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Spring semester 2020

January 16, 2020

Welcome to the module ‘Virtual Environments: Is one life enough?’ being offered as an elective module to students of Technological University Dublin School of Creative Arts and Dublin School of Archtitecture.

Classes will start in February on Thursdays at 8:00 pm. We meet online every week at TU Dublin in Second Life. Please note: you will need a Mac or PC desktop or laptop to access Second Life – you cannot do so with a mobile device.

Full details about the module are available to registered students in Brightspace, where you should self-enrol.

If you are new to Second Life, known as SL, then start by reading Getting into Second Life to find out how to access the class. You should then visit SL and find the TU Dublin campus, learn how to get around the virtual world and familiarise yourself with the environment and how to control your avatar. This will take a few hours so give yourself plenty of time before class starts.

Please read pages 1 to 9 in the column on the right also. If you would like to find out more about what to expect during the semester read the posts in this blog: all class since 2009 have been summarised.

If you have any problems email John O’Connor at TU Dublin.

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Team Projects

December 19, 2019

The presentations by the four teams were excellent. The Green, Yellow and Red teams opted to present live in class with the support of slides while the Blue team directed us to a YouTube video. Each participant contributed to the delivery and there were none of the glitches often associated with technology. Everything went smoothly and according to plan. Except for one thing: John recorded the live presentations and a Q&A with Sitearm Madonna so they could be included in this post but… the sound failed to record. So the only shortcoming was my own. Sincere apologies for the error and the lack of sound on the following videos. But well done to the participants this semester. You did an excellent job.

Sitearm asked you to share your experience of working on a virtual team and compare it with team work in RL. Most of you found it slightly easier to present in SL but more difficult to work collaboratively. Nevertheless, you agreed that it required a more disciplined approach to achieve success.

John concluded the module by thanking Sitearm for his attendance and contribution. I also thanked you all for your attendance and engagement throughout the module. I enjoyed it and learned something from your contributions. I hope you also enjoyed it and found it useful and informative.

*Note: since this post was written John received sound files recorded by the wonderful Sitearm Madonna. The videos below have now been updated with full sound recordings. In addition, the Q&A video has also been posted.

Green Team presentation:

 

Yellow Team presentation:

 

Blue Team YouTube video:

 

Red Team presentation:

Here is the script for the Red Team presentation and the slides.

 

Q&A with Sitearm Madonna:

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Class 11: Warning!

December 12, 2019

Prof Noel Fitzpatrick (aka Oshinn), Head of Learning and Research Development, was interviewed by Acuppa Tae (aka John). Some very interesting topics around the meaning of Anthropocene, the future of work, individual and social responsibility and the importance of the local were discussed and you asked some searching questions. (Runtime: 47 mins 33 secs.)

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Class 10: Content Produser

December 5, 2019

John was suffering from the beginnings of flu so asked the class to be patient and let me know if I get delirious and wander off the point. I had a comforting drink to keep the tickle from my throat and we opened the class with some feedback on the visit to Virtual Ability a few weeks ago.

Everyone agreed that it made you aware of the potential SL has for very real social engagement in ways you hadn’t previously considered. You were also impressed by the amazing stories told by the community members we met. Of particular interest was the fact that two of them had met in SL and since married in both SL and RL. The opportunity for independent and fulfilling engagement between the members was notable. This went some way to explaining the enduring popularity of SL despite the ageing technology. Despite the low-res avatars and the cartoon-like environment the sense of immersion supports genuine social engagement.

Over the 16 or so years that SL has been in existence the number of communities that have grown up is remarkable and their embeddedness seems to ensure a positive future for the virtual world. The financial viability of such environments remains an open question. Philip Rosedale, the original developer of SL who left the company in 2010, moved on in 2013 to start a new venture known as High Fidelity with the aim of providing a higher quality interface (more realistic avatars with facial expressions reflecting the user’s own and 3D audio). But, it has taken until now to get into serious beta testing.

John’s avatar in Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity virtual world.

There is a plethora of other virtual world platforms catering to different market segments and interest groups but, the future of virtual worlds remains an open question for the time being.

