Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds

The Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference was held today. This event was held in both Washington, D.C. and in Second Life. The webpage for this event is located at:

Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds

I was told that many of the presentations and materials will be posted to the site after the event. There was a lot of good stuff here today, and I am anxious to see how much of it will be available online (hopefully the PowerPoints and some video). Some of my desire for post presentation materials is driven by not being able to hear or see some of today’s proceedings due to the technical difficulties of the event.

I am not going to try to cover everything that was presented at this conference here in this blog post, you can use the above link to get it all from the website. What I want to do here is use this conference as an example of a major event that was held in the real world and in Second Life. How well did it work, and what can we learn from it? This is following on the heels of a discussion that has been going on the SLED listserv this week about the Second Life Infrastructure, and the platform in general.

The conference started bright and early here on the West Coast (6:15am). The Agenda for the conference is posted here.

Start of Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds

The morning speakers went well. Susan Stucky, PhD, IBM gave a good talk on Using Virtual Worlds to Shape the Future. There were comments in chat during her presentation criticizing the content, but these people seemed to forget that those sitting in the convention center in DC were probably not as experienced with virtual worlds (or not at all) as those sitting in the virtual theater in Second Life.

The last scheduled presentation of the morning was from Sue Singer, Program Manager East Coast, Linden Lab. She burned through a large stack of slides on Collapsing Geography: Distance, Learning, and Innovation. The presentation was full of the usual forward thinking uses for Second Life in various applications (Government, Education, Training, etc.). As with most of these types of mixed reality events, questions were taken from the audience.

Sue Singer, Linden Lab, Taking a Question on Grid Stability

I was fortunate to have my question posed to Sue first in the Q&A from the Second Life audience. My question was “What are the immediate plans to overcome the 40,000 concurrent user cap on the grid, and when might we see open source servers?” She faked an “exit stage left” movement, and made a joke about having to leave. When she came back to the podium, she effectively dodged the question entirely. She mentioned the new physics engine that they will soon be releasing (I’m not sure what that does for grid stability), and rattled off a few other comments, none of which answered or even addressed the question. Not exactly the response that I had expected, and a clue that there might not be an answer today for these issues.

While this may have been a brief moment of discomfort at the podium, it was likely the most illuminating moment of the morning. There has been a debate on the Second Life Educators listserv this week about Second Life, and how close they are to going “mainstream” with the platform. My position in this debate is that until Second Life runs from a console and keyboard (vs. high end PC) it will not be able to go mainstream. And until Second Life is stable and able to accommodate many more people (hundreds of thousands to start) than the current 40,000 user cap (when the grid becomes unstable), it will not be ready for primetime. As was pointed out early in the day (by Dr. Robert Childs, Director IRM College), in the not too distant future this technology will need to be everywhere and anytime, including on portable devices and phones.

One person on the SLED listserv posted that Philip Rosedale stated at a conference in Los Angeles on Thursday that the servers for Second Life will ultimately not be owned and operated by Linden Lab, and that eventually they will be distributed like web servers are today on the Internet. Here’s a paragraph with quotes from an article at Metaversed covering the talk:

“Many people have wondered why Linden Lab wants to make their client and server software open source. According to Rosedale, it’s the only way to remain competitive. By allowing others to create client software, they’re able to access a much wider market. By allowing others to maintain their own servers, they ensure that the grid will continue to grow and have adequate support staff regardless of the size of Linden Lab itself. At that point their company would focus on the wider architecture involved in maintaining the Second Life Grid. Ultimately, though, it’s seen as simply the only possible way to grow the grid. The title of the slide: “Only Open will Win”.”

If you take the comments by Philip, and the continual dodging of questions on what Linden Lab is doing specifically to address the glass ceiling that we’ve hit with concurrent users, I am starting to think that without a change to the underlying infrastructure and coding, we will be stuck at this 40,000 (to maybe 60,000 near term) concurrent user count for the foreseeable future, or at least until all the code is in open source and the community at large attacks the problem (which could be a long wait). And in the above comments, it’s only AFTER the server is in open source that “their company would focus on the wider architecture involved in maintaining the Second Life Grid.”

