race, height, race, and beauty are removed.

I’m curious. When given a choice, I wonder how many will choose to embrace the uniqueness of their physical attributes in order to connect with other individuals with similar backgrounds and experiences? And how many will choose to create new bodies that they feel more accurately reflect who they are on the inside?
How will these technology advancements impact our society?

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