3D Virtual Reality & Second Life Literacy

screen capture of NOAA scene in Second LifeOne of the key elements of the 21st century digital palette, three-dimensional (3D) composition has been used to create numerous forms of Virtual Reality (VR), which means the creation of a setting of coherent physical spaces, places, objects and organisms using three dimensional graphics. Think of this as a form of digital puppetry. Though VR is just one of the uses for 3D, it is a highly popular use as there are hundreds of virtual reality designs in both 2D and 3D formats used for games, instruction, socializing and more which are now in active use and more on the way. The consulting company KZero reported on September 30, 2010 that the number of registered users of virtual worlds totaled over 1.2 billion participants (KZero, 2010). These thoughts introduce the nature of virtual reality, overview some of the major developments in this area and then focus on Second Life (SL) as one example of an online virtual simulation using three dimensional graphics whose relationship to the real world ranges from fantasy to a reasonable approximation. (Click the picture of the SL scene on right.) SL's importance here is as an example of an early leader of 3D animation integrated within a 3D virtual world that is widely used at the university level, and as a model of educational applications for a wide range of other virtual worlds and 3D video games.

An Introduction to Virtual Reality Using Second Life

Second Life is financed by sale of land (design space) and by an internal market economy with a kind of sales tax on goods marketed within the simulation. Its participants on the main grid must be aged 18 and over, with an alternative Teen Second Life grid that is only for people aged 13 to 17. With some 22 million registered users and tens of thousands using it every day, participants continually create, use and contemplate its three-dimensional (3D) animated scenes by becoming role-playing characters within them, often the character of themselves. Like most complex environments, better understanding and 3D composition comes from working within it more deeply, which will be addressed in some detail. It is a low cost approach to simulations and simulation composition.

This four minute video introduction to Second Life on the left was created by the University of Texas.

Second Life brings a number of useful concepts to the professional development nature of the educational scene. Its motivational and engaging 3D environment provides a way teach an important element of 21st century literacy, three-dimensional digital thinking to adults. It is therefore increasingly used by colleges and universities as well as education's professional organizations and societies for online social meeting places for members, online conferences and online courses and lessons. The global nature of Second Life makes it one of many 2D and 3D animation applications that can be used to address several of the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for teachers and students. The standards require teachers to: Promote and Model Digital Citizenship and Responsibility by developing and modeling cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with colleagues and students of other cultures using digital-age communication and collaboration tools; and Engage in Professional Growth and Leadership by participating in local and global learning communities to explore creative applications of technology to improve student learning.

Through using screen movies to capture in-world simulation activity, ideas and examples can be captured by teachers for use in K-12 classes and scenarios in the Teen Second Life grid can be created by middle and high school students and brought to class as digital movie files. As it is becoming established that behaviors online parallel behaviors in the real world (Yee, Bailenson, Urbanek, Chang & Merget, 2007), SL has become a useful research vehicle for behavioral therapy research and other educational investigations. Because of the fundamental nature of simulations, SL's unique features have also provided new concepts that are not currently present or possible in reality (Herman, Coombe & Kaye 2006). This stimulates thought about ways to create new possibilities for the real world as well as taking 3D designs that have proved useful in Second Life and implementing them in competing virtual worlds. A study of how classroom spaces are used in Second Life as well as exploring how educators might learn more effective behavior for real classrooms from Second Life simulations of classroom activity will also be considered.

Second Life also brings with it a number of problems for educational use including sexually explicit adult areas, simulations of online gambling, rule changes that have closed established businesses, and technical issues such as system crashes and "inventory loss" in which paid for items can disappear without warning. Second Life accounts are not available to pre-teens. This makes it unusuable for K-6 student activity. Only Teen Second Life is open to only 13-17 year olds. Examples of Middle School use include Suffern Middle School. However, given its massive membership, early lead and continued development, Second Life serves as a kind of global pilot project for other virtual world designs that are non-competitive.

