The Lab: virtual worlds learning at its very best

Over the past few months or I’ve followed the efforts of Dale Linegar and Stefan Schutt in establishing what is now known as The Lab.

Melbourne-based and dedicated to providing support and skills to 10-16 year olds with Asperger’s Syndrome, The Lab is already showing some great results.

It’s one of those initiatives that deserves much more kudos and funding than it is currently receiving. You’ll understand why after reading the interview I conducted with the Lab’s co-founders.

David: First, a little about The Lab team. Can you give a snapshot of your backgrounds?

Stefan: For the last seven years I’ve been an educator and researcher at Victoria University, working with technology and young people and teaching multimedia. Before this I worked in the Internet industry during and after the dot com boom as a content editor, producer, web developer and interaction designer. I also set up Australia’s first Computer Clubhouse, a tech skills club for underprivileged kids in Fitzroy based on the model established by the MIT Media Lab in Boston. Before all this, I worked as a writer and played in bands.

Dale: I started working with Stefan at Victoria University (VU) in 2007, teaching in Creative Industries. He had a lot of faith in the virtual worlds work I was doing then, and we have collaborated on at least half a dozen projects together since. We work well together, our skills complement each other. I run a business called Oztron, which does work for VU, Monash School of Pharmacy, and a range of other clients – most involving research and education in virtual worlds.

David: So what specifically has let you to working in this area?

Stefan: We had taught multimedia students with Asperger’s at VU and they seemed to particularly enjoy working with technology, especially the virtual worlds activities Dale was running. This led to a trial with two teenagers in Gippsland funded by Optus Communities. The results were promising and from this we applied to VicHealth for a one-on-one research project to pilot different kinds of technologies with young people with disabilities and other disadvantages. This project found that one-on-one technical tutoring seemed to work particularly well with kids with Asperger’s, and this led to the setting up of The Lab.

Dale: I think after that there were a few factors involved with us deciding to give this a go. We had established through those projects that this approach could work, and that there was a need for it. Once you reach this stage you can either publish and hope that somebody will eventually read what you write and take action, or you can give it a go yourself. The amount of money involved wasn’t huge so we decided to do it ourselves. At this time I was also meeting one young boy with Asperger’s and his mother for regular mentoring at McDonalds, we initally started at the library but were told we were making too much noise. This wasn’t ideal, and it required a lot of travel time to deal with one person.

All of this coincided with my business needing a physical location to work on a few larger contracts. This has provided us with the space, the technology and the human resources required to run The Lab.

David: For those not in the know, how prevalent is Asperger’s amongst the teen population?

Stefan: For Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in general (which includes Asperger’s Syndrome), estimates for Victoria ranged in 2006 from 27 per 10 000 to 54 per 10 000. The prevalence appears to be increasing rapidly and there is debate about whether this is due to increased rates of diagnosis or increasing numbers of people with ASD.

David: Onto The Lab: it’s only just really started in earnest, what’s the journey been like to get to this stage?

Dale: Fascinating and rewarding. It’s a simple idea but when you see the immediate impact it has on both the children and their parents it’s incredibly satisfying. The process actually started with myself and Stefan walking around Footscray knocking on doors asking about vacant office and retail spaces. After a few hours we had found a suitable space, and once it becomes real like that, it takes on a life of its own. It took around 5 months from that day until we opened the doors for kids.

Some simple tasks have turned out to be a nightmare, like getting connected to the internet, and other things which initially seemed complex, like getting somebody who could work with the parents on board, involving our technology mentors, and attracting the right young people, have worked out better than we dared imagine. The physical space The Lab is in is also Oztron’s office, and it has been designed to encourage collaboration. The kids are very comfortable there – it feels more like some kind of gaming den than an office or school.

Stefan’s role at Victoria University and our previous project work means that we have a wide support network, and we have drawn on that throughout the process for advice and support in the many areas we lack knowledge in.

David: So who is funding The Lab at present and is the funding relatively secure?

Stefan: The Lab is currently unfunded, or more accurately, indirectly funded through the virtual world software development projects Dale runs for a range of organisations, as well as small amounts of left over funding from previous VU projects. Funding may be forthcoming later in the year via a Cooperative Research Centre in youth, technology and wellbeing run by the Inspire Foundation that we’re part of – but this is yet to be fully discussed with the CRC. Until then, we’re looking for other funding sources.

David: What is the scope of activities The Lab is involved in?

Dale: We currently run one session a week for 3 hours for 8 kids, and more sessions during holidays for a wider audience. What we try to do is provide as many different technology platforms as possible for the young people, which they can use to explore their own interests. Our aim is not to lead the students, but to support them and encourage collaboration. We provide students with a laptop stand, keyboard, mouse, second monitor, and network connection. We have a local server which is currently running Minecraft and allows filesharing – the kids can also log into this and play together from home. Once the kids come in it’s a case of – ‘What do you want to do?’

One of the hit pieces of software so far has been Minecraft, and this has ended up serving as a social and creative outlet for the kids. For young people who need to learn about social interaction, this has been great, they need to co-operate and respect each others’ territory. Last week we introduced an Arduino, an open-source electronic hardware and software kit comprising of a circuit board that can be programmed to do specific things, starting with simple things like making flashing lights and musical instruments and going up to projects like complex sensor-based triggering and robots with avoidance detection. The Arduino proved to be very popular, and we have now ordered a few more kits. It’s a great way to introduce kids to programming because the payoff is immediate and satisfying.

We also have a separate room where Stefan and Trish (our parent co-ordinator) hold an informal gathering for the parents each week. This gives both the kids and parents a bit of personal space. They can chat about issues they are having over a cup of tea, and discuss possible avenues of support. Trish has just organised for a psychologist to attend every fortnight, and we also have other experts with an interest in the field dropping by to offer assistance.

David: You use OpenSim, Spore and Minecraft to name three virtual environments. Let’s talk OpenSim first: has it primarily been a cost issue that’s led to its use versus say Second Life, or has there been other advantages to OpenSim?

Dale: As a business we use Opensim for nearly all of our work at the moment including Pharmatopia for Monash and a construction world for Victoria University. Second Life doesn’t provide a space where where we have total control, and people of all ages can interact, so as educators we were forced to make the switch a couple of years ago now. Like many people out there I personally have a love/hate relationship with Second Life – I love the possibilities it has created, but I have issues with the way it has been managed and promoted.

David: So what exactly are you doing in OpenSim?

Dale: We haven’t really introduced it to the wider group at The Lab because we are waiting for that opportunity to present itself, it’s up to the kids. We will run our own Opensim world which will be available to the group only – the plan is to create 8 islands and the rest is up to them. Many of the young people with Asperger’s we have worked with over the past couple of years continue to use Second Life. One young lady is using Second Life to bring her characters to life. She has written an amazing story about a group of female superheroes, and drawn pictures, and is now using the virtual world to bring her characters into the third dimension.

Another young man we work with has his dream house in Second Life and is constantly renovating, he lives in rural Victoria so for him it’s a great escape. We have also used Comic Life quite a bit in the past and will probably introduce this to interested Lab participants at some stage.

David: A common criticism of OpenSim (and Second Life) is the initial learning curve: has that been a greater or lesser issue with the teens you’ve been working with?

Stefan: Yes and no. What surprised us in our last project is how much Second Life and OpenSim rely on text-based navigation. We’d always thought of them as visual interfaces until then, but as we found out when working with kids with very low literacy levels, so much of the navigation is achieved by typing in text, which can cause issues for some kids. For others, they’ve taken to it like ducks to water, especially the younger ones. We also wonder whether the ‘learning curve’ referred to is related only to the ‘end user’ or also the people running the activity (ie teachers and managers) – this is where a lot of the problems seem to arise in terms of access, web speeds, and associated lag, plus generational issues like people not used to navigating in 3d or navigating via arrow keys like, erm, me. I always get Dale to do the practical demos because I’m so unskilled at it!

David: Now onto Spore: how are you using it?

Dale: We only use the free creature creator, firstly because it’s free, and secondly because it’s all about being creative. It’s a great icebreaker, many of the young kids we work with have already played it, and it acts as a catalyst for communication. It also gets kids into a more creative frame of mind, to feel the pleasure of making something as opposed to getting stuck competing in other games.

David: And Minecraft?

Dale: It can appear to an outsider as one of those ‘click-click-click’ games but when the kids are playing on a server together it allow for some wonderful creativity and encourages communication and collaboration. One of our mentors has built his own computer in it and knows it backwards, and the kids respect this.

David: Has Minecraft been a bit of a revelation for the work you are doing? It sort of came out of nowhere and has caught on quickly.

Dale: It has been surprising how many of the kids enjoy it, I think every one of them has played it at some stage now, and there are regularly 5 or 6 of the kids on the server during our sessions. There is a lot to learn, so I see it as the group exploring a new territory together – in this case a virtual one. They feed off each other and go on journeys, learning things they might not learn alone.

David: Talking more broadly again now, what are the individual benefits and outcomes you’ve seen so far amongst the participants?

