The Information Age of Things

After the dissolution of the Institute of Learning Innovation, the EMMA project was taken over by the University of Naples (Federico II), and Prof. Grainne Conole, myself and Dr. Brenda Padilla were contracted to create and run two MOOCs on the EMMA platform. I was responsible for “21st Century Learning” – a MOOC about innovation in pedagogy and related technologies since the turn of the century.

The discussions amongst participants generated all manner of questions. One in particular set me thinking. During the week on Virtual Reality, the question arose as to how different terms should be defined. The accepted definitions for these, and various related terms, have varied over the years, but I want to try and pin down some definitions. I’ve tried to create ones that relate to the experience, independent of any technology.

artificial reality
virtual reality
virtual environment
virtual world
immersive and not immersive
augmented reality
avatar vs first-person view

A contemplation
Let’s start with the question, “So, what’s wrong with ordinary reality?”

And I suppose the answer is, “Nothing.” Except that it’s a bit restrictive. I can’t fly, or teleport, I don’t have x-ray vision, I can’t swim to the bottom of the sea or visit Mars, I can’t shrink myself to an ant and explore a forest, I can only run so far without having to have a good lie down… you get the idea.

Now it may be that I have an over-active imagination and want to do lots of unreasonable things, but I don’t think so, because the last few hundred years has seen people using technology to extend their reality in all manner of ways. Since the 16th Century, if not before, there’s been a stage illusion called “Pepper’s Ghost”  where a sheet of glass is placed at 45 degrees across the stage, so that the audience see both through the glass – the main stage – and a reflection of a person or object off-stage – which can appear to float in mid air.

As soon as film was invented, people started to create images that weren’t real, such as the Cottingley Fairies from 1920 – photographs of paper cut-out fairy shapes that were believed to be real  And that was just the start of our love affair with the unreal. So many images we see nowadays have been adjusted, or “photoshoppped”, that people are starting to question whether we may now have strayed too far from reality.

In 1937 the Walt Disney Studios created its first feature-length animated film (with a quarter of a million hand-drawn images…): Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The first feature-length animation made entirely from computer generated imagery (CGI) was Toy Story in 1995. Even “ordinary” movies contain so many “special effects” that they are a long way from the reality that existed during their making.

Humans, it seems, are not satisfied with reality – at least, humans in modern Western society. But why? Damien Walter wrote an interesting article, leading to the question: “Do our fantasy worlds help us to escape, not from reality, but from our own limitations?”  Maybe so.

And now the escapists – that is, all of us – have technology so advanced it would, not so long ago be indistinguishable from magic (to misquote Sir Arthur C. Clarke), and so basic that in 100 years we will be called “primitive”.

So, let’s start at the other end and work backwards. What form will our escape from reality take in 100 years time? Ok. I have no idea. So let’s try a related question. What form would we like this escape from reality to take in 100 years time?

I’m sitting in an armchair, in a room at home. It’s a nice home, but really, I’ve sat in it quite a bit since I moved here. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could change the appearance of the walls at the touch of a button? No, at a voice command. “Make the walls light blue”, and now the walls look as though a painter’s been in. Except there’s no painter, and no paint, and if I turn off the piece of technology that’s making the walls look blue they’ll jump back to being cream.

What is this technology, you may ask? Well, we’re still 100 years in the future, and it hasn’t been invented yet, but please bear with me a bit longer…

How about, I don’t like walls at all. Let’s remove them. “Remove walls, create a country scene”. So, now there’s a coffee table in front of me, and then a sofa, and then a hedge, some trees, and a field of sheep. A robin flies down and perches on the edge of the coffee table. It feels like I’m sitting in the countryside. Of course, I know the hedge is actually a brick wall, so I’m not going to try and jump over it, and the sheep won’t wander into the room because, well, they are virtual sheep, computer generated, and the computer knows that small birds are pretty and sheep are, well, annoying.

I call my friend, and we have a chat. She’s sitting opposite me, on the sofa. Except she’s not of course. She’s sitting on her own sofa miles away, but it feels like she’s here, and – from her perspective – I’m sitting in a chair at her house. Of course, I can’t hand her a coffee, because she’s only virtually here – a telepresence – but that’s ok, because it feels as though she’s here, which is the main thing.

