Bringing the physical into the virtual

Yesterday I went to a lecture in Second Life about Second Life. It sounded very promising: the venue was intriguing and the topic interesting. Rather than going to the physical venue where the talk was to be delivered, I teleported myself to this amazing conference hall in Second Life. Approximately twenty avatars were there, including the speaker’s. Local chat was used to greet SL participants, and to sort out the small technical glitches that one usually encounter at the beginning of such SL seminars with audio and video.

However, things did not work out as expected… The sound was really bad, Instant Messaging stopped working, and in my own case, the local chat soon ceased to function properly. I just could not see what I was typing, and it soon became clear that I was not the only one experiencing this. In addition, not everybody could get their media player working properly and many of us had to stop and start a number of times before we could get something displayed on the virtual screen. Normally, I should have been able to cope with those glitches. In a truly multimodal environment, such as Second Life, you should be able to make sense of what is going on. Graphics, text, images, and the multiple ways of interacting with those around you can help compensate for temporary breakdowns. Furthermore, I often find that avatars are very willing to help each other. But in this case, it was difficult, to say the least! The use of local chat to resolve some technical issues was frowned upon by one of the organisers/facilitators, who expected every avatar to sit quietly and “listen” to a lecture that we could not hear.

The problems were not all technical, though. I would even suggest that the technical problems that most of us were experiencing were the results of the way the event was  planned and designed in the first place. Rather than making good use of the affordances offered by the virtual environment, the physical world was brought into the virtual one with little adaptation. If streaming in SL a talk taking place in a physical location may at first seem a good idea, the experience can certainly be mixed. We had two competing representations of the speaker: his avatar and his “real self” coming to us via the video stream. Whatever the speaker displayed on the projection screen was sent to us by a video camera located in the physical venue and it was impossible to read any text that was displayed; images were distorted and blurred; sound quality was poor and the media player often crashed. And how absurd is it to have a blurred and distorted image of the settings you find yourself in  being sent back to you via a poor video stream? Had the speaker delivered his talk from within the virtual hall, and brought it into the physical world, things could have been very different. Or the talk could have simply been streamed on the web and interaction between virtual and physical participants facilitated by a simple text chat or whatever.

This is not new, however. Whenever new technologies are made available to us, we tend to replicate what we know and what we are used to in our physical world, instead of trying out new things and embracing the technological and social affordances offered to us by these new environments. Educational use of new technologies is a typical example. How many physical classroom settings are being replicated in online environments? I do believe however that these not so great experiences have the potential to unleash innovation and creativity. I may not have got a lot from the lecture itself, but it did help me to better understand the tensions that arise when the new and the old are brought together. And as many activity theorists would argue, true innovation will eventually emerge from such experiences. Still, this implies that we are willing to reflect on and transform our practice. The question is… are we?

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