Alternatives to Second Life

Competing virtual worlds have a very wide range. There are universities and research labs with grant funded projects at the alpha level of development such OpenSimulator, OpenCobalt, Edusim (a working K-12 friendly version of OpenCobalt for interactive whiteboards- though still alpha level development) and AncientSpaces. There are mature commercial products generating user sales including Protosphere (supporting team collaboration across entire product life cycle), Habbo (the world's largest virtual reality hangout for friends), and ActiveWorlds (white label solutions for total ownership of your own membership). The YouTube clip on the right provides an example of emerging developments from the most advanced of the research projects, the OpenCobalt project, led by faculty at Duke University in North Carolina and others around the world. This particular virtual world design is advancing to the point of becoming a replacement operating system. It is a descendent of the Croquet project led by Alan Kay and others.

Virtual worlds contrast with competitive score-keeping online and video games such as the online war battles of the World of Warcraft, the world's largest online simulation with over 12 million paid monthly subscriptions (Wikipedia, 2009). Though 2D and 3D video games are highly competitive and motivational to learn for many students, they are seldom integrated into school curriculum. In the most recent October issue of Middle Ground, Hutchison argues that are numerous reasons for integrating the use and critique of video games: fun, interdisciplinary, problem solving based, past and future oriented, cultural and controversial (Hutchinson, 2010). More importantly there is ample opportunity to involve students in composition and design through numerous game design tools: Game Editor and Quest Markup Language. This in turn opens the door to the integration of a wide range of content areas under teacher direction.

Virtual worlds aimed specifically at the full range of grades in the K-12 market have also emerged. The homeschooling market and various K-12 school districts have been using WiloStar3D (YouTube demo) which is fully accredited by SACS . Other K-12 focused examples include Avatar Storytellers and Greenbush Grid (YouTube demo).Each has developed different 3D solutions to the concerns and discoveries enabled by Second Life. There are many others that have been charted in an astonishingly rich analysis of virtual world sites targeting audiences from the age of 5 and up. In the embedded slide presentation below, click the link to KZero Universe Chart Q3 2010 or the link labeled "View on Slideshare", bottom right. Next click the button for full screen mode. This is needed to see the fine print of a very large graph that charts the types of virtual worlds by age level and year of entry into the marketplace. It only shows the names of the sites that have over 1 million registered users.

KZero Universe Chart Q3 2010
View more presentations from KZero Worldswide.

It is also informative to see how these sites are broken out across subject areas by sector, with some 28 sites showing in the education sector with over a million registered users each. Most of these are findable: Foopets (3D-ages 10-13); Philanthrokidz (3D-for tweens); Baobab Planet (3D-in 5 languages); JumpStart (3D-safe, engaging, learning based fun, ages 3-10). Most are 2D designs: Moonshot (2D-teach English to children around the world, starting in Japan, "helping child build a vocabulary of 600 words, 200 phrases, that will enable them to read up to 50 classic children's books"); Secret Builders (2D-Language Arts, Geography, History, Math, Science and Computers, many as young as 3, most 7 - 13 years);IncrediLand 2D); Garden Party (2D); Ecobuddies (ages 5-12) (2D); WoogiWorld (2D); Planet Turtle (2D-K-3 math, 3 languages); ArboPals (2D-international tree planting with Internet activities for kids); Wonder Rotunda; (2D-preteens); Chobots (2D); MinyanLand (2D); Whyville (2D); Ekoloko (2D-language?); Medikidz (2D-all about your health, your body and the facts about treatments). 'Not ready yet' sites include: Audree's World (startup); Universe of Faith (startup); Kiwi Heroes (kids and young teens, startup); Robotlega (startup); Habituales (startup: high school students, university students, and young professionals, the Spanish language and culture through diverse missions in the virtual world). For quick information on a technology company, some can be found by searching the company name in Crunchbase. Search K12 virtual worlds for more; search site names at YouTube for video trailers and CommonSense Media for reviews.

