Life Connected to Life: How to Revolutionize Environmental Education

[This post also appears on Wiggle Planet's blog.]

There are many educational games out there that do their best to teach people about the environment.  And many of them do a great job.

For example, I really like how Earth Day Canada put together their EcoKids website.  The games on EcoKids are mostly simple simulations with engaging action and puzzle-based mechanics, and it’s great how they blend the computer-based games with physical-world activities (e.g., play a game on the computer then go outside and do some recycling).  Games that encourage people to make positive changes to their physical world, improving the environment for everyone.

In fact, both the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have sites that promote environmental education through games.  It’s inspiring for me to see large governmental agencies exploring innovative ways to protect the environment and educate the public.

But there’s another level of immersive environmental education we haven’t even touched yet.

wshedcrosscut2

First, a key fact about Nature that we often forget.

Nature likes to hide things.  Particularly when something is wrong.  

It’s a fundamental trait that has developed in pretty much every species on the planet.  Are you sick?  Weak?  Injured?  Well, you better hide it as much as possible, otherwise something will come along, notice you’re indisposed, and then eat you for lunch.  This trait also manifests itself in entire networks of interdependent and related organisms (i.e., ecosystems).  By the time it’s easy to observe a systemic problem, the damage is often irreversible.

So, it’s not enough for us to be well educated and observant.  We need superhuman powers to help us visualize what’s really happening in Nature.

I believe artificial life combined with augmented reality is the magic key.  We can help Nature tell us her secrets by creating artificial life forms directly connected to all the data repositories we’ve already created for collecting and tracking environmental data.  Imagine the appearance and behaviors of these artificial life forms changing based on these data, generating powerful human-observable moments.  And finally, imagine these artificial life forms living in an augmented reality space overlaid on the natural world.

For example, take the beautiful concept of the Kodama from the movie Princess Mononoke.

kodama on tree

Kodama are small mystical creatures living in the forest that represent the spirits of all the trees.  Their behavior and appearance in the movie is directly related to the health of all the trees they inhabit.  For example, when the trees get sick, the kodama can be seen falling from the air and dissolving into the ground.

Now, imagine walking up to a tree in the physical world.

oak-tree

Is that tree really healthy?  Not sure, since trees (like most life forms) are pretty good at hiding things (until it’s too late).  Is the forest in which this tree lives getting enough water?  Is the water table polluted?

Sure, you could pull environmental data up on your smartphone and look at graphs and charts and summarized reports.

But those are all cold data, with no sense of life to them.

Rather, imagine watching the data express itself through a family of Kodama that live around the tree.  Imagine looking through your smart phone into an augmented reality space full of artificial life with which you can interact and communicate.

Oh no, all the Kodama are brown and withered!  That means drought!   Oh, they’re all walking over to that other tree.  There must be water over there.  Wait, they’re mutating into something weird.  Some kind of pollution?  The imaginative possibilities, let alone the entertaining and engaging gaming scenarios, are endless.

Effective learning and true understanding comes from emotional resonance.

And nothing resonates more with human beings than life connected to life.

Take care,
-John “Pathfinder” Lester

My Little Autumn Park in Second Life

Fall is my favorite season, and I’ve been spending the afternoon setting up a little Autumn-themed park in Second Life.

There’s something wonderful about warm fall colors.  And it’s so much fun to tinker with sounds, shadows, crumbling stone walls, falling leaves and hidden surprises (can you find the weasel?).

You can visit my little park if you wish.  It’s one of my parcels in historic old Nova Albion (I’ve owned land there since 2004).

A view from the road.

Snapshot_009

Can you find the secret door? I wonder where it goes.

Crows keep watch.

Crows keep watch.

Snapshot_011

Could use a pumpkin latte right about now.

Snapshot_006

The arches are a nice sitting spot with peaceful sounds from the fountain and nearby birds.

Snapshot_010

Crumbling stone walls with old trees growing through them.

