Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Virtual Worlds 2.0: High Fidelity and Magic Leap

This morning I watched a couple videos from the MIT Technology Review's EmTech Digital conference that took place on June 1-2 in San Francisco. The first one was with Philip Rosedale--the founder of Second Life--talking about his new-virtual world company High Fidelity: The Quest to Put More Reality in Virtual Reality | EmTech Digital 2015 | MIT Technology Review.

This new version of a virtual world allows for the presentation of facial expressions that match actual facial expressions of the human driver: if you turn your head, smile, blink, blow out your cheeks, your avatar will do the same. It's also going to run on anyone's computer/server with an easy upload and naming of virtual world URLs, low latency (when you say or act, it takes place with no lag to speak of), and will interface with a variety of interfaces, from laptop, to Oculus Rift, to HTC Vive, to HoloLense to Magic Leap. The company is also working on making access to the virtual world beyond the keyboard and mouse. More natural, haptic, using hands to manipulate objects in world rather than coordinating a keyboard and mouse. And it will also have two similarities with Second Life: the capacity to build in world and a marketplace.

He discussed the use of the virtual world in education: "One of the areas we think virtual reality, particularly head mounted displays, is going to have some of its amazing early impact in virtual worlds is in teaching. If teachers can create learning spaces that they can invite students into and those students can look the teacher in the eye and be present and be aware and be attentive we think it's going to have a radical, accelerating impact on the online teaching that we're already doing today." He also mentioned later the idea that teaching and teaching-like experiences will be more immersive, such as having a discussion.

Of course, the sense of presence in an online class is something I've been exploring for several years in Second Life. Would the changes he mentions above add to the immersiveness of a class discussion, the sharing of writing, the participation in field trips or virtual world excursions?

I think so. Especially facial expressions--looking naturally at each other in the virtual environment--would add tremendously. Head-mounted displays would make it so that you could look at each other rather than manipulating mouse and keyboard to have your avatar move its head (which most students don't at all do!).

But that seems down the road a good number of years for most students because of the expense of head mounted displays and other haptic hardware. The biggest issue is latency and smooth, uninterrupted connection to operate the virtual environment. When students have a glitch-free experience, the interaction, social presence, immersiveness is much stronger. When they are constantly fighting lag, slow rezzing, jerky avatar movement and such, then the presence goes out the window.

In the last couple years, the stability of SL and the ability to access it with student computers has been much improved. Adding more tech-heavy stuff, like a head-mounted display, would take us back to glitch-land, at least in the beginning.

But even so, for an online class, students with a head-mounted display would have to be able to operate a keyboard, to be able to type onto a notecard in world. Last month for the first time, I tried the Oculus Rift and found that  the use of the keyboard or mouse was difficult because I couldn't look down to see it. Being able to do so would be necessary, or being able to access a virtual keyboard in world might work.

The other video session I watched from the EmTech Digital conference was about Magic Leap10 Breakthrough Technologies 2015 - Magic Leap. The nearest I understand the product being developed is that it creates virtual images not through stereoscopic head mounted displays (think the old View-Masters) or other 3-D stereoscopic glasses used in 3D movies (in essence how Oculus Rift and other head mounted displays work), but through a light field that is projected onto your eyes, much like how we receive light in the actual world. And the idea is that it can blend imperceptibly with the light of the actual world simultaneously, creating a digital/analog augmented reality.

An augmented reality display, like Magic Leap (or Microsoft's HoloLens) might improve the problem I mentioned above, that of being able to see one's keyboard in order to write, an important necessity for courses that involve lots of writing. But would they keep the sense of presence that a virtual environment offers, blocking out the pile of laundry on the sofa, or the barking dog in the back yard (not that current iterations do a good job with the latter!) The whole idea of presence with the professor and other students in real time in a shared space is what needs to be preserved and even more so enhances with these new ventures into virtual reality, at least when it comes to online education.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

New mesh avatars

(Written in September 2014, edited/pictures added March 2015)

The semester has just begun, and I'm pleasantly surprised with the gratitude I've been seeing with students, unsolicited. I get thank yous from students, sometimes at the end of semesters, though, there have been years when such is not expressed.

But this very first week, I've had several online students thank me for the checklists I set up for the weekly work, and for the helpful organization of my Desire2Learn site and with my online assignments. And emails thanking me when I send out reminders.

I'm not saying this hasn't happened before. But it just seems to be taking place more frequently, especially in the first week, than I recall taking place in previous years.

But that's not really what I want to focus on with this entry.

Linden Lab last May introduced new standard avatars that use mesh rather than prims for skins and clothing. Fitted mesh makes the avatars look more realistic than the previous default avatars, which are still available, but labeled "classic."

So, that sounds beneficial for new users, such as students starting a new semester. Yeah, well, not so much.

Here's the problem. They are very difficult to alter. One of the tasks that I have students complete for their orientation is to grab some free stuff at the Virtual Ability Island and try some new clothes or accessories.

Doing so has never been a problem in previous semesters. The instructions Virtual Ability Island display are clear and easy to follow, and the avatars are easily manipulated. Furthermore, I gave them the opportunity during an early scavenger hunt to go grab some free clothes, hair and avatars at the University of Cincinnati Bookstore (which has since disappeared :(.

This semester, though, was problematic. With these new avatars, changing shapes and clothes is very difficult. Students found it near impossible to manipulate their avatar and make it their own.

Now, I'm not having them change their avatars for spurious reasons. Based on my experience, and on research (more later... meanwhile, here's a more casual but interesting blog posting in Scientific American: "My So-Called Second Life: Are You Your Avatar?"), residents who bond with their avatars become more invested in them, connect more fully with them, and thus have a richer experience in world. And for an online class where we meet two hours a week minimum, that's really important. When the class begins to become stressful (and it always does--it is college, mind you!), students who are comfortable in their virtual skin are much more likely to stick it out and use the class meetings to their advantage.

Next semester, I think I'll have everyone grab the classic avatars, until the mesh ones are ready for prime time.

Update: Spring 2015 semester, I did ask students to go classic, and the customization of avatars during orientation went much smoother.