Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Two New Google Apps Worth Checking Out

I told the science and English/history teachers I work with about these two new apps from GoogleLabs. Now I imagine they are spending their vacations browsing the human body and published word usage history, respectively. The first is the Google Body Browser. Think Google Earth for the human body. Truly amazing! For it to work you have to download the beta version of Google Chrome. The other is Google Ngram Viewer. This lets you enter a word or collection of words and search the entirety of what Google Books has scanned and made public to give you a graph showing their occurrences over time. If you enter more than one word the graphs are shown together so you can compare. It's an amazing tool for English, history, and even math. Really any discipline if you want to see how certain domain-specific terms have changed in importance over time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How do kids visualize science?

 My 7th grade students are building models of microscopic things they are studying in science class in our sim. The science teachers said they briefly cover many topics and don't have time to explore cell division, elements, compounds, photosynthesis, and nucleic acids in depth. So I thought it would be helpful for the students to make 3D models of these things to have a more vivid mental model of them when they come back to studying them more in depth later on.
 All I did is show them how to build. They had to find images and build 3D models that made sense to them since I'm no science teacher. Now what surprised me is that some of them reproduced 2D representations in this 3D environment. I assumed they would be able to imagine a 3D version of the pictures they were looking at but in many cases they couldn't take that leap.
 So it seems to represent a developmental snapshot of sorts in terms of their ability or lack of ability to visualize these abstract things they are learning about. As I told the science teachers, I'm not sure there is anything we should do about this. It could be that as they continue to study these topics they should make new models that reflect their deeper understanding, including what these things look like in 3D space.

Friday, December 03, 2010

To Sim or Not To Sim

I know, silly title. Here’s my main question: Are virtual worlds effective environments for the presentation of dramatic arts? Maybe some genres are more appropriate than others?
The reason I’m asking is I presented a short video of two students' inworld performance of a scene from Approaching Zanzibar. Here's the vid. Part of the dialog is about fears the characters have about visiting an aunt who is sick with cancer. To my horror the whole auditorium of 4-8 graders reacted with laughter during some of the most sobering and serious lines. I’m sure this was in part a way to relieve anxiety about a heavy subject. But I also believe it had to do with the content being delivered by awkward-looking cartoony figures. This leads me to think we really shouldn’t be trying to present serious dramatic material in this format. Kids this age have never even seen anything like this. Their closest point of reference is probably video games. If a performance with any emotional gravity comes across as goofy, funny, or unconvincing this might be the wrong medium for those kinds of dramatic experiences.
On the other hand there are dramatic genres that seem like they would lend themselves well to the fantastical possibilities of virtual environments. I would have liked to show the Alice in Wonderland scene but the FreeSWITCH service that's been so dependable kept dropping Alice’s voice during their performance for some inexplicable reason.

The Peter Pan scene might have been good, too, with Peter flying onstage and having trouble getting his shadow to attach properly. But I was kind of smitten with the local light effect and wanted the kids to see it. It's like that with virtual worlds. The magic of it is hard to explain to people. They have to see it for themselves, have the experience.

So what kind of dramatic performances are VWs good for? Now I'm thinking material that takes advantage of the special capabilities of the platform--the ability to fly, script objects to do unexpected and magical things, the ability to make amazing, gravity-defying costumes, the ability to appear and disappear magically (teleport). In our Aesop's Fable of The Frogs Desiring a King Jupiter was able to throw down a huge log onto the stage out of thin air. That was a surprising, fun experience and in that world it also made sense. It just added to the magic the kids watched unfolding in front of them.
I don't think serious drama should be avoided altogether in VWs. The drama teacher I do this with put it well when he said one of the best things about it for him as a drama teacher is it forces the students to treat dramatic devices--tone of voice, gesture, movement--more consciously since they have to do it from a distance through the narrow parameters of the avatar. They can't fall back on their own default expressions like they can in RL. So I still think it's an effective tool for students to learn more about all genres of dramatic performance. I just don't think all genres in this medium need to have an audience. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cricket Microcomputer Cell Phone

Created by my 9th graders! What I love about this is the experience of cramming all the electronics inside a box. They even routed the IR beamer from the computer to inside the box so it matches up with the transceiver inside. It really feels like an electronic object with the UI on the outside and the complicated stuff on the inside. This is a simple robot as you can't choose the numbers you dial but just hit the same switch and it dials pre-programmed numbers that are displayed on the LED. We aren't working on conditional statements yet. It is their first project after all.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Student Performance in OpenSim

