Monday, 11 October 2004

Role Play and 3-D Virtual World

During the three days of meeting at “League of Worlds” symposium, I met 25 enthusiastic educators who use 3-D virtual world in their teaching. I have also gained a better insight into how these pioneering teachers are using the technology and the potential the new technology may have.

Most of the following description is based on my observation of the demonstrations and subsequent discussions with these educators. As usually, due to my own focus, other participants may have interpreted our conversation differently. I will try to link to those who have blogs later. Specifically, these educators are using Active World.

Some general comment first.

The technology for 3-D rendering and the communication needed to support interaction in 3-D worlds are affordable to most learners now. Active World requires the download of a special browser. The 3-D objects are downloaded to the client and cached. Hence the initial first rendering of a 3-D world may take longer to download. A subsequent visit to the same space is much faster. The examples I saw use the 3-D to create a virtual space for learners to meet and interact. It was reported that students on 28k modem were able to have reasonably fast interaction. The use of 3-D world in education is about 3 to 5 years behind the game industry. Hence, there will be a lot of things we can learn from the game industry.

While it is possible to create triggers within the 3-D world to load web pages and send JavaScript commands to the loaded web-pages, these people is yet to find out if there is any mechanism to trigger actions from the web-page to the 3-D world. May be this question arises only from my own curiosity. They have yet to find a need to trigger 3-D actions from web pages. But I do see potential if a full bi-directional communication is possible between 3-D world and web pages.

Sense of Space

Learners are represented as avatars in the 3-D world. The learner can either “shout” to all other learners nearby or just “whisper” to a specific avatar/learner. Such “talking” is rendered as a chat window below the 3-D world. Any avatar within a certain range will be able to participate in this talking. The range of this “shouting” is fairly large and Active World does not have soundproof walls, hence such “talking” typically becomes very noisy when there is a lot of learners online at the same time. In order to run multiple courses within the same world, the classroom needs to be placed quite further apart. Hence it will be necessary for the learner arriving at the entrance to “walk” to the classroom. The original design hopes that such a walk will have similar “accidental encounter” effects. However, it is not evident that this has occurred. In order to allow students to move quickly between classes, tele-port was implemented.

Fablusi online role-play simulation also implemented the “interaction space” concept. Our implementation is at an abstract level in the sense that there is no visual clue as to how the interaction space may look like. Our emphasis is on the social hierarchic relationship between the participants in that interaction space. We have extensive “right” control, such as who can read, who can write and who can edit. Our interaction space also has sub-spaces. For example, a news agency (a simulated CNN for example) may have an office where the reports can discuss how they want to report an event. There is also another sub-space called the news itself. The office will only be visible to the reports. The news sub-space is read-only for all other players and only the CNN news editor has the right to post to. Fablusi does not have the “walking” to a space concept. Players are “tele-port” to the interaction space by clicking on the space button.

Fablusi interaction space is mainly asynchronous. In other world, there is no need to organise the time of meeting. Players enter the interaction space, read whatever was there and type in the response.

Active World is synchronous chat and Fablusi interaction space is asynchronous discussion forum.

Social Relationship

Part of the design focus of a Fablusi online role play simulation is the social relationship (and power relationship) among the personas within the game. We ask the player to act in character. This inevitable will require the player to reflect at two levels: how “I” will respond and how “this persona” will respond. We found that this is a powerful pedagogical tool.

The current use 3-D world by these educators is based on an equity social structure. All learners enter and render as avatars. Any one can change his/her avatar anytime, even during a session. The avatars are learners themselves and they are playing the role of learners in the 3-D world. There is no difference to a classroom, except learners arrive at the classroom at the comfort of their home!

3-D does allow implementation of magic power, which can be leveraged to create social relationship modeling on some real world scenario. How this may be used is a subject of further study.

Fablusi social relationship is represented by the power (or lack of) to communicate. I don’t know if we can use the magic power (in 3-D world) to limit (or enhance) the communication power of avatars. The wealth sub-system in Fablusi is linked to the voting in interaction space, kind of elementary magic power. There is something Fablusi can learn 3-D.

Visual clues

Another major difference between Active World and Fablusi is the visual clue. There is very limited visual clue in Fablusi, typically the icon of the interaction space is the only available visual clue that may have any resemblance to any real world counterpart. As noted above, there is also no sense of space.

3-D world obviously will have visual resemblance to the space the designer wishes to express. However the current technology and budget available to education does not sufficiently rich rendering.

I would argue that the mental image created by our own interpretation of the space and/or object has the magic power of filling in the details that is important to us. Other details unimportant to us at the moment remain unnoticed. 3-D world renders visual information which may, or may not, be relevant to the discussion (or focus) at the point. When the learning objective does not require such “exploratory” behaviour, I would argue that 3-D rendering is counter-productive. However, there are situations in which exploratory behaviour is absolutely critical. 3-D will provide the means which is lacking in Fablusi.

Preliminary conclusion

For the sake of closing and rounding up this post, I would say that because of the difference in the emphasis in the focus of the design, role play simulation and 3-D world nicely complement each other. Again quoting from a famous saying, ”if the only tool you have is a hammer, you are inclined to see every problem as a nail”. The trick is actually to learn to use more tools.

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