One of the Frequently Asked Questions about using virtual worlds as a teaching and learning environment is: “How much does it cost to prepare a learning environment?” )
Last week, Linden Labs (makers of the Second Life virtual world software (SL) ) added a new feature: “Mesh”. On the face of it, this could lower the cost of building suitable teaching environments within SL, but like most new features it’s hard to predict just how useful they will be. So I decided to try it out. . .
We are in the process of setting up the third SWIFT experiment in SL, and we need to create a simple building with some visual interest. We settled on an Egyptian-style pyramid. Until now, the standard (and almost only) way to build in SL was using “prims” – simple shapes one materialised (or “rezzed”) and manipulated within SL. Creating our pyramid with prims would look something like this (you add the “texture” – image of stone blocks or whatever – later):
With Mesh, you design objects first using a number of free or commercial programs and then import them as objects into SL. Apart from now having a choice of tools to use, there is one huge advantage: because the object is built out of lines rather than 3D objects, you only need think in terms of what you see, not component shapes that you have to imagine.
For example, in the picture above, I’m creating a pyramid out of triangular things. For a Mesh object, I can create it with lines, like this:
I’m using the free Google Sketchup program (that character is not an avatar, it’s just a 2D drawing, there to – I assume – give a sense of scale). Other programs are available, such as Blender (better but not so easy to learn) and Maya (if you have a big budget!) Sketchup took a few hours to learn, but now I could recreate the pyramid in a few minutes – much quicker than using the building tools in SL.
Then, it’s a simple matter to export the shape as a file and import into SL. . . and, voila! A 3D pyramid in SL.
For the first SWIFT experiment I created a virtual PCR machine which, as I recall, took a whole afternoon to create out of textured prims. Even though much of the time was taken in preparing the textures (images taken in the real lab), drawing it using lines would definitely have been easier than shaping individual blocks, and the level of detail possible would have been greater too.
Mesh is still new, and there will be drawbacks for a while (there seems to be a bug that doesn’t let me walk to the far corner inside the pyramid, for example). Nonetheless, I’m really very impressed by the possibilities Mesh has to offer. I’m sure it won’t be so long before all the OpenSim grids support Mesh too.
So, if you were thinking of using virtual worlds for teaching and learning, things just got easier!