Stefan: One big factor so far seems to be the environment of The Lab – i.e. a space where young people with Asperger’s are not picked on (unlike school, where bullying is constant), where they’re accepted and where being a ‘geek’ is even cool, and where they are surrounded by other people like them – both other kids and the programmers who are a kind of role model. Also, where their parents aren’t hovering the whole time! They’re relaxed because they’re not pushed to do anything, or to interact if they don’t want to. They can sit happily at the screen without being bugged – but the expert advice is on hand whenever they request it.

Having said that though, the level of kid-to-kid interaction to date has been quite amazing – here we’re talking about kids who don’t have any friends at all in the outside world, but who are happily chatting away and playing with others, both in-world and in the physical space.

Another factor is the technology itself, and the presence of experts to whom they can look up and respect (they usually run rings around other adults when it comes to IT). Tied to this is the sense of possible future careers, and a way into the future. This is very powerful – already we’ve heard reports of one parent halving her child’s anxiety medication dose due to his reduced anxiety levels about his future.

David: Let’s talk research: is there an underlying research methodology being used for The Lab?

Stefan: We would classify our approach as ‘participatory action research’ – our focus is on hands-on outcomes driven by all stakeholders in collaboration, and implemented (and continuously improved) by all involved. It’s based on making a real difference to real people’s lives rather than sitting back as the researchers in the white coats. It’s proudly interventionist and practical, and has a strong element of social activism.

David: Are there specific research projects underway and if so can you give a brief overview of any?

Dale: The Lab is it! We may choose to work with others in the future to measure outcomes empirically – especially researchers who are experts in ASD (which we’re not)

David: What are the measures of success for you with The Lab?

Stefan: In the short term, happier kids, happier families, and a sense of progress amongst participants. We rely heavily on feedback from the kids and the parents. It will always be tough to measure our impact in a quantitative way as each of these young kids is so unique and we are only dealing with small numbers. It’s not like we can create a control group. But we are looking to work with experts in the Autism field who may be able to measure the effects on individuals and their families over time – this is where the Cooperative Research Centre, and its 70 or so partner organisations, will hopefully come in.

David: Are there any qualitative or quantitative outcomes you’re able to see already?

Stefan: Yes. We’ve already had remarkable email and verbal feedback from participants’ parents about their children’s improvement, only three weeks into the beginning of the program. We also have 20 plus kids on our waiting list. Other parents have been ringing us daily after finding out about The Lab. It seems to have really hit a nerve. As stated previously, we’d like to get other measures too, working with field experts.

David: Given the central use of virtual environments in the program, are there any plans to expand the program geographically?

Stefan: Currently The Lab has three interlocking elements that work together: participant socialisation, technical tuition and parental networking/support. Any of those three elements would be useful in themselves (for instance, we’re arranging for a software engineer to undertake private volunteer programming tuition with one of the kids on our waiting list), but the combination of the three is especially powerful. So we could run virtual programs, and they could be useful, but some of those three elements might be missed.

Dale: My feeling is that having personal contact is still important in modern society, in this case for both the kids and their parents. We hope to build online resources which can help people at home, but nothing beats a one-to-one conversation with somebody who knows what they are talking about. I hope that we can inspire other real-world institutions to become involved.

David: Getting out the crystal ball now: what are you hoping The Lab has achieved a year from now?

Stefan: What we are striving for is an effective model that can be replicated in other places and can positively influence the way society thinks about these kids, particularly in the education system which seems to be manifestly unsuited to a group of young people who are very talented.

Dale: Currently so many of the young people and their parents simply have nowhere to turn – they are stuck between normal schools and special schools, neither of which meet their needs. These people have a lot to offer to society – we deal with kids who can program their own games, but aren’t able to attend school and are at risk of being disadvantaged their entire lives. I hope that we can help support people and organisations who are interested in adopting this type of model, and I hope we can expand and deal with more kids more regularly. We live in an age where we have the opportunity to use technology to create positive social change, and we are enjoying every moment of it.

Interview – Treet TV’s Wiz Nordberg and Texas Timtam

Treet TV are ground-breakers and Australia-based ones at that. I’ve been following them since mid-2007 (original profile here) when they were the Second Life Cable Network (SLCN), and they’ve been plugging away ever since, growing to arguably the world’s most credible and prolific virtual world TV production outfit. I say plugging away because even though they have a pretty solid track record now as innovators and quality content producers, establishing a wider profile within the Australian business sector has been a challenge.

Treet’s Mt Eliza-based founders, Gary Wisniewski (SL: Wiz Nordberg) and Grace Roberts (SL: Texas Timtam), caught up with me for a chat last weekend on everything Treet plus some broader themes. If you’ve thought about getting a team together to make your own show, read on as Treet are interested in new pitches.

Lowell: We last caught up in June 2007 when you were still SLCN TV – what are your strongest memories of those early times for you?

Wiz: Strongest memories?  Confusion. :) No, really, I suppose the strongest memory is how “new” the idea was, of using a virtual worlds platform to create true television-like content, and the reaction of people to what we were doing. It was very fresh and very new and it seemed like there were limitless possibilities.

Texas: It was very exciting then. We were learning new things everyday and it was still in the glory days of Second Life hype so everyone around us was filled with optimisim about the opportunities.

Lowell: So has that confusion abated or just changed in dynamic?

Wiz: Well the dynamic has changed a lot. It is no longer new, and a lot has been learned – I was only joking when I said confusion actually.

Lowell: On learning: if you had to list a few key learnings over the past three years, what would they be?

Wiz: It seemed obvious to us that doing virtual worlds television was the right thing to try.   I have to say it was almost the opposite of confusion, but total confidence back then. Well, one thing we learned is that people in Second Life have almost boundless energy to create, and to us it is the reason to remain committed to Second Life despite many people’s negative feelings about it right now. We also learned to divide machinima into two broad categories: documentary and story telling. Documentary is easy. Storytelling is hard. I suppose the list could go on for pages.  After three years, you learn a lot of things!

Lowell: So for those who don’t know Treet TV, can you give an executive summary of what it offers today?

Wiz: Treet TV offers the largest collection of live television broadcasts and archives made almost exclusively in Second Life, documenting the activities, sports, lives, and stories of Second Life residents and creators.

Lowell: Your work is most recognised in Second Life but do you use other platforms / grids?

Wiz: We are starting to use OpenSim and you will see a lot more OpenSim based shows in the coming year. But almost everything is still done in Second Life.

Lowell: What are the limitations of OpenSim so far when compared to what you do in Second Life?

Wiz: The limitations don’t apply to us at Treet so much as they apply to those creating and participating in the shows.   Filming in OpenSim can be done as perfectly as we do it in Second Life. The main limitations show producers face are – there are fewer people and thus less diversity to pool upon for guests, interviews, lifestyle and sports content; there are fewer vendors of products, thus less available if you want to devise your own original show content; and stability is, incredible to say, not as good as Second Life, so the production reliability is lessened. But those things are changing fast, I should add.

Texas: OpenSim-based grids are just now gaining enough momentum to have enough users that will make for interesting viewing and stories to tell.

Lowell: Second Life has copped a lot of negative press: what do you see as its strong points and do you remain confident in its longer-term viability?

Wiz: The strong point of Second Life is that it is a new kind of virtual world, based upon an empty slate, where people can do and create what they wish without any limit to their imagination.  Arguably Linden Lab invented this type of world.   I am not sure they will end up playing a major role over time, but I am certain that this kind of world will survive, grow, and probably displace many many other types of virtual spaces. I am confident in the long term viability of such worlds. Not so much of Second Life itself. But today, Second Life is the best.

Lowell: Without going too negative ourselves, what is it about Linden Lab and Second Life that makes it likely to be overtaken?

Wiz: The need for Linden Lab’s product has grown beyond their ability to service it and respond to the market. This has to do with very early decisions they made before they realised what they really had. Some of those decisions will be hard to recover from, and I’m not sure they can.

Lowell: What in your opinion were those key decisions – architecture related, community related or others?

Wiz: Most are architecture related. Essentially, they locked themselves into an architecture where it takes approximately 25% of the resources of a fairly high-end server to support a gathering place with 100 people. Imagine for example, that you required  a full Xeon server to accommodate a website which would accommodate 400 people.   You would have a huge liability. This is the reason for most of their problems, including the inability to scale, and inability to create cheap land available to more people who perceive it as having much better ROI. I am not sure any amount of “thinking outside the box” in terms of their customer service and company structure can make up for that problem.

Lowell: The thing is, as OpenSIm evolves they may avoid some of those issues but not all – are the architecture issues really that solvable in the short-term?

Wiz: OpenSim has the same liability in terms of architecture, but it has the advantage of greater ROI with reduced cost. This will cause more people to engage with it, and more people can be involved in trying to rejig the architecture to solve some of these major problems. Open source groups have proven time and time again that “if there is a will, there is a way”, and I have a lot of hope for OpenSim because I think it will soon reach a tipping point where the necessary technology people will be able to truly hunker down and start making dramatic steps forward. In the short term?  No. :) That means that those of us who are already at the limits of our patience need to be more patient still!!

