Reflections of a Year in a Virtual BioDome

The University of Washington’s iSchool and University of Washington Education Outreach offered a Certificate in Virtual Worlds. In Winter Quarter 2009, we began a journey with students from across the nation. We entered into a series of virtual worlds in order to identify what the heck is this all about? What are the advantages of using a virtual world for education, for business, for fun, for self-fulfillment.

We agreed to stay together for an entire year, from Winter Quarter, through Spring Quarter, and finally ending up in Summer Quarter. We also choose to live by our virtual names and chronicle our experience both in a virtual world that we would choose and a Wiki. This blog is the story of our year together in what we called our Virtual BioDome.

15 Responses to “Reflections of a Year in a Virtual BioDome”

  1. rjhinrichs Says:

    STUDENT BODY: Our student body consisted of professionals from across the board. A military psychologist specializing in post traumatic stress disorder, a K-12 educator specializing in at risk students, an IT Project Manager working in a health club, a K-12 instructor working with gifted children, a software developer, an entrepreneur/venture capitalist, an optometrist and neurobiologist, a librarian, a nurse, a student in informatics, a senior technical Defense communicator, an instruction designer from the outreach office, an Intel manager, a lighting and scene design specialist, and a visual artist. There were a few others who came and went, maybe lasting a quarter, then moving on to other adventures. The instructors run a company in virtual worlds. The sponsor, the Dean Emeritus of the iSchool at the University of Washington. What a population. Further, we had a board of advisers from Linden Labs, Forterra Systems, Proton Media, IBM, University of Washington, Cisco, Seattle Science Foundation, Pacific National Laboratory, the National Defense University, and Intel. With a crowd like that, we were destined for big things.

  2. rjhinrichs Says:

    MEETING PLACE. We chose not to meet in physical space. Ever. Our experiment included meeting inside of Second Life to start off with. I sent instructions to all of the students via email explaining how to join Second Life, download the client, and get voice working so we could meet on Medipelago, a first meeting place for the classroom. On Medipelago, there is a central plaza which would allow the students to congregate, a theater like auditorium that served as a central meeting place. Naturally, a presentation screen was available, but so was one of the signature BlueBoards that allowed us to write in world spontaneously. Additionally, there was a Q&A system, so the instructors could queue the student questions. We also decided to have a backup system and use Adobe Connect, so we could telephone into the first class as a conference call. That was the right decision.

  3. rjhinrichs Says:

    FIRST IMPRESSION: The students arrived safely on the island for the first time. Showing up one at a time, we were all amazed that we were beginning a course for the first time in our experience in which we’d be staying with these same folks for over a year. We started the class with a presentation called the Science of 3D Learning.

    Then we began our dialogue both over the phone and in chat. Some of the students had been in a virtual world before, so they had an idea of interacting and helped to get the discussion going. Others were a bit overwhelmed by the entire experience, not really sure what to do as they sat alone in their homes, perhaps in their home office, or bedroom, kitchen table, taking a class from the University of Washington in a virtual world. What an experience.

  4. rjhinrichs Says:

    INSTRUCTOR’S PRESENTATION: We are certainly not in Power Point anymore the lecturer began. The first screen opened up with a screen shot of the World of Warcraft with a big sign atop the screen that read Let Us Enter. For the account name on the screen read the words “social network”. The person logging into this experience is no longer just an individual, it’s an entire social network of people from different backgrounds, different attitudes, different learning needs, different reasons for being here. The account password read “digital economies”. The suggestion that these students were entering not just a personal password, but were instead entering a new way of doing business was certainly the passport to the future. The marriage of gaming and a social internet where a prestigious, renown university acknowledged that it was time for a certificate in this new economy, a certificate in virtual worlds – 3 quarters, major university, certainly a first in the new digital economy.

  5. rjhinrichs Says:

    WELCOME TO THE 3D CLASSROOM – EXPERIENCE. The screen changed. The students were turning their head in the virtual auditorium looking at each other. What the heck is going on. One of the students chatted, “this is cool”. That student might surely have been thinking, I’m sitting in a class, in a university, and I’m not in front of a 2D screen – no Adobe Connect, no Live Meeting, or a WebEx meeting. Instead, this experience was an actual interaction between faculty and students in a 3D format. The screen read, “The Internet is going 3D”. A picture of the University of Washington UW Medicine web page appeared on the left of the screen. You could see the classical left menu that described the various programs offered by the medical school. Four different sections of the web introduced Primary Care, Education, Research and Faculty / Locations, with lots and lots of text. On the right side of the screen Forterra System’s medical triage simulation. A simulated student was inserted a catheter in the arm of a patient recently traumatized in an accident, a full operating room in 360 degrees. The instructor adding, “virtual worlds are relatively inexpensive, don’t require a great deal of startup technology infrastructure, and provide a naturalistic, immersive approach for simulating space, people and objects”.

