Virtual Worlds London
I was at the Virtual Worlds Conference in London. Unlike at the time of the last post, I was at this conference physically, in real life, not attending the talks, but interviewing the exibitors about the Virtual Worlds and services they were providing.
I was there to do two things – the first was to report on the state-of-play about the use of Virtual Worlds in education and the second to network and try out a proof-of-concept experiment binding several technologies together that could be used in schools and colleges.
Towards a Digital Culture
The conference was filled with lots of business people, developers, owners of startups, tecchies, people pitching for funding and Virtual World gurus from all over the world. Some had paid a lot of money to be there and to pitch their ideas. It opened my eyes to how big the market actually is and at least one teacher, Dai Barnes, gave me feedback on Seesmic about my video coverage, to say how it made him rethink the use of virtual worlds, which was wonderful.
Guess what – there was a conference backchannel on Twitter, #vwlondon, where all the smart people hung out. What is more, people were using it to network with others face to face in the breaks in mini unconferences, just as I had seen teachers doing the week before.
Some exhibitors were clueless but the smart ones were on the fastrack. But were they in competiton with each other? Of course they were but they were also collaborating – letting their products and passion shine out.
As this conference progressed I monitored and joined or left groups and followed and unfollowed people on Twitter. Twitter doesn’t have to be for life – if you make a connection with someone over time it usually does result in a real life meetup at some point in the future.
These were exactly the same ways of going about business that the teachers and academics were doing at the Handheld Learning Conference a week earlier. It bound some people together faster and more efficiently than anyone working a room to network could have, no matter how good their face to face skills. What is more, it segmented groups according to interest.
Sure some people already knew each other but others were co-opted and introduced because of this process and it was intriguing to watch in action.
The two groups were entirely different, i.e. teachers and tecchie business people but they were doing the same things – looks like a cultural phenomenon to me.
Conference 2.0 ?
As I am writing this blog I get a Twitter notification that, David Burden, a great interviewee, is having a rant at how the way conferences are “done” and suggests a new way, Conference 2.0 – every conference organiser should take note.
David’s interview is quite interesting because he has considered virtual worlds very carefully. Because he works in the University sector and business, he sees a wide variety of uses by his clients and he obviously knows his stuff. He talks about different exemplars here and if you are in education at whatever level this may well make you think again about their use.
These are the kinds of people who are dynamically changing the landscape of how we do things. Going into the Virtual World business is a big risk. It takes vision and hard work – but it’s an increasingly competitive field.
It was very interesting to see how the closer I got to the heads of those businesses, and the further away from their PR people, the more information I got. In fact the flatter the business was, the more info I could get, and the better the video interview became. It helped to be able to contextualise the interview with discussions before and after as well to get a greater insight.
Here are some video highlights from the conference – if you click on the first pic at the beginning of the blog you’ll see my intro. I set the equipment up in 5 minutes and broadcast it straight from the spot out through a 3G wireless modem to Seesmic
The 15 or so videos needed no post production, they went straight up to a web page in seconds being encoded on the fly. In fact I think I recruited a fair number of business people onto the Seesmic mindset that day. It was proof of concept for me and saved me loads of time in post production. Go and see Seesmic – you might be surprised at the number of people in your Twitter stream on there – here and in the States.
I used a Mac laptop, a DV camera and tripod and a wireless sim modem. It was outside broadcasting in a box. This system could easily be used by teachers and pupils (subject to proper safeguards and AUPs) outside of the school. There’s no tecchie holdups – it’s instant and therefore perfect for all sorts of media and other activities.
I noticed quickly that being a good interviewee is an art. Nearly every one I talked with had good communication skills and, as usual, the pre and post interview talk was far more interesting. Next time I’ll try to take a mobile phone for those informal discussions, because that seems to be a protocol that is evolving as less intimidating.
In nearly every case, these business people are talking the same language as the teachers and academics I observed the previous week. The mindset is the same and they agree there should be wholesale change in the way we are doing things in schools.
Entrepreneurial Spirit and willingness to try new things
After telling me about his e-learning business and other ventures, he gave me a tip for teaching a lesson using a mobile phone which he had seen. Listen carefully to what he says at the end about the fact that there will be jobs we can’t train for in the future.
Having the Vision
Mal Burns produces a phenomenal amount of media about Second Life. He has a Digital TV channel and numerous blogs about the whole phenomenon. I don’t know where he gets the time to do all this but he does! Just listen to him speak on the subject for a few minutes and you’ll begin to get some idea of the rich kind of new virtual spaces people are beginning to inhabit. They are immersive and engaging and wonderful places to reconfigure the learning landscape.
John Mahon owns Virtual Dublin. This is a Mirror World in Second Life. Mirror Worlds are close representations of real world places in virtual space.
John, despite having a very impressive website showcasing his virtual worlds, is not a tecchie. As he told me – he flies aeroplanes for a living! But listen to him talk about the process of how people interact in his mirror world and you might begin to understand why his particular patch of Second Life is so popular. Not only does he mirror the buildings but also the cultural events. It could give a few pointers to educationalists about community and engagement in learning.
Mark Duffy of Second Places is working with Open Sim. If you don’t know what Open Sim is then take a look at the video – he explains it much better than I do. Basically it is a virtual world based on Open Source versions of the code that built Second Life.
Probably the most fascinating conversation I had all day was with Matt Furman. He spoke eloquently about the mechanics and contexts of getting certain types of e-learning. He branched out into other areas of discussion about the future and types of Avatar which were fascinating.
We talked afterwards too about haptic 3D interfaces and translatation software linked to facial expression. It seems that things are going to get more and more realistic in Virtual Spaces…
And after that, again, through Twitter I discovered by a comment from Rich White, that he thought Matt could almost be describing a free OSS application he had developed called Edusim. Within minutes of uploading this video to Seesmic it was on the web being linked to and that led me to Matt again and Edusim. Edusim is an implementation of the Open Source Cobalt/Croquet OS.
It’s entirely free and allows you to build a very limited, small virtual world on your server and communicate and interact with users on other machines. This looks like an excellent starting place for Primary Schools if you are technically minded. It can even be used with a whiteboard and the initial results look impressive. I downloaded it and built a few objects – it looks like it could be quite interesting if it develops further. There is an Edusim Ning Group as well.
Open Source software will feature highly in the future – be sure of it. Becta has just launched a new initiative on OSS called Open Source Schools – it looks as if the site is powered by Drupal which is an excellent choice very fit for purpose in this case.
Some of the consultants and teachers working on the focus group; Josie Fraser, Ian Usher, Doug Belshaw and Miles Berry have an amazing amount of expertise and respect from the teaching community and so this should be an exciting and contextually interesting launch. Let’s hope people engage and seed it with exemplars and good ideas.
I hope this blog post has given you a bit more insight into Virtual Worlds; if you have time please do look at the videos on Seesmic.
In the next post I will be looking at communities Outside the Wire who are using virtual spaces and informal, collaborative learning in even more non-traditional ways.
The next blog post will be about the different uses of Virtual Spaces within Virtual Worlds – formal and Informal for learning and leisure.
To end this blog here is an interview with Clare Rees, European Marketing Director of Second Life talking about their policy for education.