Lowell: Let’s talk business for a while – I can imagine you still struggle with the credibility issue i.e. that a lot of the business / funding sector see virtual worlds work as R&D rather than ROI. Are you seeing that shift at all?

Wiz: Well, we don’t struggle with it so much at Treet. We are very committed to having a broad range of content creators producing shows. While there are surely revenue issues we now struggle with because corporate money is not flowing like it once did, this is a shared problem we all deal with. I also believe virtual worlds have been R&D all along. I think that any assumption that there was ROI was predicated by assuming a great deal of PR leverage for having “engaged in something new”. Once you remove the PR leverage, much of the ROI for many corporations didn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Lowell: So obviously without expecting explicit detail, what is Treet’s business model and strategy?

Wiz: Treet is like any other start-up gambling on the increasing trend to do something online which has never been done before. So, our business model evolves and changes over time and mostly is a model of “sustainability” at this point, mainly because there is so much R&D going on in the area we’ve chosen. I think the biggest limitation of any business model for a virtual worlds content company is the small size of the market.

Lowell: Which is a good lead-in to your shows – how many shows do you now produce?

Wiz: 12 shows are currently in production, 10 of them with weekly episodes that are aired live every Sunday and Monday. We have over 3000 archived episodes, not only of those shows, but of many shows no longer in production, or special events and features.

Lowell: What are your most successful shows, both as far as view statistics but also in regard to audience feedback?

Wiz: The three most successful shows in terms of feedback and numbers are Metanomics, Tonight Live with Paisley Beebe, and Designing Worlds….not necessarily in that order. Some shows actually have much greater consistency than those, with very loyal audiences, but haven’t achieved the high points those have. Two notables are the Best Practices in Education Series and the ISTE Eduverse series, both of which are short term productions and both achieved signifcant viewership and web buzz.

Lowell: Over your time producing such a large amount of content – have you discovered any unique trends on what works in SL as compered to more mainstream TV production? That is, have any of the shows worked really well when you thought they wouldn’t or vice versa?

Wiz: Comparing SL to mainstream TV is an interesting “apples and oranges” exercise.  The viewership of each is fueled by very different things. The “unique trend” is that Internet based TV is more dependent upon having an active community surrounding the content. Mainstream TV is more dependent upon a streamlined and efficient delivery channel. The former requires more social capital.  The latter requires more financial capital.

Lowell: On community: does Treet do active engagement there or is it more up to each show’s team to drive that?

Wiz: It is a combination.  Each of our shows is a partnership.   Treet works actively to build a community of those interested in “virtual television” and many people’s shows are discovered because there is crossover from the Treet community.  On the other hand, each show brings new communities to Treet, and this is probably one of the main ways Treet’s viewership grows, by having each producer’s community join in a larger community which has greater momentum. Three years ago it was the reverse.  Treet had no community and it was show communities which essentially “bootstrapped” Treet into having people who could cross-over into other communities.  Now, such crossover is the norm.

Lowell: On the partnership, how does that work? Where are the boundaries with creative control etc?

Wiz: We try our best to let our producers do what they want.  That’s the honest truth.  We try to let them envision the show, decide on the format, and drive the creative behind the shows with little or no intervention from us. We try to provide feedback about audience size, live viewership, and if we do exert creative control, it has more to do with the mechanics, such as trying to assure that shows are more “watchable” on the web, that intros are the right length, that advertising is used in ways that are most effective.

Texas: The Treet website offers the ability to include a much larger audience than could be achieved with only the Second Life residents. We can live stream to a much larger number of viewers via the web.

Lowell: So let’s say I have a great show concept and I approach Treet and you like it a lot as well. What happens from there?

Wiz: We are very interested in new pitches at the moment. We have a number of broadcast slots open because of the way we have rearranged our schedule. The main thing people with show ideas need to consider is that it is not about the idea or concept. A good concept does not make a show. A good, dedicated team, and a lot of effort in production make a show. A good concept helps because it makes it easier to attract people to the effort, and of course, once the show is produced, it makes it more appealing. But, building a team, and being realistic about the effort required at production are the most important things for people to consider. Two shows, “The Daily PWN” and “The Grid’s Honest Truth” are complete outside machinima productions which air on Treet.   Most people think Treet “wants” to produce everything.  That is not at all true, we are very receptive to people doing complete productions.   But – our requirements are rather stringent.

To be honest, the realities vary from show to show. For sports shows, there is no script, the main thing is being sure that announcers are ready, and that stats are prepared.  Some shows require a script, and there is a completely different team effort.  Some shows require 1 hour per week of pre-production, some shows require 40.

Texas: We are also keen to include serial stories to Treet. Not necessarily produced by us.

Lowell: Texas you mentioned serials and Wiz you mentioned earlier that story-telling is difficult – is that an area you’d like to do lots more in?

Texas: Yes, very much. Moving from a live broadcast model to post-produced drama / comedy is another exercise in “apples & oranges”.  :) But we are very interested in headed that way.

Wiz: Yes! We would love to have more people who are willing and interested in working with us on fictional series.

Lowell: Who are the core Treet TV team besides yourselves now?

Wiz: There are four of us that make up the core team right now, Wiz, Texas, August Lusch, and Yxes Delacroix. We have many other people assisting as well.

Lowell: Is Treet now a profit-making entity for you all? If so – what is your primary revenue source?

Wiz: No, Treet still runs in the red. It is funded by Texas and I. We do have a 24/7 studio which is unlike any other in the world, capable of doing these kinds of live broadcasts for anybody, so we are always interested in corporate work and other revenue, but ultimately, we are building a brand and an audience with Treet and revenue will require that it grow several times larger. As it is, however, Treet has over 100,000 monthly viewers across all our shows, but doing what we do is expensive, and even that many viewers doesn’t really generate enough revenue to fund this.

Lowell: Crystal-ball time: what are your ambitions for Treet in the coming 12-24 months?

Wiz: Expansion in two areas. First, to involve more and more independent machinima producers in Treet to take advatnage of our distribution and audience, and to add to the diversity of our content. Second, to move more and more into OpenSim specificaly and any other platforms we see that have “creator leverage” in the way Second Life does. We also have a couple interesting things we are doing that we can’t talk about . We also expect to continue to work more with Linden Lab – we have had many good joint promotions with Linden Lab and they have helped us fuel growth in many ways.


A disclosure: I’ve appeared once on Tonight Live with Paisley Beebe and once on The 1st Question with Pooky Amsterdam.

Interview – Estelle Parnall, Blue Mars Fashionista

Blue Mars is a virtual world that continues to evolve, somewhat under the radar for a lot of people. Over the past week it has announced pricing changes that reflect a change in approach from one of establishment to one of consolidation.

Australian designer Estelle Parnall is based in northern Victoria and she obviously sees some opportunities in Blue Mars, shifting most of her focus from Second Life to there in recent months. I used that as an excuse to delve into Blue Mars a little more whilst profiling an interesting Australian who creates some notable content.


The interview below was done over a month ago, so Estelle has now successfully opened her full presence in Blue Mars, in addition to an art gallery (pictured left).

Lowell: What made you decide to leave SL?

Estelle: I havent actually left SL, I still have my shops on half a sim and a small number of satellites, but I suppose I have halted development since about October last year. In the months previous to this I think the market fell considerably (if my sales were anything to go by, but I am sure I wasnt alone). The clothing market in SL is saturated and the freebie culture certainly wasnt assisting the market to be viable.

Lowell: What attracted you to Blue Mars?

Estelle: I was attracted to the superior graphics, and the concept of quality control. The idea of getting in as an early adopter also appealed to me. Since being there a while I can say as a clothing designer that the clothes I can make in Blue Mars are far superior to that I could make in Second Life. No horrible templates or prim skirts, or ill-fitting sculpts……you have greater freedom with your virtual pallette.

Lowell: How has your experience been in Blue Mars so far?

Estelle: On the whole I can say I have really enjoyed it. Learning new 3D skills has been challenging but enjoyable.

Lowell: What limitations have you run into that you’d like to see resolved, and on the other side of the coin, what’s working better for you?

Estelle: There are a number of bugs that need resolution,, and of course the ones that rate most highly for me concern the fit of clothes. But I feel confident that Avatar Reality is working with us to resolve these issues.

Lowell: What are your plans for the coming 6-12 months?

Estelle: I am developing my own city which I hope to release in the next week or so which will showcase my designs and will include an Art Gallery. After that I hope to just improve my skills, create more content and become a major merchant.

More than fashion

From email discussions I’ve had with Estelle over the past month, it’s obvious Blue Mars are very focused on maintaining a happy foundation community. There’s certainly momentum there as well, no doubt helped by both the real and perceived challenges Second Life has at present. In Estelle’s case, her work in Blue Mars has delivered a content creation role for the Martian Boneyards project by TERC, a scientific collaboration game funded by the National Science Project (US). It’s these sort of projects that provide the real indications that the diversification of education in virtual worlds is on the increase. OpenSim growth is a key part of the equation, but environments like Blue Mars are gaining a footing too.

