Thursday, May 27, 2010

Telepresence Education for a Smarter World

Telepresence Education for a Smarter World

By Giulio Prisco and J. Simone Riccardi

There can be no doubt that the explosion of Internet technology started in the 90s has had a huge impact on our culture. For the first time in history, geographically distributed large groups of people have been able to interact in near-real time. Usenet groups and mailing lists, and then the Web, message boards, blogs, social networks, IP voice and video conferencing, have enabled and empowered global communities held together by common interests and world-views instead of geographical proximity. This has permitted a very significant acceleration in nearly all fields of culture and human endeavor: our society has, in a very measurable sense, become smarter. Of course, since Information Technology professionals and skilled amateurs are themselves among the most passionate and active users of the Internet, powerful feedback loops have enormously accelerated the development of Internet technology itself, which has arguably been the fastest developing technology sector in the last two decades. In the last few years, much of the action has been on Web 2.0 and social networking: a much more interactive Web centered on live interaction between people. Everyone loves Facebook and Twitter because they permit a much more immediate and deep, "immersive", interaction with others.

New even more immersive online collaboration technologies such as VoIP, IPTV, videoconferencing, online sensor networks (IoT, Internet of Things), 3D Virtual Reality (VR) technologies developed by the gaming industry, and Augmented Reality, are converging to create powerful telepresence platforms. Wikipedia (another wildly popular Internet success story) defines telepresence as "a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, at a location other than their true location." Telepresence systems offer a very high degree of immersion and give an impression of "being there" so powerful to permit users suspending disbelief and becoming fully engaged in the online experience. The telepresence term is often used in a slightly more specific sense, but we use it in a general sense to include immersive 3D virtual environments.

The user interface, which had not changed much in the last two decades, is now beginning to undergo some important paradigm shifts. Touch-based devices such as Iphones, Ipads, Android phones and tablets, and large screens driven by touch or gestures, offer new and more immediate human-machine interfacing options. 3D visualization options, both stereoscopic vision and virtual reality, and 3D input options such as head tracking goggles and haptic devices, once confined to specialized niches such as high end video gaming, are becoming mainstream and can be found in more and more applications. And finally, there is the first generation of neural interface devices such as the EEG-driven Epoc. These new interface options will all contribute to making telepresence more and more immersive and "real".

In the 90s, the explosive growth of the Internet changed the world, and made it a better place. In the 10s, an explosive growth of telepresence technology will change the world even more, and make it an even better place. We wish we could make more explicit predictions but, as we all well know, making short term prediction is difficult. Making longer term predictions is easier, because we can average turbulent fluctuations out and follow the main trends. So, while we cannot predict which platforms will lead the emerging telepresence industry in 2012, we can confidently predict that telepresence will be an important part of our online lives in 2020.

What does this mean for education?

A few months ago at a conference on emerging technologies in a big world city, we were talking to a reporter who at some point enthusiastically said something like "this is a gathering of the smartest persons on the planet". Flattering for the audience, but untrue. Elementary statistics show that most smartest persons on the planet can probably be found in remote rural areas or in developing regions, far from the big world cities, and they do not know they are among the potentially smartest persons of the planet because they never had access to appropriate education. The human capital, which in our developing knowledge society is the most important type of capital, represented by these persons, is lost to themselves and to others.

Even in the developed world, people may be unable to receive quality education because of lack of time, or money. And in the developed world we also have the specific problem that many jobs, for example in manufacturing sectors, are irreversibly migrating offshore, leaving many workers unemployed if they cannot participate in a knowledge-based economy by receiving appropriate education. Which in this case must no longer be only institutional education, but also professional education, and lifelong education. In all cases, most people cannot afford studying full time, or moving elsewhere to receive education.

All these problems can be solved, of course, by making education flexible enough to reach all those who need it. To do this, we need to ensure that: a) students (institutional, professional and lifelong students) can receive quality education independently of their geographical location; b) students can freely choose their own study time, which in turn requires a carefully chosen balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning time; c) students can feel fully engaged in the educational experience, which requires deep personal interaction with teachers and fellow students; d) teachers and instructors can monitor and evaluate the progress of remote students.