  6. rjhinrichs Says:

    THE FIRST CHAT: The chat began and the students were talking in what became known as back chat. Students could talk in class. They could ask questions directly, debate what the instructor was saying, throwing URLs into the chat for further information, Wikipedia definitions of terms, SLURLs (Second Life URLs) for further places to visit. The information was rich, comprehensive and inclusive from the attendees. Then, a slide on where kids hang out. A graphical image of Puzzle Pirate. The slides are pictures, graphical images to stimulate discussion, not a lot of words that turn concepts into 6-7 worded bulleted items. “Children today play video games more than they spend time outside, watch television or socialize with their friends. Kids from every class, in every country, at every socio-economic level play games. 92% of kids have played some game on some device. The games of strategy, skill and reputation attract them the most. Here in the Puzzle Pirates, students are assigned certain roles on a ship and must complete the tasks before they move onto their next assignment. They use puzzle games to engage kids in problem solving and strategy building, and when they progress from one level to another, their responsibilities increase. In other games, the United Nations has provided a way for kids to learn how to raise a farm in a third world country. It’s not as easy as it looks; there are droughts to deal with, disease, dangerous marauders and crooked politicians who tax their properties beyond normal. When kids see these effects, they are inspired to overcome them and look for tactical ways to beat the system and win. It is this kind of engagement that motivates them to spend hours in these environments.” All of this dialog with the students forecasts how they are going to be spending their time learning – solving problems, using 3D environments, puzzles and games. And if they aren’t experiencing this new level of interactivity in the classroom, they were going to be building it. Another WOW, hands on construction of a virtual world. Were they up for the task. You bet!

  7. rjhinrichs Says:

    THE NEW WORKFORCE: As we discovered children in 2009 spend a lot of time in virtual worlds. They spend time in Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel,, and the list keeps on growing. But, we learned that teens spend even more time in virtual worlds. The World of Warcraft has over 10M users, in which players compete to reach 70 levels of interaction. They engage in quests or tasks that are assigned to them by various characters. Money is exchanged for digital objects. John Seely Brown writes about WoW as a battleground for leadership. And, so we turned our attention to looking at how users train, organize, govern, adjudicate, and evaluate each other as virtual world communities. Undoubtedly, this is great skill training for building a 21st century workforce. And our virtual biodome community realized that they were building 21st skills in analysis, evaluation, and participation in multiple virtual worlds. We drove a conclusion, those that succeed in virtual worlds as players or business leaders gain reputation, tools, and knowledge of how to adapt to the environment.

  8. rjhinrichs Says:

    THE TECHNOLOGY TRENDS: So, we dug deeper. FaceBook, eScience applications, learning applications on other platforms, MySpace, instant messaging and corresponding mobile counterparts all combine to create an immersive culture of always on, always connected. Twitter and FriendFeed, tagging, reputation systems, recommender systems, all of these exist and are used by the youth culture to virtualize the user experience. What are you doing right now, are you available for play, consultation, mentoring? Can we talk over your cell phone, VoIP, chatting persistently in short bursts that enable reliance, collaboration and expertise anytime, anywhere. There is a people power here that is unimaginable just 20 years ago. To us, it was phenomenal that the public Internet was only 20 years old. What we were soon to discover is that if you wrap this power around a 3D interface, you multiply the effectiveness of community, place, and relationship.

  9. rjhinrichs Says:

    THE CREATION OF A VIRTUAL BIODOME: Of course, we couldn’t resist comparing all the 3D interface and interactivity to the gaming world. The success of complex video games demonstrates that they can teach higher-order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change, strengthening our system of education and preparing workers for new jobs.

