Monday, 30 August 2010

Kids have imagination, Let them loose.

Imagination, oh how I miss thee

Its not something you notice is missing until its gone, and when its gone you can't remember what it was that is now missing.

Over the past 2 years I have been blessed working in a pioneering industry in Virtual Worlds and no where grasps it as close as Education, Learning and Simulation.

But I want to talk about the meetings I have with the kids (young adults, youths) call them what you will but they are so much better at my job than I could ever dream to be.

2 years ago Second Places started construction upon CANVAS (Children's art and the national arena of Scotland). A place where kids art from all over Scotland could be showcased. We came up with the concept design, a replica of the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Not an exact replica but the similar idea, large stair case, wings off a central area, you know the type, the normal Victorian build of an art gallery or museum.

We were excited by our design, I was very much looking forward to the build. However in a workshop with the kids from Auchterarder Community School it became very clear that I was OLD.

Here was a world (virtual) where gravity was not a problem, where it never rains and the limits of this rather sad world we live in can be simply ignored. And I came to a bunch of kids to say, "We should have it like buildings that already exist!".

Luckily the Teachers knew better and let the kids come up with the design. A massive ream of paper with kids on both sides just doodling. Their designs were just amazing, it really put me and my team to shame.

"There is no gravity, so why not build up the way?", "Does it need a roof?", "Why walk when you could use a turbo lift?". The questions just came from innocence and enthusiasm.

The final design of CANVAS shows 32 art pods floating the sky, each containing 30 unique pieces of art.

CANVAS is now live and kicking and last week at another consultation with kids every pupil doing Art and Design knew about CANVAS and what it could do.

Last week I had 8 Consultations with kids from all over a region in Scotland. What an experience! We had some groups who were shy, glazed looks with not a scooby what I was talking about, while we had others who could see virtual worlds as their way to try new skills, find skills they didn't even know existed.

It was my role to get them involved from this early stage.

Their new virtual world would be based upon the ideas from these kids. I'm currently writing up the consultation now, but we had kids wanting to run for mayor, run as police commissioner, setup up community groups, help create content, stream their band into their own club. Allow them to hang out and compare stuff with other kids from all over the region.

In total I spoke to over 40 kids about virtual worlds and what was possible and the majority just embraced it like ducks to water. I left one group sorting out roles to create a shoe making business.

I stressed to them that making something was only a very small part of the experience. I used my own company to explain. "I have the best product in the world, its quite simply light years ahead, however I have no marketing skills, I have no sales skills and I have no interpersonal skills, so my idea will fail unless I find people who have these skills to help me!".

The kids just loved that! Here was a way for a group of people to work together, find what they are good at and use it.

Another group was more into the politics of the world. Everyone was told that there was always "GOD" in the virtual world, the person who can over ride government (lets be honest the kids also had some ideas that had to be closed down quickly), but they wanted a recall process for the mayor of the world (who would be a kid) we even had a debate about the voting system.

And there was real enthusiasm, you could see them getting passionate about something that would require hens teeth in the real world. Their imagination just ran riot and it got them learning so much more than listening to me preach to them.

Reading my notes we covered politics, economics, law and order, citizenship, freedom of speech, freedom of movement I bet we spoke about "boring" stuff in an exciting and engaging way in that 1 hour slot than most of these kids had spoken about in their past year.

Kids are great, lets get them using virtual worlds, let them enjoy using it with as much freedom as we can give them. Let them learn skills they didn't even know they were learning.

Second Places can help you with consultation as well as create your very own Virtual World. Secure and safe and as locked down as you "GOD" see fit!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Internet = Knowledge = Do!

A great piece from the BBC about the Web being used to download walks and the number of people doing it! The information is coming from the English Natural Trust.

800 on Average Downloads per Day!

Second Places held at stand at the Museums Association Conference in London last year. To say the event was a waste of money was an understatement. I had never come across a more "conservative" (not political) anti-change group in my existence in Virtual Worlds or digital media.

They had a whiteboard up where people could put ideas and ticks beside it to get a feeling on what the conference attendees were thinking. And the largest ticked box was "Digital is not the way forward for us!"

I was flabbergasted. The only industry in the WORLD who could not see the advantages of digital media. I was peeked and I started asking why they were different?

"It is all about feet through the door" was the most common reply. "We only get funding when we can prove the local populace use it!" was another.

I was shocked and, to be honest, quite angry. No one I spoke to thought about other ways to get money than funding grants!

We are very, very lucky in this country that most of our museums are free. Its rare in the continent, even rarer in the States. And I do admit I don't like to see tourists from outside the UK walk past the donation box with a look and a shuffle the other way. I always put in a fiver and I pay my taxes already.