It is evident that telepresence technologies can provide good answers and facilitate meeting these requirements, and we can conclude that in 2020 the educational system will have been radically changed by the new evolutionary wave of the Internet, based on telepresence. And then things will advance even further, leading to science-fiction like scenarios. In a chapter of the book "Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual", Springer 2010, one of the authors wrote: "[Virtual worlds] can already be used as a telepresence and telecollaboration option much better, and much more immersive, than videoconferencing or other traditional forms of remote collaboration.If videoconferencing is one step below a critical threshold for suspension of disbelief, Second Life is already one step above. The evolution of VR will provide next generation telework platforms, which will really enable, and empower, global communities. Thus, its social and political importance will be huge. Further evolution of VR and other emerging technologies will result in science-fiction-like scenarios, from instant telepathic communication to full transcendence of biological constrains..."

However, it is important to find out how to get there from here.

First, we must advocate open and affordable high bandwidth Internet access for all. As it has been said at Google I/O 2010, "web access is one of the human rights of our century". This does not depend on technology alone but on specific political choices.

Second, we must start developing compelling educational experiences, working methodologies, best practices and success stories by using the technologies that we have today. Of course in 10 years we will have much better technologies, but these will be a result of the work we do today with existing technologies.

What are the main features and tools of a telepresence educational platform? Screen sharing, file sharing, application sharing, real-time, simultaneous multi-access audio/video connections, 3D physical presence through avatars. All these features are found (or implementable) in the virtual worlds platforms described below. Furthermore, these system have already existing or planned versions suitable for mobile devices, which will unfold new ways of use, many of them still unknown.

World of Warcraft is the most popular massively multiuser 3D virtual world, or metaverse. WoW (a frequently used shorthand) is our kids' favorite videogame, but it has been used also for other purposes. National Science Foundation sociologist William Sims Bainbridge has recently published a book on "The Warcraft Civilization" (MIT Press, 2010) where he discusses, among other things, the first scientific conference in WoW, in which we had the pleasure and the honor to participate.

Second Life is probably the most popular non-gaming metaverse. The press has not been overly SL-friendly in the last few years, but the same press had hailed SL as the Next Big Thing in 2007, and dismissed the web as useless in 1995. Second Life is often criticized for its "porn & gambling" image. But porn and gambling are among the things that people do, and any platform will be invaded by them once it becomes popular. Also, the sex and gambling industries have always been early adopters of new technologies (what was the first commercial application of web video? Yeah, right).

The truth about Second Life is: it is a very advanced metaverse platform, it has great technology, and a large community of very passionate users. Since SL is not a videogame with fixed goals but an open ended metaverse limited only by the imagination of its users, everything can be found in SL: as we said, fake sex and real gambling, but also music shows and dance clubs, art exhibitions, book presentations, poetry readings, business meetings and real job interviews. And education. The popular mailing list "SL Educators (The SLED List)" has thousands of members and is one of the most active communities dedicated to educational technologies. Surfing the SLED list shows that hundreds of colleges, universities and schools, worldwide, are using SL to prototype new forms of online learning. Some prestigious universities use SL as a parallel campus in virtual reality.

We have a long experience in helping educational institutions to design and deploy educational initiatives in virtual reality, beginning in SL in 2006 and then adding other platforms. Our portfolio includes many professional education projects often based on accurate simulations of workplace situations and actual machinery with realistic behaviors, many universities and learning organizations, and some large global companies using SL as a virtual campus for staff meetings and training. Our best known customer is probably the Cervantes Institute, the largest educational organization of the Spanish speaking world, which has been using SL for language learning and cultural presentations.

One of the authors (JSR) is an architect who has taught architectural design in several courses through virtual worlds and discovered a great potential, related not only to the 3D platform itself, but also to the way of creating new designs in real-time in a multiuser collaborative online space. This permits sharing the knowledge not only through formal theoretical schemes but also, more directly, in a virtual building site. In addition, students can create their own projects within these platforms, sharing them with their colleagues, and revisions can be made directly in the virtual environment. If a student has commuting problems, (s)he can connect from home and get a full revision of the work as in a class.