Some include solutions that do or could give schools the capacity to own and control their own servers thereby creating their own password protected 2D and 3D composition and development zones for school age children similar to password protected school based email systems.Many higher education and K-12 systems have bought their own "private islands" in Second Life to create safe areas for users with simulations and designs that stay within publically acceptable limits. These protected systems enable K-12 virtual worlds to address other NETS standards. These standards require teachers to: Facilitate and Inspire Student Learning and Creativity through engage students in exploring real-world issues and solving authentic problems using digital tools and resources; and Promote and Model Digital Citizenship and Responsibility by developing and modeling cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with colleagues and students of other cultures using digital-age communication and collaboration tools. The standards for students include the requirement for Creativity and Innovation through creating original works as a means of personal or group expression and using models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues.



Understanding in Second Life

taiko drum set sceneThe Second Life online world is part of the genre of Massively Multi-Player On Line Games (MMOGs) or massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Though three-dimensional thinking has its roots deep in the history of tool making, engineering and sculpture, this online environment provides a novel way to greatly broaden the literacy of 3D perspective and composition. As it is an animated graphics simulation, its value is strengthened through enabling online users to make visible and to manipulate concepts that are challenging or impossible in other online settings or even in real life. Try the the clickable taiko drum set scene on the left, of some value for those who have never seen or heard a taiko performance.

2nd life-wcu bell towerA second example is the scene on the right from Western Carolina University's Catamount Island development in Second Life. A seemingly simple example of novel role-playing is the perpective in the image of a human body flying and hovering high above a terrain, but as pyschologists might reflect, a progressive step for someone afraid of heights or flying. Virtual worlds include the fundamental feature of simulation of being able to explore risks with new behaviors and practices that would have far greater penalty for failure in the real world. This could range from handling complex new systems such as running a nuclear power plant to making simple designs such a chair or table for use by the virtual world's characters to role-playing novel personal settings.

Clicking the image on the right or the link below used to take readers to Catamount Island, a WCU controlled space (http://slurl.com/secondlife/catamount%20island/57/42/23/). To arrive at this island in Second Life would have meant that the Second Life application had been downloaded and installed and an avator was created for further exploration; a download link for the application is below. (Note that this image is also a demonstration not only that images can have links to Web sites, but that Web pages can have links to places within another net-aware application such Second Life.) WCU has discontinued their development in Second Life, cancelled Catamount Island and is actively researching a replacement technology that will run at lower cost while providing greater university control.

First available in 2003, the main Second Life area is open to anyone's participation who has Internet access and claims to be 18 or older during the registration process. As an interesting exercise, how accurately can you determine someone's real age by the way they are acting in a simulation? Private areas such as the Teen Grid are growing to provide better protection from those few who are disrespectful of its social mores. Further, buyers of Second Life islands can put the whole island or parts of the island behind a password, thereby requiring a special account for visiting and participation.

Other Basic Introductions

Better understanding novel forms of literacy requires greater experience and detail. Excellent quick overviews of Second Life are readily available on the Web. See the You Tube and wikipedia links below.

Understanding (Reading): How to Navigate in SL and What to See and Learn

The best understanding comes from visiting and participating in Second Life. This requires the installation of the Second Life software application which works on both Macintosh and Windows operating systems. Once installed and an account and avatar created, some time needs to be spent learning to move and communicate in this world. The link to Second Life navigation basics will provide all the initial knowledge to be successful as a beginner.

How others are Using Second Life

The range of invention and creativity in Second Life is broad. Overviews of Second Life highlights will greatly add to understanding of its potential. Selecting from the links below provides a place to start for "best of second life" creations and ongoing projects.