    But, we saw this beyond Serious Games in which 3D interfaces are being used to teach people. We started to frame the discussion around one world of business and education. Our virtual biodome would become a microcosm and a place for learning where all of this was headed. Thinking bigger, we were interested in virtual worlds integrating with the continuous global economic integration. Building a culture, on the global economy, we discussed how people in continuous contact would likely form deeper interrelationships, creating new pressures and new opportunities on companies, communities, workers and governments. We thought of emerging transparent organizations and governments. So our journey was going to begin as consumers and stakeholders of all sorts of increasing levels of accountability and transparency bringing about fundamental changes in how organizations manage themselves. And we posited that we were creating a workforce evolution. Clearly demographic shifts are changing the nature of the workforce, creating a labor pool that is more diverse than ever before and needs to be connected in ways that collapse time and create new spaces for connectivity. And finally, we highlighted that attitudes about work are also changing as younger workers and workers from emerging markets begin to dominate the workforce. And, as virtual world specialists, we agreed we needed to prepare for this phenomena – as evaluators, deciders, designers, builders and metricians.

  10. rjhinrichs Says:

    WHY 3D? So, why are we doing this? We tried to capture the ideas in some metaphors. For one, the 3D Internet is the new “oil” industry. Since, we are growing increasingly dependent on internet resources, collaboration software, and images and video, we knew that we’d have to understand how to consume these resources as a commodity. We’d help define and design what worked well. We also hypothesized that moving photons in 3D might actually reduce the costs of travel (meetings, conferences, reviews) and increase a sense of “being there”. But, we realize that it is more than just being there. In these worlds, you’d have to be able to “do there”, to engage, interact, prototype, and produce. We saw this environment as the perfect 3D interactive learning environment because it mixes media, social interaction, data, logic and presentation in mixed reality. With this charge to figure out how to “do” there, rather than just “be” there, we agreed to keep our eye on the 3D tools that would emerge as a “tipping point” to enable performance. And, we’d keep a question at the forefront of our mind, “if we were going to present to our executives why invest in 3D technologies for the company, could we answer their inevitable questions: how would it be seamless, scaleable, hit the bottom line, produce results and be easy to adapt to in terms of social norms and economic constraints.

    So, we directed ourselves in this first evening of interacting, to challenge each other, challenge the concepts, form groups, storm on ideas, perform as co-workers, and norm our behaviors to ensure we could articulate the value and the methods to the next seekers of virtual world competencies.

    We knew we’d have to look at creating our own virtual models for products and services, education and training, engagement and ‘stickiness’. We would make have to make sure we knew how to simulate business, good education, compelling communication, worthy events while always reducing costs, and trying really had to avoid the hazards. Our objective: grow in a digital economy.

    Did we ever take off a big bite. Following this chronicle of those nine months, and even following the careers of the individuals who pioneered this first endeavor in achieving a Certificate in Virtual Worlds, will certainly provide some compelling arguments in favor of using virtual worlds, while clearly underscoring the risks and shortcomings.

  11. rjhinrichs Says:

    THE INSTRUCTOR’S SETUP: As instructor, I pointed out that action verbs with strong nouns would define our work. Students would learn to see by meeting the top experts in the field while discovering their own skills through Q&A. Students would build to understand complex systems. And, they would measure by tracking performance.

    Also, I highlighted the immediate challenges they would have working in virtual worlds. They were faced with interoperability issues: some worlds worked on PCs, some on Macs, some not on Macs, and some on both. There were no real standards yet for virtual environments, so the course would pose some unique hurdles.

    Also highlighted was implementation of the virtual worlds we would explore. I choose Second Life, Proton Media’s Protosphere and Forterra Systems OLIVE platform. We would install these in a trial by fire experience. Since our board had Robert Gerhorsam from Forterra Systems, we knew we would be successful in OLIVE, he would help us push down the obstacles and understand how to get OLIVE installed and implemented. Proton Media’s Ron Burns actually conducted the journey into Protosphere hmself so we were blessed to have him take us through every imagineable configuration and hiccup. Second Life has a significant public interface, so this was less problematic, though VoIP will always remain a challenge.

    I also made it clear there would be access problems and bandwidth problems, and sure enough, people were in an out so many times it was like hunting jack rabbits. It would depend on whether people were accessing from home or from work. The class started at 6:00 pm on Thursday night in the Pacific Time Zone, so we figured most people would be at home, increasing the bandwidth concerns, but lowering the graphic cards concerns. It was a given that people usually had better machines at home for graphics than at work.