Now if only some real interoperability standards were on the near horizon…

Interview – Zak Claxton, Second Life musician

zakclaxton_liveZak Claxton is one of many Second Life musicians who have built up a loyal following. Over the past year I’ve been aware of Zak’s work on an album showcasing the body of original songs he’s built up. With the December 11th release of his self-titled album, I thought it was a good time to profile his work, to get his thoughts on the SL music scene and some tips of SL music performance.

I do need to make a disclosure – I’ve known Zak’s real-world alter ego for seven years or so – we’ve hung out together throughout that time on a number of musician discussion forums. We both became Second Life residents around the same time and the Metaverse Journal’s Second Life presence was constructed by Zak’s partner Kat Claxton from Encore Design Group. Finally, I have had extensive involvement online with the other musicians on the album as well.

On to the interview:

Lowell: You’ve been a musician for decades – aside from the Second Life learning curve, was there any aspect of musicianship you’ve had to learn or change with Zak?

Zak: Absolutely. Most musicians are used to receiving immediate feedback from their audiences, be it clapping, cheering, or throwing beer bottles at their foreheads. When I first started performing in SL, it was a bit disconcerting to finish a song and then wait for 15-40 seconds to have the audience react, due to the latency of the stream. You get used to it after awhile.

Also, on a personal basis, most of my musical experience as a live performer previous to SL was as a member of bands. It took a short while for me to get used to being alone on stage, with no other sources of music than what I can perform in real time with my guitar and voice. But I got over that relatively quickly… it’s just a matter of experience.

Lowell: Can you describe in a paragraph or two the process of making the album?

Zak: I am extremely fortunate to have developed close friendships with a number of talented people in the music/recording business. When I decided to get serious and do a “real” album (as opposed to something I could record in my bedroom on marginal equipment), I enlisted the help of engineer/producer Phil O’Keefe, and recorded all of the tracks at his Sound Sanctuary Recording Studios in Riverside, CA. Then I called upon the talents of a couple of other multi-instrumentalist friends; Bunny Knutson provided drums on every song as well as some additional guitar parts, and Ken Lee also came in for a few songs on keyboards and guitars.

The process was pretty simple. All of the songs were those I’d written to be able to perform as a solo artist, so it was just a matter of fleshing out the songs, arranging them for a rock band setting. We would go into Sound Sanctuary, and Bunny and I would perform the songs in real time, without any click tracks to lock us in. It was a very free and creative environment. After we got the drums down, we would layer other tracks via overdubbing. I played the majority of the guitars and bass, and did most of the lead and backing vocals as well. Phil O’Keefe also added various parts as needed.

We started recording in March 2008 and didn’t finish until August 2009, but that’s only because our respective schedules didn’t allow us to record whenever we felt like it. We actually only spent six days in the studio during that time frame, and each of those days had us creating two complete songs. The sessions were actually very productive. Phil would then make rough mixes as we went along, and at the very end we had one final session to go through and make tweaks to those rough mixes. The whole thing was very smooth, and since I was working with great friends, we had an incredibly fun time at each session.

Lowell: Can you divulge the inspirations behind any of your songs?

Zak: I’m inspired by many things, both for the musical and lyrical content of my songs. First and foremost, I’m inspired by all the great music that’s been done before me. I’ve spent a lifetime as a lover of all kinds of music, and I did my best to allow those influences to be reflected in my songs.

On a more specific basis, I find that nature is often a key source of inspiration. In a number of my songs, you’ll hear references to the sky, the sea, the sun, the stars and so on. I don’t know why; perhaps I feel these things are part of a bigger picture than the fleeting stuff that happens in our day to day lives. But I’m also inspired by relationships, and the interaction between people in general. Certainly, the fact that I’m madly in love with my ladyfriend Kat Claxton resulted in the creation of several songs on this album, specifically “This Afternoon” and “Always Tomorrow”.

Lowell: Have you written any songs based on your performances in Second Life?

Zak: I have, and have performed them upon occasion in SL. For example, I have a song called “Triana” that was inspired by a gal to whom Kat and I have become close in SL; she runs a weekly music trivia game we attend.

However, it was important to me to make a distinction between what I do in SL and what I do on a more general basis as a musician. I did not want to make this an SL-centric album, and it was my intention all along to create music that people could relate to whether or not they’ve even heard of virtual environments. It’s safe to say that nothing that ended up on the album is specific toward SL, only because I wanted all people to be able to enjoy it with or without references to virtual worlds.

Lowell: I know it’s hard to list a few, but are there particular SL musicians that you admire / have inspired or impressed you?

Zak: Definitely, yeah. SL is simply a microcosm of real life, and much like the rest of reality, you have a small percentage of people who probably shouldn’t be playing music in public, and then a much larger percentage of people who are pretty decent and can play and have fun along with their audience. And beyond that, you have a small number of people who are obviously very talented. Again, these percentages line up with what you’d expect from any collection of musicians in any real life community.

While most SL musicians do cover tunes in world, I have a greater admiration for those creating and performing original music. Some of my personal favorites include Grace McDunnough, a fellow singer-songwriter who is from Atlanta. I’ve also really enjoyed the live creations of a guy who would probably be considered a DJ, but is actually a great real-time remix artist named Doubledown Tandino. Slim Warrior is another original remix artist and singer who is very talented. She’s known in real life as SlimGirl Fat, and is currently achieving some well-deserved recognition in the UK. I also enjoy the music of a British guitar player and singer Blindboy Gumbo who does blues-based music. He’s great and does a fun show. Hexx Triskaidekaphobia puts on reggae/jam shows in SL as a pseudo-band called Born Again Pagans who are very original and cool. I also enjoy the performances of SL artists like Mimi Carpenter, Mel Cheeky, and several others.

Lowell: What are Zak’s goals for the future?

zakclaxton_albumcoverZak: I tend to create music for the sake of the music, as opposed to ulterior motives like fame or fortune. I can say for sure that I still have a lot of music inside of me that has yet to emerge. I’ve begun writing songs for a second solo album, which I intend to start working on in early 2010. But on an immediate basis, my self-titled debut album is just coming out now, so I have some stuff to do to help promote it. In that regard, I will be doing some live shows in real life, and we’re making an effort to get terrestrial radio airplay here in the USA in addition to the Internet radio play we get on stations like IndieSpectrum Radio and SL Live Radio. While I’m not fooling myself into thinking my album will be some massive pop hit, I still want to do the things that will at least give it a chance to get heard, so the current focus is in that regard. I’m working closely with Kat on this stuff, since we’re partnering in a record label called Frothy Music to do the release of my album.

And, of course, I intend on continuing to do live performances in SL on a regular basis. On average, I do about 5-6 shows each month, and I have no plans of slowing down. At the end of the day, I play in SL because I really enjoy it, and as long as there are people who want to see and hear me, I’ll be there.

Lowell: Have you collaborated at all with other SL musicians and if not, is it likely to occur in the future?

Zak: I have, but not in the way I’d really prefer. I’ve taken part in a couple of collaborative efforts that were designed to bring some attention to the SL music community as a whole, but in both cases, I just sang a few lines on someone else’s song and didn’t have much direct participation beyond that. However, I would definitely love to really collaborate on something new with a fellow SL musician. While I don’t have any firm plans at the moment, having focused on my own album in recent months, I can absolutely see that happening at some point soon.

Lowell: You’ve put a lot of work into developing the Zak Claxton persona: do you see Zak as a creative psuedonym for Second Life only or is there a broader connection for you?

Zak: My story is pretty funny in this regard. I became Zak Claxton pretty much by accident; it was a name that I picked while signing up for SL in 2006 without giving it much thought. I certainly didn’t plan on it being a name I’d use for purposes other than in SL. At that stage, I wasn’t even fully aware that one could perform music in SL at all.

I started doing live shows in SL in early 2007, and I can now honestly say that around the world, many more people know the name Zak Claxton as a musician than they would associate music with my given name. If I already had some really great sounding, marketable name in real life, I might have been more open to using it for my musical endeavors. But unfortunately, I don’t; my real life last name is kind of long and German and clunky. So, Zak Claxton has become my official stage name. I find it likely that with or without SL, I probably would have chosen an alternative name which I’d use to release my music, just as Bob Dylan, Sting, and many other artists have done before me. It just so happened that Zak Claxton sounds cool, and I’ve already built a decent-sized following of fans who know me as Zak. It all worked out, despite not being part of a plan. I love when random things happen like that.

Lowell: Does Zak have any plans to perform in other environments like OpenSim, Twinity or Blue Mars?

Zak: I see no reason why not, though I have yet to delve into any virtual world beyond SL. To me, these are all platforms where new fans might be found. Live music is an appealing form of entertainment in just about any environment, and if OpenSim, Twinity and Blue Mars (or others) offer ways to attract an audience and do performances as easily as can be done in SL, I think it goes without saying that I’ll eventually be looking into them.