We spoke about how virtual worlds might become a more regular form of communication and interaction, referring to books, movies and games that explore the idea such as Ready Player One and Pokemon. Dogboy and Kebab referred to the YouTube comedy sketch about an online doctor by Foil Arms and Hog that aptly highlights the shortcomings of technology. John referred back to the discussion on McLuhan which warned that our tools don’t simply help society but also have an very real impact and will change who and what we are. As the conversation moved on to Artificial Intelligence (AI) he referred to the famous Turing Test that the University of Reading claims was passed by a chatbot called Eugene in 2014.

We tried predicting the kinds of jobs that are under threat by robots and AI: anything that has a repetitive element, whether physical or intellectual or that requires the recalling facts from a vast store of knowledge or information. It seems that the creative abilities of humans are the most difficult to automate and might, therefore, be the least susceptible to AI. The creative process and the ability to generate content of value is, of course, the most elusive of human activities. Creativity is a natural ability and is one of the attributes that sets us apart from other animals, coupled with intelligence it is the reason the human race has developed with such sophistication to its current state. We have access to the widest possible set of accessible tools and anyone can reach a global audience. Now, as we shall see next week, the challenge is to save the planet from ourselves and our endless creative abilities.

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Class 9: Presenting your Team Project

November 28, 2019

Building a screen for showing slides in SL.

The class meeting this week reviewed the progress you are making on your projects and considered some of the practicalities of delivering it in Second Life.

There was at least one member of each Team in class (and all members of the Green Dog Team) so John asked for an update on progress. All teams have been meeting and considering what approach to take. The openness of the brief has made it difficult for some to settle on a specific direction but has resulted in repeated readings. John emphasised the importance of constant referral to the brief in any project you are undertaking. It is very easy to drift off-point or become distracted by your personal interests and concerns so re-reading the brief is necessary to keep you on track.

All teams have been attempting to keep working online rather than give in to the temptation to meet in RL! The Green Team have found it very useful to meet in SL while maintaining communication on Facebook and other media. Others have been using tools such as Google docs to support brainstorming and begin drafting the text.

John asked about the locations you might be thinking about for the presentation. One group had found a location that suited their topic but discovered that voice was turned off in the region. Some of you had also heard about the incident last year when the owner of the location selected by one team thought she was under attack when we all arrived suddenly! So, if you are presenting outside the classroom make sure you visit the location during class time in advance and try to get permission from the owner, or at least warn them in advance of you intention.

Most teams seem to be considering either a YouTube video or presenting slides in SL. John suggested that providing a link to YouTube is probably more successful than trying to stream into SL. We can then have a Q&A with the team following the video viewing.

John demonstrated a simple way to present slides in SL by dragging images from your inventory and dropping them onto a panel that acts as a screen. It costs L$10 to upload an image to SL so you each received L$300 (the equivalent of about US$1) to cover this expense. It is important that you give yourselves enough time for a rehearsal to ensure everything works as you expect it too.

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Class 8: Walking away…?

November 21, 2019

Guest speaker Glenn Loughran (aka Feilimy) led the discussion about Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas in this week’s class. Due to travel commitments John was not able to attend so there is no summary but you can read about the discussion last semester for some insight into the topics that emerged.

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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

November 14, 2019

Gentle Heron and the Virtual Ability Island community hosted our class this week.

Visiting an active community in Second Life is a privilege and always an interesting and informative experience. Gentle Heron, the founder of Virtual Ability Island, hosted us along with residents James Heartsong, Sullen Heartsong, Dorie Bernstein and Eme Capalini.

Gentle told us of the founding of the community and the necessity for such an organisation. She started by explaining that they usually communicate with voice and text because there are deaf and blind community members. Gentle was an educational researcher before retiring due to multiple sclerosis. Virtual Ability (VAI) is an international cross-disability peer support community of over 1,000 members. People in the community come from six continents and may have a physical, mental, emotional, development or sensory disability, with many having multiple disabilities. Because it is sometimes important to communicate with someone who understands and ‘gets’ your concerns, your language and point of view, the community offers peer-to-peer support and education. However, the community does not live in isolation – it is not a virtual ‘leper colony’ – and about a quarter of the members do not (yet) have disabilities. They are referred to as TABs, temporarily able bodied. They may be a parent, spouse, child or friend of a person with a disability; a professional or non-professional caregiver; an academic researcher; medical professional; or an educator. The community has been in SL for over 11 years and won the first Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world’. It is also one of the original Community Gateways into SL authorised by Linden Lab. So, it is well recognised beyond its own community.