I digress, and really don't want to go down the road of funding. But what this BBC story says is that here is a way for the English National Trust to say to their governance, "Hey, we got 800 people a day using this service for free, and its costing us not very much after the initial funding!". And I'm sure you could charge 10p (why 10p and not £1) no reason, just people will not care about 10p, maybe a quid is noticeable. Sell 800 a day thats £30k per year for nothing more than a map and a bit of information (they even have their own paper)!

But I can imagine the idea being brought up to the people at the museum conference. "Oh no! people need to come to our shop to pick up one for free so we know how many people take it!"

Its time the Museum and Galleries of this world looked at digital media, not just in side their buildings, but making their buildings open to the world. Spread their knowledge world wide, allow for donations or even CHARGE for things like talks, debates anything that can bring in revenue!

There is 1.1 BILLION people on the internet, grab just 1% that is 11Million people, if just 1% of them donated a fiver for their visit that is over half a MILLION pounds!

COME ON PEOPLE, the new media gives you new opportunity, how would you love to talk to kids from Africa about your local castle, or kids from Iraq about your ideas on the reformation.

Knowledge and understanding is just not about profit, it can even stop these misunderstandings between peoples!

Peace and Profit... not a bad thing to wish for and all easy and possible with Virtual Worlds from Second Places.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Would you host an event in a Virtual World?

Buying a car from a second hand car sales man

OK not every second hand car salesman is bad, and I'm sure they sell great cars but we playing with sterotypes here. As I'm sure not every "virtual" event is not an utter failure.

Again, for safety of the internet lawyers, I'm not going to name names of the event, or hosts or company doing the hosting. I will however say it was in Second Life and it was to be a well attended event with a mix of Second Life veterns and Second Life newbies, with just a hint of business.

And of course it failed.

The sim became a juddering wreck. The company hosting the event had a wonderful build, with scripted doors, particle fireworks.. EVERYTHING you shouldn't have at an event when you have no guarentee that the other person you share your sever with is not hosting a nightclub or , and I hope not, a similar event.

For those not in the know Second Life share computer power and its dynamic. Which is great if yoru lucky. You get all the resources, however the person you share with then gets very little.

So here we have an event and its heavy resource wise already and then people arrive, and every person that arrives the island gets slower and slower, more and more unresponsive.

And of course, people leave.. Disillusioned with most of the new people will never touch virtual worlds again becuase of this first bad experience.

We "veterans" are sick of seeing events hosting in Second Life and failing. You have no agreement with Linden Lab that your event will be looked after!

Use opensim, use a company like Second Places who can use a Cloud so that you could have the power of a small super computer passing information to everyone at t1 speeds.

Every time a newbie company looking at virtual worlds goes to an event that fails.. We have to spend even more time to persuade them that the technology is great its just you wouldn't host a real life event in a building where there is constant fires and the building collaspes all the time!

We got burnt bad by Second Lifes lack of SLA 2 years ago. So please take this as words from the wise.

OpenSim is cheaper, scaleable and if your happy to pay you can get EXACTLY what you need. Its not god, it does crash, all computer stuff can. But at least you know it won't be because your sharing a CPU with a sex club who's doing discounts that night!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Why we don't do grids or Hyperlinking

Its not a choice - Its a demand

The internet is only over a couple of decades old. So people in the top jobs likely started their careers without the use of wiki, IMing and email. So its understandable their reluctance to embrace even newer technologies like virtual worlds.

And in Education they have even greater concerns. The anonymity of the internet brings in even more problems than the solution the technology gives.

When Second Places started over 2 years ago we worked in Second Life, and had 5 or so schools operating in the teen grid. It wasn't easy to get schools to use Second Life in the first place. Kids could not use their own names, teachers had to jump through hoops to gain access and all in all it was a rather terrible space.

But it wasn't the technical problems that stopped most schools. It was the legal problems. These are actually comments made to me when promoting a virtual world to education:-

  • We need the kids to have their own name so we can see what is happening
  • We are liable if the kids use the computers to communicate with each other. Like organizing a bullying event through a communication tool like IM or Virtual World.
  • There is no way to stop them typing in swear words
  • We will never allow them to speak (voice or text) to anyone anywhere, anytime who is not approved by the school to be talking to kids.
  • We can't have kids parents in world with the ability to talk to other kids (see above)
  • We need a record of every word ever said to anyone
  • They can not change their avatar
  • They should only be able to use avatars, clothes approved by the school
The list was endless. I'm sure there is a world somewhere that kids are trusted, but more importantly the kids don't need trusting and adults see kids as innocents and would never dream doing anything to child that shouldn't be done.

