Thursday, 26 July 2007

Primart Fossett

It occurs to me that I could combine the body of Pandora Bot with the TwitterBot to create a prim-based version of my avatar, Primart Fossett, allowing me to have a presence at in-world meetings completely remotely via Twitter. Might be useful I guess. And worth noting that this would work using any of the current methods of interacting with Twitter (Web form, IM and mobile phone). Yes, that is definitely worth trying.

Pandora Bot update

The prim parts of my NPC, Pandora Bot, are almost complete.

Clicking its head sends it from sleeping ('Away' mode) to being awake and back again. And while it's awake it blinks, sways slightly (in a robotic kind of way) and shuffles its feet regularly. Pandora Bot is pretty primitive (excuse the pun) but good enough I think.

Note: this prim avatar won't fool anyone into thinking it is real for two reasons (well, ignoring the quality of the chat for now - which is a pretty major third reason! :-) ). Firstly, the name above the head isn't presented in quite the same format as avatar names are normally presented - as far as I know I can't replicate the exact way that avatar names are presented just using prims. Secondly, whenever Pandora Bot chats, a swirling mass of stars is emitted, as with any prim-based chat - as far as I know I can't turn these off.

At the moment, Pandora Bot wakes up and sleeps only in response to clicks on the head. In due course I'll make it sense its surroundings and sleep or wake depending on whether anyone is around.

The last thing I have to do on the prim front is to make its arms make a typing movement whenever it is chatting. Should be pretty easy. Then I'll have to focus on configuring the backend PandoraBot AIML correctly - so that Pandora Bot can actually talk some sense about something. That'll be a lot harder I suspect!

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Video tips

Peter Miller points to a couple of useful sounding freebies at the end of this post on converting video to MP4.

PandoraBot NPC

Not a real NPC yet, but one of the things I'm playing with currently in the SLashup Space on Eduserv Island is a NPC driven by an external PandoraBot.

At the moment I'm trying to focus on making my NPC prim avatar look and feel roughly like a real avatar - i.e. shuffling its feet at regular intervals, blinking, and typing with its 'hands' while chatting. (For anyone that bothers visiting the SLashup Space, note that I haven't actually done any of this yet!)

Note that my prim avatar head is a sculptie that I stole from Chip Midnight.

Problem-based learning - UK Educators meeting

I attended the UK Educators meeting on Coventry Island earlier on this afternoon. There was a good discussion about problem-based learning (PBL) and related issues. Not something I could particularly contribute to in any meaningful way unfortunately... but I appreciated the chance to listen.

I kept a record of the discussion for good measure.

Coventry Island looks nothing like Coventry (as far as I recall)!

Monday, 23 July 2007

Muting the visibility of objects

This sounds like a neat idea... Able Whitman has created a modified version of the SL client, Second Life Viewer, Able Edition, which allows you to mute the visibility of selected objects and parcels.

Just what I need, given my comments in this blog the other day about Imagination Island...

When I made that post, JohnK came back and accused me of NIMBYism. But it's not just that. If you have a busy sim next door, busy in the sense of having lots of moving objects and/or particle systems, then the performance for everyone that visits your island gets worse. Why? Because the chances are that their clients will have to render some or all of the 'noise' going on next door.

So what does it mean to mute the visibility of an object?
1. The object is also muted "classically," that is, its chat is suppressed, just as with a normal mute.
2. Any particle system associated with the object is removed, just as with a normal mute.
3. All the textures on the object are replaced with a solid-white texture.
4. Phantom objects are made completely transparent.
5. Non-phantom objects are made 67% transparent. (They are not made entirely transparent because object collision happens on the server, so avatars would still run into them. This way they are at least visible enough to avoid.)
6. Attached sounds on the object have their gain forced to zero.
7. Hovering text on the object is removed.
8. Objects have their light source and fullbright settings turned off.
9. Touchable objects have their click action removed.
10. Objects for sale are not purchasable.
11. Objects have their angular velocity (llTargetOmega) forced to zero.
12. Sculpted objects have their sculpt texture set to the default sculpt texture.
I haven't tried this yet, but it definitely sounds interesting. Also worth noting that our ability to do this kind of thing is a direct result of Linden Lab's decision to open source the client.

Machinima multiplex

Alan Levine at NMC has created a nice multiplex of machinima on Youtube.

Dunno what the collective noun is for machinima... but multiplex kinda captures it?! :-)

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Other news just in...

I've added an 'Other Second Life news' section to this blog (see the bottom end of the right-hand panel). This is somewhat experimental and might get removed again. I've done it by aggregating about 20 other SL-related feeds using Blastfeed (one of which is a Yahoo Pipe to select the SL-related postings in the eFoundations blog), then embedding the resulting RSS feed here using the standard Blogger 'layout' tool.

