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.

REFERENCES

The Warcraft Civilization, by William Sims Bainbridge, MIT Press 2010
http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=12056
First Scientific Conference in WoW
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/320/5883/1592c
Future Evolution of Virtual World as Communication Environments, by Giulio Prisco, in Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual, Springer 2010
http://giulioprisco.blogspot.com/2010/02/online-worlds-convergence-of-real-and.html
NASA CoLab
http://colab.arc.nasa.gov/virtual
Immersion vs. Augmentation article by Henrik Bennetsen
http://slcreativity.org/wiki/index.php?title=Augmentation_vs_Immersion
Immersive Education Initiative
http://immersiveeducation.org/
OpenSim
http://opensimulator.org/wiki/Main_Page
Open Wonderland
http://openwonderland.org/
Open Cobalt
http://www.opencobalt.org/
Open Croquet
http://www.opencroquet.org/index.php/Main_Page
Teleplace
http://www.teleplace.com/
teleXLR8
http://telexlr8.wordpress.com/
Oxford University's Virtual Simulation in Second Life
http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/secondlife
Stanford PBL Lab
http://pbl.stanford.edu/
Open University's Open Life: Teaching and Learning in Second Life
http://www.open.ac.uk/colmsct/activities/details/detail.php?itemId=478b5caf2c3f7
Imperial College's e-learning site
http://www.elearningimperial.com/
PREVIEW project
http://www.elu.sgul.ac.uk/preview/blog/
PIVOTE
http://pivote.info/
Play2Train project
http://play2train.us/wordpress/
Instituto Cervantes in Second Life
http://secondlife.cervantes.es/es/default.htm
National University of Singapore in Second Life
https://u.nus.edu.sg/secondlife/default.aspx
New Media Consortium
http://www.nmc.org/
Virtual Government (vGov)
http://www.ocio.usda.gov/vgov/

17 comments:

  1. Hi Giulio,

    It seems to me that there is fundamental feature lacking for these tools for becoming good education devices: intuitive manipulation of objects, so that one may conduct experiments, essay and errors strategies, etc. Here is for instance an example of what I see as a perfect tool for education (and research, btw, because in my opinion education and research will become one very soon, even for kids; constructionism, "amateur science" and hacking being the future form taken by education ):
    http://fold.it/portal/
    Could second life or teleplace be a perfect place for development of an application like foldit ? Perhaps, with lot and lot of scripting, and would the effort be worthy? What would second life or teleplace really bring to foldit?
    But if you play with foldit, you will notice that the mouse interface is quite complex: foldit tries to make protein folding intuitive, open to a 12 year old, but the interface is not so simple. With a dataglove, things would be a lot more intuitive.
    Other educational tools of interest are starlogo, especially in the TNG version (http://education.mit.edu/drupal/starlogo-tng), which tries to propose a kind of intuitive, graphic programming language (a version of Scratch). but again, it is not so easy to use, simply because current computer interface aren't adapted to this kind of lego playing. You cannot manipulate spontaneously the bricks (at the end, I personally stopped to use starlogo tng and came back to netlogo more classical programming language, i finally found it easier to use the "classical" way).
    In other words, dataglove is an absolute must for really good education software. If we have a dataglove, 3D may become an asset, but not before. Wiimote and Wii balance board, imho, have been a fabulous revolution in interfaces, but even Nintendo new devices lack the possibility of doing complex manipulations. Really, hand is the key.

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  2. SL would bring shared presence to fold.it. A student could watch a more experienced mentor use the interface, both inworld and by viewing the mentor desktop streamed inworld. Moreover, they could swap roles at any time and communicate freely using voice. The mentor, of course, could be another student.

    I think the option of moving between different input devices, including hand input, is the way forward.

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  3. As Peter says, multiuser virtual reality would bring shared presence (everyone can see what others are doing in realtime) and collaborative edutainment sessions to foldit, and also provide a much more intuitive, native 3D user interface.

    Re datagloves: as mentioned in the essay, I believe user interfaces are about to undergo radical paradigm shifts in this decade, with VR head tracking glasses, datagloves etc. Also, I believe the accelerometer based tilt sensor in Iphone and Android devices (who does not love teeter http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEy6qM93mjw ?)opens up a lot of new, largely unexplored 3D user interface options.

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  4. I should add that present economic realities may well constrain the extent to which multiple input devices can be deployed, both on campus and remotely.

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  5. A number of programs require students to purchase their own laptops.

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  6. @ Peter and Kate: I think it is a safe to assume that the students have suitable equipment. At least in the more developed regions of the world, they usually do. For the rest of the world, let's wait and see if initiatives like OLPC have the impact they deserve.

