Virtual conferences in Second Life explored at Buffalo State College

[From the Buffalo News]


Bringing a world of avatars to Buff State

Second Life thrives with virtual reality

by Stephen T. Watson
Published: March 05, 2010

For World Creativity and Innovation Day last year, Buffalo State College hosted a forum that drew attendees from as far away as Switzerland and Alabama.

A video shows participants sitting in rows, listening to a speaker who stands behind a podium as he gives a PowerPoint presentation.

It looks like any other academic conference, except that it took place entirely online … in the virtual world of Second Life.

Guests participated via alter-ego avatars, asking questions and mingling with attendees.

“After a few minutes of interacting, you forget that you’re behind a computer,” said Diego Uribe, a research resident in creative studies at the college.

Buffalo State faculty members say that holding a conference in a virtual world is a hassle-free way to connect people from around the globe, with no airplanes, hotels or rental cars required.

Participants feel immersed in the program, they added, and companies such as IBM are holding meetings in virtual worlds while saving money on their travel budgets.

“To a degree, you get a sense that you’re really interacting with someone, because you can see a body, an avatar,” said Mike Ackerbauer, a manager for virtual space events with IBM.

Buffalo State researchers are encouraging businesses to venture into the virtual world, and the college has an “island” in Second Life where library staff members, fashion technology students and others have set up camp.

One faculty member, in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, is trying to refine communication in the virtual world, where participants can’t read nonverbal cues.

“We depend a lot on social intelligence,” said John F. Cabra, an assistant professor of creative studies at Buffalo State. “If you don’t have access to that feedback, you really are flying blind.”

A lot of companies and institutions have a presence in Second Life or other virtual worlds, where participants pick an avatar to represent them as they live, work, shop, date and dine.

More than 200 colleges and universities have campuses in Second Life, said Elaine M. Polvinen, a professor and coordinator of Buffalo State’s fashion textile technology program.

But a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article noted that many are having second thoughts because of their lack of control over the Second Life platform and other issues.

In 2007, faculty members created Buffalo State Island, a small waterfront campus with buildings inspired by Rockwell Hall, the E.H. Butler Library and the H.H. Richardson towers.

Dennis J. Reed Jr., the library webmaster, gives a tour of the island in a YouTube video.

The wide-open campus, where parking and wind chills are never a problem, will become a place “where every human being can fulfill his or her dreams,” Reed says in the video.

Cabra and Uribe say that in the virtual forum, people behave themselves better than with e-mail or Skype.

Attendees can see a virtual meeting from a bird’s-eye view, from their avatar’s view or from other perspectives. “That’s one of the ways a virtual world is superior to real life,” Uribe said.

At a virtual panel discussion moderated by Uribe and Cabra, an avatar stretched and yawned. “The speaker said, “Am I boring you?’‚” Uribe said.

“And apologies were exchanged all around,” Cabra added.

The college’s fashion textile technology program has used Second Life to hold virtual fashion shows and to provide an outlet for its students to market a design before they have to spend money producing a sample.

Students can sell virtual fashion designs through Second Life, in virtual stores they’ve designed, Polvinen said. One student, Melissa Marchand, made $400 during an internship selling her dress designs in Second Life. “The kids learn to think and work in a 3-D environment,” Polvinen said.

IBM holds these meetings in virtual worlds where access can be restricted to company employees, Ackerbauer said.

About 10,000 people globally within IBM are registered to use one of several virtual platforms, he said.

“There’s always growing pains in adopting new technology,” said Ackerbauer, who earned a master’s degree in creative studies from Buffalo State and has consulted with Cabra and Uribe. “You win their hearts and minds one avatar at a time.”

The Buffalo State researchers and others have found that virtual meetings work best among people who have met previously in the offline world.

One interesting note is that people feel more free in Second Life to dress in a way that expresses their personality.

Uribe’s avatar is Gandalf, from “The Lord of the Rings.”

The keynote speaker from Switzerland who attended the World Creativity and Innovation Day conference used Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean” as his avatar.

“I happen to put more hair on my avatar,” Cabra said.

The Buffalo State creativity folks want to make virtual communication more efficient.

Uribe is working with researchers at Tufts University near Boston to explore uses of virtual sticky notes that can be written on, moved around and saved much more easily than the real-world version, preserving what’s discussed in Second Life brainstorming sessions.

And Cabra is partnering with a researcher at Carnegie Mellon on software that tries to determine the mood of a person based on facial expression.

Virtual reality can’t replace an in-person meeting, nor is it intended to.

“This technology,” Uribe said, “is not meant to substitute; it’s meant to augment.”

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