From our experience we can conclude that virtual worlds, even with today's technologies which will seem very primitive seen from 2020, already permit designing and deploying strongly interactive and immersive learning projects. Current best practice examples make full use of all techniques and media types supported by the platform: suggestive 3D scenarios relevant to the project's objective (for example, NASA has produced full models of the surface of Mars complete with atmospheric phenomena for space education), 3D sketches often developed on-the-fly by students and instructors, Power Point presentations, white-boards, recorded and real time streaming video, and integration with Learning Management Systems such as Moodle. In Second Life, the recent introduction of a new generation of the client software (Viewer 2.0) with much more advanced media handling features enables more ambitious educational projects.

We have learned many lessons, but the most important one is that a successful online educational project in virtual worlds needs the full commitment of the host organization management, the teachers and instructors who participate in the project, and the students. The latter is usually very easy to achieve: students, especially those familiar with computer games, feel immediately at home, love the game-like experience and participate actively and creatively. The same applies to the teachers and instructors more familiar with and passionate about new computer technologies, who often choose evangelist roles in their institutions. Teachers less familiar with modern computer technologies, on the contrary, can be more difficult to persuade because they can be scared of new computer technologies and not feel able to perform their role in a unfamiliar online environment. This is one of those situations, more and more common, where teachers must also learn from students. Management can be reluctant to commit resources and give visibility to experimental projects based on innovative technologies and, in some cases, can be scared of potential image problems ("wasting taxpayers' money and students' time on videogames..."). These problems can be solved, but experience shows that a successful project must deeply involve management, senior faculty and teachers since the very beginning.

These issues apply to telepresence platforms other than SL as well, but the (perceived) negative image problems ("Porn & Gambling") are more often associated to SL than to other platforms suitable to ediucation. Another SL-specific problem is the fact that many users are very jealous and protective of the early "SL culture", strongly centered on pseudonymity and non-disclosure of real life information, and tend to vocally resist all technical innovations which could facilitate the intrusion of reality into their "magic circle". When voice communication was introduced in SL in 2007, it caused an intense debate that still continues today. After the launch of the Viewer 2.0 a few months ago, with many significant innovations in media handling, many "immersionists" (see the well known "Immersion vs. Augmentation" article by Henrik Bennetsen) have complained after realizing that the new features open the door to easy videoconferencing in SL. Today's SL can be used as a suitable telepresence platform with all the technical features needed for immersive education... but the locals may resist.

There are, of course, alternatives to SL equally or even more suitable to educational needs. For example the OpenSim project is developing an open source equivalent, partly interoperable with SL. OpenSim is one of the virtual platforms recommended by the Immersive Education Initiative, together with other two platforms: Open Wonderland and Open Cobalt. The Wonderland project, developed by Sun Microsystems and orphaned after the acquisition by Oracle, has resurfaced as the open source Open Wonderland project. Open Cobalt is another very promising open source P2P telepresence platform, perhaps the most innovative, based on extremely interesting technology previously developed by the Open Croquet project. Despite being very promising, these three open source projects are still in beta or even alpha, very interesting for hackers and IT experts but not yet suitable for large scale operational deployment for education. However, all three platforms are advancing, and in particular OpenSim is making some very rapid advances that may soon differentiate it from the model SL platform.

A few years ago, while doing a consulting project for an educational foundation, we stumbled upon one of our current favorite platforms: Teleplace is a fully operational, value added implementation of the technologies developed by the open source Croquet and Cobalt projects. It is a telepresence platform which includes 3D virtual environments, full audio and videoconferencing for multiple users, desktop screen sharing, shared text editors and white-boards, and the possibility to easily import Office documents for collaborative editing via the built-in Open Office application. Teleplace also has a built-in collaborative browser, the possibility to easily import images, 3D models and video, and last but not least a tool to video record and/or webcast sessions. These features, and the fact that Teleplace is very easy to use, make it one of the most suitable platforms for telepresence education. Teleplace has been chosen to implement the teleXLR8 project, a "telepresence community for cultural acceleration" focused on science and technology education, currently in closed beta, which will offer public seminars for "citizen-scientists" as well as specific e-learning courses.

