My, how virtual worlds have tarnished. From all the high expectations of 2006, people calling for the coming of the “3D web”, and its been a year since the crows on the wire started sqwaking the “Second Life is Dead” as the big corporations who responded to the flash of light packed up their virtual buildings and left. Or, now it is relegated as a niche or that it is only good for 50 people.

Here is a code phrase to look out for- any statement that X is dead is suspect unless X is that skunk you ran over on the highway and has been flattened. Always question such assertions; ask to see the corpse.

I’m just coming off of a two day utterly engaging experience in what we do at the NMC as online conferences- these are not your webinar slideshow brigades- for 3 and a half years, we have run two to four conferences per year in a virtual world space, ones where people pay money to attend, and I can say first hand that the ones we have run are a completely different, and from what I have seen, more participatory experience from your typical web-based conference.

This is going to be a monster long post, maybe the longest I have ever lobbed on my server…

But before I make a case about this, which I am setting up for the rock throwers, I’d like first to rave about the NMC 2010 Symposium on New Media & Learning — from behind the curtain, it is an utterly exhausting affar, and usually by the time it is over, I have decompressed, and lack the energy to really capture the experience. But this one, may have been the best one we have every done, for the range and quality of the sessions and the discussions we saw bubbling around it.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

The space we hold this in is a Enterprise Server version of Second Life – this offers all of the features of the public Second Life, but runs on a server hosted for us at Case Western Reserve University. It has no connection to SL, we create accounts, and in fact, people enter with avatars bearing their real name. The advantage of this space is not being tied to all the traffic of Second Life, where the system has to track/manage 60,000, 70,000 people at a time, so the lag is significantly less.

Our environment is named “Hakone” a nod to the location in Japan where in the early 1990s, the idea for the NMC as an organization was born (see the NMC history for more)… so there is a Japansese motif to the place, including a Mt Fuji for backdrop.

So here is a run down of the Symposium we just held. The focus is broad (and specifically is not about virtual worlds, it is just held in a virtual world– really do you expect all webinars to be discussions about the Elluminiate technology?):

The 2010 NMC Symposium on New Media and Learning, the fifteenth in the NMC’s Series of Virtual Symposia, will explore the impact of new media on teaching, learning, research, and creative expression, especially in higher education. New media, for this event, is interpreted broadly as anything from creative uses of digital media and new forms of communication to alternative publishing methods and media-rich tools. The Symposium seeks to explore new media in the context of a current social phenomenon and not simply as a means of content delivery.

This of course is broad, but because of a new project on museums and technology, we wanted to make an emphasis on digital storytelling, so that was the topic of the first day of sessions. It is not a massive schedule, and in fact we reeled it back a bit because we’d seen fall off with a full day of sessions- it is 5 sessions per day, one a keynote, which leaves 8 open slots we take from proposals, running over 6 hour span with an 1.25 hour break in the middle.

Picking those was a difficult problem this year given we had about 35 submissions.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

I’d like to recap all the sessions because they were all highlights. I’d like to note that we are able to post copies of all presenter slides (as PDF), any videos they showed (since we load them on our media server), links. In a day we will have audio recordings, and we hope in a week, to have videos of all sessions available (we hired a machinima specialist to document the sessions). All of these are linked from the session titles on the program.

The Symposium opened with a welcome from NMC CEO Larry, who in 15 minutes set the stage for the event, highlighting the Hakone history and how our long standing interest in storytelling brought it as a strong theme for this event. We then showed a 6 minute video created for us by colleague Holly Witchey, who was out of the country and could not be here. But what she did, by sitting down in front of her fireplace, was perfect as a launch recording her story and connection to Apollo and Daphne (watch the video).

Our opening keynote was the best person possible to talk about the potential of digital storytelling, co-founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling, Joe Lambert, who spoke on Centering the Circle: Storywork in the Era of Media Ubiquity. In person, I have seen few people who can “work a room” in a genuine way as Joe does.