However we don't live in that world. Kids will be kids, and as a parent, I would expect the school to make sure that when i hand my son over they will do EVERYTHING to make sure he's safe physically as well as emotionally.

I always pointed out that I could never see a child log into a virtual world to meet his friend (he is likely sitting beside in class) to arrange a bullying event. However I understood the problem.

Schools have a responsibility and with this anything new that could weaken their way of protecting the child was looked upon as a danger.

We understood this but as Second Life was not ours, there was nothing we could do.

Again we were saved by OpenSim.

We could answer their questions all in the affirmative.

Kids could use their own names, in fact with OpenSim we could have the kids logging in with the same username and password as they used for other in school systems. Wasn't easy for some, shibboleth became a dirty word for us here in Second Places, but it did mean a much easier access for the school.

Schools could turn off and on text and audio chat through a web interface. So if there was a teacher present in world, they could flip a switch and kids could verbally or text chat.

This allowed kids to show their parents their work and the school not worried that the parent could speak to anyone (you don't know if wee Jimmys dad is a good guy or not I guess).

We had a swear word filter, even better it was dynamic, so as a "new" word came out the school could just type it into a web page and that word would be displayed as hashes and an alarm would be sent to the school to say "Jimmy X said XYZ @ 10:52 location 123,142,30". No one around him would hear the word.

Every chat, verbal or text could be recorded and stored.

We modified the client so the kids client would not allow them to "take off" clothing, or upload images or create any clothes. So we locked down the world, but if they school wanted the kids to build and make stuff, they had access (in school only) to the normal client that did everything normally, but only used when a teacher was present.

It was done, all the worry from Schools was answered. It wasn't easy and we spent a lot of time on it. But it was a locked down, secure and customizable world that schools could be happy in the knowledge their children were as safe as possible, even safer than real world.

So the question, why we don't do grid or hyperlinking? Its all said above. For education in the UK (and I assume everywhere else) it has to be locked down, and that means cut off from the rest of the world.

But alas that is a heck of a shame. We want content to be shared. Its expensive to create content for virtual worlds and not share it (even charge back for it).

So we created the content grid, a web based virtual world island market when schools could create islands and upload them to marketplace. Sell or give them away to other schools.

These islands could be anything, Looking at the market place now we have trenches of world war 1 for GCSE English Lit., we have a working hydro dam, a replica of a radio telescope and much more, walking through a mayan temple, an art gallery, a cat walk.

Any school signed up to The Content Grid can access and upload the market place. So you can still share content, approve it before your kids can see it. And its still all locked down tight.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Nebraska is dead, Long live OpenSim

Its "kinda" official

The much expected death of Linden Labs "Nebraska" their "behind" firewall solution was sort of announced at SLCC last week. Along with the death of the teen grid.

So first let me talk about Nebraska. Great concept, in fact Second Places were in the running with one of our clients to be in the beta running. However the cost for a beta product and what was and wasn't possible made us run a mile, and I'm sure we were not the only ones.

Again I KNOW there were development companies who after the launch of the beta still persuaded their clients to shell out 50,000 USD even though a good developer would look at the problems (locked down database, buy the actual hardware, etc) and know it had a finite shelf life.

Again I hope the companies that did purchase it and likely spent many, many more thousands on the developers are not now totally allergic to Virtual Worlds having been bitten REAL baddly. But I bet they won't be in a rush to use it again.

The concept of a behind firewall solution was only part of the problem. Businesses didn't want ANOTHER log in, or the inability to modify the back end to fit with their already in place software. But alas who ever advised Linden Labs just said "You know what business want? They want Second Life and they want to host it themselves!". They (and they know who they are) were just wrong!

When Nebraska was going into Alpha/Beta stage Second Life was already the hated love child of the internet, in the eyes of the media. Companies had spent millions and now most were waving their hands as they couldn't get what they wanted. They wanted proof that their investment was not just money to an advertising firm but money to an advertising firm that could prove people were influenced. All businesses got was, "there were 500 people on your island today! Isn't that great?", the business looked excited "Yeah that is awesome, where were they from? What age were they? " and the developer would look glum and say " well, we don't have that information!". The business would start to look depressed, "oh well that is kind of key to what we wanted, but you can tell us how long each person stayed!", by this point the developer is looking out the window for the next chump, sorry customer.

The above is why certain companies target certain TV shows. Beer companies love sports shows as they know the demographics of who watch sports is the demographics they want to promote to. They know when a new advertising campaign starts and they know how it has effected sales. With Second Life it was just publicity, and like your very own 15 minutes of fame, once its over its over, keep flogging it and you will become a laughing stock!.