I’ve tried to create definitions that would fit this scenario just as effectively as today’s technology, so that the definitions describe the experience, not the technology.

artificial reality – coined by Myron K. Krueger, this is the broadest definition: anything that appears to be real – completely real and present, genuinely mistakable for a real, ordinary, physical experience – but is actually an illusion. We don’t really have the technology to do this yet, but we will, and sooner than one may think. The experience doesn’t have to be computer-generated, although that is our current best technology. The obvious fictional example is Star trek’s “holodeck” but I don’t want to get hung up on technology – we don’t need any specific technology for these definitions, they are about the experience, not the hardware.

virtual reality – artificial reality that is not completely convincing – it is apparent that something is amiss, or the presentation requires some imagination. So, for example, anything you need a screen to see, or some sort of head-mounted display that’s sufficient to remind you that something odd is going on, or objects don’t behave as real objects – pixellated, juddery, not fully believable. The experience is not “real” in some noticeable way. The big thing is that humans are very adaptive, and can gain a lot from experiencing reality in a non-realistic form – from feature films to Second Life.

virtual environment – sufficient objects using virtual reality to feel as though you are in a location, and the ability to move around that location. So, not just a virtual teapot, but a whole room. Or countryside. Or Mars. A virtual environment can include other people that one may interact with, usually represented by avatars – characters that don’t necessarily look exactly like the actual person (or look completely different, such as a cat). (I’ll talk more about avatars in a while.)

virtual world – a versatile virtual environment that appears to be, or is effectively, infinite. So, not just the one virtual space, but numerous different spaces, and usually the ability to create new spaces with virtual objects at will. Coming back to artificial reality, if technology ever reaches the point where it can create a virtual world indistinguishable from the real one (i.e. you can physically walk around and interact with non-existent things) then I would call that an artificial world.

immersive vs not immersive – this is really subjective, and depends on whether someone using this sort of technology reaches the point where they suspend disbelief and act – within reason – as though the experience is real. Clearly, this is easier with some experiences (e.g. a modern racing car simulator) than others (e.g. the “Pong” video game), but it also depends on the person as to whether they make the necessary imaginative leap from a virtual experience to a real one. (Of course, by my definition, an artificial experience wouldn’t require any imaginative leap, so would, by definition, be immersive – unless, that is, the person knows it’s artificial and deliberately treats it as not real).

augmented reality – this is where the real world and virtual (or artificial) reality are both present at the same time, like the robin on the coffee table. Microsoft’s HoloLens actually comes remarkably close to this (as we saw in the MOOC), despite still needing a lot of development.

avatar – computer-generated character that represents a person in a virtual environment. As in the book Snow Crash, the representation of people in virtual spaces will move forward significantly when actual facial expressions can be represented accurately in the virtual. Lindon Lab’s Project Sansar promises to go some way towards this  In the long run, I see avatars as becoming increasingly realistic to the point where they look like real people – although, like today’s avatars, not necessarily like the actual person.

avatar vs first-person view – in my opinion, following an avatar all the time is a hangover from virtual reality’s gaming past. In some of the interviews for the SWIFT project (where we created and trialled a virtual genetics lab in Second Life) I asked participants if they felt they identified with the avatar (a concept that seemed important at the time). Generally, I got the impression that participants thought this to be an odd question. Participants generally had the feeling that they themselves were doing the experiment – not the avatar, and not something they watched on video. Indeed, two of the interviewees said that the avatar just got in the way (obscured their view of the lab bench). So I would not refer to “first person view”, any more than I think of my reality sitting here typing as “first person view”, it’s just how I see the world – how I’ve always seen the world. As we move forward towards artificial reality, I think it’s time to leave viewpoint behind and just think about reality – what I see is how it is.

Telepresence – the experience of being somewhere in the real world other than where one is. Telepresence often refers to some form of videoconferencing, such as Edward Snowden’s TED talk but also extends to control of distant robots with various amounts of realism. From the perspective of other people at the remote location, the robot or video screen represents the person engaged in telepresence. The film “Avatar” imagines a highly sophisticated version of telepresence. From the experiencer’s perspective, telepresence is similar to virtual (or even artificial) reality, but the big difference is that the environment in which they find themselves is actually a real environment and, unlike virtual or artificial reality, may contain physical people, animals, etc. The difference is important: in virtual (or artificial) reality other people are not actually present so cannot be physically harmed, whereas the environment the telepresent person is in is real, and real harm can occur to the people in it (but not to the telepresent person, of course).