Second Life's Index to Its Sites - Second Life's Destination Guide

K-12 Schools

Second Life has group systems tools that make it easy for members to keep in touch with group members. There are several active groups of educators that collaborate within Second Life. Use the "Find" button then search under "Groups" for "Education" to join a group. Second Life is not open to school age children; their are other sites much more appropriate to elementary students. Only Teen Second Life is open to only 13-17 year olds. Using simulations within various content areas means that interesting spaces, places and simulations must be copied as screen movies for instructional use in classrooms using free screen capture programs such as Quicktime and ScreenToaster and commercial applications such ScreenFlow and Camtasia. However, there are many other virtual reality sites designed specifically for ages 5 and up.



Composing in Second Life

As literacy is not just about the capacity read and understand, but also about the capacity to compose in a media, it is important that educators work towards creative access for students in 3D settings. Second Life is a great place for teachers to compose and learn, but not for school students to be on their own. Other 3D settings will be needed for those who are no adults. The range of creativity within 3D (and 2D) virtual worlds is wide, some allowing full creative access to everything, and others with none, focusing on content and interactivity. Second Life is at the 'wide-open' end of the spectrum. What can be composed or created in Second Life for use in or outside of Second Life? In addition to the many things to experience and understand, there are many things that can be composed for free, each of which be used for different educational purposes. More extensive composition of objects and places requires a monthly or yearly rental fee of the digital space.

For free, participants can compose a number of things. They can: create different personalities through the creation of multiple forms of avatars; create live and recorded theater and other forms of digital story telling by writing scripts for actions of avatars at various locations; compose travel plans and scavenger hunts to the vast majority of places without any entry fee; create links out-world and in-world from Web pages; while traveling compose an inventory of items for later reuse that are free; create and annotate a list of interesting places to visit on different topics; and take screen snapshots and screen movies for later reuse. They can also build things in a limited way. That is, many of the locations in Second Life provide what is called a "sandbox", a place in which things in this virtual world can be created and put in a person's inventory, but will not remain in the sandbox after some period of time defined by whomever has paid for control of that space.

For a monthly fee, participants have extensive ability to compose the look of a 3D space. That is, those paying the monthly subscription rate can shape the land itself and its surface along with a variety of textures. This includes the creation of mountains, valleys, and lakes at different seasons of the year with different kids of plants and animals as well as all of the standard features of terrain both above and below the water. this includes the creation of animated features of a terrain such as a waterfall or volcano.

Building a Library: Creating Links To and From the Rest of the Internet

As a library is a place that contains useful references, building a descriptive annotated list of topics of interest is one of the easiest form of composition involving Second Life. As the image link at the top of this document demonstrates, Second Life scenes can be reached from a link in existing web pages. Objects within Second Life can also have links to web pages and other elements outside of Second Life. That is, clicking a microscope in Second Life might open a web page on the history of microscopes. The Second Life application contains its own internal browser within the application but external browsers such as Safari, Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer can be used as well. These cross-links are not difficult to make.

These are procedures for making direct teleports that link from web browser pages to scenes within Second Life. This is also known as a SLURL (Second Life Uniform Resource Locator).

These directions show the procedures for going the other direction, making Second Life objects link to pages that will display Web browsers.

Composing 3D Digital Stories

All teachers have a story to tell. The opportunities for live and recorded story telling in 3D are immense. Every content area has a story to tell, in its own way, with its own vocabulary, including math, science, language arts and social studies. Every area must address the relevance of its content, and Second Life makes it significantly easier to create or find simulations or scenes that require the application of knowledge taught in the textbook. This can be done live in front of a classroom with teacher avatars playing their roles, teaching teams that can be sitting at a computer any where in the world. This can be recorded for later playback using screen movie capture programs. Further, if a needed scene or location cannot be found, teachers can buy the space and build it.

Fact and fiction can also be blended in many instructionally useful useful ways. Virtual world field trips with audio commentary and student questions are among the easiest to implement of story telling forms. The classic definitive example of such story telling in paper form is The Magic School Bus series from Scholastic where Ms. Frizzle responds to her student's questions as the story evolves and changes her wardrobe appearance to fit the needs of the theme of the book, whether the book is simulating an outer space trip or a scuba gear swim through the components of a water recycling plant. Scholastic's Magic School Bus Web site uses Flash 2D animation (2009) for 2D simulation using Flash games and more. Second Life would be an excellent medium for taking the ideas of that series and making them more participatory and interactive through a 3D simulation of it.