    Most educational institutions that I know would never buy computing equipment for students. And this is good: if they did, they would waste years in decision making and byzantine approval and purchasing procedures, and at the end they would buy 5 years old obsolete equipment.

    There are exceptions of course, but I think in today's world consumers move much faster than institutions. Which brings me to another point: since many years I see a trend with fast-moving citizens bypassing slow-moving institutions, and wonder what the impact on the education system will be.

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  7. One early commend before I dig into this more. I am really fed up with even the supposed friends of SL talking about porn and gambling when they speak about SL. It is defensive and incorrect. LL took measures to very seriously limit gambling many years ago. While there is sex in SL this is not surprising considering there are people in SL. It is not at all that obtrusive and LL again has taken steps to keep its public appearance limite to designated regions. Also, I question the very use of the term "porn". Sex is not porn.

    There is so incredibly much in SL that this apologetic tone as if the BS accusations of being dominated by sex and porn were true is very frustrating. You don't escape negative publicity, especially inaccurate publicity, by continuing to mention it.

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  8. @Serendipity - of course I agree with you, but I am afraid many administrators in the public and private sector don't. They have seen some bad press linking SL to porn & gambling, and this is the image they have of SL. And of course I agree with you, sex is not porn, but I am afraid the same administrators might not see it this way.

    Believe me, I know what I am talking about. I have done 4 or 5 major projects for universities and educational institutions in SL, but I have tried to sell ten times as many. Even when teachers were enthusiastic about the project, I have _always_ heard the standard comment about porn & gambling from more senior admins, and most of the times this was the reason why they did not want to proceed with the project.

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  9. A friend asked me a question last night that I felt a bit challenged to answer. She asked "What is it I can do with a avatar in a virtual world that I cannot do just as well at my desk with a good 3D web and other more specialized 3D tool plus better web video-conferencing and virtual remote presence (but no avatar particularly needed) than I have today?"

    I especially thing it is a good question because particularly for purposes like presentations, education, 3D virtual shopping, flycam-ing around physical world conferences and meetings from affair and so on a large part of the value can be gained that way. Also all the tech for those propositions is being built out by many many more parties than are interested in creating really good virtual worlds.

    I answered that it is much more immersive when dealing with other people to meet in some embodiment in a 3D space than it is to be only a voice or text and perhaps a talking head in some chat or video chat. We are evolved to one more than a tiny stream of information from about those we interact with. Generally the more the better. I could have given other answers that are more longterm and future thinking but then she would say I was bringing in science fiction. :)

    Now there are applications that you cannot do as well in any sort of Web technology today. Mostly these involve creating interesting 3D spaces, presentations and demos - especially those that are scripted and/or interactive with the user/viewer. Jon Brouchoud, for instance has greatly increased and expanded his architecture business by building his designs in Second Life. He creates both the detailed building and a reasonable representation of the grounds the customer wants to put it on in SL. The customer, who may live on the other side of the world, can visit the house and experience it by walking around within it. Now, you could do that with a decent 3D viewer on the web and 3D models. But the feel would not be as thorough from a "being there" perspective. To get more of that you end up with a virtual world.

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  10. (rest of above comment this environment insisted was "too long")

    There is also a synergy where many things that would be expensive to perfect in the physical world are cheaper to experiment with in the virtual world. There are also virtual/physical world mashups that are possible and interesting. Like physical event overflow or additional attendance in virtual worlds and vice versa. Or information flows from virtual world systems and experiments into real world systems and vice versa. The media on prim is especially exciting. In principle it may be possible to produce a richer video/computational data space in SL than in the physical world. Non-virtual servers do the heavy lifting and the user's client displays the streams involved.

    But clearly there is much that can be and is likely to be done outside virtual worlds in some of these areas. A large part (but by no means all) of the value in using virtual worlds for some needs will depend on really good access from within the world to these tools. It is especially dependent on shared, collaborative tools and viewing.

    I would not call Open Cobalt the most innovative platform. No real physics, no flying. No built in tools for much of the content types in SL. Animation by programming it yourself at low level only for anything beyond the extremely rudimentary, very little camera control. The underlying system architecture I will give you is innovative and the portals are nice. But as a virtual world it is (except for portals) far behind the times.

    So does Teleplace. It has a bit more ability than Open Cobalt but is still missing much. I haven't seen any very sophisticated objects in Teleplace. So what kind of 3D object content can it import? I don't agree it is that good for education or much else at this point that video conferencing solutions on the web do not do better. I don't agree most users prefer the simple shape. They simply either do not know their options or consider a canned look not worth it and do not feel that sense of immersion enough in Teleplace to really care much. That is not a simple user preference.