Lowell: Ignoring the Second Life aspect, why should people buy your album?

Zak: What I really want is for people to throw away all the other stuff when it comes time to judge my album worthy of purchase. Don’t think about SL. Don’t think of me as an avatar strumming a cartoon guitar on a virtual stage. And above all, don’t think, “He’s pretty good for an SL musician.” I want the music and the recording to be judged based on the same criteria you would any new music you’ve ever heard. If you hear something that connects with you, and you truly enjoy the music, then I hope you buy the album, or at least get on one of the online retailers like iTunes and purchase the song you like via digital download.

I think there are aspects of the album that will have a strong appeal to people who appreciate music that lasts longer than the typical pop tune. My strongest musical influences — people like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Police, and so on — seemed to write music that stands the test of time, and doesn’t necessarily feel dated after a few years go by. I would like to think that my album possesses some of the qualities that put it in a similar vein. And while some folks may want to skip over the harder rock stuff and others won’t bother with the softer stuff, I think there’s something on the album for everyone who enjoys well-crafted songs. I hope so, anyway.

Lowell: Have you managed to convince the other musicians on the album to join you in SL? If not, why not?

Zak: Well, I can say that they’ve certainly heard me babbling on for three straight years about how I view SL as a musician’s paradise. But what I usually get in return are excuses like, “That seems cool, but I don’t have time for it,” or, “I’m not sure my computer can handle the graphics,” and so on. In fairness to them, not all of my real life collaborators are the type of musicians who are comfortable doing solo performances, as most SL shows are done. Out of the three folks who helped me on my record, only Bunny has even tried out SL, and sparingly at that.

On a side note, I would enjoy the hell out of doing a full band show in SL. I mean, there are logistical challenges, but it’s been done both as real-time live performances with the band members in the same room, and as relay-streamed performances where each musician is in a different place. But it can be done. Like most things in life, it’s more a matter of people with busy schedules and jobs and families to take care of, rather than a lack of desire to do it. I think it’ll happen eventually.

Lowell: Is it true the drummer on your album spent many hours camping in SL casino chairs before the gambling ban came in?

Zak: Let me tell you something about my drummer: I love Bunny as much as any man can love another without deviating from his heterosexuality. His contribution to the overall feel of the album cannot be understated. He was right there for every moment of the recording sessions, and added invaluable opinions to the process of capturing the songs. The mere fact that he was probably better known as a punk rock guitar player before tackling drums on this album says a lot. He stepped up to the occasion, and while he’ll tell you with typical modesty that his performances were subpar, I tend to think that he was the best drummer on the entire planet for my music.

And yes, I think he did enjoy some camping chairs during his brief tenure in SL. It’s certainly true to his form.

Lowell: What advice would you have for musicians wanting to create music in Second Life – what mistakes should they avoid?

zc_streetZak: Lots and lots of mistakes to avoid. First and foremost, check your ego at the door, as Quincy Jones once famously said. I’ve seen a number of musicians come into SL thinking they should be the hot ticket from day one, since they have a bit of real life experience as a musician. But as I mentioned earlier, there’s actually a pretty deep talent pool in SL, and like any music scene you’re trying to break into, you have some dues to pay in terms of getting recognized.

Second, it’s pretty silly for musicians to think of SL as a viable income source in and of itself. Granted, there are folks who’ve worked their asses off to develop a large fan following, and perform several times per day every single day, and make relatively great tips at each show. I can see some of those folks making enough money to pay their rent, perhaps. But in the entirety of the SL music scene, which probably comprises over 500 people who perform on a regular basis, there are maybe three to five folks who fit this description. It’s a tiny percentage.

Third, while you shouldn’t set the expectations too high from the income available in SL itself, don’t get discouraged and quit. In my opinion, the real value of SL to musicians is exposure beyond your wildest dreams. Look, I live in Los Angeles, right? One of the world’s musical Meccas. And yet, there’s no possible way I would have had as many people listen to my original music as I have with SL. That’s not even mentioning the fact that I have fans who enjoy my music and are based in Australia, Canada, all over Europe, across the USA, and so on. The opportunity for getting your music out there is tremendous.

Here’s a simple thing that still needs to be said: if you’re at all serious about using SL to perform at a level expected for a professional musician, don’t try and sing and play through your computer’s built-in mic using Voice. You should treat it like you would any real show, meaning you use gear that’s appropriate for showing off your skills, and you use an audio stream that will give reasonable quality to your sound. Anyone can hear the difference when musicians are using decent mics, instruments, computer audio interfaces and so on.

Finally, keep in mind that despite the preponderance of people like me who strum acoustic guitars and sing in SL, there should be no limitations in terms of the type of music you play. I’d actually like to see more hip hop artists, more ambient and experimental music, more classical music, and more jazz in SL. In fact, there are probably entire audiences of SL residents who are just waiting for more varied types of musical performances. No matter what type of music you do or how you perform it, give SL a shot and see what happens.

Lowell: Aside from musicians in SL, which SL residents have inspired you the most?

Zak: I’m certainly amazed by the talented builders and scripters in SL. Some of what they do is awe-inspiring. A blog run by resident Bettina Tizzy called “Not Possible in Real Life” (http://npirl.blogspot.com/) sadly just decided to close, but the content there is fantastic, showcasing the art, architecture, and other creative aspects of SL. I would also say that some of the SL-centric social commentators like Crap Mariner have been enjoyable to get to know. Also, the few people who have successfully established business models that work in SL are inspirational from the standpoint of virtual worlds’ continuing acceptance into the mainstream.

All that having been said, my biggest inspiration in SL does indeed come from the community directly involved in the music world, which includes the artists, the people who own and run venues, and the fans. It’s been a positive inspiration since day one, and even if I’d never used SL as a platform for my own music, it would have been highly worthwhile based on the friendships I’ve made through the SL music scene.

Interview – Evelyn McElhinney, Glasgow Caledonian University

kali1 (This story appeared earlier today over at Metaverse Health).

Coming from a nursing background myself, I’m always fascinated by the work going on in virtual environments in regards to nurse education. To some extent it’s a natural fit in that clinical simulation is a pivotal part of the education process for nurses anyway – using virtual environments is simply an extension of recognised practice.

Evelyn McElhinney (SL: Kali Pizzaro) is a Nurse Lecturer in the post-registration department of Glasgow Caledonian’s School of Health. She teaches a number of advanced practice modules including modules within the Nurse Practitioner pathway. She joined the university full time 3 years ago, and was a lecturer/practitioner working in an advanced practice role within the National Health Service prior to that and has worked in a number of acute care areas including anaesthesia. Evelyn also happens to be active in the use of Second Life in Nurse Practitioner training, so I caught up with her to discuss her work to date and some broader issues around collaboration.

Lowell: From a nursing education viewpoint, what are your key areas of professional interest / research focus?

Kali: Advancing practice, physical examination, clinical simulation, and recently the use of virtual worlds for Nurse Practitioner Education.

Lowell: When you say nurse practitioner, can you define that a little? I’m assuming you mean someone undergoing their undergraduate nursing education?

Kali: Ah no in the UK Nurse Practitioners are Registered Nurses who are advancing their practice. A nurse who takes a history, physical examination, diagnoses, prescribes and treats.

Lowell: Ok, that’s similar to Australia then. So are there particular advantages for using virtual worlds with more experienced nurses like practitioners rather than nursing students?

Kali: The advantages are that they need flexibility as they have competing demands on their time. So any medium that allows for extra practice in a time conducive to them is attractive. However, virtual worlds can do more than the usual virtual learning environment.

Lowell: When did Second Life become a consideration in your work?

Kali: I considered Second Life after seeing a project by one of my colleagues. I had know about it’s existence as the University had a project exploring it’s use for marketing. That was in March this year.

Lowell: Can you describe the work you’re doing in Second Life and how it links to the University’s CU There initiative?

Kali: I am trying to develop a virtual patient which will be used by Nurse Practitioner students to practice history taking. I have also embedded heart sounds into the avatar’s chest to enable the student to link the history to the heart sounds they hear. They must click on the correct anatomical position to hear the sounds. This work links to the CU There project as it fulfills the criteria for use of virtual worlds in education. By creating an AIML bot/bots the students have the flexibilty to practice at any time either as an individual or as a group. I plan to have a number of patients and to build on the sceanrios to create longer problem-based learning scenarios. The bot we use were developed by myself and the School technician Andy Whiteford aka AndyW Blackburn.

Lowell: So what level of work has been required to get the lab to this stage and how much more is involved to get it to where you’d like it to be?

Kali: The clinical skills lab was designed by the CU There team with guidance from the head academic in charge of the simulation lab . The build was done mainly by a computer student who is seconded to the team. There are plans to build an ITU for a scenario for 3rd year students. For my scenario it is mainly me thinking of ways to expand each scenario in alignment with the needs of my students.

