Over the course of two years, we designed and ran a simulation for the University of Richmond based upon Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” in the virtual world of Second Life. I wanted to enable my classes to change the ending of Poe’s tale, if they could, in a setting that often worked against their best intentions.
With a team of faculty and students, we assembled and tested our creation, running about 30 students in through the simulation in the course of two semesters.
Never Bet the Devil Your Head
Or work with Usher was indeed promising, and students made many suggestions for improving the simulation. We all felt like partners, but then, in the middle of a fiscal year, disaster struck. Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, with no warning and even less professional decorum, did something deeply hurtful to a sector of customers who had once evangelized about their product. When the company ended discounts for educational and nonprofit institutions, many of us, including my employer, decided to leave Second Life. Amid that mad scramble, a great deal of improvisation occurred but the final act was certain: about 200 hours of my and my colleagues work of building would soon be packed away.
This column will discuss what transpired when, after a time remaking the Usher simulation in the OpenSimulator grid run by Jokay Wollongong. I had flocked to her grid because of the low costs and Jokay’s seemingly infinite dedication to educators. With about 50 hours of work, the Jokadia Grid build was finished, a quarter of what it had taken me when I was a far less experienced builder in Second Life. In the Fall of 2011, I ran 15 students through the build with me portraying Roderick, and three colleagues sharing Madeline’s avatar.
Then I got an offer I could not refuse: free land in Second Life again and a chance to bring Usher back to its original home. Through the kindness of Evelyn McElhinney of VWER and her university, Glasgow Caledonian, I had a tier-free parcel and over 4,000 prims to play with.
As much as I mistrust Linden Lab, I couldn’t resist such an opportunity.
There was no way on God’s green earth, however, that I would leave OpenSim: Linden Lab had soured me on putting all eggs in their particular basket. Yet the idea of making a new omelet there was appealing. I decided to bring copy the House, though not the entire region with its spooky island, into Second Life. The world has a large user-base and of all public virtual worlds, Second Life offers the most cheap content, from squeaking rats to combat systems, at a low price. I had much of it already in my inventory.
But how to get a copy of the far superior build I’d done in Jokaydia Grid back to Second Life?
Descent into the Maelstrom
When OpenSim users move regions from one grid to another, they can export the entire region as an OAR backup — the OAR file contains everything on the region from the terrain and the landscaping, to buildings, scripts, and textures. Second Life, however, supports neither OAR exports nor imports.
Without OAR uploads to bring in a region from the OpenSim grid I used, I faced exporting huge sections of the build, then importing them to Second Life. In OpenSimulator, linking distances for prims are greater than in Second Life, and with that in mind, the walls and floors of the House consisted of a half-dozen primsets of perhaps 60 prims. This was a huge improvement over the many hundreds of prims in the first Second Lifebuild. Moreover, in the JokaydiaGrid build, I remade a House of Usher more in line with what students recommended: more confusion, smaller spaces, more gloom.
I assumed that 20 hours would do to rebuild Usher in Second Life again. I was close…but unforeseen issues arose immediately with linked objects big and small.
When I used the Imprudence Viewer to import my first primsets, however, I knew that my work would be tedious. Here is a picture of a chair in Jokaydia Grid and, beside it, the same chair when imported to Second Life. In Second Life I added a backdrop prim to show how much of a mess importing items can cause.
Basically, most of the primsets came through misaligned. Fixing them required editing linked pieces and tweaking until everything duplicated the look of the OpenSim build. I often, at that stage, had both Second Life and Jokaydia Grid open on my struggling laptop, using dual monitors to compare the two virtual spaces.
This also occurred with Creative-Commons objects imported from Vanish’s site, OpenSim Creations. The arched chair here came from that site, and rezzed normally in Jokaydia Grid, where I added some textures and made minor modifications. When exported again and brought into Second Life, however, the chair appeared as shown. Textures were dodgy as well. Some that I had made came into Second Life with imported objects, some did not, and some came in and then vanished. As a result, I decided to pay Linden Lab for the uploads, a minor expense. In any case, most of the Usher textures I already had in inventory; only the new ones for the OpenSim build had to be uploaded.
Here a scripted doorway comes across. I added the Second Life textures and actually copied and pasted the text for the door script from Imprudence over to Firestorm, the viewer I use in Second Life.
To One in Paradise
Some pleasant surprises did occur. I had anticipated that I would not be able to resize any megaprims in Second Life, but I was greatly pleased when I was able to stretch them without their snapping into a 10 meter prim.
Then there is the kindness of designers, who so often enjoy helping educators all for a line of thanks at a Web site or in-world. This occurred with those outside Second Life, such as Alun Bestor, a designer who have us permission to use his cobweb textures. Next there was Morris Mertel, who had long ago given us free fireplaces and other decor after I began to purchase his rats, barrels, and furnishings in bulk for the first Second Life build.
That is the kind of paradise I recalled from my early time in Second Life, before Linden Lab polices began to make so many educators sour and grumpy.
What most pleased me was the ease of fixing the misaligned prims on the big items, though I did give up on items such as the arched chair. Putting the build together took perhaps 25 hours, not imposing any really undue hindrances on my time. Here I am, putting together the prims for the Usher Crypt before I put down the floor and ceiling megaprims.
The Doomed City
Our struggles to move the House of Usher out of Second Life, into another environment, then back again, taught this educator several lessons:
- You are as mad as any Poe character if you lack a Plan B, in case Second Life folds or changes in ways inimical to education.
- Linden Lab badly needs off-world inventory backup for items we create, as a standard feature of their viewer. To not include this provision, for users’ self-created content, makes Second Life unlike any other piece of courseware I have encountered.
- We depend, too heavily, on Imprudence‘s import/export function. If that viewer vanishes, we are out of luck. The Hippo viewer, another old favorite, is long out of date. Further development of Imprudence remains on hold at the time of writing; the developers’ new viewer will provide support for advanced mesh and other good features, but I could not find reference to its import and export features.
- Linked primsets travel poorly from grid to grid. It helps to build with megaprims in OpenSim, for content to be exported back so Second Life. Sculpted prims, such as several tablecloths, came across perfectly but were one-prim items.
- It will be up to educators to work with advocates of public domain content and Creative-Commons licensing. We need to build a marketplace outside Second Life for content to use in our virtual worlds. Neither Linden Lab nor other commercial entities will do this for us.
- The kindness of content creators, both CC and copyrighted, surprised me. Nearly everyone I have contacted enjoyed working with an educational project.
- An educator must consider whether the heavy investment in hours is worthwhile, or, money permitting, whether hiring developers for a particular would work better. That may be particularly apt for an environment such as Jibe or Unity 3D, where many faculty lack the skills with 3D content-creation software.
The Premature Burial
After five years in Second Life, I grow ever less enchanted with its future for education, barring some reversal of several decisions by Linden Lab. I keep thinking about the Rocket eBook, an device my students and I evaluated in 2001. It was clearly ahead of its time, depended heavily on content in the public domain, and was a closed system. We decided that it was a great concept, but premature and without a market for academic or social users.
The Rocket eBook was, however, a harbinger of something called tablet computing.
With that in mind it’s good to retain a toehold in Second Life, if only to support good work by peers and to show what is possible in Second Life and, increasingly, elsewhere at far lower prices when something like the iPad revolution occurs for public virtual worlds.
I am confident that it will, within a decade.
(Column adapted with permission from the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.)