What are Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds are richly immersive and highly scalable 2- or 3-D environments. Most, but not all virtual worlds are multi-user spaces, meaning that many people can be in the same virtual space and interact with one another in real time, generally through a representation of themselves as an avatar. While many popular games take place in virtual worlds, virtual worlds are not themselves games. They are social environments over which a physical context can be laid. The most successful in an educational context are flexible spaces, and as such, it is quite common to find professional development activities like conferences and meetings taking place in settings such as Second Life®, Project Wonderland, OpenSim, Qwak, Active Worlds, and other immersive environments.

The capability of virtual worlds has expanded considerably in the past few years, with enormous development in building tools, climate simulators, physics engines, and the overall capability of these platforms to simulate reality. Gartner Research, Inc. has estimated that by 2011, 80% of Internet users will have an avatar in a virtual world, and hundreds of platforms to allow those avatars places to interact are already available or in development. Virtually every higher education institution has some sort of work going in around virtual spaces, and in just one platform alone, Linden Lab’s Second Life®, thousands of educational projects and experiments are actively underway.

Over the past few years, as hundreds of colleges and universities have begun to experiment with these spaces, and as more educational, professional, and commercial activities have taken place in such environments, our understanding of how these spaces are used and why they are effective has grown apace. While some immersive platforms are essentially analogs to physical spaces and thus primarily used for modeling and prototyping (SketchUp or Maya, for example), the greatest growth by far has been at the intersection of virtual worlds and social networking. The most successful spaces capitalize on this trend, and include common social networking tools such as profiles, the ability to locate friends within the environment, customizable personas (avatars), and methods for communicating both synchronously and asynchronously. Tools like these support projects and educational gatherings in virtual worlds by enabling people to share space at a distance, which in turn facilitates the formation of social groups.

It has become evident that people generally return to virtual spaces because of the experiences they find there, not because of the spaces themselves. While the physicality of the space may excite initial curiosity and interest, the ongoing attraction of any virtual space is its community — the people that use the space. The space itself, while important, is a secondary attraction. Part of the reasons for this is that convening a group in a virtual world is a palpably different experience from participating in other real-time communication forums, and people !nd they like the feeling of connection. When people choose to simultaneously inhabit the same space at the same time, as happens in virtual world gatherings, meetings take on a deeper dimension, with a great many parallels to face-to-face gatherings. As a result, it is very common to see the average time per visit to a socially focused virtual space approach 60 minutes or more. This is true even when measured over tens of thousands of visits.

Sophisticated toolkits are being developed to support collaboration at a distance within virtual environments. Specially designed immersive workspaces are emerging that combine familiar collaboration tools with virtual spaces, integrating the comparatively new activity of meeting in virtual worlds with long-established patterns of working at a distance. A product developed by Rivers Run Red and Linden Lab, for example, offers an immersive workspace environment that uses the web and the virtual world of Second Life to integrate productivity applications, online meeting spaces, and communication tools (http://riversrunred.com/immersive-workspaces/). Similar efforts are underway at Sun Microsystems and other organizations, indicating that virtual worlds are likely to continue to grow as a platform for distance collaboration.

With more widespread use has also come increased demand for content and for tools to create content. Since this topic was first addressed in the 2007 Horizon Report, we have witnessed enormous development in building tools, climate simulators, physics engines, and the overall capability of these platforms to simulate reality. There is increasing activity in this space; Gartner, Inc. has estimated that by 2011, 80% of Internet users will have an avatar in a virtual world, and hundreds of platforms are already available or in development. Interoperability is the next major goal for the industry; work is underway to connect different worlds with one another for seamless transition between them; prototypes of virtual world clients are emerging for mobile devices and the web. The market for virtual worlds is undergoing tremendous growth, and we can expect considerable improvements in system capability, interoperability between systems, and interoperability of development tools in coming years.

Increased capability goes hand in hand with increased demand for processing power and bandwidth. In Australia in particular, the policy implications of these requirements have hampered acceptance and use, and are likely to continue to be a factor. Virtual worlds and immersive spaces require fairly sophisticated computers and a not-insignificant amount of bandwidth. Those requirements will continue and increase as environments become progressively more realistic.

INSTRUCTIONS: Enter your responses to the questions below. This is most easily done by moving your cursor to the end of the last item and pressing RETURN to create a new bullet point. Please include URLs whenever you can (full URLs will automatically be turned into hyperlinks; please type them out rather than using the linking tools in the toolbar).

Please "sign" your contributions by marking with the code of 4 tildes (~) in a row so that we can follow up with you if we need additional information or leads to examples- this produces a signature when the page is updated, like this: - alan alan Jan 25, 2011

(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • Virtual worlds provide innovate spaces for exploration of ideas, engaging new levels of creativity, and allowing collaboration both within and beyond the school. They make online learning personal, interactive, and visual and so allow students to extend learning in ways not possible with any other online collaboration tools. - judy.oconnell judy.oconnell Feb 26, 2011
  • We have seen advances in the game industry, which three dimensional (3D) game systems such as Microsoft Xbox and Sony Play Station 2 allow thousands of people to interact in the same virtual space simultaneously. School-going children today are fascinated with the moving images, immediate gratification and the interactivity nature found in these games. The virtual world is part of the air they breathe and students are at ease in that environment to learn. - limad limad Feb 26, 2011
  • I think virtual worlds have considerable potential for school education, although Second Life strictly is an adult environment. As with any technology, it's not a silver bullet, but located inside a carefully thought through program of learning, I can see it being a potentially powerful technology for education. I think it's relevant because it incorporates multimedia with social networking; where children, meet , learn and play. The 'real time' characteristics of virtual worlds, I think, is one its characteristics that makes it amenable to educational purposes.- kathryn.moyle kathryn.moyle Feb 26, 2011

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative expression?

  • I think that there is a huge opportunity to focus on creativity that combines visual, spacial, and complex design principles while also intersecting with the particular curriculum topic being explored. - judy.oconnell judy.oconnell Feb 26, 2011
  • This is still a new frontier for teachers, while students are already interacting in virtual worlds e.g. club penguin. The lack of inclusion of virtual worlds will continue to stifle key elements and options for learning - a potential negative impact. - judy.oconnell judy.oconnell Feb 26, 2011
  • Virtual worlds provide huge opportunities to develop subject-based simulation games embedded with virtual assessment of skills such as thinking, communication, questioning and adaptability. - limad limad Feb 26, 2011
  • It adds to the quality of distance education tools by creating educational spaces in another, virtual world. Although on a bit of a tangent - having just spent two days bunked down avoiding a cyclone and its immediate aftermath, and still with Internet access, it could be there is potential for a 'safe cognitive space' while events like wild weather are about.- kathryn.moyle kathryn.moyle Feb 26, 2011

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

(1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uW9qBlzETE
(2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3g24rXecJo&feature=related
(3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noeADJU4_uU
- limad limad Feb 26, 2011