I’ve just returned from the ReLIVE 2011 conference (pronounce RelIve as in “It’s a-live!”, not re-leve, as in “I want to live”). ReLIVE is the Researching Learning In Virtual Environments held in Milton Keynes, England at the Open University. This is the second conference, the first held in 2008. ReLIVE (if you had not guessed from the acronym) is a gathering of academics and industry to discuss and present on current research in virtual worlds.
Not just Second Life
While much of the research currently centers around Linden Labs Second Life, the topics are not about Second Life, but rather are using Virtual Environments such as Second Life to conduct their research. Many I spoke with expressed concern about changes in Linden Labs policies and about being dependent upon a commercial provider with no real way to get the hours of work exported out of the proprietary environment so that it could be re-used in other products. Many of the researchers are now looking at OpenSIM, an open source project that makes use of the Second Life viewer, and Unity3D (I include myself in this last group) for the next generation of virtual learning environments.
While none of these are perfect solutions, and there are other options available, these were the two most frequently mentioned products for the next generation of development.
The 2011 gathering was a smaller conference than the first conference. There were many reasons for this, the poor economy being a major factor. The expectations of submission was also dramatically raised. While some top researchers were not able to attend for a variety of reasons, the net effect of all these influences was to create a more intimate gathering of professionals that truly care and are committed to the future of using virtual worlds for education. I felt that I had higher quality conversations all around with far more people because the conference was smaller.
This is/was an international gathering. While, again primarily due to the economy, there were fewer international attendees this year (I believe I was the only person from the USA at this years conference), It is well attended by people from the EU and the UK.
Why meet face to face to discuss virtual environments?
A very legitimate question!! The fact is, we DO meet up virtually on a regular basis. Research is discussed, concepts and ideas are tweeted and emailed. But, I believe (I can only speak for myself) that while virtual environments are a great substitute for physical environments in a great many instances, there is also great value in face to face meetings, and we fully recognize that.
Using Virtual Worlds for Learning
One of the big areas that VW are continuing to gain a great deal of usage is in the creation of simulations that are costly, dangerous, or just not practical to provide in a physical setting. We are seeing more and more simulations for training inspectors, miners, medical professionals, conducting physics and chemistry experiments, helping grade school students conceptualize abstract concepts and many many other uses.
We are beginning to see VW used by companies and museums. Recently a colleague and friend worked with a group of students to create a virtual museum for a local company. VW allows a company or museum to show their history and engage the viewer, not as a presentation but as an interactive experience. An experience that will allow interested people to move from an audience to a participant.
Current State of Using Virtual Worlds for Learning
According to Gartner Research (as of July 2011), the development of Virtual World usage is currently in the “trough of disillusionment” (sounds like an area in an RPG). And that is actually a really good place to be at this point in time. We, as developers and researchers, need to make vast improvements to virtual worlds before they are used ubiquitously. It is not yet easy to make changes to a VW, record grades, make lessons and keep it all working seamlessly and transparently. There is much work to be done before Virtual Worlds can provide the resources and answers that it can provide in the future.
Future of Virtual Worlds for Education and Work (One Guys Opinion)
I have often and loudly said that I don’t care for Second Life. I have tried it many times over the years, and I have never been happy with it. I do believe that SL has provided a critically important starting point for inquiry and development. I also think SL has been valuable as a centralize place where people can begin to experiment. But I’ve never felt it would be the Facebook of VW. What that means is that the opportunity to create the Facebook of VW still exists for entrepreneurial individuals who have the drive and understanding to create such an environment.
There are two things that VW are still missing (actually there are many more, but at the ReLIVE conference, I kept hearing these two): a killer app that can only be done in a virtual world; and a better, more user friendly interface that allows people to interact with that environment.
While we work out the killer app issue, the User Interface issue is getting better. Already we are seeing regular implementations of virtual worlds in such places as the PlayStation 3 Network. It won’t be long and we will have virtual worlds smoothly implemented on our mobile devices.
The organizers of the conference, led by Anna Peachey, and The Open University did a great job of organizing a very informative conference. You know the conference has been a success when everyone at the end is completely exhausted, brimming with new ideas that they want to research, excited about the future of their research, and armed with new people with which they can collaborate. I look forward to my next VW gathering!
*please realize that I am including many other peoples theories and concepts in this particular blog entry. I do not claim to be the originator of all these ideas (though a couple are mine), but for the sake of providing a reader friendly report with the hope of spawning more interest in virtual world research, I have written this in a less academic fashion that would be permitted elsewhere. If you’re interested in learning more or having some references, let me know. I can give you a reading list that will take years to work through.