Performed by two 8th grade students. Note my atrocious camera work. But my excuse is we can so much with tech in education; it's just so hard to do it well. What I like about this, though, is the virtual puppetry (what we're calling it) is getting better and this scene uses local lights in an effective way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Virtual Learning is Fun

Many times during my work with students in HewittSim unexpected things happen. Once a student accidentally attached an 8 foot tall mushroom to her spine, becoming a walking fungus. If students click on the wrong surface of a chair they want their avatar to sit on, they can end up sitting sideways with their avatar looking none the wiser.
Usually we are pressed for time and when these mishaps spring up during our short class periods as teachers we have to suppress the urge to tell students to quiet down and focus. They are very funny and you can’t blame kids for being amused by things that are so preposterous in this parallel universe we’ve begun inhabiting for our educational adventures.
So when today’s math class explored our completed Parthenon to measure parts of it looking for examples of The Golden Ratio, we allowed the girls to get off task a bit when they discovered a runaway piece of marble floating at least 100 meters above the building. It was just pure fun to fly up and stand on it with empty space around and below our avatars. It was just as normal in this unusual world to walk right off and fall to the ground intact and continue with the task of measuring. I actually think having a laugh at the crazy things that happen enriches the learning experience they are having because of its novelty.

A Special Place

We just finished our first go-round with the 8th graders' dramatized scenes in our sim. Some videos will come soon, but I wanted to put up some photos of their stages. They spend a few weeks in charge of these stages, setting up and modifying props, learning to navigate their spaces and execute their blocking. And to different degrees, they become works of art themselves. The Alice In Wonderland scene is the most impressive, of course, but others are thoughtfully laid out and harmoniously composed. I like that you come to have a similar experience on a virtual stage as I imagine you do on a real one. The cast rehearses and pushes together towards the final performance, and when the show is done, everything is taken down and the stage becomes empty and bare, waiting for the next dramatic cycle.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Super Cricket IR Distance Sensor

Gleason Research released a new sensor to use with their Super Cricket microcontroller. It's an infrared distance sensor, which got me excited thinking we can start doing with the crickets what my younger students have been doing with NXT robots. When I tested them out I found that rather than outputting the actual distance reading, the sensor sends the microcontroller data similar to that of other cricket sensors--that is, a number from 0 to 255 that is inversely related to the intensity of environmental variable. So as the photocell sensor returns a higher number for lower light levels and a lower number for higher light levels, the distance sensor returns a higher number for close distances and lower for greater distances. You could work out some data points and calibrate the sensor that way for use in a conditional statement, but it would be nicer to have it return an actual distance. With the aid of this website, I was able to figure out a conversion formula that takes the raw data and outputs something close to actual centimeters. I used the formula given on the website but had to divide the result by 2. Its range is about 8 - 50 cm and it's more accurate from 8 - 15, becoming progressively wider than actual centimeters until up around 50 cm it's about 5 cm too wide. There is probably some fiddling I could do with the formula to lessen the slope a bit but for our purposes--making a functional educational robot--it should work well enough.

So here's a test program I put together:

global [distance]
to convert
     setdistance ((2914 / (sensora + 5) - 1) / 2)
to main
     display distance 
     wait 2]
This will display the sensor data, converted to cm, on an LED display.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Exciting Developments with Microsoft Kinect

I'm much more excited about what people are doing with Kinect than what Kinect is made to do out of the box, no matter how Microsoft feels about it. There are some great developments, and so quickly!

And to think after I showed my students a couple early hacks they wondered why you would want to do that...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Action! Our School's First Live Virtual Performance

Our K-12 school was immersed for a week in activities revolving around Sophocles' Antigone with loads of exciting projects across the entire curriculum. But Antigone is not for the little ones, so the drama teacher and I cooked up a virtual performance in the style of Ancient Greek theater that would give the elementary students an idea of what it looked and felt like. The drama teacher had five students in grades 10-12 rehearse an adapted Aesop's Fable, The Frogs Desiring A King, and perform it in our standalone sim. Over the summer, I made a replica of the Theatre of Dionysus and some basic clothing. So the show took place at the foot of the Acropolis, upon which The Parthenon was being built by other students! How cool is that! I had to figure out some fun solutions to theatrical problems, like the giant log, which is rezzed from a button at the top of the stage. The stairs that appear briefly are actually rezzed by the log and help the actors get on the log more easily. Voice chat is provided by FreeSWITCH and the recording was made with Fraps in the Imprudence viewer.