Once students and teachers understand how to create digital movies with still pictures, audio, camcorders and digital video editors, it is relatively simple next step to add recordings of computer scenes and simulations into those same movies. That is, 3D animation clips from Second Life can also obviously be combined in the video editor with video clips from the real world. This requires the use screen recording software to capture the actions of their computer screen in the Second Life simulation.


The video created by screen recorder software of what happens on your computer screen is also called a screencast. A screencast can be inserted into and edited further in a video editor. There is a long list of available screen recorder software for making screencasts or one can search for screen recorder software or screencast software to find new titles. Demonstrations of each are often available at YouTube. Free versions of screen recorder software include Quicktime 10 (for those using the current version of the Mac operating system, Snow Leopard, version 10.6),

The application Quicktime (Mac) that comes with the Mac includes screencast capacity. For Windows, Microsoft does not include but does provide for the download of Expression Encoder. A cross platform application is also available for download called Jing. For tutorials on how to download and/or use these free versions, see the Screencasting web page.

As these applications vary in the feature set yet all work in basically the same way, seeing how one works helps in comprehending the use of any of them. Watch the excellent two minute 42 second YouTube clip below as both an example of an effective presenter using screencasting software (great diction, script and relevant screen actions) and an example of how Quicktime 10 can be used to capture screencasts.


Using Screencasts Instructionally

When this form of movie making is extended into longer scripts for a performance that might also include theatrical elements and plot, it is referred to as machinima, a portmanteau of the terms machine and cinema that has become well established as a term in its obviously mispelled form. Legal issues in making screencasts of someone else's software emerge when the composers of the machinima decide their work is good enough to sell. At this point their work would potentially fall into the legal category of derivative works, violating the copyright of the assets' copright holder, a problem whose resolution requires separate publishing and licensing rights. Second Life has not only encouraged anyone to record and share their Second Life activities, but also changed their licensing terms to allow users to retain legal ownership of Second Life screen recording work for commercial purposes. This led to the development of treet.tv whose TV broadcasts consist entirely of live and recorded sessions of Second Life events.

This discussion about theater and fiction could be interpreted as applying well to just to language arts and social studies simulations. This concept of mixing real world scenes with fictional plots is an excellent instructional device that can be used both digital and in print for addressing mathematics and science topics as well.

Given that elementary age students cannot use the Second Life grid themselves, models of 3D story telling created and used by teachers can also be used by students in applications other than Second Life. That is, children with home computers are likely to have a wide variety of 2D and 3D games. These can be used instead of Second Life with screen recording software to create their own 3D stories. For those with sufficient skills and knowledge, they can also create their own from scratch using more complex but accessible 3D builders called Blender (free), Bryce (free or inexpensive) or Unity3D (free). Further, there are hundreds of other virtual reality sites, some dedicated to just children, as noted with the Kzero studies discussed above.

Composing Tutorials: Intermediate Skills and Knowledge

There are many features and commands that make Second Life more useful and powerful. Screen movies are perhaps the best way for most to quickly learn this knowledge. The set below provide one good place to start as both a place to learn and as a list of examples from those creating such tutorials. It is easy to compile a list of do's and don'ts for tutorial building after watching a few. New features are continually being added to Second Life, so returning periodically to check on what is new will be helpful.