The Teleplace Enterprise Server, and also the open source OpenSim, Open Wonderland and Open Cobalt, can be installed on any server with the required features and performance. Until a few months ago this was not the case of Second Life, which was only available as a service run by Linden Lab, with no possibility to install it on other servers, and no easy options to back up data. After the launch of Second Life Enterprise, Linden Lab is now offering a self-hosted version of the Second Life server software.

The two operational platforms which we have identified, Second Life and Teleplace, are more and more frequently used for innovative educational projects by high profile institutions. The Oxford University, the UK Open University, the Imperial College, the JISC funded PREVIEW project based on the PIVOTE virtual learning sisyem, the Play2Train project, the New Media Consortium and the National University of Singapore have very active projects in SL, and other important institutions such as Princeton and Harvard, and the Cervantes Institute of Spain, use SL for specific educational projects. Teleplace is used by many high profile universities such as the Project Based Learning (PBL) Lab at Stanford University, which recently won a 21st Century Award for Best Practices in Distance Learning Distinction recognizing its Architecture, Engineering, Construction (AEC) Global Teamwork course, which uses Teleplace to enable global, cross-university teams to collaborate virtually. It is also extensively used for civilian and military government projects in the US (see for example the vGov site). Both platforms are used also by global firms for internal professional and lifelong training.

One of the authors (JSR) has developed many architectural design courses in the open source metaverse of OpenSim, independently built and completely free. Being OpenSim a fully configurable system, we might think to make a special version for PCs with a low computing power. We could eliminate the most spectacular photo-realistic effects, aiming at 3d graphics less complex but more effective for those who can't afford a last generation PC. In this way new opportunities can bloom also for those who still have limited computing resources, but will inevitably be reached by Internet in few years. However, OpenSim is not yet mature to sustain complex projects with sufficient operational stability. At the moment, the available operational telepresence platforms suitable for educational applications are Teleplace and Second Life. The first, more business oriented and targeted at professional applications, the second more creative and focused on user expression. We recommend to educational projects to experiment with both to develop their own approach. Organizations with technical know-how should also experiment with one or more of the open source development projects mentioned above.

Nowhere is the "cultural difference" between Teleplace and Second Life more evident than in the choice of avatars. In Second Life, users build or buy wildly creative avatars, and these are often the real attention catcher in SL events. On the contrary Teleplace has a set of standard avatars to choose from, in business-like, professional or moderately casual attire. But most Teleplace users prefer the default "Simple Shape" avatar: a very simple stylized, vaguely humanoid shape meant for wearing a picture or a webcam video feed of the user on the "face", and a corporate badge on the chest. These features are very useful in meetings. Even more useful is the fact that many user inputs, such as moving a cursor over a document, are color-coded with the color of the user (If I am wearing a blue avatar, others will see a blue cursor when I move my cursor over a document). These simple avatars make it easier to focus on a task by not stealing attention from it. Most first time Teleplace users who already know Second Life find Teleplace a simpler and more operational platform for telepresence meetings and education, but many miss the wild creativity, imagination and fun of the best SL environments and communities.


The Warcraft Civilization, by William Sims Bainbridge, MIT Press 2010
First Scientific Conference in WoW
Future Evolution of Virtual World as Communication Environments, by Giulio Prisco, in Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual, Springer 2010
Immersion vs. Augmentation article by Henrik Bennetsen
Immersive Education Initiative
Open Wonderland
Open Cobalt
Open Croquet
Oxford University's Virtual Simulation in Second Life
Stanford PBL Lab
Open University's Open Life: Teaching and Learning in Second Life
Imperial College's e-learning site
PREVIEW project
Play2Train project
Instituto Cervantes in Second Life
National University of Singapore in Second Life
New Media Consortium
Virtual Government (vGov)