Thursday, March 25, 2010

OpenSim Mars Simulation


I just finished a fantastic series of classes taking three groups of 5th graders on a virtual Mars field trip. First we looked together at the surface of Mars using the Mars edition of Google Earth. We zoomed in to a particular crater named Tharsis Tholus. Then the students logged in to a Mars Tharsis Tholus 3D simulation I created with OpenSim (standalone, Diva Distro v.0.6.8, 2x2 subset of 4x4 megaregion). Pairs of students manipulated an astronaut avatar. Their mission, as you can see in the video, is to don their helmet and backpack in the space station, venture out into the crater, find and collect meteorite samples, and bring them back to the space station for analysis. (This was all possible because of the work of Drew Crow of BlueSkySchool blog, who figured out how to use NASA MOLA terrain data to make the terrain files for OpenSim. He sent me the terrain files as well as xml files for the Windlight settings so the sky and water would look more like Mars.)

I embellished Drew's efforts by creating a space station, avatar astronaut clothing, and helmet and backpack prim attachments. I also changed the gravity settings in OpenSim.ini to z=-3.8 so they would bounce really high when they went over bumps in the terrain. That was cool. The students logged in using accounts I created and had pre-configured to be located in the space station. I made a tutorial on paper they used to log in, move around, and attach their helmets and backpacks properly, and copy and rez their meteorite samples. They needed to work in pairs to manage all the details of the experience.

And what an experience! The students were awestruck at what they were seeing and doing. I was impressed these kids were able to do this, given that they have never used this type of interface before. It really helped to provide them with the preparation and scaffolding. In our wrap up talk at the end of each class they talked about how they really felt like astronauts and found it interesting figuring out how to coordinate staying together, which I emphasized as a big challenge of the simulation (I mean, who wants to get lost on Mars...).

Some thoughts for next time:
  • Despite the tutorial, they did need quite a bit of support. I had to help them detach and reattach helmets that go stuck onto hands and torsos, keep them from flying (extremely fun when they realized how, but not part of the simulation--who could blame them?), and help those who wandered off use the mini-map to find their way.
  • One snafu was that in one class two groups got confused about which account they were supposed to use and kept logging in with the same account, resulting in the other group getting kicked out. I didn't figure this out (actually they figured it out) until well into the class, which prevented me from providing the above support to the rest of the class. So that session became a bit of a free-for-all. What I'll do next time is include the specific account info in each tutorial sheet so they won't make that mistake.
  • The most difficult part for these virtual world newbies was attaching prims. I mean, when have they ever seen a pie menu? I think in the future I'll see if there's a way to script helmets and backpacks that attach themselves when touched.
  • We had to use high-end video cards, iMacs and Dell XPS desktops, for the windlight settings to work. This wouldn't look like Mars on, say, laptops, or even the older (~5 yrs) iMacs we have. And of course wired network connections.
  • For the machinema, I found some good tips here, such as hiding the UI. Actually I think Drew sent me this, too.
  • I found it really interesting that in order to stay together some students started using local chat. I hadn't shown them that or intended for them to use it, but it did come in handy, for example, as a way to tell another astronaut they had finished collecting meteorite samples and were ready to go back to the station. One thing it suggests is that at times at least they were feeling more present "in-world" than out since they could have looked a few feet away and just spoken to the students directing that astronaut. One thing that would be really interesting--though it would only work with 1 : 1 students to avis--would be using headsets and voice chat for them to talk as if they had radio communication. On the one hand it would be more immersive. On the downside they would have a harder time following the paper tutorial.

15 comments :

Drew Crow said...

I think to say that you have merely 'embellished' what I provided you with is selling yourself drastically short! You have positively transformed it, and it's so great to see the students getting so enthused by what you have created. Thanks for turning what I gave you into such a worthwhile resource!

Erik N. said...

Okay, Drew, I'll accept that. But it wouldn't have been possible without your help. I've been trying to use USGS DEM files for terrain with very limited success--crappy versions of Hawaii and Denver, etc--and it seems you have a better handle on that.

Diva Canto said...

This is super cool! Probably one of the best uses of OpenSim that I have seen so far.

Stabaho said...

Nice to see opensim being used in new ways. Is your sim available for the public anywhere?

Stefan Andersson said...

I'll second Diva; ├╝bercool use of OpenSim.

Erik N. said...

@Diva, thank you! I've found working with OpenSim so much easier since your release. I'm trying to get other educators to take up this type of project and I think it will happen because of your work.

@Stabaho, I'm planning to put this sim in an OAR and make it available sometime this summer. Currently our school grid is standalone and will probably stay that way unless we do specific collaborations with another school.

justincc said...

Very cool - love the use of real terrain data and the physics tweaks too.

And the out-of-world shots in the video are brilliant - the girls really seem to be enjoying the sim.

rik panganiban said...

and excellent and very helpful summary of your VW education project, thanks!

Mike said...

This blog entry seems to be the one that is getting the attention, but Eric has done some really fantastic work that he details in older entries.

Scott said...

Erik, this is excellent work and your posting it here provides a valuable new resource for those of us who advocate the use of Virtual Environments for learning and teaching. The classroom buzz in particular is an immense "selling point," and it reminds me of how my computer lab looks when my 4th graders are in Quest Atlantis. I hope that you will consider visiting the SIGVE wiki and signing up to share your work either in Denver or from New York (via Skype, OpenSim, or both) during ISTE2010 come the end of June. Just google "SIGVE wiki"--I don't want to paste in the url.

While you're there please join us in SIGVE, be you an ISTE member irl or not.

BTW I also crossposted this with a reference to your blog at Virtualenvironmentvideo.net.

Erik N. said...

@Scott,
Thanks so much for the nice words. How fun would it be to have an in-world segment in the Mars sim during an ISTE workshop?!? I hopped over to your blog and saw that you are longtime friends of Steve Bergen. I see him from time-to-time in local edtech meetings here in NY. He's doing great work there at his new school.

randomhuman said...

Very cool simulation!

Opensim should definitely allow disabling flying and teleporting and stuff if it's at all possible.

Erik N. said...

@randomhuman after poking around recently I realized you can disable flying in your sim in the estate panel.

Sandra Rogers said...

I love your machinima and the whole experiment. Since this post is from 2010, I was wondering if the Sim on a stick is still working and if you use it? Great blog. Thanks for sharing.

Erik N. said...

THank you! I didn't use Sim on a Stick for this but it's definitely alive and well. See http://simonastick.com/ for more info and the latest build.