As it happened scheduling conflicts resulted in the students having only three 40 minute classes to go from zero to showtime. They had never set foot in a virtual world, much less get an avatar to act, so I think they did a terrific job considering. And one fell ill so the drama teacher had to step in to play Jupiter. Ah, show biz. The little kids loved the show and I think had an experience of Ancient Greek theater that was in some ways closer to the original than the rest of the school. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Avatar Costume Design Noob

I just finished my most developed avatar costume for a character in our 8th grade drama project. I know it's really elementary and clunky but it works well enough for the audience, which will be medium range back. If anyone has suggestions for ways to make attachments that aren't too time consuming, I'm interested. I know better methods have something to do with 'mesh' but haven't had time to investigate.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Random chatting

Omegle is a website for having text or webcam chats with random people. Though it is simply a website for chatting I have to believe it is a game for reasons I will explain. My 7th grade students just told me about this during a class in which they have been working on making posters about internet safety to put up around our school. The website has as its motto "Talk to Strangers" and the statement "Chats are completely anonymous, although there is nothing to stop you from revealing personal details if you would like," both of which are behaviors my students are fully aware should be avoided. But as they showed me the website they were clearly excited and having a great time trying it out to see what happens. The most important reason I want this to be a game is that it is a medium for kids to do something their parents are always telling them not to do. My first thought was that it makes the concept of strangers meaningless to them by reducing them to harmless sources of funny conversations. After a lot of exposure to this stuff will they start thinking of strangers on the street as random people to play around with, flirt with, have a crazy wacky time with? But if they treat it as a game by just playing with it or seeing how long they can maintain a chat before the stranger leaves or seeing how many strangers they can surprise or whatever goal makes it fun for them, then they are participating in an activity with its own set of rules that is apart from reality and strangers will still be strangers, to be wary and suspicious of, in real life. That is my hope, and theories about games should bear it out. Of course, there are many reasons for them to avoid this type of activity online at this website and the hundreds of others like it, such as chatroulette, even if they do treat it as a game. An informal study on techcrunch found that 1 in 8 video chats on chatroulette had content that was not suitable for children. The same study found that a little hacking can determine the IP address of the chat partner, giving at least a general idea of your physical location.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Collaboration

I tend to assume collaboration with technology is great for education. There are so many excellent tools out now that enable students to build things like stories, presentations, and concept webs together, in the process learning how to listen to each other, communicate effectively, and use the affordances of the tool to reach their goal. Google Docs, Webspiration, Voicethread, and Etherpad (one of its many manifestations is linked below) are all examples of these. I've used a couple of tools recently that highlighted the limits of collaborative environments, however, and the experience helps underscore a couple of good principles to work from when setting up a collaborative learning activity. When I worked with 8/9th graders in building The Parthenon with OpenSim the project went really well until the last session. There were just two specific tasks to accomplish--placing a few more ceiling pieces and lining the rest up better and doing the same with some columns in the chamber of Athena--and students were concentrating on doing them well, knowing that the appearance of the final product was up to them. But they kept running up against the problem of two people moving pieces around at the same time. Interestingly, there is nothing built in to OpenSim to prevent multiple people from editing the same prim. Because they were moving them into place based on their perspective, both were often trying to move them into different positions, undermining each others' efforts. The problem came down to there not really being enough for everyone to do.

Etherpad (great version at typewith.me--35 collaborators and no registration) is another wonderful tool for collaboration that I've been using with great success in my robotics class as a way for pairs of students to document project descriptions, plans, pseudo-code, and program versions that allows me to see who is contributing what. But before I start students using it I open it up as a sandbox activity for everyone to try for a bit and get their desire to play with it out of their system. It always ends up freaking them out a bit, because with a blank page and 18 students trying to type at once no one can get anything done. For this reason, when an English teacher asked if she could have her class use it to collaborate on a sort of fan fiction activity, I cautioned against her just tossing them in there simultaneously to start writing. They would just get in each others' way. I suggested small groups take turns working on it while the rest are doing something else, or somehow starting with a big chunk of text already there so they would be less likely to undermine each others' work.

