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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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Kind of like real life.

Which is exactly the point.

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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.

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

Giving a Virtual Worlds Lecture – April 7 @ 6pm PDT in Second Life

blog post sjsu headerOn Monday April 7 at 6pm PDT I’ll be giving a Virtual Worlds Lecture in Second Life.

The title of my talk is “Finding the Balance between Pedagogy and Technology.”  Here’s a summary:

One must always seek a thoughtful match between pedagogy and technology. Different virtual world platforms are suited for different uses, ranging from collaborative work environments to immersive goal-oriented simulations. The speaker will discuss current virtual world technological trends involving specific gaming technologies like Unity3D and the growth of Open Source platforms such as OpenSimulator. A discussion will focus on helping educators choose the right tool for the right job, matching pedagogical goals with technological affordances.

My presentation is part of an ongoing series of talks hosted by the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University.  Here’s more information about the colloquia, and here’s a SLURL for where I’ll be speaking.

Part of what I’ll be doing in addition to showing slides and speaking will be a live demo of some of the content import/export tools in the Singularity Viewer.  You’ll get so see how you can easily backup content you’ve created in Second Life or Opensim to your hard drive and how to get that content into other 3D platforms like Unity3d and Blender.

Content import and export in Singularity Viewer

Hope to see you there!

-John “Pathfinder” Lester

Upcoming Conferences on Experiential Learning and Virtual Worlds: Let’s Meet!

Howdy folks,

I’ll be attending these two upcoming conferences.  If you’re planning to attend either of them or if you just happen to be in town when they occur, please contact me via my about.me page if you’d like to meet up and chat about learning in virtual worlds!

The main aims of this conference are to increase our understanding of experiential learning in virtual worlds, both formal and informal, to share experiences and best practices, and to debate future possibilities for learning in virtual worlds.  For full details, please see the conference website.

My panel presentation will be “Finding the Balance between Pedagogy and Technology.”  Here’s my abstract:

Next Generation virtual worlds will be tightly coupled to many other emerging technologies, leveraging modern knowledge management processes and providing platforms for broad use among teachers and learners.  As the technological landscape grows, it is becoming increasingly difficult for educators to identify the right platform (or mix of platforms) for their specific immersive learning needs.

In my current position at ReactionGrid and my previous work at Linden Lab and Harvard Medical School, I have explored the use of a wide range of gaming and virtual world platforms to augment education.  Today there are a number of very interesting virtual world technological trends involving specific gaming technologies like Unity as well as the growth of Open Source platforms such as OpenSimulator.  My ongoing work involves finding the right match between educational goals and technological affordances as well as identifying key synergies when virtual world technologies are interwoven with existing social media and web-based educational content.

Above all else, there must be a thoughtful match between pedagogy and technology.  Different virtual world platforms are suited for different uses, ranging from collaborative work environments to immersive goal-oriented simulations.  One of the most important and challenging goals for any educator exploring virtual worlds is simply finding the right tool for the right job.  Likewise, it is critical for virtual world platform developers to keep a firm focus on well established knowledge management principles when designing new technologies intended to advance the field of immersive learning.

I’m particularly thrilled about this panel because I’ll be participating with Dr. Bryan Carter from the University of Arizona.  Bryan is a true pioneer in using virtual worlds for experiential learning, and he’s been working with virtual environments since his dissertation project in 1997 when he created a virtual simulation of Harlem, NY as it existed during the 1920s Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance.  Virtual Harlem was one of the earliest full virtual reality environments created for use in the humanities and certainly one of the first for use in an African American literature course.  The project continues to grow and evolve as Bryan explores new virtual world platforms.

1st International Conference on e-Learning e-Education and Online Training (e-LEOT)
September 18–20, 2014
Bethesda, Maryland, United States

This new 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 are lining up a wonderful range of interdisciplinary speakers and are planning to attract a wide group of heterogeneous scholars and practitioners.  For full details, please see the conference website.

I’ll be giving a keynote at this conference.  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.

