For several years now – at least since the advent of Second Life – learning professionals have been intrigued by the prospects of constructing immersive 3d worlds (metaverses) for training. It’s easy to understand why: one of the first things I learned in communication theory in undergrad is that aesthetics are powerful. Even the most astute and discerning among us form initial impressions from outer appearances. Ooh! Shiny, shiny! Let’s go buy the new tech-toy. I’ll hand it to those wily coyotes at Linden Lab – even this roadrunner was attempting to fast track a Second Life implementation at my library. Instead of diving off the cliff with nary a look, I decided to hold a magnifying glass up to the app first. Well, the bloom fell off that rose pretty damn quickly. I won’t air a laundary list of complaints here, although Wapedia does a decent job summing them up for me.
I’m not here to skewer Second Life, or any of the myriad pretenders to the throne, such as There, IMVU, or Kaneva. I firmly believe that immersive 3d worlds are a viable learning medium, especially when good rhetorical practices are utilized. For example, I love the art gallery critique that Michael Connors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison set up a couple years ago. Beyond teaching in a traditional sense, 3d environments add more interactivity to e-learning experiences, and we know that fully engaged students walk away better equipped to do their jobs.
If 3d training is indeed the way of the future, as experts have been extolling for the past few years, why aren’t more organizations taking the leap? In my opinion, there are two fundamental flaws to most 3d metaverses: the clients needed to run the applications and the metaverse structure itself. A typical metaverse requires that a client be downloaded and installed on the user’s computer. For instance, Second Life requires a 21MB client download and then a PC that is decently equipped for gaming. And let’s not forget that these 3d spaces are bandwidth hogs. As students of Web 2.0, we have come to expect instant access, simplicity, and portability with online content – things that are conspicuously missing from online 3d worlds.
Aside from the technical issues associated with fat clients, the sprawling, unregulated structure of a metaverse is not congruent with fostering an environment for learning. I acknowledge that you can restrict access to your piece of a metaverse, but the idiocy of a virtual world gone mad is still out there. Seriously, who wants their 3d library orientation on ABC Island interrupted by some perv bunny rabbit avatar wanting to cyber??? In my estimation, the ideal 3d training environment needs to be self-enclosed and completely removed from a larger world.
There are flickers of hope piercing the matrix. Big brother Google made strides in tackling the fat client/wide-open world conundrum a little less than a year ago with its ephemeral Lively experiment. Lively operated as a thin-client, strictly through a web browser. There was no software to download to participate in this 3d world. Simply sign in, customize an avatar, and hop into a room if you weren’t inclined to spend five minutes making your own. If you constructed your own room, you could close it off and make it available by invitation only. Finally, you also had the option of embedding your room into your webpage. While Lively is offline (and sorely missed!), Vivaty is a thin service that allows users to create 3d chat rooms that can be embedded in other webpages. Finally, VastPark has an open source toolset that empowers moderately savvy users to author self-contained 3d environments that can be accessed exclusively through a web browser.
The products that have come from Google, Vivaty, VastPark, and their ilk demonstrate that significant changes have occurred since Second Life launched six years ago. Maybe in another three, 3d learning environments will be reality in many organizations.