Web3D 2008 Paper on The Design of Virtual Place for Creative Collaboration

I managed to put together what I think is a reasonable summary of my unpublished work so far on virtual place, in time for the Web3D 2008 deadline. The writing could of course always do with some polishing, but my main concern is that Web3D tends to be an engineering-focused conference and my paper is on human factors and design. However it is the venue that I want to get into – it’s the engineers that I want to convince! Otherwise we’ll just keep seeing virtual worlds built without real consideration of what it is that is being built – why this set of affordances? Why these cultural choices? So here it is; all anonymised for review but anyone reading this blog already knows my research so no point being coy about it here 😉

4 Responses to “Web3D 2008 Paper on The Design of Virtual Place for Creative Collaboration”

  1. viveka says:

    Well – I was right about my concern at least! The paper was rejected on the grounds that it’s on human factors and design, and the Web3D audience are engineers. I guess I’ll have to sneak the user experience angle in to more technically interesting papers for that mob. In the meantime I’m suitably chastened and rewriting the findings for CHI conferences :)

  2. Jen says:

    I loved the piece – read it before I knew you were rejected. I think the whole of idea of the relationship between the design of the learning space in the 3D world is one that really does need exploring and I thought your paper was a good intro into that area.

  3. KerryJ says:

    Hi Viveka

    I had a read of your paper and found parts of it confusing.

    Your methodology for observing participants in various settings didn’t seem to make sense to me. Just as I wouldn’t go to a loud nightclub or public square to hold a meeting in RL – I wouldn’t do it in Second Life.

    You state that ownership of land is reserved for advanced users. This is incorrect and a search on the Second Life web site would have revealed that. New users can sign up for a premium account quite easily and bid for land directly from Linden Labs or buy or rent from other residents. In fact, I rent and have a basic (free)account.

    You say that your participants found it difficult to bring images and documents into the system — yet uploading images is as simple as clicking on the File menu and upload image. As for documents, they can be cut and pasted into notecards or linked to directly from the web.

    For me, I think your paper would have had more impact if, in addition to the aforementioned, you’d first set out why you were exploring a virtual world for a collaborative environment for a virtual team.

    I think SL would be the wrong choice for collaboration on a document yet a brilliant one for creating a scale model or modeling a scientific principle or setting out the layout of a building or other visual activity.

    Cheers!

    KerryJ

  4. viveka says:

    Thanks Jen and Kerry for the thoughtful feedback. Reading it again with Kerry’s comments in mind I can see what you mean; the paper’s not sufficiently well structured and my arguments aren’t clear enough. I’ll start by attempting to address your comments here, before I get back to rewriting the paper.

    You say that your participants found it difficult to bring images and documents into the system — yet uploading images is as simple as

    I agree that it can be done with relative ease. However I’m just reporting what happened. I brought a distributed workgroup into second life, multiple times over the course of a couple of months. All of the group are tertiary educated, intelligent, creative; very familiar with computers and some of them long-term users of virtual environments. They entirely failed in their attempts to share images and documents with each other. Mostly not for technical reasons: they were instead overwhelmed by the social and cultural environment in which they found themselves.

    Just as I wouldn’t go to a loud nightclub or public square to hold a meeting in RL – I wouldn’t do it in Second Life

    Agreed, and that’s all I was trying to show with that part of the experiment. It’s well known that the place you’re in effects how you interact in real life. It seems obvious that virtual place would be the same, but the academic literature on collaborative virtual environments ignores this fact. I was just attempting to demonstrate and document the obvious: the social affordances of place radically effect what you do there, in virtual as well as real places.

    And of course when you first enter Second Life you are, by default, put in a busy social space. The Welcome Areas are crowded, noisy and overwhelming; at least they certainly were for the group I was studying. This is appropriate for the main newbie use case of SL (Talking To Strangers). It does not however support the scenario that my user group had imagined: they wanted to use Second Life as a place for a meeting of their group.

    Often when I talk to people who have not used SL they suggest this as something useful they could do with it – “Oh, we could hold our meetings there!”. I would argue that you can construct a space for a semi-private group meeting in SL, but not trivially. At least one member of the group has to be an advanced user who has learned the ropes, bought some land, set it up with the proper permissions, built a room in which to have the meeting and so on. Which brings me to:

    You state that ownership of land is reserved for advanced users. This is incorrect[…]

    Perhaps I should define “advanced users” more clearly. I don’t mean that you need a certain account type: I mean that you have to have spent a significant amount of time learning how to use the system.

    When I say that it’s hard to buy land, that’s a pretty fuzzy term. What do I mean by “hard”? How easy does something have to be? Do I mean Really Really Easy: “Press The Red Button To Play” easy? OK. I mean easy enough for most users to be able to do it the first time they log in to the system. Buying your first piece of land in Second Life, by that metric, is hard. Let me elucidate.

    I’m not talking here about a technological limitation of SL. I’m talking about social impedance. SL has a deep social architecture, and to buy land you must engage with that.

    It’s confusing enough that there is an entire series of video tutorials about it. The first, BASICS, is nearly 15 minutes long:

    There are two steps (usually) to buying land.
    First you buy the right to buy land, by upgrading to a premium account. This gives you Free Land! Oh no, it doesn’t. Huh? OK, let’s watch the video tutorial entitled “Where is my Premium account’s free land?”

    So the second step: enter a completely unregulated user-to-user real estate market. If this is easy, then we’re using some hitherto unexplored definition of the term “easy”. The video tutorials warn against rushing into buying land. First, they admonish, you should ask a more experienced friend (assuming you have one), and learn the warp and weft of the market.

    SL is an open market, bound by rules that enforce intellectual property and behaviour standards, and structured around contracts between users. However contract terms are implicit – in the code, not in the description of the contract by the seller. There is no regulation of false advertising: SL is entirely Caveat Emptor (as any good Libertartian Anarcho-Capitalist utopia must be). Entering the Land maelstrom makes this starkly clear: trying to sort by value brings a long list of land advertised as (IIRC) one linden dollar for 65535 square meters; the cheapest possible price. Of course these people are all lying. It’s worse than buying land in real life.

    As you point out, you can bypass the first step by renting land off someone else who has bought it, but this requires even more social capital and market understanding in the second step.

    All of this is great for Second Life’s purpose: to establish a community of world-builders, to perform a grand social experiment. But it’s massive overkill for a distributed workgroup that just wants a quiet place to meet and collaborate.

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