When we planned his session he said something like, “Do I really need slides?” which my answer was happily “no”- As a natural teller, Joe has a speaking voice that almost needs no media, but in the topic of his talk, we created a set with two contrasting scenes- one a desk with computers, books, and clutter on it, and the other a setting in the woods with a camp fire.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

You can find his speaking notes and the digital story examples he wove into his talk, extremely moving stories of human challenge, the role of written words, how personal experiences are woven into history… it would be cheap of me to give them away, you have to hear the stories as told by the people who made them.

We moved next to a completely different space, when the ever versatile Cynthia Calongne took us inside a custom planetarium she built for her presentation on The Mars Expedition as a Virtual Context in Storytelling.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

Few people present in a virtual space with as much dexterity as Cynthia. She flows evenly from her planned talk to respond to remarks, questions from the audience, she patiently explains how to use the affordances of the space she is in. Her mode of presentation the last few times is to weave a trivia challenge as she speaks, with a scripted system that recognizes the person that responds correctly first in chat. Her talk described an award wining project she created that used Second Life as a platform that used a storytelling metaphor to explore the real science of space exploration.

After this, Anthony Curtis from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke shared digital stories created by his students in his session, Digital Storytelling: An Ancient Tradition in the 21st Century. Tony showed about 5 or 6 (out of a larger set he has accumulated) from teaching Mass Communication. He started out humbly describing the “non professional quality” of the stories, but that is the beauty of student work- it is their own voice and ideas projected and shared. In between the examples, Tony described (and fielded a lot of questions) about the processes he uses to have students create these projects over half a semester.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

Tony’s students post their stories on YouTube (see the listings), and I was impressed at seeing many of them had 10s of thousands of views, most with more views than all my YouTube videos combined.

After the break was a session I was eager to here- Loe Rera from the Buffalo State University presented on Flash Fiction. Lou did an exceptional job, especially as this was the first time he had even been in a virtual world. He introduced the concepts of this short form of writing, moved into ways it is done with media in video and flash, demonstrated the use of audio as a driver for story ideas.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

What was fun too was towards the end, Lou described the idea of the six word story, and asked the audience on the spot to share in the chat a six word story that described the coliseum venue we were all sitting in — we got some great ones:

  • Stuck Underneath. Cant Fly. Me Noob
  • Box of avatars. listening. or not.
  • Sitting, legs dangling through wood. Weird.
  • Suddenly, found myself naked and deaf
  • In the arena – no lions anywhere
  • Love to help – relog – relog – relog
  • Dumb On Crutches, in the band?
  • i fly. i fall. i live.
  • Avatar with good posture. Not me.
  • I came. I flew. Airsick
  • Virtual world. Real Voices. Strange feeling
  • Time flies and so do we
  • Avatar appears disapears flesh in disguise

We ended the first day with another virtuoso, Ruben Puentedura, who, when I asked him by email about any slides he wanted to show, responded that he was going beyond slidedeckophelia and going “slideless” for his talk on Mapping the Digital Storytelling Domain: Notes for a Future Cartography.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

What Ruben did was to place out his visuals as needed, and at first glance, the rock tosser might say “looks like slides to me’– but what Ruben did well as use the placement, spacing of the visuals to make a message in the medium. But what makes Rubens talks engaging are the ideas he eloquently weaves together, from the placement of story elements from the Caves of Lascaux to the essential integration of an image of a tiger with William Blake’s poem, to the range of modern storytelling platforms from the image mashup of 5 Card Nancy to web comics (he has entire presentations on this) to video to web based alternate reality games, and then in the end , weaving together 5 new modes, including map based stories, timelines, and more.

It was stunning.

And that was just the first day.

