Last night´s tour of our virtual genetics lab

Virtual lab tour with HUD shown in-world

Yesterday, we hosted a “Train for Success” event in our virtual genetics lab. The US-based Gronstedt group arrange these regular events at different Second Life venues.
The tour was well attended by educators and business, and seemed to generate rather a lot of positive comments from our visitors, such as:

“I think this is very cool. There is immersion and reenforcement of learned material.”

and on our use of inworld animations showing molecular changes:

“oh, nice display!”
“Oh that is awesome!”
“very, very cool”
“I am excited and I have no idea what I am seeing!”

If you missed the tour yesterday, the lab is open in Second Life and you can go and try it out any time, or if you would like your own guided tour of our labs, just email us (details on the project web page).

Paul Rudman

Our thanks to Daden Ltd for arranging the event, and to our visitors for their kind comments and interesting questions.

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

A contemplation on realism in virtual learning spaces

This is my first blog entry since joining the SWIFT project here at Beyond Distance. SWIFT is about helping Genetics students learn laboratory skills, and we are designing and building a virtual Genetics lab in the virtual world of Second Life (SL) so that students can have a broader lab experience than is possible in the physical labs (for reasons such as the real labs requiring supervision to ensure health and safety is maintained).

An interesting question came up about the need – or otherwise – for realism in this sort of project. Currently, the virtual Genetics lab in SL is in a “pretty” translucent dome with trees outside, while the real Genetics labs at the University of Leicester are, well, traditional labs.

Does it matter? Should we make the virtual one more like the real one? I thought I would share my initial thoughts based on my own experience in SL:

I have two memories of surfing with friends. One includes sunshine, palm trees and giant waves while the other has grey skies and a cold wind. Both experiences included learning, or reinforcing, the views that a) surfing is fun, b) timing is critical, c) shared experiences are priceless. The cold wind was in Cornwall, UK, and the palm trees were in Hawaii, Second Life.

In terms of motivation to want to surf again, the SL experience was superior. In terms of a shared experience with friends, both experiences are memorable. In terms of learning to use a surf-board, only the real life (RL) experience was able to do that BUT SL did make me aware of the principles (or remind me, since RL preceded SL). The question is, what part did the sunshine and palm trees play in the experience?

Had I been surfing first in the real Hawaii and then in SL without a beautiful environment one could assume that the environment was crucial to the experience. But it was the other way around. Cornwall in spring is cold, and a wet suit is, as the name suggests, wet! Yet I did feel I’d “been surfing”. Adding sunshine and trees in SL did make the experience more pleasurable in one way. Indeed, I would prefer my next surfing experience to be in the RL Hawaii (if only). However, it’s clear that the sunshine and trees are not critical to the experience of “surfing”.

So, applying this to the question of whether a lab experience in SL remains valid if the lab is unfeasibly “pretty”. When I first walked into the RL Genetics lab my reaction was not entirely positive. Looking back on that experience the phrases that spring to mind are “clinical”; “alien”; “authority”; “danger” – the sort of feeling one may have going to hospital for some tests one suspects may be unpleasant. Of course, many people have a different experience! Maybe they think along the lines of “professional”; “exciting”; “cutting-edge”; “medical breakthroughs” – the kind of feeling a child might have when they first sit in the driver’s seat of a parent’s car.

But would replacing some visual elements (low ceiling, bounding walls) with others (translucent walls, pleasant view) remove anything critical to learning? Students in the virtual lab must still wear their lab coat, tie their hair back and wash their hands in the correct sink. In fact, a pleasant virtual lab experience may help some students to overcome any fears they may have.

There are some specific things that may need greater realism. For example, at present the lab has no door (it seems that routines around doors, handles and gloves are important) and having a distinct boundary to the SL lab may be necessary.

Overall, SL is not (and is not intended to be) a replica of RL, it’s a simulation, in the same way that a painting may represent the real world. It’s true that a photograph is a clearer representation of the world than a painting, but a painting has the advantage of being able to add or enhance meaning that a photograph cannot show. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is not a photograph of the night sky – it deliberately distorts reality to make a point.

So the translucent lab walls are staying, for now at least. In creating a virtual representation of the physical world, we may sometimes be better considering a Picasso, or even a Salvador Dali, than assuming a Constable will always be the best solution.

Dr. Paul Rudman
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

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