    There are other ways to get good graphics besides eliminating features for lower powered clients. If the device can stream video basically it should be able to show 3D terrain well. But that is a larger topic. And, by the time these solutions are implement we are likely to have sufficiently more capable devices in small form factors that the issue becomes moot anyway.

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  11. @Serendipity:

    I answered that it is much more immersive when dealing with other people to meet in some embodiment in a 3D space...

    This is one of the standard answers, and one that I frequently give to people asking this question. But I am afraid most applications don't really need that much immersion. Take a look at the links in this post. It seems clear that very soon Google will launch a solid and user friendly multiuser videoconferencing system fully integrated in Google Apps (Google Docs, Wave etc.) I am afraid their solution, call it "Google Meetings" as in the current rumors, will be good enough for most immersive collaboration applications.

    Do we really need avatars for immersion? Can't a fast, good, solid and very easy to use multiuser videoconferencing system, perfectly integrated with our favorite collaboration tools, offer a similar degree of immersion?

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  12. @Serendipity:

    Re Open Cobalt. It has physics, flying etc., the difference is that you have to program it yourself. Open Cobalt is not a VR world, but a platform for building VR worlds. It seems to me that as a platform it is good enough to implement all the features found in other VR worlds. Teleplace is built on top of the Open Croquet system, of which Cobalt is the current version.

    In Teleplace you can import all 3D content, with maximum two format conversions (one to import the 3D model into 3DSmax, and one to export it in one of the natively supported formats), and you can import .kmz directly. Of course, 3D models must be optimized not to create lag.

    Actually, I find Teleplace much more immersive than SL, because it usually has much less lag, and because for me seeing and hearing others is an important factor for immersion. Of course, as we have discussed many times, I am more interested in VR in the telepresence sense than in the virtual world sense (you know what I mean).

    Re virtual 3D creations and architecture: I agree, these are applications that really needs multiuser VR, and we should focus on this kind of applications for VR advocacy. SL is a good platform, but multiuser worldlets based on Unity3D are also good. In passing, I consider the ongoing development of SL web clients based on Unity3D a very important development.

    Note: this article has been republished on the IEET blog, see also the interesting discussion there.

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  13. @Remi and Giulio

    Datagloves are actually likely to be superseded quickly by lidar controls like the xBox's Project Natal. As Lidars continue to advance in sophistication the need to use any sort of body wear is likely to become less and less important. Haptic systems are as yet still too primitive to make it worth the added cost for cheap effective VR, so I expect haptics to remain primarily in research labs for the rest of the decade unless some of the ultrasonics based systems I have seen make significant advances. Lidar's advantages are just too strong in comparison, and require far less hassle for the end user. Why put on gloves to manipulate an object when a lidar controller can read the position of your hands and fingers?

    Additionally, with advanced highspeed computers, flexible displays and the probable integration of clothes and electronics, a lidar five to ten years from now could be integrated into a vr headset that could track head and upper body motions, and extrapolate the position of the rest of the body using anatomical modeling.

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  14. @Valkyrie

    Of course interface technologies that do not requite the user to wear special interface gear have an advantages.

    I doubt current lidar controls can resolve fine movements (like typing) at a distance. Also, they require the user to always be in unobstructed line of sight, which is a limitation.

    However, five to ten years are a long time for a rapidly developing technology, and I really look forward to seeing VR interface technologies in 2015 and 2020. Probably a combination of all techniques mentioned here, plus others.

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  15. >I find Teleplace much more immersive than SL<.

    I find Halo 3 much more immersive than SL.

    Anything designed to accomplish one thing (or only a few things) can devote all of its resources to that one task. SL, on the other hand, has a purpose that goes beyond being a "3D chatroom", or a first-person-shooter or anything else that you could probably do in SL, but never as well as with some other platform designed specifically to do that one thing and nothing else.

    Of course, once you tire of the narrow range of services/entertainment etc the specialist platform offers, it becomes useless. But a generalist like SL continues to be useful indefinitely, because it is not nearly so limited in what it can deliver.

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  16. @Extie: Being flexible, general purpose and open ended is a unique and very important feature of SL.

    One does not necessarily tire of the narrow range of services/entertainment etc the specialist platform offers. Email is still my favorite way to communicate with others!

    By the way, I think I have found a good way to do videoconferencing and collaboration in SL. It will of course take some work, but the foundations seem solid.

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  17. i am regular visitor of your site and you are writing very nice so keep posting university admission

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