Blogger limits the number of posts it shows to the 5 most recent - which, given the rate of traffic on the aggregated feed, may well be too few. We'll see. I'd be interested in feedback on this feature.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

BBC news keyword installation in the Avon Gallery

This has been around for a while but I haven't got round to mentioning it...

I put together a little SLashup exhibit in the Avon Gallery on Eduserv Island a while back. The piece consists of about 100 random colored balls, each of which carries a word taken from the BBC 'world news' RSS feed.

Each ball updates itself after a short random period, changing both color and word.

The words are selected via a server-side Perl script that grabs the BBC news feed, parses it into individual words, removes stop-words, then chooses a word at random. The feed is cached to reduce load on the BBC site - without this the script is quickly treated as a misbehaving robot and blocked by the BBC Web site.

Get it while it's hot!

Shale makes a good point about the UK "snapshot" of HE and FE activity in Second Life that I announced to the SLED list yesterday...
I recommend you read it now, because by next week it will be out of date.
Quite... get a move on!


...everybody needs good neighbours ...nah de nah de nah de nah, nah. Oops, sorry. Can't stand the show myself!

You may recall that I've had 'problems' with neighbors before. Well, I obviously don't learn very fast.

When I first purchased Eduserv Island I ummed and ahhed for a while about where to put it... on its own somewhere out at sea, or co-located with the 'InfoIsland' archipelago. I chose the latter, admittedly against the advice of some, who suggested that being on our own would leave more options open for expansion, etc.

So... for a while we were on our own, clear sea between us and the next nearest island within the 'info' group. Now that has changed :-(. Recent re-organisations mean that we have a couple of islands right next to us, one of which is Imagination Island. Nothing personal... but it's a bit like a fairground. Not that I have anything against fairgrounds you understand, but normally they only stick around for a week or so before moving on. I could live with that. I used to love the open, uncluttered views that we had.

I've raised a ticket with Linden Lab to see if there is some way of moving our island to clear water. I'm happy to pay. Not heard back yet but I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

LL Brighton

I note that Linden Lab are recruiting in Brighton and having a party next Thursday for people that are interested (via Babbage Linden).

Note: I have no particular reason for promoting this other than it seems to me that a growing LL office in Brighton is generally good news for Second Life residents based in the UK and Europe.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Watch the World(s)

Watch the World(s) is a great example of the kind of machinima that can be created using the SL client and a bunch of artistic skill. I wish I had the patience and skill to do this kind of thing.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

SLashup Space registration system

The SLashup Space on Eduserv Island is a semi-public sandbox where people can experiment with building SLashups - Second Life mashups. The space is divided into 45 10m square areas.

To manage access to these areas I've built a simple registration system. Each square has a black cube in it. Clicking on the cube either:
  • gives you the option to reserve the square for your own use, or
  • tells you who has already got it reserved.
The system uses a combination of an LSL script running in the in-world cubes and several Perl scripts running on to manage the back-end database. The system uses the object identifier of each cube as a unique key into the back-end database. A minimal set of information is gathered for each used square - avatar name, organisation, email address and description of the activity being carried out in the area.

As an experiment to prevent spamming (yes, I know this wasn't really needed but I wanted to try it anyway), each cube generates a one-time key (a random number) which is sent directly to the back-end database before being encoded into the URL to which the end-user is sent to fill-in or update their details. This makes it pretty much impossible to guess the URLs needed to update the information about each square.

There's one minor hitch, which is that building rights in the SLashup Space are limited to avatars in the 'Eduserv SLashers' group. There's no automated way of adding someone to a group (as far as I can tell). Instead, the scripted cube sends me an IM each time a new avatar reserves a square - reminding me that I need to add them to the group.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Innovative meeting spaces

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've had some failed attempts at using scripted objects to try and chair meetings in SL.

It was interesting therefore to come across a story by Erica Naone in MIT's Technology Review - Unreal Meetings - about MIT researcher Drew Harry's attempts to build highly innovative meeting spaces in SL.

There's some neat ideas here. I don't know how well they will work in practice but it's great to see someone trying to do something really different and unusual with the SL environment.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Baking shadows with semi-transparent overlays

One of the things that sets the visually stunning parts of Second Life apart from the plain ordinary is the use of baked shadows - hardwiring light and shade into the textures under and around objects. A great example of this were the rooms created by AngryBeth Shortbread for the Brian Eno exhibition last weekend.