Snapshot_004

Hey.  Something is tickling my ankle.

Take care,
- John “Pathfinder” Lester

Wiglet Diversity: A Spectrum of the Wonderfully Strange

This post also appears on Wiggle Planet’s Blog.

strange-011The first thing you’ll notice about Wiglets is that…well, let’s be honest, they look kind of strange.

strange-021

That’s because Wiglets are not hand-drawn cookie-cutter characters.

They’re artificial life forms that look and behave a certain way because of their genetics.

strange-031

They’re neither homogenized nor pasteurized.

And unlike video games where you have limited character creator options (Choose from these 5 hairstyles!  How about these 7 different noses?), a Wiglet’s DNA can recombine through breeding to create a highly unpredictable range of physical and behavioral diversity.

strange-041

Kind of like real life.

Which is exactly the point.

strange-051

In the near future you’ll be hearing more from us about a Wiglet breeder app that will let you experiment with just how diverse they can be.

We think you’ll fall in love with their quirky appearance and behaviors.

Not because they look like something familiar and common.

But because they don’t.

- John “Pathfinder” Lester

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…

Snapshot_013I looked over my shoulder during the last Hypergrid Safari tour and saw this.

It was a good day.

More pics from that tour here.

Wiglets: The Beauty of Biological Jazz and Artificial Life

This post also appears on Wiggle Planet’s Blog.  Check it out to learn more about Wiglets!

Life is about improvising.  We’re given a framework of reality to live in, some innate biology, and then whoosh we’re dropped into the world to do our thing.  What that thing is and how we actually do it is completely up to us to figure out.

Jazz is similar.  Start with a framework of musical concepts, add some instruments, and then jam your way to a magical moment of pure creative expression in music.  And you can even jam with other people.

The connection between jazz and life is immediately apparent to anyone who has watched a newborn try to stand and walk on wobbly legs.  Or following a flock of birds wheeling across the sky in a coordinated cloud of chaos.  Or the first time your dog finally managed to catch that frisbee, dropping it proudly at your feet and gazing directly into your eyes with a cocked head, ready for another throw.

Being part of such moments gives us joy, because we are surrounded by improvisational life,  full of movement and growth and interaction and creativity.

This is why I’m fascinated by Wiglets.  

And why I think the world will be, too.

163b550debac9d7cd929030f555072a2_large

Wiggle Planet is creating Wiglets as a platform for incredibly fun experiences with mobile devices.  Wiglets are self-animated, moving with all the beauty and jazziness of biological creatures.  They have their own DNA and can evolve through natural or selective breeding.  And they can move freely between on-screen game environments and physical-world locations using augmented reality.

Wiglets combine all the beauty and complexity of biological jazz with the innovative possibilities of artificial life and the fun of games.

At a recent e-Learning conference, I gave a keynote presentation on the power of designing digital experiences that speak to our brain’s natural way of seeing the world.  In short, we love to be surrounded by life.  We are deeply satisfied and feel joy when watching living creatures doing their thing in the world.  And even more so if we can reach out and interact with them through touch.

Wiglets give us a new opportunity to create these magic moments.  Don’t believe me?  Watch these two videos and then think about how they made you feel.

So how can you get your hands on Wiglets?

There are some demo mobile apps you can download right now on the Wiggle Planet website, as well as a Wiglet-enabled book and T-shirt on the Wiggle Planet Store.  Much more will be coming soon, so stay tuned.

If you happen to be a developer who’s into writing games with Xcode and might be interested in taking some Wiglet code for a spin, please drop me a line.  Starting this month I’ll be helping Wiggle Planet with community development and creative advice, so expect to see me blogging more about Wiglets in the future.  Jeffrey and I worked together at Linden Lab, and I’m tickled pink to be able to brainstorm with him again as well the rest of the Wiggle Planet team.

Is your curiosity piqued?  Have questions?  Please leave a comment for us, and thank you for your time.