VAI is supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability Inc, to assist people with all kinds of disabilities enter and thrive in virtual worlds like SL. Virtual Ability offers educational and entertainment activities daily and encourages member to explore all that SL has to offer. Some of the most popular activities are campfire chats and dances. Healthinfo Island focuses not on disability and impairment but on health and wellness. There are educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities and the Path of Support which gives information about the more than 120 disability support communities that have been identified in SL so far. On Cape Able there is an art gallery and Cape Serenity hosts a library. Both gallery and library offers only works created by persons with disabilities.

Although a community, VAI is not based on geographical proximity nor cultural homogeneity. It embraces diversity and recognised that people with disabilities form the largest minority group in the world, while being the most varied. This requires a group value of respect and accommodation. Members form both close and informal relationships and the group promotes mutual support. Potential new members are asked what the community can do for them and what they can do for the community. The emphasis in on Ability rather than DISabilty.

Gentle referred to the nine elements and three principles of digital citizenship that are outlined in the reading material for this week’s class, suggesting that they apply to virtual community membership. VAI involves members in various projects and encourages them to stretch their capabilities. The community also enforces standards of virtual world etiquette while helping members understand their rights and live up to their responsibilities. This is not always simple. Sometimes the needs of community members conflict. For instance, some cannot type because they are paralysed, others cannot read due to dyslexia or blindness, and others are deaf and cannot hear. Therefore, communication often requires an intermediary, either technological or human.

The community educates beyond itself through two annual conferences. The beginning of the month saw the 8th Annual International Disability Rights Affirmation Conference.

Gentle asked the other members of VAI to introduce themselves and students to type their questions into local chat.

Suellen Heartsong helps the estate managers and supports conferences and events by voicing for those who need that help. She is also editor of the VAI Facebook page She is able to do things in SL like dancing and being a DJ that she could not do in RL and also met her now RL husband in SL.

James Heartsong is a US Army Veteran whose disabilities include MS and PTSD (from both military and civilian tragedies). He found SL after reading an article in an MS magazine suggesting that good peer support was available but was completely lost in the large world that is SL. Luckily, he met Gentle and was welcomed into the community. He also met his wife in SL and brought her to VAI. They eventually met in RL and have now been together almost seven years.

Dorie Bernstein’s avatar is a black wolf. She joined SL over 14 years ago looking for an early community of autistic individuals but never made it to their island instead finding a home at Dreams, a community started by The Sojourner. She was a speech/language pathologist who discovered that learning to use SL helped with her recovery from strokes. She was also raising an autistic son. Dorie now runs Dreams and is getting more involved with VAI. This gives her a safe place to socialise while creating and learning new skills. Her current leadership position pushes her outside her comfort zone on a near-daily basis but is as rewarding as it is challenging.

Eme Capalini has been in SL for 12 years and works for VAI creating virtual environments for the community and and for its real life clients. She finds virtual worlds a great way to connect with others socially and to engage in research.

The questions from the class came in rapidly! LouHug wondered about how safe it felt meeting somebody from SL in RL. Suellen responded that as a retired 911 supervisor she was able to do a good background check on James in advance. It is important to be as careful and responsible as possible when moving from SL to RL. Dorie added that her mom and stepdad met in a comquserve chartroom in 1995!

John told of a former participant in the module who met their partner during the final presentation of the group project and they have since become engaged. MsBenediction noted that she might not share that story with her boyfriend.

Kebab asked about finding suitable members for the community. Gentle replied that people now find VAI rather than the other way around. It is a closed group so people must apply to join. The community needs to be wary of devotees who prey on PWDs (People With Disabilities) or those who pretend to have a disability and want to role-play. So newcomers are invited to visit for a few months so that their suitability can be tested.

ChataMari wondered why VAI chose SL as a platform to connect with others. Gentle said as the largest and most active SL was the best choice.

John reluctantly drew the discussion to a close as James said he was just getting warmed up. Thanking Gentle and friends for their generosity and time he noted that students had been welcomed at VAI for many years now and TU Dublin is very appreciative of the continuing engagement.

John offered an invitation to everyone from the community to join next week’s class when guest speaker Glenn Loughran (aka Joseph Jacotot) will lead what promises to be a very interesting discussion on the 1973 short-story The One’s Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin.

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