In-world audience coming back from lunch

After a morning of incredible stability and smooth streaming video and audio, the first session after lunch was choppy with the sound and audio dropping out every few minutes. I did a head count on the island when it was apparent this was not a temporary issue and got 45 avatars. There were requests from the moderators for people to stop drinking their free “animated” coffee, and to remove any prim hair or animated objects. Requests were also made to move to alternate locations, or to load the stream directly into Quicktime outside of Second Life to view the video. After many stops and starts of my stream in Second Life I finally dropped out to Windows and started Quicktime. This is how I ended up viewing the stream for the remainder of the conference (a few hours). To me, 45 people attending an event in SL is too small to have these types of major performance issues. This is just barely enough for a single class of students. If you have two classes, you need to spread them out over two islands (as we often have to do with PacRimX) to avoid server issues. These are very small numbers, numbers that need to be much higher before Second Life (or any virtual world platform) will be ready for mainstream acceptance.

Linden Lab, and a fair number of the Second Life community (businesses and residents), continue to promote this platform as “the next big thing”. Many would like this to be the next evolution of the Internet (me included). However, the technology is just not there yet to scale to the numbers necessary to support thousands, much less millions, of users. Educators are one of the fastest growing segments of innovative users of Second Life. We have to be very careful in promoting our projects, and promoting the platform in general, as not to raise expectations beyond the capabilities of the current platform. Even though graphical MMO’s have been online for the past ten years, and Second Life has been around for almost five years, we are still in the very early stages of this technology. In order to keep our projects moving forward, we need to set expectations appropriately to the capabilities of the platforms. If we oversell and overhype the platform, we are dooming our projects (and these platforms) to failure.

Presentation Meltdown – Two Screens Overloaded the System

I am one of the strongest proponents (and an evangelist) for virtual world technologies. I truly believe that virtual world technologies are the future of the Internet, education, and the workplace. The potential for virtual world platforms to transform the way we work, learn and socialize is almost limitless. But as much as we want it to be here today, it won’t be there technically for at least a few more years (likely another five to truly mature). While I am aware that some information is proprietary, I would like to see Linden Lab outline in detail what their plans are for moving Second Life past the concurrent user and grid issues, and what their plans are for either open source or licensed servers on an actual timeline. So far there is no “big picture” diagram or outline of where we are going, and how we will get from here to there.

The Second Life Architecture Working Group is a good start, but if(?) there are plans in place now, then those plans need to be communicated in a more effective way than a rumor here and a random comment there about where the platform is headed. Communication with the Second Life community is critical. If Linden Lab really wants to pilot this ship, they need to take the leadership role and step out and set the pace, set the expectations, and lay out some timelines for all of us to align our projects with. Right now there is a vacuum of information related to the grid issues and distributed server options. In education we often have to plan a year or two out, and once we start these types of projects we are asked what we expect will be the timeline for “rolling out” to larger groups. Not to mention the pressures placed on us by other people in the organization to adopt the technology as soon as they can get their hands on it.

My biggest fear is that with all the hype that has surrounded Second Life this past year, and all the high profile projects (CSI:NY, I Am Legend, The Office, etc) currently being launched, that Linden Lab is promoting Second Life as if it were already “ready for primetime”. If they go too far out on that branch, they may find that they can’t deliver the experiences they are promising and the whole thing will collapse in on itself, short circuiting the natural growth this platform needs to go through. All of us in the education community need to make a serious effort to set realistic goals for our projects, to not raise expectations too high, to keep an eye on all of the platforms (not putting all our eggs in one basket), and involving our students in every step of the process.

Henry Kelly, PhD, President, Federation of American Scientists

Henry Kelly, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking with at several events this past year, gave a short talk before lunch on their group (The Federation of American Scientists). They have started The FAS Virtual Worlds Project. Their stated mission on their website is:

“We intend to compile and publish a comprehensive review of virtual worlds; the engines that are used to create virtual worlds, and related information (including news, reviews, and links to other Websites of interest). It is our hope that visitors to our site will not only learn more about virtual worlds, both existing and planned, but that they will also contribute to our research, and even correct it when called for.”

He put up a slide listing most all of the platforms available today to show that there are many different platforms with a variety of features. Some of these platforms are very specific in their strengths and applications, while others are more adaptable and wide ranging like Second Life (and repeated over and over throughout the day, low cost for prototyping new environments). Educators would do well to keep up with efforts like this to avoid developing a myopic view of the potential for a global Metaverse.

And in closing this blog post, I want to put up a slide for the students who are reading this. I can only hope that all students internalize and live by this quote from Alan Kay as they venture out into these brave new worlds and help to shape the schools and workplaces of the future:

Words to live by . . .

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