Tag: Second Life

The Average Joe imperative

There once was a time when I thought Second Life was going to take over the world. Well, the virtual world.

I was so impressed with the technology – and amazed at its availability for free! – that I saw it as an unstoppable force.

Yet more fascinating for me was its implications for education. Web conferencing was starting to become popular around the same time, and while these days Skype and FaceTime are de rigueur, back then webcamming introduced a sorely needed human element to distance learning.

However, I noticed something peculiar with web conferencing. While the webcam presented the human face, the learning experience remained undeniably isolated. We were all together, yet each alone.

Second Life was different. Its animations reproduced not only the full human form, but also the learning environment: chairs, tables, stage, etc. Now (at least visually) we were all together. The irony was that by making the interaction entirely artificial, it made it more real.

A virtual learning session in Second Life

Alas, Second Life had an Achilles heel. While it was drop-dead easy to participate as a consumer, it was relatively difficult to participate as a producer.

For a start, if you wanted your own space, you had to buy your own virtual real estate. But worse, it was surprisingly hard to make stuff. I remember trying to build simple objects using the developer tools, but I struggled. So I’d give up, go back to it later when I could steal some time, only to abandon it again. Until I finally gave up for good.

Now I’m a fairly tech savvy kind of guy. While I can’t hack into NASA, I’m confident enough to give any software a go and not be put off by shiny new toys. But I was put off by this. And so too, it would seem, was the rest of the L&D world.

The moral of the story is deeper than the Gartner Hype Cycle. In fact, while we experienced a peak of inflated expectations with Second Life, and then the trough of disillusionment, I don’t think as a profession we ever reached the slope of enlightenment, let alone the plateau of productivity. Sure, some educators such as Sydney Medical School are doing wonderful things on the platform, but that’s hardly universal.

So what happened?

To me it’s simple: Second Life failed to accommodate Average Joe. If Joe wanted to attend a virtual conference or a meetup, he could do so with ease; however, if he wanted to host a virtual conference or create a meetup venue, that was beyond him.

And so Second Life sailed off the edge of the virtual world.

Statue of Achilles Thniskon

Compare Second Life’s journey to that of other products that have emerged recently. For example, everyone says that Articulate Storyline looks and feels like Microsoft PowerPoint. Well guess what… that’s the point.

Love it or loathe it, PowerPoint is easy to use. So hundreds of millions of people use it.

Articulate’s master stroke was to piggyback the usability of PowerPoint for their own purposes. And the proof of the pudding is in its eating. I am seeing Average Joes everywhere who wouldn’t touch other authoring tools with a 10-foot pole expressing an uncharacteristic willingness to give this one a go. That’s not by accident; it’s by design.

I predict a similar fate for other emerging technologies, be it Tin Can, augmented reality, responsive e-learning, or whatever else lay on the horizon.

Address the Average Joe imperative. Lest your Achilles heel becomes your fatal flaw.

Meet Sam the CyberTwin

Over the weekend, AMP added a virtual assistant to its website. Her name is Sam and she’s a CyberTwin.

Sam, AMP's CyberTwin

In a nutshell, a CyberTwin is an avatar that’s powered by AI to chat to real humans. In AMP’s case, Sam has been designed to answer customers’ questions about bank accounts and superannuation.

Can we apply CyberTwins to e-learning?

The short answer is “yes”.

According to MyCyberTwin (Dec 2008)…

CyberTeachers are endlessly patient, and have endless depth of knowledge. They can be trained to offer structured support to learn how to use a new piece of technology, bring life to learning content, and chat to thousands of people simultaneously for hours at a time. Our multi-lingual robots help visitors practice their English skills.

And yes, CyberTwins can be deployed into Second Life.

Skoolaborate and the future of e-learning

Yesterday, I attended a seminar at my workplace about emerging technologies and virtual worlds, which was presented by guest speakers Westley Field, the Director of Online Learning at MLC School and the Managing Director of Skoolaborate, Second Life “architect” Mike Mikula, and education consultant Lindy McKeown who joined us remotely via webcam and also via her avatar in Second Life.

Emerging technologies

Westley kicked off by providing us with an overview of emerging technologies, including QR codes and holograms.

The latter reminded me of the Princess Leia hologram in the original Star Wars… “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope”.

Hologram of Princess Leia in Star Wars.

The truth is, holograms are not restricted to the realm of science fiction. Sooner rather than later, we can have meetings with a mix of real people and holograms in the room. Don’t believe me? Check out this eye-opening video.


Next, Westley moved on to virtual worlds, which the Horizon Report identified in 2007 as likely to achieve widespread adoption in the higher education sector within 2 to 3 years. In fact, the education sector is really leading the charge in this space, with Westley’s Skoolaborate front and centre.