On day two, we shifted to other topics, starting with a keynote by Constance Steinkeuhler, on Massively Multiplayer Online Games, Learning & The New Pop Cosmopolitanism

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

In a whirlwind pace, Constance covers her innovative research into the characteristics of people who play Massively Multiplayer Online Games, and frankly, she cleanly blows holes in all of the cheap stereotypes of gamers.

Following this, Amy Gorman from the Muscarelle Museum at the College of William and Mary spoke on Using New Media in Museums to Build Life-Long Learners. As another person who had never been in a virtual world before this conference, much less present, Amy too did wonderful. While her presentation was straight-up slides (10) they were all images, and clearly formed the context, not the focus, of her remarks.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

But what I liked better, was, she did not expand the presentation to fill the full time- the really meat of the session was the 20 minutes or so of active discussion and question/answer with the audience, a multipoint dialogue about the role of new media technology in museums.

Next… I have to say the next session was hands down the best presentation I have seen anywhere.. Craig Kapp on Augmented Reality in the Classroom. This topic caught my interest when the proposals came in, as we’d been seeing AR trending as a technology on the fast track especially in the last year.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

Craig worked for years taught and does teach at the College of New Jersey, but is also a full time graduate student at the ITP program at NYU. He got hooked on Augmented Reality just a year ago, and cited the ability to create AR apps in Flash as a real boost- he cited the FLARToolkit (I think I got the right one) as a library of Flash code that made it easy to do AR apps in Flash.

Using an even balanced but natural speaking voice, Craig covered a wide range of AR apps done elsewhere (I heard in chat people raving who had downloaded ARSights, James Abraham said he had the Eifel tower on his desk), the and then described at least 5 or 6 projects he has worked on, from simulated snails to an AR storytelling book to assistive technology to.. well, it was dizzying.

Obviously these are not easy to present in a virtual world, but Craig was really effective at using a series of short demo videos and images… and humor, showing how he used his dog to generate action that was transmitted via AR to Second Life (which led to a audience comment about “Dogmented Reality”)

Most of the reaction of the audience was in the line “picking their jaws off of the floor”. Mine too. I’d seen a few of these, but the practical way Craig described it, not as a techno zealot, but someone who was just enthused by the creative capability– was utterly effective.

And he really went beyond when I noted that he had posted a blog post with resources about his presentation… before he presented. Shazam.

I was jazzed too, and over lunch, I played with his AR version of the Game of Life— you print out the page with the code that generates the imagery via your web cam:

Again, we have a lot of the resources Craig shared at See also Tom Caswell’s reaction to this presentation– “WoW”

I am still reeling from how great a session this was. But wait, there’s more.

Next up was Brett Bixler from Pennsylvania State University talking on Building an Educational Gaming Initiative in Higher Education sharing a wide range of projects and programs you can learn more about at

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

Brett claimed he has worked at PSU for 26 years, which to me means he started when he was 7. As typical at PSU, somehow a small dedicated team (5 people, only one doing this full time) has integrated gaming as an initiative across the state at the 26 (or is it 28) campuses. I dont know what is in the water in Pennsylvania, but it makes them able to spread innovation effectively across a huge system, something that continue to blow holes in the old mantra I heard for years at Maricopa (“we’re too big tio change”).

Besides sharing lessons learned from getting faculty involved in Second Life to what worked and did not for developing games (like ChemBlaster), there was a great introduction of the work Brett’s team did to create the Gaming Computer Lab, a special computer lab available for classes as well as general student use, that is outfitted with a variety of gaming platforms. They’ve done in incredible job of planning and integration of processes to manage the lab (I was lucky to visit last year as they were just setting up)

And finally, we had a fantastic closing of the Symposium, with Tom Caswell and Marion Jenson from Utah State University sharing their novel idea of using Twitter to do historical re-enactments — TwHistory: Tweeting History in the Classroom.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

Again, Tom and Marion had never been in a virtual world before, and here they were presenting like pros (well except when Tom’s avatar slumped). But that doesn;t matter, it was again, the natural way they described TwHistory as a concept and implementation with the re-enactments they have coordinated for the Battle of Gettysburg and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The idea of using twitter was the ability to pace the re-enactments in time as they originally occurred, and there is a huge amount fo research done to establish the timelines, the characters, and the flow.