Be seeing you!

A new Automated Hypergrid Directory with Great Potential

Mike Leopard, creator of the iDreamsNet Hypergrid List

Mike Leopard, creator of the iDreamsNet Hypergrid List

Two of my biggest challenges when exploring Hypergrid-connected regions across the multitude of Opensim-based grids have always been: 1) finding places where people are currently visiting and 2) not wasting time trying to connect to places that are offline.

And over the years, there have been commendable efforts to manually create lists of Hypergrid-connected places (e.g., Hyperica) as well as strong work to create networked inworld devices (e.g., TheHypergates).  All this work has been wonderful and very helpful to the growth of the Hypergrid.

However, I’ve always felt an ideal tool to really tie together the Hypergrid would be an automatically updated (i.e., # of current visitors and online status) and simple searchable web-based directory that was very easy to join.

Which is why I’m very excited by the new iDreamsNet Hypergrid List created by Mike Leopard.  He’s nailed all of those features right out of the gate.

There aren’t many regions listed right now since the system is brand new and opt-in, but it’s incredibly easy to join and therefore could grow very quickly.  To get your own Hypergrid-connected region included in the list, you just rez an object on your region which phones home to the iDreamsNet website and immediately creates an entry for your region on the Hypergrid List.  You are given a special link where you can go edit your listing (add photo, descriptive text, tags, website) and, over time, this object communicates back to the iDreamsNet website to let it know if your region is currently online and how many people are currently on it.  More details can be found on the iDreamsNet website.

My entry for Pathlandia.  You can see I was logged in by myself when this was taken. ;)

My entry for Pathlandia. You can see I was logged in by myself when this was taken. ;)

With the recent elimination of the 4096 region distance bug, there’s no need anymore to complicate Hypergrid directories with grid coordinates or “upper, middle, lower” categories.  Now, anyone can jump from any Hypergrid location to any other Hypergrid location.  We just need a simple, automated and powerful directory.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how this new service evolves, and I love the clean Google-esque design of it.  Simple, automated and powerful.  Great work so far, Mike!

Take care,
-John “Pathfinder” Lester

Hypergrid Adventurers Club – Visiting the Center for Global Health’s East Africa Traveler Safety Simulation

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Wandering warthogs in the East Africa Traveler Safety Simulation

Yesterday, the Hypergrid Adventurers Club (HGAC) visited the Center for Global Health’s East Africa Traveler Safety Simulation.   About 20 of us made the voyage, initially gathering at JokaydiaGrid and then travelling together as a group.  This was the first HGAC trip in a long time, and it was wonderful to see so many familiar friends as well as some brand new faces.

Continue reading

Rebooting the Hypergrid Adventurers Club and Thanking Latif Khalifa

singularityIf you’re a fan of the Hypergrid, you should definitely check out the new 1.8.3 release of the Singularity viewer for OpenSim and Second Life.

In particular, take a look at this section in the update notes.  The fact that it is a very brief sentence seriously belies the magnitude of its significance.

  • Fixed a problem with long teleports in OpenSim (“4096 bug” SVC-2941 FIRE-11593) (Latif)

Latif Khalifa has fixed the bug that, since the beginning of time, prevented Hypergrid explorers from jumping to places more than 4096 regions away.  No more mandatory intermediate hops!  No more “cannot reach destination – too far away” messages!

I encourage all explorers of the Hypergrid to please take a moment and thank Latif on Twitter.  His hard work has resulted in a major improvement to the use of the Hypergrid and the evolution of OpenSim as a constellation of easily accessible interconnected grids.

Which brings me to the topic of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club.  Since my presentation at the OpenSimulator Community Conference, I’ve received a great deal of interest in possibly restarting our tours of the Hypergrid.  Many people reached out to me, and the outpouring of interest was very inspiring.

So I’m rebooting the tours!  Our next tour will be Saturday Sept 28 at 10pm EDT.  For all the details, please join and read our Google Group.

Take care,
-John “Pathfinder” Lester