I think, over time, the need to distinguish between these forms of reality will diminish. We will get used to the idea of virtual objects and experiences being part of our lives, to a greater or lesser extent. A virtual robin on the coffee table will seem ordinary – it will just be a robin and a coffee table. Probably some slang term will appear for virtual objects. Maybe something like “Don’t bother feeding the robin, its holo”. There will be shops full of models walking around displaying the clothes, changing instantly to match what a computer decides nearby shoppers might like, and the shoppers will know that there are no models, but it will seem normal. There will be parks, and art galleries, and sports arenas that are just empty concrete spaces, but we will only know that if we ignore the trees and paintings and action in front of us, and stop and think.
It will be The Information Age of Things.


Dr. Paul Rudman, April 2016, Leicester, UK


Avatar or Invisible Man?

When I joined the SWIFT project, I began as an experienced Second Lifer. I had seen numerous people arrive in Second Life for the first time, with something like half of them staying and enjoying the experience, while the others never returned. Over time, I developed a hypothesis that there were two things that “hooked” people into returning:

1) those who stayed formed friendships of some kind during their first visit

2) those who stayed were interested in their avatar as a second identity, spending time and money on creating a “look”

Thus, for the first SWIFT experiment, we incorporated a significant amount of avatar personalisation into the Second Life training part of the experiment.

For the second experiment, we did less of this, mainly because it was just too time-consuming for the students to spend a whole hour on learning to use a piece of software that they may only use once.

And an interesting thing happened. When I interviewed the students afterwards, it seems that the avatar wasn’t particularly relevant to their experience. In fact, one person would have been happy to not see the avatar at all. So why the difference?

I’m thinking that it’s because the need for purpose is being satisfied in a different way. For “recreational” use, Second Life is, on the face of it, quite poor; one “arrives” somewhere in-world, and, well, that’s about it! It’s not a “game” – there’s nothing to “do” – so unless you meet someone interesting it seems a very lonely place. For our experiment though, there is something specific to do. We have a virtual genetics lab, and one can perform “simulated” experiments. that is the purpose, in fact, almost, the “game play”.

Which brings us to the question of identification with the avatar. If one is in Second Life with a definite purpose, and it’s neither necessary nor useful to socialise, the avatar doesn’t really have a role. It just, as one participant said, keeps standing in the way of something you’re trying to look at.

If this is the case, then it’s really good news for SWIFT. If the avatar proves to be unimportant for the learning situation we are creating, then we could reduce the training time significantly.

We’ll be reporting on this in our next paper. . .

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Austerity measures

We’re going to run out of prims.

Our little Media Zoo Island may not be “real”, in the original sense of the word, but it has always managed to have real effects on its visitors. Interest, inspiration, acquiring information, learning, even fun. But with every silver lining comes a cloud, a real effect we could do without – limited resources.

In the physical world, the talk is of “credit crunch” (a dated term already?), economic crisis, cuts. In the virtual world of our Media Zoo Island the limits are much more self-inflicted. We have embarked on a major project, SWIFT, and it’s testing the virtual world of Second Life to its limits. We want to display information in ways this virtual world was never designed for, we want animations that directly support each student’s learning needs at critical moments, and we want a virtual genetics laboratory where 30 students can each have all the equipment they need to practice screening genetic material for inherited diseases. That’s 30 sets of equipment, all in use at the same time.

New SWIFT lab in development

In a physical laboratory, one wouldn’t imagine trying this (at least, not without a multi-millionaire benefactor), but the virtual world is different. Not having to work within the laws of physics – such as time, gravity and cause-and-effect – makes it much easier to create machines than in the physical world. Of course, they only give the illusion of working, but that can be quite sufficient to generate an effective learning experience.

Yet even in the virtual world, there is a cost. Machines and other objects are created using “prims” – malleable building blocks that can be used to create surprisingly effective virtual objects. Even though something like a PCR Thermocycler takes only 44 of these prims, we need twenty such devices, thirty 12-prim UV Transilluminators – the list is long. With everything else on the island, it soon adds up to the 15,000 prim limit.

So, as everywhere, it seems that our virtual world will need some “austerity measures”. We’ve already found enough unused objects to release half the shortfall, and will redesign others to use less resources.

Reaching the limit of virtual resources is certainly not the biggest challenge for the SWIFT team, but it is, perhaps, one of the most contemporary.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Virtually Futuristic – Attention, Spoilers Ahead…

In line with IMDB’s message board etiquette  I need to warn you that you may find spoilers in the remainder of this post – “remarks or pieces of information which reveal important plot elements, thus ‘spoiling’ a surprise and robbing the viewer of the suspense and enjoyment.” The Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project here at Beyond Distance Research Alliance is all about spoilers. It is attempting to get a glimpse of possible futures of learning and teaching, and “to reveal important elements of the plot” for higher education with the help of students.