Take care,
 – John “Pathfinder” Lester

My Keynote at e-LEOT 2014 – “Augmented Mind: The Evolution of Learning Tools from Language to Immersive Reality”

The 1st International Conference on e-Learning, e-Education and Online Training is being held September 18-20 in Bethesda, Maryland.  This conference will assess a wide range of progressive ideas for the future of e-Learning, focusing on the idea of technology as a means to education rather than an end in itself.  The conference organizers have lined up a wonderful range of interdisciplinary speakers and are planning to attract a wide group of heterogeneous scholars and practitioners.

I’ll be attending the entire conference, and I’m honored to be giving the opening keynote presentation.   Here’s what I’ll be talking about:

nature-mind

“Augmented Mind: The Evolution of Learning Tools
from Language to Immersive Reality”

Innovative educators are constantly facing the challenge of matching pedagogical goals with complementary technological tools.  Unfortunately, given the wide range of technologies and devices that vie for consumer attention, the right choices are not always clear and are typically obscured by media hype. In this presentation, John Lester will describe how focusing on the way the human mind interacts with the world and other human beings can help identify the right tools for the right jobs.  From a mind-augmentation perspective combining constructivist and behaviorist approaches, John will explore web based tools ideal for knowledge management, augmented reality based self-animated autonomous agents, and finally the unique (and sometimes over-hyped) affordances of perceptually immersive multiuser 3d virtual worlds for collaborative learning.

My goal will be to tell an interesting story with examples and demos of technologies that I think really leverage how our minds naturally embrace the world around us.  One such technology that I’m currently exploring and that you’ve probably never heard of are Wiglets.

Visit Wiggle Planet to learn a lot more about Wiglets.

Visit Wiggle Planet to learn a lot more about Wiglets.

Wiglets are autonomous, evolving, self-animated and self-motivated agents that can exist in both completely virtual and augmented reality environments.  They exist at a wildly creative intersection of artificial life, art and gaming.  And perhaps best of all, you can interact with them directly through touch and gestures.

Another topic of discussion will be the affordances of multiuser 3d virtual worlds, especially how one can reduce the barrier to entry for people interested in leveraging them for educational purposes.  ReactionGrid has recently developed some new tools that integrate with the Unity3d-based Jibe platform to provide on-the-fly content editing in a simple yet powerful way.  I’ll be giving a sneak preview during my presentation.

Want to easily change this web-based 3d environment on the fly without having to muck around in Unity?  
Now you can. I’ve got some new tricks with Jibe to show you.

I’ll also be discussing and giving examples of innovative uses of commonly used virtual world technologies such as Second Life, Opensimulator and the Oculus Rift.  If you plan on attending and would like to connect with me at the conference, please drop me a line on Twitter or email.  And if you’re looking to interact with the organizers and other attendees and speakers, be sure to check out the e-LEOT LinkedIn Conference Group.

After my keynote I’ll be updating this blog post to include my slides and links to any recordings.

UPDATE Sept 19, 2014

Here are my slides:

Hypergrid Safari – The evolution of exploration across the interconnected Metaverse

Between 2010 and 2012 I had a lot of fun organizing and running the Hypergrid Adventurers Club (HGAC) meetings.  Those were the very early days of Hypergrid connectivity in Opensim, and things often went awry during our explorations.  We all stuck together and helped each other out through crazy technical challenges and exciting adventures, but it was the community of helpful people at these meetings that impressed and amazed me the most.

Time moved on, and over the past couple years I stopped organizing Hypergrid Adventurers Club meetings.  Not because of any lack of interest in Opensim and the Hypergrid on my part, mind you.  I’m still very excited about the future of Opensim and the Hypergrid, and I continue to explore and experiment a lot on my own.  It was just that I felt the HGAC had run its course.  Opensim was becoming much more stable and easier to use, hypergrid jumps were becoming very reliable, and directories of great places to explore were expanding (see Hyperica and iDreamsNet).  Also, attendance was gradually declining, and other aspects of my life were getting busier, so I figured it was time to wind things down.

