The Evolution of Virtual Worlds

La Monica Everett-Haynes
April 5, 2013

In a parallel world to Second Life, people all over the globe are taking part in what is termed OpenSimulator, an open source project that provides individuals with the capabilities to introduce virtual communities at little or no cost.

Comparable open source movements have arrived in the world of publishing, healthcare, software development, digital communications and education, among other disciplines and domains

For students and educators, open source virtual movements enable access to different and new information and communities in ways not before seen, said Bryan Carter, an associate professor of Africana studies, who is part of a soon-to-launch OpenSimulator community.

"Students using these technologies in the classroom engage in activities that are similar to that which some of them do for entertainment, yet we are focusing the use of such tools on education and entertainment while learning," Carter said. "Students gain experience that they may one day incorporate into their professions, personal lives and perhaps even with new forms of research of their own design."

On topics related to virtual communities, Carter is presenting a lecture, "Virtual Harlem," April 10, 5:30-7 p.m. at the Playground Bar and Lounge, 278 E Congress St. The event, which is free and open to the public, also marks the grand opening of the Virtual Harlem/Montmartre project.

The event is part of the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry's lecture series. Individuals can follow the event on April 10 online. Visitors should click "Login," create an account, then click "Get Started" to add the Apollo Client, then login.

In advance of the event, Carter took a moment to answer some of our questions about the soon-to-launch project and the link between education and virtual environments.

Q: What is happening with the OpenSimulator movement, and why is it important for educators such as yourself?

Carter: The OpenSim movement is a direct response to the policies and pricing of Second Life by Linden Lab. The policies included restrictions of assets, the adult community not being conducive to education and the pricing essentially doubling after they did away with nonprofit and education discounts. Open Sim also allows individual organizations to run a virtual world independent any community if they wish.

Q: How are virtual worlds different than other Wed-mediated environments?

Carter: Virtual Worlds are entirely different than other mediated environments, like chat rooms which are all textual, or video games, which are scripted. Virtual worlds are visual, engaging and impromptu, allowing similar activities that happen in the real world to occur. This is different than recording something and placing it on YouTube because virtual worlds are meant to be experienced live and not archived. Demonstrating this is an important part of the experience to expand the reality of those in attendance with reality being both physical and virtual. So, the live component demonstrates that one can communicate, collaborate and attend events in a virtual setting regardless of the physical location of participants.

Q: How do OpenSim community members engage through literature, the arts, music and performance? How do you engage your students in these communities?

Carter: Those engaging one another in virtual worlds do so in a variety of ways – teaching literature for instance allows students to experience a work of literature, or at least experience the context in which that work was created, in order to, perhaps, better understand the work itself. Performance, role play and production are all quite possible in virtual worlds. I use all of these in my classes. Also, connecting individuals from around the world is important and expands the worldview of my students. It offers them the opportunity to connect with diverse communities and learn about cultures that may not be within their physical reach, and also exposes them to new forms of learning and places where that learning can take place.

Q: What predictions do you have for the future integration of virtual technologies and how they can be even more beneficial to educators, students and others?

Carter: I predict that virtual worlds will become more popular when the graphics become more photorealistic. This will come with increases in bandwidth, graphic capabilities of our various devices and computing power. I also predict that augmented reality will become an integral part of education as Google glasses and other such wearable computing devices become more ubiquitous. I can't wait to get these integrated into my classes so that new questions and research avenues can be explored that are not possible now.

Bryan Carter, a UA assistant professor of Africana studies, specializes in African American literature of the 20th century, with a primary focus on the Harlem Renaissance and a secondary emphasis on digital culture. He has published numerous articles on his doctoral project, Virtual Harlem. In addition to consistently incorporating technology in his teachings, Carter's research focuses on advanced visualization and how sustained and varied digital communication affects student retention and engagement in literature courses taught both online and face-to-face.


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