Lowell: The most common feedback I’ve gotten from nursing academics is a skepticism on what virtual worlds offer that a well integrated curriculum with comprehensive leraning management tools can’t, that is, aside from the advantage of not needing to get students to a real-world simulation lab, are there other benefits of working in environments like this?

Kali: The immersive environment enables authentic scenarios to be developed. There is also the ability to offer syncrounous text and voice communication, as well as the ability to show the whole class videos etc. We can also simulate things that would be difficult in real life.

Lowell: Is there an example of that you currently use?

Kali: Not at the moment. However, for undegraduates it could be useful for them to be inside a heart or lung to understand the anatomy and physiology. It is also much more interactive than other VLE’s.

Lowell: I suppose that’s the crux of the challenge for nursing educators using virtual environments: convincing others that things have moved beyond the gimmicky, would you agree?

Kali: Yes, you need to show them something that is pedagologically sound, something they can see is useful.

Lowell: On pedagogy, what do you see as the key foundations in your work and in virtual environments more broadly?

Kali and Colin_001Kali: Constructivism and social constructivism are the key learning theories in my work. By linking history and heart and lung sounds to other parts of a clinical scenario, I am building on the students previous knowledge to create new knowledge. People in simulations tend to act the same as they do in real life. The ability to capture the text allows for reflection on the decision-making of this particular group.

Lowell: What has the feedback been from students?

Kali: Positive- they can see they value. They feel they are in the sceanrio. However, it is early days. We have only had a few folk through as a pilot. We will be using it more in the next two semesters.

Lowell: Are there formalised evaluations planned on clinical skills training in Second Life ? Will there be comparative studies on those who used such tools versus those who didn’t and their subsequent outcomes?

Kali: Yes, a number of academics are evaluating their projects and one is plannning to compare in-world and out-of-world simulation. Some of these are through a University scheme, Caledonian Scholars.

Lowell: What’s your take on nursing research in virtual environments internationally? Is it fair to say it’s still very early days?

Kali: Yes, there are a number of good projects. However, it is still in it’s infancy. Simulation seems to be the most popular project.

Lowell: Is there any research completed or underway that has particularly interested you?

Kali: Many projects have impressed me. For example the work of John Miller at Tacoma, the Imperial College in London and the Ann Myers Medical Center. However, any project which is being used by students impresses me. With regards to research most are evaluations, however, my own university has just completed some research into student nurses’ clinical decision making (Dr. Jacqueline McCallum, Val Ness, Theresa Price, Andy Whiteford).

Lowell: Can you discuss what it’s found?

Kali: It’s still in publication, however a lot of what the students said was that they wanted to experience areas they had not been to, and that they also found the scenario exhausting. Interestingly, they did not do a single observation in an hours sceanrio in a busy surgical ward. They also did not know what to do with a patient who was demented and kept leaving the ward. I think they were too busy thinking what to do next, this was despite being prompted to do observations.

Lowell: You raise a very interesting point – perhaps virtual environments make a more natural stage for making errors as there isn’t the stress of the educator looking over their shoulder?

Kali: Maybe, although this sceanrio had educators involved. Although that is the beauty of simulation – make mistakes and no-one dies ;-)

Lowell: For the nurse who has been working in either a hospital or community setting for five years or more, how do you make virtual environments like Second Life an appealing and logical extension of their professional development needs?

Kali: By making the scenarios authentic and as realistic as possible. Also they must be available at all times to ensure maximum flexibility. The student must see the value to be motivated to take part. If they are fun, then great.

Lowell: Do you think Second Life is at a stage of usability that it can achieve that now?

Kali: Not yet in the UK – it is still not widely know as a social tool. However, if it is introduced in education they may see more value, as it helps them to learn.

Lowell: On usability though – it’s still quite a learning curve to actually use, particularly for those not as net-savvy as others?

Kali: Well you could say that about any VLE, and it is really only arrows and clicking. Changing clothes is not mandatory for education. Well, not all education. I think most folks would get it in a short space of time with some guidance.

Lowell: Again specific to nursing, is there any great degree of collaboration going on internationally in regards to projects like these? How do you think nursing faculties could further improve collaboration?

Kali: We are exploring a couple of collaborations. I know Scott Deiner in New Zealand has collaborated with American colleges. However, there is the potential for major collaboration both nationally and internationally. Although you need to have a firm idea about what you want to collaborate on. Also there is still a little bit of folk finding their feet, so to share is still scary methinks.

Lowell: Do you think there’s the critical mass for organised collaborative structures such online journals or other formats for working together?

Kali: There could be, and the Virtual World Watch here has opened up avenues for collaboration by highlighting the people who are involved with virtual worlds, although there is a bit to go.

Lowell: So for a nursing academic looking to integrate virtual environments into their teaching or research, would you have any simple advice?

Kali: Make sure you think about what you want to use it for. Script the scenario and look around at other people’s work to find out what the virtual world is capable of. Also visit educational areas and talk to other academics or join a group. Make sure there is a strong pedagogical structure to your idea and show it to folks when you have something to show!! Seeing is believing.


To view the publicly accessible clinical skills laboratory in Second Life, go here.

Interview – Simon Newstead, CEO of Frenzoo

Simon Newstead of FrenzooBack in May, we covered Frenzoo, a fashion-centric world with a lot of promise. Since that time, Frenzoo has continue to grow and has received further funding to continue its development.

CEO Simon Newstead is an expatriate Australian based in Hong Kong, and I took the opportunity to get some insight into Frenzoo‘s progress and future plans. He also discusses the role of Robin Harper and Anshe Chung, integration with services like Facebook and quite a bit more.

The take-home message for me is Frenzoo‘s focus on content creation, placing it amongst a handful of other players dedicated to that space. Fashion’s about creativity, so it’ll be interesting to see what growth trajectory Frenzoo takes. Read on for the interview:

Lowell: Can you give a brief biography of your career pre-Frenzoo?

Simon: Sure, before jumping into the online world with Frenzoo, I worked in Internet networking with Juniper Networks, the upstart competitor to Cisco.

There I was leading the Emerging Technologies team for Asia. That was a great job, dealing with customers in Korea and Japan through to emerging countries like India and Vietnam. Learning how and how not-to introduce new solutions to market, winning over early adopters, feeding requirements back to development teams – a lot of fun.

Before that I was in Melbourne with Juniper where I worked with Telstra to help design their 2nd generation broadband infrastructure (their DSL network). That was a great job for a young engineer, although I recall a lot of late nights living in their labs :)

Lowell: How would you describe Frenzoo’s progress over the past 12 months?

Simon: Great! After a slow start we’re starting to find our groove – a fledgling online world and 3d chat & creation community is up and running. Still early days but revenue starting to come in and growth picking up.

When we started our beta a year ago we had nothing – no users and a website with virtually no functionality: I remember an early tester making a comment “I love my avatar so much… but ummm what can I do with it?” It was a rude awakening, but all the early feedback helped us learn and adapt quickly – I really do subscribe to the “Fail Fast” startup school of thinking.

Since then we have learned a lot on what makes people them invest time and money and what they want out of Frenzoo. We’ve added and iterated our product countless times based on all the customer feedback: a big part of our culture – we gather a lot of user feedback, run regular usability tests, analyze usage data etc.

A turning point was introducing User generated content via our own web creation tool as well as 3ds modeling and collada import function. This has been great – the creative folks just love to design new things. When the world around you changes so much there is always inspiration for something new. People who love to mod sims love our environment – in fact some of our top content creators today are huge The Sims modders and creators.

Six months ago, the only things in the shop were made by Frenzoo, with limited choice. Now all the content on the marketplace is coming from the community and there are many thousands of diverse creator items to shop from and growing each day.

Lowell: What’s the company’s funding situation at present?

Simon: Earlier in the year we secured a solid round of funding from ASI – the Skype co-founders and other important angel investors. That takes us a long way to realizing our vision – by the time we consider the next phase of funding we should have completed the core development and started to ramp up audience and monetization.

Lowell: Virtual goods commerce is currently the core of your revenue model – can you explain a little how both you and designers can make money?

Simon: Sure. We run a dual currency system – we have silver and gold coins. Silver coins are the earned currency (being active on the site), gold coins are bought currency. When an item is purchased by a user using Gold coins, the creator of that item gains the Gold Coins (Frenzoo takes a small commission). Gold Coins can be sold for real money on 3rd party sites like First Meta Exchange and Anshe X. Those sites also allow transfer to and from other virtual currencies such as Linden dollars and IMVU credits.

Lowell: How many staff does Frenzoo have and are they still all based in Hong Kong?

Simon: We have a team of 10 folks – 7 engineers and 3 designers. Apart from that it’s myself, and Ceci, our marketing lead. We’re based in Hong Kong and we also have a couple of fantastic remote interns in the US who do a fantastic job helping with the community management.

We’re also lucky to have three very helpful strategic advisors – Robin Harper (ex Linden Labs) and Anshe Chung – Ailin Graef and Guntram Graef have really helped with giving us guidance and the insights from their considerable experience.