Skoolaborate is a growing collaborative of high schools that use Second Life to teach students around the world. It’s an initiative of MLC School in Sydney, which is somewhat famous in Australian e-learning circles for their use of innovative technologies in the K-12 sector.

Westley gave us a real-time tour of Skoolaborate’s islands in Second Life, with commentary from Mike. The islands have virtual lecture theatres where the teachers can show video clips and PowerPoint presentations to large audiences, plus breakout areas for small-group discussions and more open areas for informal ways of learning.

They have also built a virtual shopping centre not only to support the social/fun aspect of the virtual world, but also to explore principles of commerce, economics, marketing, design etc.

The Skoolaborate collaborative is really taking off. Currently 11 schools are participating, from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Chile and USA, with interest from Singapore. The inaugural Skoolaborate Congress is being held in Sydney next week.

An IBM Concierge in Second Life

Corporate islands

Next, Westley, Mike and Lindy led us to IBM’s virtual Business Center in Second Life, which the company uses to bring together staff, customers and partners to meet, learn, collaborate and conduct business. IBM staff members are even at hand in real time to answer customers’ questions.

They also took us to the Cisco Systems island, which the company uses to host classes, meetings and other events.

Cisco Systems island in Second Life

Plenty of companies have dipped their toes into Second Life with mixed success. I think Skoolaborate, IBM and Cisco are showing us how to do it right.

A whole new world

The corporate sector is exploring a whole new world.

Which world? The virtual world.

What is a virtual world?

A virtual world is a computer-generated environment that more-or-less replicates the real world.

Arguably the best known virtual world today is Second Life. Anyone can download the Second Life Viewer from the Internet and set up a basic account for free.

Each account owner creates a character (or “avatar”) which appears in the virtual world in – typically – human form. When the user logs into Second Life, they can use their mouse and keyboard to manipulate their avatar to walk, run, jump, dance, fly and teleport to other locations. Avatars can also socialise with other avatars via text chat, and more recently, real voice.

Second Life also has its own economy. Its currency is the Linden Dollar (L$) which avatars can use to buy virtual goods and even virtual property. Linden Dollars are bought with real money and can be exchanged back again. As of 7 July 2008, L$265 = US$1.

Ailin Graef's character, Anshe Chung, in Second Life.

So what?

At first, I found all this is kind of hilarious, but of course Second Life was originally pitched to the entertainment market. In other words, people entered Second Life for fun.

Notwithstanding its intent, smart cookies soon cottoned on to the fact that real money can be made in this virtual economy. People like you and me are creating all manner of virtual goods – clothes, tattoos, furniture, you name it – to trade in the virtual world. In 2006, Ailin Graef became a real-world millionaire by dealing in virtual property via her avatar, Anshe Chung.

And business isn’t restricted to entrepreneurial individuals. In fact, the companies dipping their toes into Second Life read like a Who’s Who of the business world: Adidas, Armani, Coca Cola, Dell, Kraft, L’Oreal, Peugeot… the list goes on.

Financial services in the virtual world

Wells Fargo was the first bank to enter Second Life, which they did to provide financial education to young students. ABN Amro soon followed, taking the extraordinary step of opening a virtual branch. Just last year, First Meta launched Second Life’s first credit card.

So who else has entered Second Life? The list includes BNP Paribas, BCV, Deutsche Bank, Saxo, Visa, and from Australia, Westpac.

But it’s not all beer and skittles. Recently, Ginko Financial declared insolvency with debts of L$200 million – equating to approximately US$750,000 of real investors’ money. Since then, complaints about virtual financial services providers prompted the operators of Second Life to institute a new policy:

As of January 22, 2008, it will be prohibited to offer interest or any direct return on an investment (whether in L$ or other currency) from any object, such as an ATM, located in Second Life, without proof of an applicable government registration statement or financial institution charter.

Screenshot of a classroom in Second Life.

E-Learning opportunities in Second Life

So what does Second Life offer legally incorporated, government-regulated financial services organisations in terms of e-learning?

Consider the following possibilities for customers:

  • A virtual island where visitors can come to learn about your products and services.
  • Avatars controlled by staff members to converse with vistors and provide them with information.
  • Avatars controlled by qualified financial planners to provide visitors with financial advice.
  • Virtual educational seminars about financial literacy.

Consider the following possibilities for employees:

  • Virtual training sessions.
  • Virtual inductions for potential recruits.
  • E-meetings, workshops and discussions.

Road blocks

While the potential of virtual worlds is tantalising, very real road blocks exist.

For example, the need to download a plugin and register individual accounts is never a good start.

Another problem is bandwidth. Second Life’s media is so rich, users chew through the data – making it technically challenging and potentially expensive.

There are plenty more criticisms of Second Life.

What’s the verdict?

While the real-world companies that have entered Second Life thus far have had mixed success, I’d suggest the virtual world remains under-explored by the corporate sector, particularly for e-learning.