Second Life as Literacy Education

In the 21st century, literacy is the capacity to understand and create what goes on a page and 3D spaces can fit between paragraphs within Web pages. However, 3D virtual worlds general flip the model around, with pages appearing on the walls and surfaces of virtual world spaces. The term page is being used here to refer to computer screen, web site and paper. 3D plays an increasingly larger role in digital communication with each passing year. In a larger context, 3D communication and composition is one of the basic elements of the digital literacy palette. Part of Second Life's importance for education is its ability to create a motivational virtual reality (VR) environment for teaching this new element of literacy. It is but one type of 3D applications in a rich ecosystem of 3D composition systems for thinking, teaching and learning, including immersive and non-immersive VR.

vr helmet - umichSecond Life is an example of non-immersive VR. Computer screen displays of applications like Second Life build an understanding that will be helpful for the more sophisticated system of virtual reality communication, what is called immersive VR. Immersive VR is the perception of being within the scene instead of sitting at a computer using a keyboard and mouse to look at 3D perspectives of a two-dimensional surface ( the computer screen). The immersive sensation feels more normal in that participants walk, talk, reach and touch in more normal ways. As in the picture on the left from the University of Michigan's 3D Lab, participation requires some non-standard interface technology that looks more like a helmet and contains the stereo display screens for viewing and commanding the computer. Digital gloves and other body sensing technology replace keyboards and the mouse. Much of this immersive VR work is being carried out on higher speed networks like the Internet2 and in generally non-networked virtual reality systems called CAVES (CAVES at Wikipedia; "VR CAVES" an image search). The CAVE closest in proximity to WCU is one assembled in the summer of 2009 at Blue Ridge Community College, that will initially be used for in fire fighting simulations. These digital simulations with immersive VR gear will lower the cost and increase the safety of training regional fire fighters before they practice with real fire in the campus's fire fighting training facility.


The Classroom Behavior Research Project

Creations of classroom, theater and presentation space in Second Life are not difficult to find, but they are just that, spaces with seats or chairs within a scenic setting. When an event is held, those present in Second Life (SL) can come claim a seat and watch or participate. Recent explorations and searches of Second Life space have not revealed any populated simulations of classroom activity. That is, no one has yet created a SL classroom simulation of a real public school classroom that has simulated students in the seats, programmed (scripted) to behave in different ways responding to prompts and interactions from an instructor. As behavior management is a constant concern of both pre-service and employed teachers, this simulation space, populated by real SL play acting participants and by scripted characters, could be a powerful tool for learning and evaluating aspects of classroom instruction. Some initial work has been done on classroom simulations in general that can serve as a basis for further development (Ferry et al, 2004; Turbill, 2004). Evidence of interest in this work goes back a long period of time in the educational literature, whose work provides some useful thoughts for consideration (Kersh, 1963; Smith, 1987).

To create such a site would certainly require some ideas about how to layout a classroom in SL space. Some questions would be useful in this thinking. What are examples of the variety of classroom spaces that make effective use of Second Life? Are there elements of these designs that would be useful in real classrooms as well as in Second Life? These links jump directly into classroom space within Second Life if the Second Life client software is installed and running. However, "link decay" means that ongoing searches are needed to replace as well supplement those listed with current thinking and development: Google; YouTube.

The next step would be to search for scripted characters, SL robots disguised as human avatars. Has this been done? If not, then such scripting would need to be composed. Participants interested in this line of research are invited to contact the author (houghton at email.wcu.edu) with ideas related to this step and future steps for such a project. Public comments and discussion are invited on this linked blog posting page.



Second Life is a great beginning point from which to think about literacy (understanding and composing) in three dimensional graphic composition, whether thinking about video games running online, on desktop computers or in specialty game machines. Virtual reality sites are also highly integrative of all other forms of media on the digital palette. Many competitors to Second Life have emerged and growth in their use in educational settings in K-12 is still in its infancy. If education is going to steer this form of composition into ever more educationally useful forms, educators need to "get in the game" and begin to produce examples that fit as as well as transform classroom practice. Education also needs to examine 3D composition in relationship to all the other forms of composition and digital palette. Any digital composition form can serve as the "backbone" composition to which other forms can be inserted and/or linked.




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Original January 28, 2009; Updated version 1.18 June 4, 2012 | Page author: Houghton