On Eduserv Island, I use a small set of fairly uniform textures that I've bought in-world. This makes it pretty much impossible for me to modify them in order to bake on my own shadows. So I thought I'd experiment with layering thin semi-transparent prims over the existing textures in order to add baked shadows without needing to start creating my own full set of textures from scratch..

I used the needle outside the Virtual Congress Centre for my first experiment. Here's how it looked before I started...

I created a couple of graded semi-transparent textures, running from about 60% opaque to completely transparent - one a linear gradient and the other radiating from the centre. Then I applied these to the surface of a couple of prims at the base area of the needle - one laid just above ground level and then other showing slightly proud above the surface of the needle.

Here's how the result looks. Not stunning, but not bad either - certainly more visually interesting than the original.

I tried a similar experiment on the ground under ArtsPlace - a building which floats about half a meter above the surface of Eduserv Island. Because ArtsPlace is about 30m by 20m, this required laying several semi-transparent prims next to one another. The result is OK, but not totally brilliant - particularly at the corners of the building where, for some reason, you can see slight joins between the semi-transparent textures. I'm guessing that this is because I haven't got my gradients quite the same on the different textures.

Here's what it looks like. If you look closely, you can just see the joins :-(

Oh well, back to the drawing board!

Saturday, 7 July 2007

A virtual egg-timer - not!

I noticed Jeff Barr playing with large numbers of physical prims and it made me wonder about the possibility of building a virtual egg-timer - a clear rounded-end tubular object with a narrow section in the middle filled with small physical spheres.

I started by knocking together the tubular container. Fairly straight-forward. Then I filled it full of small physical spheres. Then I made a mistake - I moved the outer egg-timer case without first making it physical itself. This left all the little balls in mid air. They immediately fell to the ground making a bit of a mess.

I scooped them back into the container, made it physical and then dropped it. Again a mistake but this time for a different reason. The in-world physics engine went a bit loopy - with balls jumping all over the place. Somehow a lot of them escaped from the container - I guess I must have left a gap - and left me with an even bigger mess to clean up. At that point I gave up.

To be honest... I don't even know why I started!

Attack of the 50 foot avatar

We're thinking about having a new bathroom at home (I'm talking about RL here!).

I wondered about building a virtual replica of our bathroom in SL so that we could experience what different layouts might look like. As it happens, this was a pretty pointless exercise from the outset since our bathroom is so small that there aren't actually many options in terms of layout, but I thought it would be fun to try anyway.

So I measured up the bathroom and began building a replica of it inside SL.

Now... hang on a minute... I know I said the bathroom is small - but it ain't that small. Blimey, I couldn't even fit thru the doorway! I double-checked all my measurements. Yup, they looked OK.

So what was the problem?? Well basically, I'd set my avatar height to 90 (using 'edit appearance') when I'd first joined SL, which as it turns out makes me a fairly enormous 7 feet tall!

OK, so I'd created a giant in SL without realising it. I set my height down to 50, and things felt better (in terms of fitting into my replica bathroom), though still somewhat out of proportion. However, when I went along to Secondfest last weekend and mingled with other avatars I felt like a miniature poodle! I felt very short compared to most other avatars there.

Here's a chart mapping the avatar height setting to height in both centimeters and feet and inches (for us 'old money' types) as far as I can tell:

100 = 225cm = 7'4"
50 = 200cm = 6'7"
0 = 175cm = 5'9"

So to set my avatar to something like my RL height (5'10") I need to set my SL height to about 5. But my guess is that doing so will make me one of the smallest human-looking avatars in SL??

So why am I telling you all this? Well, various people have suggested using SL to model real-world architectural projects such as the designs for new schools and so on. Similarly, we are funding a project called SLEUTH to build SL replicas of historical theatres.

It seems to me that the unrealistic default avatar heights in SL are problematic in this context. Either everyone needs to set their avatar height very low (which ain't going to happen) or replica buildings need to be scaled up by about 10%?

Is this other people's experience?

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Leeds School of Contemporary Art and Graphic Design end of year shows

Kisa Naumova has sent an announcement to the SLED list "invit[ing] yous all to the in-world versions of the end of year shows for our three undergraduate courses".

The SLurl is

Interesting looking stuff... though I'm not totally convinced by the complex nature of the building housing the work.

There's a neighboring sim with a lot of interesting looking art-related experiments in a more open and accessible environment (not dissimilar in layout to the SLashup space on Eduserv Island).

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Big red button

There are a couple of big red buttons on Eduserv Island, which are there so that people visiting the island can attract our attention when we are not in-world.

The buttons work, in the sense that an email is sent to us every time someone presses the button.

The buttons don't work, in the sense that we often don't respond. I apologise for that.

