I am in San Francisco the first part of this week at a Sun Conference. My reason for being here is to investigate the new Wonderland/Darkstar project. I just finished day one, and thought I would post some thoughts on the blog before trying to get some sleep (it’s almost midnight).
For those who have not been following this blog, we are going to pilot this new platform in our district (Modesto City Schools). This is not a replacement for the PacRimX Second Life Project, but a supplement to that project, and a platform for some new projects involving distance learning. After today’s sessions I am even more excited about the potential of this new platform, as are other Second Life alumni (see below).
Today there was one session that introduced the Immersive Education and Wonderland platform. Paul Byrne, Senior Engineer of the Wonderland project gave an introduction of the platform. To demonstrate the power of the platform, he gave his PowerPoint (actually Open Office) presentation from in-world of the MPK-20 test environment. The ability of the Wonderland platform to run external application was impressive. The one thing that the residents of Second Life have been begging for over the years is HTML on a prim. Here’s a screenshot of Firefox running in-world in Wonderland:
In version 0.3 this new Sun platform is already getting down to business with integrated applications. From the ground up it is obvious that this platform has been designed with both business and education as its primary demographic (as opposed to the consumer driven Second Life platform). There are two types of applications that will run in Wonderland. The first are “share aware” applications that can run in a collaborative mode in-world. Specifically, these are the Sun Open Office applications at this time. Windows applications can be brought in using VNC. These non-‘share aware’ apps are tricked into working in a collaborative environment by passing control between avatars, with no concurrent use of the application (kind of a virtual pass the keyboard and mouse method, tricking the app into thinking only a single user is in control).
Some simple things shown today were really ‘cool’ in my book. One was the ability of participants in a presentation to ‘uncouple’ their stack of slides and jump forward or back in the presentation from the speaker, and then synchronizing their slides back with the speaker again when they are done reviewing slides. Another interesting application was the integration of telephony. You can dial out to a person on a telephone and have them in-world. Once connected, the avatar participant is represented by an orb. This orb can be carried around with an avatar in-world so that the real world participant can participate in conversation in the virtual world. The orb can even be left in a conversation group by itself, and the transporting avatar can move on to other things. This single feature has great potential to extend the reach of this platform to people on phones.
There was a lot of talk about standards, standards in the authentication and security model, and standards in IP and content creation. There is a lot of thought being put into the creation of assets and the mobility of those assets into other worlds. Standard applications and 3D file formats are being promoted with this platform to allow for this mobility of assets. This is very different from the proprietary model used in Second Life. Unfortunately, assets that are created in Second Life stay in Second Life.
Larry Johnson from the New Media Consortium (NMC) in Second Life, one of the early pioneers in education in Second Life, talked briefly about their new project, the Open Virtual Worlds Project:
Larry gave an overview of the new Sun project to the attendees. He will not be here tomorrow, but apparently has a video that will be shown in his absence. Anyone who has been working in education in Second Life should immediately recognize the NMC name. They recently released all of their content in Second Life that they have developed into Open Source. NMC has developed an expertise in virtual spaces and education over the past few years. They’ve worked with many institutions and feel that they have a good 30,000 ft view of education needs in virtual world platforms.
“Today the New Media Consortium (NMC) announced a $250,000 two-year collaboration with Sun Microsystems to launch the Open Virtual Worlds Project, an effort that is aimed at making it easier to learn, work, and exchange ideas in virtual space. The project will develop a range of standards-based, portable open-source educational spaces, content, and objects, and use them to extend Sun Microsystems’s open source Project Darkstar and Project Wonderland virtual world platforms.
In launching the Open Virtual Worlds project, the NMC will build on its extensive presence in Second Life and add to the services it offers educational institutions with a suite of services aimed at those who need a secure extensible platform or simply prefer an open solution. Open Virtual Worlds will be a new project housed within NMC Virtual Worlds, along with its extensive Second Life project.”
The Sun platform will have a considerably steeper (sheer cliff) learning curve. There are no built in content creation tools, and Sun expressly stated today that they have no plans of developing any. Instead, asset creation will be done within industry standards for 3D content for both file format and API’s. Maya was mentioned as the program of choice for developing content, but support for the more entry level (and more affordable for education) Blender is also being included. Things like Sketchup (Google), and other content creation applications are also planned.
It was clear that this focus on standard and portability is what drew NMC into the fold this early in the development cycle. They will be able to develop a library of objects and designs that not only can be made available to educators for the Sun platform, but down the road they will be able to carry this investment in content into other worlds that also adhere to industry standards. If there is to be a true Metaverse, there have to be standards. This is a very strong move in that direction by both Sun with the platform and by NMC with their new project. There simply can’t be a global Metaverse if every bubble virtual universe uses proprietary formats and standards.
NMC is truly enthusiastic about the potential for this platfrom. The Wonderland/Darkstar platfrom can be customized to fit the needs of practically any education project. This platform will require a large group of consultants that can provide content to institutions wanting to enter this space. This should grow a healthy business model around this new platform. The Open Virtual World Project is starting out as a two year project. NMC will offer high end design services as part of their offering for Wonderland. NMC is a ‘not for profit’ company. All profits are invested back into the project, which will ultimately benefit educators and the ramping up of development for this platform. With the way the platform is designed, it will lend itself to modular off the shelf environments being marketed to institutions wanting to enter the space. Sun welcomes this project (another quote from the article):
“Sun is delighted to participate with the New Media Consortium and their outstanding community of creative individuals and organizations in expanding the opportunity and use of open source virtual worlds and game-based learning to enhance student achievement and academic scholarship around the world with Sun’s Project Wonderland and Darkstar technologies,” said Kevin Roebuck, Community Manager, Immersive Education, Sun Microsystems, Inc.”
Tomorrow there is a general session panel discussion scheduled for late morning. The Host is Kevin Roebuck, Community Manager, Immersive Technologies, Sun Microsystems. The following speakers will be participating in this panel:
- Paul Byrne, Senior Engineer, Project Wonderland, Sunlabs
- Dr. Michael Gardener, Director, Digital Lifestyle Lab, Essex University, UK
- Warren Shaeffer, Chairman, Computer Science Department, St. Paul College, USA
- Aaron Walsh, Director, Grid Institute, Boston College, USA
- Jonathan Richter, Researcher, Center for Learning in Virtual Environments Lab, University of Oregon
So it looks to be another informative day at the Sun Worldwide Education and Research Conference tomorrow. I will blog with some pictures and thoughts after tomorrow’s sessions.