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

What does your avatar look like?

If you want to have a ‘second life’, how are you going to create your avatar? Do you want your avatar looking like your real self or an ideal form of yourself? Do you want your avatar looking provocative or conservative?

Some predicted that people in virtual worlds are likely to be freer and more flexible, and therefore are likely to be more exploratory and creative in designing their avatars. They are also likely to be more playful with avatars’ characters due to the high level of anonymity. However, my observations on small-group teaching, learning and collaboration activities in Second Life (SL) hinted that this perhaps was not the case.

Few people have been brave and exploratory enough. Instead, most created avatars quite conservatively. One typical reason is, ‘well, I’m a teacher, so I deliberately choose something plain’ or ‘we know we’re coming for study and research, I don’t want to look too weird’. In other words they adapted their look and behaviours in the virtual world exactly the same way as they do in real life. ‘This is for teaching and learning, therefore I look and behave like a student or teacher’. So will these people be freer or more creatively with their avatars when they engage with activities other than teaching and learning in SL? Will these people have a separate avatar when they do different things in SL? I haven’t stalked them. But some argued strongly that in virtual worlds, such as SL, people have to take advantage of anonymity, and try doing things differently, otherwise, what’s the point?

Another typical reason is, ‘ok, we know each other, I don’t want to look geeky, I don’t want to be judged by peers’. Do you have this concern? I certainly do. When I created my avatar the very first time, I was being brave and made an animal looking avatar. But from time to time, I kept asking myself, ‘come on, you’re going to a teaching session, are you really sure this is a good idea? Are you brave enough to experience people talking about your avatar for 10 minutes every time? Do you really feel comfortable sitting around with a group of human avatars?’ Eventually, I gave up. I decided to ‘edit’ my animal looking avatar to human looking. However, at that time, I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I selected ‘detach all’, and suddenly saw my avatar becoming naked! I was so embarrassed. I had to escape from SL, so I quickly log out, and completely discarded my naked avatar. After that, I created a new one, human looking, conservative, conventional, and with no hidden surprises. Still, if you happen to come across a naked avatar somewhere in SL, you know who she was.

Ming 12 March 2009

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