Lowell: What’s the geographic breakdown of your userbase at present?

Simon: Most members are coming from the US, however we have a healthy international mix from Europe and Asia. Australia is in the mix, a few percent of our base. We have localization to over 10 languages, including Japanese, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, German, Russian, Dutch etc It’s one of the many advantages of being purely browser based – it’s easy to add this. Right from the start we wanted to make this a global offering, not just English only.

Lowell: What percentage of the designers are making significant money?

Simon: We’re just getting going, no millionaires I’m aware of yet :)

The majority of our creators are doing it for enjoyment – it’s a lot of fun dreaming up new designs, meeting people, entering contests, being creative.

For those folks when they earn a few bucks in the process that’s just a bonus. However we’re now starting to see the first few professional operations coming onto the site with the aim to make money. Anshe Chung Studios is one example, it’s also easy for them to publish their created items to both Frenzoo and other platforms like IMVU. We’re also looking forward to introducing 3D scenes so, for example, creators of Second Life environments and props can explore our platform.

Lowell: What mistakes that competitors have made are you hoping to avoid?

Simon: I have a lot of respect for the other avatar communities out there, I’m a big fan of Second Life in particular for their creative and open content environment. One thing we are striving to do is make our user interface really simple to use, and also make creation fun and accessible to everyone – in fact most of our active active members have created their own items.

As we are web online world compared with most others who are client based, we have our own unique set of challenges and opportunities. For example cross browser differences and testing is a hassle (don’t get me started on IE6!), but on other hand web based means we support Mac and PC as well as being able to quickly mash up and integrate – e.g. post pics to Facebook etc.

Lowell: Speaking of Facebook, do you have any plans for integration with other web applications like that?

Simon: We’d like to do more web integration next year for sure. Once we have built out most of our core platform we plan to swing back and look at off site integration and add what makes sense, be it Facebook app or other platforms and techniques. Whether that app might be avatar chat or creation or a mix is still something we have to think about.

Mobile is something also we considered when we settled on our 3D rendering engine – in fact Unity3d which we use is one of the leading engines for iPhone 3D games today. It’s an interesting future possibility for us and technically feasible.

Lowell: Who do you see as Frenzoo’s main competitors?

Simon: In terms of web 3D community with UGC marketplace and creation tools we are first to market, to my knowledge. Actually even in client solutions, I haven’t seen similar to our accessible fashion design tool.

Actually most of our energy is built on listening to our users and improving our service. Whilst we monitor and learn lessons from other virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life and IMVU who have built up successful economies), we’re mainly focussed on our users and improving for them.

Online World Frenzoo - 3D Avatar of Simon_is_yetiLowell: Do you have an estimated date for Frenzoo coming out of beta?

Simon: Not for some time yet…

Beta really is a mark that we are in constant iteration and improvement, it’s a label that encourages us to always be listening and improving. Of course, we’re running a virtual economy today and security and robustness are important but we like the idea of being in beta mode and responsive – it’s a cultural attribute.

Lowell: What’s the roadmap for Frenzoo over the coming year?

Simon: Now UGC is kicked off, our next big move is “social”. The first step is 3D chat, which we just launched 2 months ago. It’s pretty sparse now but we will be building it out. As part of the social drive we’ll be introducing 3D scenes, which will be the biggest upgrade to the site since launch. This will let people be creative and social a lot more than today where the avatar is in 3D but the scene is just in static 2D. A 3D online world in Frenzoo has been one of the top requests from our community.

Our goal within the next few months is to have a fun user created environments – dance parties people can hang out and virtual chat in, maybe beaches for moonlight walks, glamorous catwalk shows, and hopefully lots of ridiculously pimped out apartments :)

We’ll also continue to build out the creative tools and then start to do more mashups and integrations on the web to help people share their experiences easier.

Lowell: Can you shed light on the core Frenzoo user?

Simon: Sure. Our age ranges from 13 all the way to 30 and beyond. Several of our most active members are in their 30s, 40s and older. Our average age today is hovering around 18-20 years old, and we skew very heavily towards female. One of our goals over coming months is to also make Frenzoo interesting and engaging for us guys.

Lowell: As an expat Aussie, what’s your take on the virtual worlds industry here?

Simon: Well, I’m a big fan of some of the virtual world personalities who live in Australia – folks such as metaverse bloggers Tateru, Anstia and yourself, Steve Cropper who runs the Life On-Line show etc Also it’s nice to see some virtual world developers in Australia such as VSide/Exit Reality…and in general some great tech projects such as Google Wave out of Sydney. I’m always rooting for more Aussies to make it on the global stage :)

Interview – Denise Wood, University of South Australia

unisa-oct2009-2-smlDenise Wood (SL: Denlee Wobbit) is Senior Lecturer in the Bachelor of Media Arts program at the University of South Australia and the Teaching and Portfolio Leader of the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages. As one of Australia’s many educators who are utilising virtual environments in their roles, I was aware of Denise’s work in regards to disabilities and accessibility, so I asked her to have a chat about her efforts to date in Second Life.

As you’ll see below, that discussion covered a number of areas in detail. It’s yet another example of the promising work being done by Australian educators. I was particularly struck by the growing level of collaboration between institutions, which is imperative for ongoing success.

If you’d like to see the University of South Australia’s Second Life presence for yourself, here’s where to go.

Lowell: To start off, can you give a little history of how you got involved with Second Life at first?

Denlee: Sure – We initially became involved out of interest in the possibilities that virtual worlds offer for experiential learning. As an educator in the field of media arts, I was interested in exploring possibilities for engaging students in problem solving activities within a flexible environment that facilitates collaborative learning activities. So we applied for a University of South Australia (UniSA) Teaching and Learning Grant initially to fund the purchase of the island and to maintain it for a year while we conducted trials with some identified courses. That grant was successful and that is how we initially funded purchase and upkeep of the UniSA island.

Once I was teaching in Second Life (SL) I became concerned at the issues for students with disabilities. As someone with many years experience working with people who have disabilities and as an educator teaching in a University that prides itself on access and equity that was a concern. So we applied to the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) for a grant to develop an open source environment to enhance accessibility in virtual worlds

Lowell: So how much experience with SL did you have prior to making the grant application i.e. was there a key event or experience that ‘turned the light on’ so to speak?

Denlee: I had very little experience in SL prior to applying for the grant. Most of my knowledge was based initially on review of the literature. I spent some time exploring SL prior to applying – and enrolled in building classes and so on, and of course visited education sims, but most came from reading case studies and my own knowledge of simulated learning environments.

Lowell: So how were those first days and weeks in SL for you – did you find it an incredible eye-opener for its opportunities or did it seem a natural extension for you on previous work you’d done?

Denlee: It was a wonderful experience – naturally a little overwhelming initially. Having applied for the grant and received the funding close to the end of the academic year was rather fortunate as it meant that I was able to spend many, many hours over the summer break immersed in SL – I was in SL every day – 7 days a week for about 6 weeks and really did become part of the community through that process. Knowing that we would be trialling courses the next semester was also great motivation to spend the time and make the commitment. I knew I would need to feel very confident myself before attempting to teach students in this environment. And attending building classes gave me the skills but also ideas about what works and what doesn’t in teaching in this context.

Lowell: Let’s talk about the first courses you taught involving SL – what were the educational objectives you were looking to achieve?

Denlee: I trialled two initially. One was a course focusing on games design so SL seemed a perfect environment for achieving the learning objectives relating to that course, which focused on problem solving, team work, collaboration and communication. Students (5 or 6 per team including external students) created immersive games using holodecks on sky platforms.

The other course was one in which students create online portfolios to market their design skills. They created Websites and built complementary portfolios (kiosks) in SL that linked to their websites. The aim was for the students to understand the changing nature of designing for electronic media and the relationship between Web design and the future potential of virtual worlds as an extension of that. What surprised me was that students at first seemed to enjoy the activities and they did some fabulous work, but they were not as positive about the learning experience as we had anticipated.

Lowell: What were the issues they seemed to be unhappy with?

Denlee: Some of the issues seemed to be about the platform (buggy issues and so on) but that didn’t explain it all. And when we really analysed the evaluation data it appeared to be related to their inability to see the connection between the learning activities and their future career aspirations. Many said they would prefer to have created the game in another platform like Flash or Director or another gaming platform. And some of the web design students said they couldn’t see the value as they didn’t believe the future predictions that 3D virtual worlds would become more popular for businesses and marketing.

Lowell: Did they perhaps see SL as less graphically appealing, so more like ‘work’ than play?

Denise-woodDenlee: Actually it was the reverse. Some saw it as inappropriate because it was too much like play – almost as if they had preconceived ideas about what is a valid or authentic learning environment.

Lowell: Ok that’s interesting! So are those courses still being taught in that context – has SL become part of the core work done given the mixed feedback?