    I also warned them about governance and IP management. Pay attention who owns what. Pay attention, who gets to do what? Who’s in charge, who makes the rules, who metes out the reminders that certain things are allowed while touring in a virtual world, while other things aren’t. We’d have to figure that one out over time, I warned.

    And finally, I made sure that we had security and privacy looming over us every day as we started to engage in identify and trust building. We weren’t going into this blinded, but eyes wide open.

    And there were enough people in the class that had some experience in virtual worlds that added immediately to the conversation.

  12. rjhinrichs Says:

    THE EXAMPLES: First up Second Life, 10 million registered accounts, 6500 CPUs, 300+ square miels, education, work and advocacy all key areas of concentration. Free to access and fees for land ownership.

    A jump into the virtual worlds who present the city view: Twinity, Metaverse, etc.

    A look at environmental factors, which worlds have night and day, weather, environmental conditions you can play with.

    A look through the avatars to explore the amazing diversity in virtual worlds and the emotional bandwidth.

    We looked at v-Life: hospitals, schools, homes, libraries, factories, warehouses, business offices, museums, pagodas, etc. The vastness of the experience is compelling. And the quality of the experience varied across the different virtual world environments. Some cartoonish, some as realistic as it gets.

    And we showed examples of freedom from disability, where people who have accessibility problems really get a chance to experience life through a virtual world interface. Very compelling reason to design for enablement.

    Then came a listing of their opportunities. They would be able to create scenarios like the emergency responder scenarios in OLIVE. They would use role playing to calculate response, procedure and collaboration.

    They could enter into a medical facility in Protosphere and engage in medical simulations with high end 3D graphics that are much better than a skeleton in the classroom. They could twist and turn the objects around to their heart’s content.

    We looked at Genomics Island in Second Life, so we could look at how you could simulate experiemtns, such as recreating Mendel’s laboratory experiments on genetics. Breed your peas, calculate their probability of production, and go outside and watch the flowers grow.

  13. THE FIRST READINGS – WHY VIRTUAL WORLDS? What is going on here that we’re going to study, experience and certify? We dove into the the literature. As a matter of fact, we agreed to keep a bibliography of what we considered to be the must read articles of the time. In our virtual biodome, we agreed that our literature should be academic in nature, peer reviewed if possible, and we’d allow some readings marketing analyst groups – like Gartner, Forrester and JP Morgan. After all, we are walking onto a new stage that may not be substantially explored at the academic layer.

    Coincidentally, the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research began pumping out some worthy articles. Bruce Damer provided a history in the first edition of the journal. More on Bruce’s perspective later. Looking at Jeremiah Spence’s provided us with our first look at a virtual world’s game space continuum. He separated virtual worlds into categories to help the reader wrap their arms around the space. What in the heck is a virtual world anyway, we were all asking it anyway.

    We explored his work.

    Game Spaces – WoW, the Sims, Everquest, all with rules, all with assigned goals. Got it, we know about Sega, Nintendo, PlayStation, X-Box, and every PC game genre studied from Carnegie Mellon to Stanford. We all agreed that the game space is the game space and not the virtual world per se.

    Virtual Worlds as Meeting Places – Spence basically identified these spaces as chat, avatars and showing of some content. Chat hybrids or some as non public spaces behind the firewalls. Basically they serve the purpose to meet virtually. Examples incuded: IMVU, Sony Home, Qwaq and even MySpace being a kind of 2D version of a virtual world. Even one of our virtual worlds – Proton Media might fit in this category, we posited.

    Virtual Worlds as Social Communities where user creation is the focus – There are a few virtual world places that stuck out as places where content could be created at the 3D level by the dweller or resident. These places allowed mixed media – extension to the outside of the box. In particular, Forterra and Second Life came to mind. And this is where we decided to head – we’d even take Proton Media’s Protosphere with it, as Ron Burns visioned grew deeper in deeper into helping define virtual worlds.

    We accepted the challenges. Forterra allowed integration of multiple 3D types, as did ProtoSphere, while Second Life was very specific and proprietary. We’d have to do something in each one of the environments to what content creation for the residents really meant. We agreed that content creation lay as the underbelly of a virtual world and developing community around that creation was the gold mine.

    We’d dig deeper.

  14. rjhinrichs Says:

    THE AVATAR – THE SELF – THE IDENTIFY. Some of us like virtual worlds for kids because we are educators, some of us like virtual worlds for working teams because we’re entreprenurial. The majority in our biodome wished to explore the latter, so we concentrated our work on looking at how different worlds managed content creation, IP management, Web 2.0 integration and community.