So Linden Labs released a product that was just something that was already dead for the marketers. But it could have still be useful for what we seen as core market to Virtual Worlds:-
  • Collaboration,
  • Education,
  • Simulation.
But by not allowing us access to the database we couldn't modify the back end to fit into the customers VLE (Virtual Learning Environments - nothing VIRTUAL about them, they just web pages). So we advised our clients not to use it.

Other developers embraced it with full hands open. Even had a "partnerships" with Linden Labs. This was the point when I decided that Second Places was going to persuade all our clients to move to another platform.

Linden had always been hands off with developers, happy to promote but were always at arms distance. With the launch of Nebraska they embraced a single developer, both shared the key note at one of the "Virtual World" conferences. And we were made to look like a second class company as we were now competing with a Linden partner.

So we quickly moved to OpenSim.

OpenSim is a product where we can pass information easily from any 3rd party application into a virtual world instantly. We can move avatars around using RFI tags from real life peoples locations. We can do everything that Second Life could do. But most of all, we could offer Service Level agreements. And the customers came running.

So as OpenSim takes off even more, Expect a new blog about our new "deal" for school who are on the Teen Grid soon, Linden have withdrawn from the Secondary Education Level (11-18) and have withdrawn from the Private Virtual World market and so they should, they have a great product in the Public Virtual World market, and good luck to them in that.

But OpenSim has the private virtual worlds all sown up.

So its Goodbye Nebraska, good idea, badly advised setup and cost. Goodbye Teen Grid, bad for educators as it was too restrictive.

And its hello FUTURE!

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Second Places - Real Virtual Worlds

Its been a while, not cause I didn't want to blog but what I wanted to blog about was maybe a bit over the top and a bit radical.

Second Places has been going over 2 years now. Each year doubling turnover however what we are getting is larger projects but the actually number of new customers remains constant.

This is always a concern but over the past 3 months I've been too busy to find out why (will be blogging on these projects as well real soon). However as the build cycle is coming to an end I've been talking to prospective clients and trying to get them to sign on the dotted line.

Some, are keen but don't have the budget, some are just not interested. However some companies can see the benefits but are put off from virtual worlds!

Its these people I want to talk about. I'm not going to name names or companies as I really don't want to go down the blame game (unless I'm actually being nice about them) so I will be as open as I dare.

Virtual World Guru's / Technical Evangelists

There are many, many people out there who claim to be Evangelists. These people usually have contacts in a certain industry and they setup a club in Second Life.

So they quit their job and start out a career as an Evangelist. I just watched "click" on Sky news where they interviewed an "Evangelist" and a "Video Blogger" and they were talking about Google and the death of the internet.

I cast my mind back to the Banking Crisis.

When all the banks were not lending they never got the bloke from the Halifax adverts to debate with some pensioner who uses a bank for their savings. That is the equivalent in my eyes to the Evangelist and Blogger. (Yeah I can see the irony I'm blogging but that's the thing.. ANYONE CAN I'm not pretending to be an expert).

When the banks were going down it was the "Head of Financial Services" from Barclay's or some other title. A title I could see and say to my self... "Oh he's done well in banks, I think I'll listen to him".

With the internet its anyone who says they are good, and the media believe them. Where is the proof! "I have had 2 Million hits on my youtube channel!", well bully for you old chap, but most of the people's comments are something to do with spherical objects! And I'm still not convinced Rick Astley sings the best song ever, but it gets a LOT of hits (thanks 4Chan).

The problem is business people are not computer geeks. They listen to these no bodies. They pay them to come in, they come in, sprout some rubbish and the company spends a fortune on it, all for it to land flat bang and out the window.

The business person has learned his lesson and will avoid that technology for a LONG time. However the next thing comes out and low and behold the dance repeats.

So I BEG companies, business people ask the question .. "What have you done lately?". And get names and figures, a company or person can have the BEST web site in the world but is just wee Joe sitting in his moms basement and you've just given them 10k 2 week project during the second week he gets bored rushes the job and you get something not worth 1 pence.

Everyone has to start somewhere so I know new companies have to break through, but do what I did, start small, get larger and don't talk about something you know nothing about!

If your looking for a virtual world company, look at the portfolio, see if they have case studies. Don't fall for the "Worked for a fortune 500 company", yeah worked so well you haven't even the guys to name them!

Come on Business stop wasting money. Talk to a good company (I will even name competitor Reaction Grid but mostly us at Second Places) get something that will work, give you a return and spend more money in virtual worlds in the future.