But when one flower closes, a new and different one usually blooms.  That’s the beauty of online communities.  They adapt and change and grow.

10360407_10204277639409803_8127721628386910115_nThe Hypergrid Safari is a new group that runs weekly tours across Opensim.  In their own words:

“Want to discover open sim and learn to hypergrid? Join our friendly weekly trips to destinations all over the hyperverse, and get help with shopping for your avatar, free land opportunities, and sympathy when you run up against snags and bugs.”

I’ve been attending these trips and they’re simply fantastic.  The organizers are Thirza Ember, Fuschia Nightfire, Wizard Gynoid and Wizardoz Chrome.  I think all of them bring beautiful new perspectives to exploring the Hypergrid, in particular the perspectives of skilled content creators and innovative artists who have a long history of pioneering work in Second Life and other virtual worlds.  And everyone attending brings their own thoughtfulness and great sense of humor to the group.  Once again, it’s the community of people that impresses and amazes me the most in online worlds.

So please check out the Hypergrid Safari and go on one of their tours.  You can get connected with them and learn more in a few different ways:

Outside the Hypergrid Safari HQ and Clubhouse on the region Teravus in OSGrid.

Outside the Hypergrid Safari HQ and Clubhouse on the region Outlands in Metropolis Grid.

Inside the Hypergrid Safari Clubhouse. I love the elephant trophy mounted on an old hypergate.

Inside the Hypergrid Safari Clubhouse. I love the elephant trophy mounted on an old hypergate.

And here’s a great video by Nina Camplin of some recent tours.

Take care, and hope to see you inworld!
-John “Pathfinder” Lester

Hot Wheels Dobe

Our 14 year old doberman Jasper has been slowly losing mobility in his hind legs due to canine degenerative myelopathy.  He has no pain, is happy and alert and loves life.  He just stumbles a lot now because of his uncooperative hind legs.  Unfortunately, this means it has been getting harder for him to roam around outside.

Jasper and his best friend Samantha (our mini-dachshund)

Jasper and his best friend Samantha (our mini-dachshund)

This past weekend my wife and I set him up with some back wheels from the wonderful folks at HandicappedPets.com, and Jasper could not be happier. Now he gets all excited when he sees us preparing to put the harness on him, and once again he can roam all across our backyard with ease.

Jasper and me in the backyard

Jasper and me in the backyard

It’s amazing how quickly animals can adapt to new circumstances and then carry on with life like nothing has happened.  I think they can teach us a lot about how to focus on enjoying life to the fullest.

Roll on, Jasper.  We love you!

 

Brief Thoughts on Ebbe’s Keynote at VWBPE 2014 in Second Life

It was good to hear Ebbe Altberg, Linden Lab’s new CEO, speak at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education 2014 Conference in Second Life today.

Ebbe addressed a number of pain points with the educator community in Second Life and brought some healthy visibility into how he sees things moving forward on a number of technical levels.  I really appreciated the time and effort he spent in addressing educators.

But I have some constructive criticism.

Cultivating any community requires a lot more than just understanding its technical requirements for a particular piece of software or to be “listening to needs.”  Communities are organic and constantly evolving entities with complex interdependencies that are often far from intuitive.  And when you give communities new technological tools, they typically use these tools in very unpredictable ways.

In other words, it’s not just about collecting technical requirements and reading submitted feedback when you have the time.  It’s about taking the time to actively investigate and participate in a community so you can cultivate its success and identify completely new market opportunities in the future.

There’s a reason people dedicated to sociology and cultural anthropology and community development exist.  This stuff is important and hard and requires focus.

It’s the same reason why companies that focus solely on engineering goals while ignoring complex sociological factors tend to find themselves perpetually running after a community rather than leading it into the brightest possible future.

-John “Pathfinder” Lester