Denlee: Well after that experience I was unsure of how to next proceed. But I decided to try again with a different course this semester, only this time I gave students the option of choosing to work with a “real client” in actual life or a client in SL. So in this course, students learn how to create accessible Web sites that are W3C compliant. They are required to work with a client organisation and either redesign an existing website or create a new site that meets very high standards in accessible design. Out of the 20 students in this course, 7 chose to work in SL and that course has proved very successful. The seven students meet with their clients in SL every week and attend a tutorial I facilitate in SL every Saturday. They are also working with disability groups in SL. And some of the tutes are conducted with Gentle Heron from Virtual Ability Island.

The difference – and this is the eye opener for me about virtual worlds – is that they are not focusing on the platform but using it as a conduit to engage on “real” work with “real” clients. What is particularly interesting is that in the previous trials we put enormous effort into running tutorials on how to use SL and we had mentors to help the students, yet they still complained it was hard to navigate and so on. However, in this class the students have had no training in SL at all – I left them to their own devices. They have taught themselves and helped each other. This has shown me that students will engage in learning activities when they are focusing on “real” world issues and not on the technology. The previous courses focused a lot on building in SL, and it appears that perhaps the students would have been more engaged in those courses if they had undertaken projects for clients and not focused so much on learning to build and script. In other words, problem solving can be more effective when students are focused on the project not the skills required to achieve the overall aim of the project.

Lowell: So let’s move over to your area of interest, accessibility. What specifically led you to that research area?

Denlee: I worked in the disability sector for many years prior to being appointed as an academic at UniSA. I was a researcher for an organisation that provides services for children with disabilities and then moved on and established a Govt funded organisation providing training in multimedia for young adults with disabilities. We provided contract work on multimedia projects to graduates of that program. While working in the field I was also actively involved with other organisations providing training in accessible web design. So when I came to UniSA it was only logical that I would want to redesign courses so that our students (future designers) would be equally skilled and committed to accessible Web design and I was able to progress my research at the same time.

Lowell: So did SL seem a natural progression for the work you;d been doing in that area?

Denlee: Yes, very much so. Many of the same principles apply – but we do need more creative solutions to tackle some of the challenges imposed by such highly graphical and multimedia rich environments. Once we received the ALTC funding, we embarked on ethnographic research with people in SL who identify as disabled. I leased an apartment on the Wheelies SIM and conducted many interviews from there. I was interested in identifying the benefits experienced by people with disabilities in virtual worlds as well as the accessibility challenges.

Lowell: Virtual environments are often touted as a boon for individuals with disabilities that may restrict some real world experiences. What’s the more objective view on the challenges and opportunities?

Denlee: The virtual communities provide a wonderful place for people with disabilities to socialise, gain information and for advocacy. The virtual environment also provides a place for people to experiment with identity and so they can choose to represent themselves as someone with a disability or not. It’s their choice – and those who choose not to appear “disabled” find they are more likely to be accepted for who they are, not judged by appearances. For those who are not able to get out of the house much, environments like SL provide a wonderful means for meeting others and also for providing the opportunity foe people in that situation to contribute to the virtual communities in SL. And what really fascinates me are the ways in which these communities have worked together to create their own solutions to some of the challenges.

Lowell: And on the other side of the coin, what are the accessibility challenges that stand out?

Denlee: Obviously SL is a very visual environment – so those with significant visual impairments find it difficult or impossible to navigate. Those who use screen readers for example, can’t access SL without assistive technologies in world as objects and inventory, and locations are not exposed to a screen reader. Then of course most multimedia is not captioned in SL. As voice has become more popular, the environment has become less accessible for those with hearing impairments when they are communicating with residents using voice and not text chat.

Lowell: So with these shortcomings, is there significant momentum toward solutions? And if so, is it primarily community driven or are Linden Lab actively driving some enhancements?

Denlee: Linden Lab has started to show greater interest of late because of the initiatives taken by residents themselves. A good example was the awareness raised by the Helen Keller Day event hosted by Virtual Helping Hands.

Lowell: What are some of the community driven activities that have inspired you?

Denlee: Well, groups like Virtual Ability Inc (VAI) who set up Virtual Ability Island, and of course Virtual Helping Hands and their virtual guide dog you see here. Wheelies and Cape Able (now owned by VAI) and the Health Support Coalition – all these groups show the power that comes when people who share common goals work together on solutions. What we are doing is building on that knowledge using the funding from ALTC to design an open source client that is accessible and can be used with SL and OpenSim. So we are working with these groups to ensure what we create is suitable and informed by their significant knowledge.

Lowell: Ok so how’s that progressing? Can you give a synopsis of key groups involved in its development?

Denlee: We are working with all the groups really – Virtual Ability, Virtual Helping Hands and members of Wheelies. Our contracted programmer is a member of VHH and we meet regularly with others from VHH as we proceed with design and development. We are also working with ReactionGrid, which is based on OpenSim, and they have provided us with four sims for our development work. They are very supportive of the importance of accessibility in virtual worlds.

Lowell: What does OpenSim offer that appeals in lieu of SL?

Denlee: The fact that it is open source. We can work with the open source community on solutions. Everything we do contributes to that open source community as well. We can work on the open source client when it comes to SL, but not at the server level, whereas we can tackle both with OpenSim. But, we are very mindful of the very large following of SL so we want to work at both levels since SL is still a wonderful conduit for linking people together given that large population base. The ideal solution is what I believe Linden Lab always envisaged, a grid with various virtual worlds linked together.

Lowell: Onto UniSA’s presence here – can you give an overview of what’s offered here and what any future plans are?

unisa-oct2009-1-smlDenlee: We will no doubt continue to maintain our UniSA island here – we are planning to trial using our island to facilitate career building – running careers fairs and so on. We are also undertaking research in the area of performing arts and hybrid performance. Intermediality – where actors on a “real life” stage perform with actors in SL.

Lowell: Is the UniSA presence a cross-faculty collaboration or predominantly your faculty?

Denlee: UniSA island is managed by me, but there are several other faculties (we call them Divisions), which plan to trial courses on our island including education and health sciences, and our computer science school also has a presence on SL. We are also doing collaborative work with many other universities. Our ALTC project is a collaboration involving UniSA as lead institution with Monash University, Edith Cowan University, the University of Sydney, RMIT and Flinders University, as well as the University of Sheffield in the UK. And we are also in communication with other Australian universities which have ALTC grants relating to this area.

Lowell: What’s your perspective on the Australian research momentum in relation to virtual worlds – are we leaders or followers?

Denlee: I think Australia is certainly undertaking significant research in this space – so definitely not just following the lead of international universities. We have a very strong presence in virtual worlds in both teaching and learning, and innovative research. Australia is certainly an important international player and making a significant contribution to the field. I think we will see that activity escalate in a short space of time as so many universities are now collaborating and sharing their expertise across many diverse disciplinary areas. A good example of the level of this activity is evident each year at the annual ASCILITE conference, which has attracted a rapidly increasing number of high quality research papers focusing on teaching and learning in virtual worlds.

Lowell: Do you feel there are solid collaborative structures in place to support the growing interest in a way that will be effective?

Denlee: We are seeing that happen I think at a number of levels. Firstly, the ALTC has funded quite a few projects relating to teaching and learning in virtual worlds so this is recognition of the importance of these environments. The ALTC requires universities to collaborate and so these projects bring together teams from universities across Australia. They also provide a mechanism for bringing projects together – so all that bodes very well for supporting collaboration. Also, we have seen a growth in interest in the informal networks recently established and AARNET is playing a major role in supporting collaboration among universities – it is well positioned to do so as the major internet service provider to universities across Australia. Education.au is becoming very active in this space as well and has shown great interest in working collaboratively with us.

Lowell: One area that seems to have a long way to go is public-private partnerships, including research. Do you think Australian business is being too hesitant or are there some structural issues more broadly that make collaborations like that difficult?

Denlee: Many of us are looking at the opportunities in that space and one obvious funding source that can assist research in this area is the Australian Research Council (ARC) through their linkage funding scheme. While the ARC does not fund teaching and learning projects, there is considerable interest from academics in undertaking high quality research relating to virtual worlds in partnership with industry groups, and I think you will see increasing uptake of research in this area in the foreseeable future.

Lowell: A final question. What are your plans over the coming 12-18 months?

Denlee: We will be continuing our research into accessibility solutions – that project is funded until the end of 2010. We will also be trialling careers fairs and industry engagement in the coming few months. I will be continuing to teach in SL focusing more on using SL as a platform for facilitating interaction between my students and clients via SL. We are furthering our research into mixed media performance in virtual worlds and we are currently working on a pilot project with the University of Adelaide focusing on entrepreneurship training in virtual worlds. I am working with Professor Noel Lindsay from the Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Innovation Centre at the University of Adelaide on that project.

Lowell: Any last words?

Denlee: I guess for me the most powerful thing about a virtual world like SL is that it provides a medium by which researchers, academics and students can come together to collaborate, undertake research and also for providing experiential learning opportunities for students within a global platform. The other significant aspect of this environment is the flexibility it affords for engaging people who might otherwise not be able to meet, whether due to disability, geographical location or other circumstances.

Check it out in-world