Part of the problem is that I have to shut down MS-Office before running the SL client, then wait for SL to start, then find my way to the right place on Eduserv Island. 9 times out of 10 I'm too late and have missed whoever it was pressing the button. I usually end up sending them some kind of lame IM apology :-(. Lately I've given up even doing that much.

My plan is to replace the big red buttons with TwitterBots - in-world devices that will twitter direct to us, allowing us to converse with visitors to the island even when we are not in-world - a kind of SL/RL intercom.

Of course, I/we reserve the right to ignore you via twitter as well! :-)

Monday, 2 July 2007

Exploiting the social - Secondfest and education

One of the reasons I attended Secondfest this weekend was to see if it told us anything about using SL in education.

Let's ignore the scalability thing for a moment. We know that SL doesn't work well for big events (i.e. for large numbers of avatars)... but we also know that this will change over time. In a sense, SL hints at what might be possible, but we are waiting for the technology to catch up before we can properly realise it.

So, what else...

Well, a couple of thoughts have struck me since attending... firstly, there's the art reflecting life issue. Tents looked like tents, stages looked like stages, mud looked like mud... it was very nicely done, but there's no reason why it had to look like that other than because it makes people feel comfortable in their new environment. We see the same happening as people build educational spaces in SL. (Hey, I do it myself - my virtual wellies look, as near as I can make 'em, like RL wellies).

Secondly, ignoring the technical issues, the streaming of live bands (I dunno if they were actually live of course) felt somewhat flat. A RL gig is interactive, in the sense that the band engages with the audience in some way - this didn't happen (for me) at Secondfest. Somehow, some level of engagement needs to be achieved for this kind of environment to work well. The set needs to be modified in some way based on feedback from the audience. Exactly the same is true when a RL educational talk (a lecture or presentation) is streamed in-world - there needs to be some engagement mechanism between audience and presenter for it to really work well.

A couple of times I heard attendees say things like, "Why are we doing this in SL... it has no advantages over X technology?". Exactly the same questions get asked in educational events. At the symposium follow-up meeting someone asked a question along the lines of "who is simply looking at the chat log, and if so, why are we bothering to chat in SL?". The answer, it seems to me, is hard to spell out - but there is a reason why SL works better than plain chat. For me at least.

Finally, Secondfest didn't really exploit the social aspects of the online environment - there wasn't much that Secondfest did that couldn't have been done at a RL festival. Imagine for a moment what a LastFM tent would be like at a virtual festival, somehow (I don't quite know how) exploiting the collective tastes of those inside the tent. Imagine a DJ who had immediate access to information about the likes of the audience (I mean, apart from the kind of "This is shite" comment in the chat log!)? I don't quite know how this would work - but I think that there are interesting possibilities in this area.

I suspect that the same is true of education. To work well, education in SL has to exploit the social networking aspects of our online environment - probably using tools both in-world and out-world.

Can you hear the music?

When you hear the music ringin' in my ear
Can you hear the music? Oh, yeah
Can you hear the drummer? Gets you in the groove
Can you hear the guitar? Make you wanna move? Yeah
a lyric written by the Rolling Stones, circa 1972 - but one that could have been taken pretty much verbatim from the chat logs at this weekend's SecondFest virtual festival in Second Life.

Don't get me wrong... I really enjoyed the time I spent at Secondfest this weekend and I salute the sponsors (the Guardian and Intel), builders and organisers for their achievement in putting together a well constructed, well organised and well attended event. It was fun.

But it pushed the technology to and beyond the limits of what is possible right now. 9 times out of 10 I couldn't see the video or hear the audio track when I went in... and I wasn't alone. "Can anyone hear anything?", "Press play on the video tab", "Tried that, still nothing :-(", "Try unchecking the streaming options, then check them again" was a typical kind of exchange between festival goers - or so it seemed to me.

I'm more used to shouts of "where's Wally"! :-)

Lagginess was also a bit of a problem, particularly late on Sunday night. I spent the start of the Pet Shop Boys headline set (at least I assume that's what it was - I wasn't close enough to hear) crawling at break-nothing speed towards the stage from about 500m out. In the end I gave up - PSB don't exactly do it for me anyway.

But, as I say, it was good fun. Does it matter that there were audio problems? For me, no it doesn't. I attended mainly to see what the experience was like... oh, and to give away virtual welly boots in a vain attempt to promote my failing shoe business! :-)

On the positive side, I thought the event was well organised, I loved the banal banter around the stages and tents, and the build and feel of the site was excellent.

Come back to an equivalent event next year and the year after. Watch how the technology evolves. Yes there were significant problems this year in terms of the streaming and lagginess. But that will undoubtedly get better.

We've seen a new way of doing things... but I don't think that Michael Evis has too much to worry about just yet!