    Working in social networking environments allows others to make connections. So, in our virtual biodome, we started by looking at how we expressed ourselves. How do we represent ourselves? How were we going to dress and interact? And, how were we going to develop identify, trust and reputation? We’d start by creating ourselves. Remember, we had to start meeting in Second Life, so we had a common ground. We all stood up, and Edit Appearance. People started offering each other “stuff” from their inventory. It was great fun.

    But the funny this that when we were done with our appearance, right off the bat, someone asked, do you want to know who I really am and my real name, or should I introduce myself as my avatar. Another person said, well I have a place in Second Life and I want to keep that separate from this class, so I don’t want to say my real name at all. Another person agreed. A couple kicked in and said I don’t have any problem identifying myself at all. Well, how like the every day world. There is always an expression of diversity. But, something was different here. If we choose to, we could hide behind our avatar.

    And, it in the end, we actually did do just that. Well not hide, as much as define our avatar self and build our reputation and community identity through that avatar.

  15. rjhinrichs Says:

    THE JP MORGAN NOTHING BUT NET DISCUSSION: Our readings caused is to reflect from the point of view of others. JP Morgan’s Nothing But Net, 2009 Internet Investment Guide was required reading. This well researched marketing and investment report suggested that ’08 growth was somewhat tepid in virtual worlds. In fact, the unique users at several virtual worlds were lower year over year in 2008, suggesting that their appeal may have been more limited than we had expected. JP Morgan believed sites aimed at children presented the more compelling opportunity, while the adult uses of virtual worlds had yet to prove mainstream appeal.

    So, as we agreed we wanted to look at virtual worlds from a business perspective. We’d look at education as well from a business perspective. The science of learning in a virtual world would be something we experienced by doing it. We wanted to know what would make virtual worlds mainstream?

    In the report, JP Morgan identified a few ways that virtual worlds might make money — advertising, subscription revenue, sale of virtual goods, virtual currency exchange. Second Life has its own currency, as does Entropia and World of Warcraft (not a virtual world). So, we’d keep our eye out on their economic futures. And, we’d look at how the emerging virtual worlds (in beta) would be advancing in this area as well. We’d heard great things about Blue Mars, Twinity and a whole host of others. We’d be some of the watchers.

    Then, we paid some attention to the technical trends: broadband, graphic cards, co-processors, net neutrality and other trends affecting virtual worlds. The power demanded for virtual worlds is actually quite hefty. Big game graphics cards are needed, good broadband coming into the home or place of work, and the biggest issue – security and which ports could be opened up. This was all a flashback to the 90s when the Internet started reaching into our consciousness. A road necessary to travel, but we all sneered in the end, chanting “Moore’s Law”. It’ll all fix itself and we’d be ready. We couldn’t ignore these issues, but I kept reminding the students, “if you were going to present an idea to an executive, you’d have to deal with these issues in a practical way”. If there are no answers here, there are no answers.

    The JP Morgan report was okay, but the students astutely saw right past it as an incomplete evaluation, temporary in its estimation, and focused on investment, not utility.

    This report focused on the Net rather than on virtual worlds. It did characterize the trends on the net such as mobile advertising forecasts, ad exchange linkages, online photos, online music and video. Yes these are all components of where the network was going. And, virtual worlds would likely go there to. Nice thing about the virtual world – it was like an aggregator of all of these things, but in 3D. So, we’d keep our eye on them and see where this information might take us.

    The conversation about how virtual worlds were going to be managed because of their large data footprint would continue to come back to us. Cloud computing and software as a service are going to likely make virtual worlds a reality. They allow portability, collaboration across organizations, convenience across platforms, and make it easier to access your content from wherever you are. We’d see a huge resurgence of that idea in another quarter, when we looked at “Virtual Worlds and the Transformation of Business” by the Athena Alliance. We were getting a good sense that our investment in this virtual biodome was already paying off. There was enough literature to support the idea that something was coming. We were glad to be starting this journey, for in 2009, we’d be ready with facts, figures, solutions, designs and results.

    The public grid we determined is appealing. The private grid behind firewalls was going to continue to rise in importance because of the need for security, privacy and exclusivity.

    In a year, we’d learn a lot about those words.

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