Breaking the spell

Today is a big day for one of our Media Zoos. We have three, one in the physical world, one on the web and one in Second Life (SL). It’s the physical zoo that’s having its big day. It moved with us to this lovely Victorian house just off-campus, but in the process changed from its former glory as a media-enabled conference and working space to a rather haphazard combination of temporary features. Soon, our real-life Media Zoo will be re-transformed into the working space we are used to. Today is the big day. The painters are in.

I know the painters are in, because the house is slowly acquiring a pervasive “Eau de Magnolia”. And it set me thinking. How could that be represented in SL? Precedents have been set. In a Japanese garden I like to visit, incense burners very effectively give off small translucent particles that drift slowly upwards before fading into nothingness. Somehow, they visually give the impression of scent, not just visible smoke. It’s interesting how a few simple cues can invoke a whole experience.

This can work in our favour when building learning spaces in SL. Often, it’s not necessary to build an accurate copy of something. A tree can be two two-dimentional images at right angles; a texture can replace a three-dimensional surface; a sound can replace a detailed movement.

But. And it’s a BIG BUT. Sometimes lack of detail can break the spell. SL designers must always remember that they are asking the learner to create missing detail in their head, using the cues available. If there’s not enough detail to allow this, the illusion of reality will be broken and the whole experience can unravel, leaving the learner feeling disoriented and distracted from the learning task.

My favourite example is a particular medical simulation (that should perhaps remain nameless). The building, beds, equipment etc. look good. Objects behave sensibly. Walking around gives a good impression of a real-life clinic. There’s just one problem. Patients are represented by two-dimensional body-shaped objects with the image of a person painted on. Noooo!

The patients are the focal point of the learning task. The patients need to look authentic. The designers would have been better spending their time on this and skipping the elaborate reception area!

Designing learning spaces in Second Life is not difficult, but it does have its pitfalls and they are not all obvious. One objective of the SWIFT project here at Leicester University is to investigate laboratory learning within Second Life using a virtual genetics lab – what works, best practice, and what is best kept to real life. It’s an exciting new area. Watch this space!

Dr. Paul Rudman
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

Visit the Media Zoo in Second Life:

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  1. Breaking the spell « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog | Portal site of Second Life and metaverse"MetaLog-meta log"
  2. Breaking the spell « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog | Portal site of Second Life and metaverse"MetaLog-meta log"

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