Again, the short portion of the presentation was the talk over slides, and the longer part was the back and forth discussion Tom and Marion coordinated with the audience.

What I really like about this project is the elegance of a simple idea that uses an existing platform in a novel way (noting too that blogging has been well used to re-tell history too like Samuel Pepys’ diaries, Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, even Dracula).

That, was the whole conference crammed into a blog post. And then I missed a lot.

So as far as a place for academic conferences… It’s easy to make judgments from the outside looking in, even the inside looking in… never having been in this space, one sees cartoons or people focused on virtual dressing up

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

Let me explain this photo. This photo was taken between sessions. Think about your typical web conference- when a session ends, people peel off rapidly. At our events; they stick around, sharing ideas, teaching each other informally, making connections.

In the photo above is one of the most amazing colleagues I have connected with, primarily through virtual worlds. Cynthia Calongne is a professor of computer science at Colorado Technical University; but she is also an expert in computer games (high WoW levels) and somewhere back in her engineering experience I think she designed some of the real defense computer systems that were modeled in the movie War Games.

Cynthia is a virtuoso at figuring out almost anything in the Second Life virtual space, but what she does so much at our conference is freely teaches anyone from total n00b to advanced scriptor; in this photo, like she always does at our conferences, she is sharing with others the basics of forming 3d objects by rotation, that the skirt she is modeling is based on a mathematical formula.

We see a higher level of audience active engagement in our virtual world conferences, more back and forth with presenters and each other, than in our webinars, and even our face to face conferences.

Think about this.

In a web conference system like Elluminate or Connect, look at the screen. It is dominated by the presenter’s space, the slide screen, their photo or video. The presenter controls nearly everything. As an audience member, your space to express yourself is limited to a small text box that is about 5% of the available real estate. Beyond the few who tend to dominate a web conference chat, much can you really there,in your tiny bound box?

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

In a virtual world space, as a participant you have a wide array of modes of expression. Yes, there is a text chat box (and voice). But there is a way of expression in how you represent yourself, from whimsical dragon pictured above, to a presenter who made his own t-shirt with his school logo.

There is expression you do, with place. You can sit politely in rows, but you can fly, animate yourself– you are not stuck in a 4×4 text box.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

You have more than text to work with, it is and should be a place where people generate things, experiment, design, manipulate

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

But you could say I am also just cherry picking some specific photos or just talking in circles.

So let me circle back to the event we just ran, the 2010 NMC Symposium on New Media & Learning. A lot is standard, we have a call for proposals, registration, etc. We do a lineup of keynotes and presentation sessions.

One of the most parroted stones thrown at virtual glass houses is “it’s too hard, the learning curve is too tough.”


I’ve had harder times in Microsoft Word, drupal, Blackboard.

The thing is, it’s not something you just drop in and figure out on the fly. It’s a world. The one I am sitting in? I spent a lot of years fumbling around, learning to walk, then talk, feed myself, and maybe ti took me 18 years (some would say more) to get to be a functioning adult. So in a virtual world, why do we expect we can do it in 5 minutes?

You may not buy that.

Okay. We had four presenters in our program who had never been in a virtual world before– and they successfully ran compelling sessions with just a small amount of coaching. Many of our participants too had a first experience at this event, one of them an 80 year old retired professor. Another was able to be part of this from a hospital bed.

We’ve learned a lot in running these events, one of which is getting people to enter the space early- we run Orientation sessions for anyone interested, in an hour, we cover just about all they need to know to navigate, communicate, etc. Our secrete weapon is a guy named John Howard, who we hire specifically to be our “Chief Help Office” but we have our entire team, include our office staff, in world pitching. We run a backchannel in Skype so we can pass off assignments like “Richard G needs a teleport to the Coliseum” or “Wanda F is not hearing audio”.

