A New Sun Rising

I got the new Wonderland client working with the community server for the new Sun Virtual Workplace MPK20 test platform tonight. If you remember back about a month ago, I posted a couple of blog entries about Modesto City Schools getting involved with piloting this “under development” virtual platform from Sun Microsystems. I took the latest build for a test drive tonight and got a good feel for where this new open source project is at in its development.

What’s the first thing you do when entering a new virtual world? You create your avatar of course. The avatar creation tools are pretty basic at this point. You can select from some stock body part styles and assign basic colors to them. Say hello to my new MPK20 avatar:

Now remember, this platform is still in development, I don’t even think this is in BETA form yet. I am not going into this project expecting a full blown mature platform like Second Life. Second life came out of BETA in 2003.  With this platform being clearly targeted at business and education, I am expecting avatar fidelity to be secondary to the environment and applications embedded in the platform. The description at the Sun site for this platform is as follows:

“Project Wonderland is a 3D scene manager for creating collaborative virtual worlds. Within those worlds, users can communicate with high-fidelity, immersive audio and can share live applications such as web browsers, OpenOffice documents, and games.”

The first thing that I noticed was that navigating this space was much easier in first person rather than third person “over the shoulder”. The avatar’s movement animations are limited when compared to others VW platforms like Second Life, so having your avatar in your field of view is a bit of a distraction in my opinion.

Movement is accomplished with the standard ASDW (or arrow keys) triangle. You can hold the right mouse button down and use a free mouse look to pan your view. The usual landmark system is available here, but the landmarks are called “placemarks”. With the demo MPK20 environment, there are placemarks for the Teamroom, Conference Room, and Starting Location. At the starting location there’s a self running slideshow that gives you a quick overview of the platform and how to get around.

There are several demo objects sprinkled around the MPK20 building. One that caught my eye was small space vehicle suspended and rotating in the air. It was a smooth fully rendered little model that was pretty impressive in its detail. It looked a lot like the new “sculpted prims” of Second Life. The one drawback to this platform at this point is that all content creation is done outside of the environment using stand alone applications, and then importing them into the world.

There was one demo of an electronic device in front of a “Project Sun Spot” kiosk coming apart into components in the air, the circuit boards fanning out and then back together into the fully assembled device. The graphical detail on the circuit boards was very impressive.

I was able to adjust my field of view to my preference, which was a nice touch. I found if I had it set to clip too close in front that I could see my glasses and eyebrows.  This came in handy when trying to take in a large object in first person view like this diagram displayed on a vertical kiosk.

The really exciting thing about this platform is that there are clients for Solaris, Linux, Windows and Mac. This will be a truly cross platform virtual world environment based on Java. From the looks of the graphics, I seriously doubt that it will have the high system requirements of other VW platforms available today, especially those of Second Life.  Also, being based on Java, the compatibility with video cards available in school computers labs should be better.  We’ll have to wait and see upon release what the required specifications will be. 

The demo environment was not very interactive, and there were no other avatars online when I was testing it, so I did not get to see how the chat or voice system works. But this short tour was enough of a sample that I am very curious now as to how it all gets put together. What programs are used to create the content for the world? How do the user created objects get imported into the environment and placed in 3D space? Exactly how much of the platfrom is open to the creation of the user vs. preset into the platform? There are so many questions, and so few answers at this point.

After getting to play with it for a bit, I am even more excited about the possibilities of this platform for education. As I’ve stated over and over again this past year, a lot can be overlooked initially if we are able to manage and host our own servers. As we are finding with our PacRimX project, many of the activities students enjoy the most are structured and somewhat scripted (see the Festival of Ages post). Wide open virtual worlds without specific activities or goals can quickly lead to bored students in K12 with them asking what they should be doing, and why they are there.

One of the first things that came to mind after running through this demo was a test of setting up a virtual frog dissection space. Students could get on for that one virtual exercise. They could look at kiosks with information about the life cycle of frogs, look at video clips of frogs, watch a 3D animated frog dissection, and then be tested on the standards covered in the virtual exercise. This type of a single purpose environment is what I see this platform being used for right out of the gate in an education setting. This would be the type of thing that could be created by one teacher, and then downloaded by others with their students.

Please keep in mind, these are all just my first impressions and observations based on a limited demo of this technology. I hope to get a lot more exposure over the next few months as to the more technical aspects of this platform, and to get some idea as to where Sun sees this platform going in the next 6 months, year, and next few years. As we go deeper into this platform we will be sure to update this blog with all of our experiences.  This one looks to be off to a great start, and holds a lot of potential for education. 

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One response to “A New Sun Rising

  1. Glad your excited about Wonderland!

    Don’t miss the little audio discussion in the Sun demo about the Project Darkstar technology that underlies it.

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