All scenarios that students participating in the project have created so far envisage some form of teaching and learning in virtual worlds in the future. Even students, who did not know of Second Life prior to their participation in CALF, believed that in the future people will learn in “worlds in the computer” as one student put it, as much as they do today in the physical world. Is this shared anticipation a spoiler, a signal of a very possible future? I consider it to be.

Recently there has been a wave of big budget Hollywood films about virtual worlds. There was the premiere of the trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar (it will be the most expensive film ever made, apparently) and this week in theatres on is Surrogates with Bruce Willis. Both films are set in futures where humans live their lives through representations of themselves.  Could these movies be the “spoilers” of possible futures?

 If they are, it will not be the first time that something predicted in a sci-fi movie has come true. In Johnny Mnemonic  humans could have their memories removed to free up space within their brains or so that data can be locked in the brain with codes to protect it and only last week the CNN posted a story about a researcher at Microsoft who is converting his brain into e-memory. In Surrogates people live confined in their rooms while controlling through the nerves of their eyes their robot representations in the outside world – recently it was reported that MIT has developed technology that can help blind people see again by projecting visual input directly onto the brain.

 Perhaps the question then is not “If” there will be teaching and learning in virtual worlds, but instead “What if” there is, how will the world change? In getting me to think about this “ripple” effect of new technologies, I found the Surrogates movie to be well worth the £5.50 I paid for my ticket and I recommend it to anyone who is working on virtual worlds. In the future of Surrogates mortality of contactable diseases had dropped with 90% – because people were not in contact with each other anymore. So had mortality of accidents and crime – everyone was safe in their fortified homes. Birth rates had also fallen for obvious reasons and that had solved the overpopulation problem which would have otherwise loomed because of the increased longevity. The movie focused a great deal on the issues to do with identity and identity theft and while these diversions into causes, consequences and possibilities may have diluted the plot, they made for a very inspiring experience from a futurist perspective.

 In the CALF project, analogy has proven a powerful tool for idea generation for “spoilers” for the possible futures ahead. Encouraging students to seek analogies with things they are familiar with, including science fiction movies, in order to generate and ground ideas about possible futures, has yielded scenarios that are structured and easier and quicker to communicate.

I guess what I am trying to say is – It is Friday today, treat yourself to a movie. And do put a comment here if what you see inspires you to think of a possible future…

Sandra Romenska

Beyond Distance Research Alliance, 2 October 2009

Making the virtual transition

I recently had an enjoyable discussion about Second Life with someone who I can only describe as a ‘deep thinker’. For me, a deep thinker is someone who leaves slow-burning embers of intellectual curiosity upon which to cogitate, and that subsequently engage my usual goldfish-worthy attention span.

DT was explaining how, in an environment such as Second Life, users will reach a point where they stop questioning the unreality – albeit virtual – of interaction, movement and appearance. And this transition to acceptance is usually very sudden.

(This brought to mind another comment I’d mentally filed, from a learning technologist at a different institution as it happens: “There’s nothing that Second Life offers that I can’t achieve in real life.”)

So through your SL avatar, you can fly, breathe underwater and of course you cannot hurt yourself. You can even choose to appear in outlandish human forms or as a non-human. And not surprisingly, these are things upon which newbies initially concentrate.

But what happens at the point at which these things are no longer so fascinating and become merely functional?

For me, an analogy would be learning to drive. At the beginning, driving is made up of a number of separate actions, each of which require (or at least seem to) an independent thought process. Take pulling off from a parked position, which requires the following (presented in no particular order):  engaging the clutch, slipping into gear, checking the mirrors, indicating, turning the wheel, pressing the accelerator, etc.

There comes a point for most people (my sister, thankfully no longer driving, being one the exceptions) when this series of movements becomes one action, thereby requiring one thought process. So before you know it, the student driver who not long ago nervously ‘kangaroo-ed’ around the estate is today thrashing a Skoda down the M1 to London. Operating the car is merely a functional means of getting to that club in the West End.

In my experience, this transition is also very rapid.

In SL, once this transition happens and the experience is completely immersive for the user – when the unusual environment is no longer being questioned – learning can take place. And then the opportunities offered by the learning environment of MUVEs such as Second Life really become apparent.

I realise I am saying nothing new. And I’ve avoided introducing terms such as routines and sub-routines. But DT encouraged me to think a bit harder – never a bad thing – and of course I realised I’d  seen this sudden transition in action in the Media Zoo.

And to SL sceptics, I’d say this: make sure the transition happens first, and then make the judgement.

Simon Kear

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