Our team is rabid on the response. We offer a toll free number to call, an email, an in world paging system.

It’s not to say that people dont experience challenges, walk into walls, complain when they cant hear the audio. Some get frustrated. But a little attention, they learn, and by the second day, the number of help issues drops off to almost nil.

It’s not that hard. I really don’t buy that, it sells people short on their capability.

Another thing we do, parallel to in person conferences- we run an opening reception. We’ve done some as activities, treasure hunts, games– the idea is to get people into the space and practice skills, and get to know each other (or get to know their avatars). What works best.. again is going to call for a lots of stone tosses- is live music.

For this event we hired a brilliant one woman band, Noma Falta, who sings and plays bass along with a drum or piano track, and sings live via streaming audio.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

And (load up more stones), our friend Cynthia spent a good chunk of time importing BVH data and carefully working them into scripts that animate participants to dance.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

Yes that’s right- at an academic conference we sat at home and watched our avatars dance on screen.

That is the outside looking in cheap shot view.

If you were there, you would have heard the storytelling the singer relayed around her songs, how she connected to the audience, how people there were teaching each other navigation skills, they practiced the voice and communication tools we use during the conference. And also, there was an utterly amazing string of stories people ended up sharing in chat, one of a person’s 1970s adventures exploring cultures in Central America.

The other side of the conference that I spend a lot of time on is working with our speakers. Many come in not know what the experience is like of presenting in a 3D space, and start with a slideshow mindset. We hold at least 2 meetings with each presenter- one to bring them to the space so they can understand what the layout is (they present in the round), what kinds of media we can display, but most importantly, we listen to them describe their topic, and working with our 3D experts we often create sets, props, interactive devices, anything that can leverage the advantage of being in a 3D space.

Over the years we have seen things from a mashup performance they led to the audience atop a school bus to a technology linking real world instruments to virtual actors to even flaming zombies.

I am still waiting to see the corpse of the dead virtual worlds. I don’t think you can paint a singular picture of such a range of activity.

We ran a really really informal survey last month on virtual worlds, and no, it was self selected and not a broad sample and likely oversampled people invested in virtual worlds… BUT- while early adopters may have fallen off, every indicator of what we at NMC do in virtual worlds indicate there is still a wave coming in– and in a post-hype state, people are not going there to make it a replacement for online classes or the Next Big Thing. They have more focus, to use a 3D space what it is good for. Look at the long list of recommended projects and tell me that this is “dead”.


I was there a lot in 2006-2007, but lately really are in world mainly for the few events we run there. Does that make it dead because I spend less time there? I never was really convinced it was going to be all that some people claimed (I love the web, I love the web, I love the web….). And I know of plenty of overly zealous proponents, and many of them I respect for their investment in the space.

But I do know that there is something there there for the potential for interaction, of doing things that maybe you cannot do elsewhere. Our NMC Virtual Worlds development team has built immersive projects that make sense of using a 3D space (see the Case Studies) like the University of Washington Research Classroom, Austin Community College’s Know How Island, an architectural planning tool like the Yale Mudd Library, or the deeply immersive Virtual Macbeth.

So you could look at all these great sessions I mentioned and say, “well you could do that in Connect”. True. The presentation part can be done in many ways. It is the whole package, and largely, as I tried to claim, the expanded space for participants to express themselves, that makes it a vital place for our virtual conferences.

And frankly, the venue does not dictate whether a presentation is effective, you can have good and bad in Second Life, at the San Jose Conference Center, in Adobe Connect.

People make good sessions. And now, when done well, so does the audience. I am most interested in spaces that make both happen.

Featured Image:

Pachuma House of Glass
Pachuma House of Glass flickr photo by ??? TORLEY ??? shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


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