So the principles I can think of that help manage collaboration with these robust tools are 1) make sure there is enough meaningful work for everyone to do, and 2) provide systems and procedures to ensure no one is duplicating efforts of anyone else.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Writing Across the Curriculum

I was interviewed this week by one of our upper school English teachers for a qualitative study about writing across the curriculum. Our conversation got me thinking about tie-ins between writing and virtual worlds and towards the end of the interview we had some head-spinning brainstorming going on. It occurred to me that virtual world experiences could set the context for some really rich writing activities. We tend to think of very specific learning activities for students to do inworld, building something, performing something, engaging in some interactive environment that is set up for them to get something out of. Why not go there to reflect and write? I started thinking of it like tourism. You go somewhere that is new to you and it can be transformative, bring out new thoughts and feelings. Yet you are the same person, just having new ideas sparked because you are seeing new things. A visit to a virtual world could be a window on that type of experience and facilitate a new perspective for writing. It's just a thought for now, but we'll likely try it out later this year.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Students Build The Parthenon in Opensim

(Can't get the blip.tv embed to work, but here's the link to video.)
 For the last couple weeks I've been working with 8th/9th grade students in their geometry class as they build a life-size replica of The Parthenon atop the Athens Acropolis. It's been a fantastic experience watching students collaborate on such a project. One thing I argued for in planning this project with the math teachers was to give the students part or all of a class to edit their default avatars. They spent the first class making avatars as ugly and as beautiful as they could (this is an all girls school) and I think the investment paid off in their apparent engagement in the project. It's hard learning to use the building tools but they are doing a great job and very proud of it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Opensim Grid

Finally got a "serverless grid" going, just the ticket. Three separate opensim instances running on the same database. This is really the best setup for managing multiple projects in my school, and FreeSWITCH provides voice across all the sims, bounded within each region. One thing I learned the hard way is for the grid to work dependably you must disable the megaregion configuration. In the DivaPreferences.ini file CombineContiguousRegions will be set to true so megaregions can be enabled by default. This causes the separate sim instances to lose sight of each other and you have to keep relogging to get them back. To remedy this add the line CombineContiguousRegions=false in the [Startup] section of MyWorld.ini. So each sim instance has to be one region. With this configuration it is very stable, though. I've got 8 regions going without any problems and lots of users bouncing around among them.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

MAKEzine Kids

I love making things, learning about making things, seeing other people make things, and teaching kids how to make things. So I'm very excited that the MAKE video podcasts have begun featuring kids, and girls only so far,  making things. Cool technical things, like rockets and solar powered robot grasshoppers. The girls take center stage and really are the voice of the podcast, no grown up leading the show and telling them what to do, which is also cool. There are four so far, Crazy Putty, Sidewalk Chalk, Rockets, and the Solar Grasshopper.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Black Box Antidote

UPDATE: How timely that there is a new Make video podcast on how to change a broken iPhone touch screen!

This week I taught a robotics workshop to several Bronx teachers. One of my themes for the workshop was providing their students with an alternate view of technology to the 'black box' model that's becoming more and more prevalent. That is, the idea that technology is given to us consumers ready to use and we shouldn't mess with it if it doesn't do what we want it to, Apple mobile devices being the prime example.

To make this point I showed two videos, the first being an SNL Weekend Update in which Steve Jobs talks about the virtues of the iPhone 3, then closes by admitting the battery only carries 20 minutes of charge (It's a spoof). Then I played a video detailing the steps to change your own iPhone battery. It amazes me that in order to maintain the pristine case you are forced to remove the motherboard to access the battery--the most user-replaceable part there is. It would be so easy to put a little door on the back to pop those failed batteries out, but that would ruin the look and feel of the device.

Not that I dislike Apple products or think people who have iPhones have made a poor choice. They are great for what they do. But I don't want people to think we have to be at the mercy of the company making the technology if it's not working properly or if we want it to do something it wasn't specifically designed to do. (I'm a big fan of MAKE magazine, too, for that reason.)

The best thing about teaching robotics is that it's all about inventing with technology. A robotics kit is simply a tool kit that only begins to do something when you have a purpose in mind and make the robot do it. It's a unique experience for most kids to have such control over technology and hopefully that feeling can extend to technology in general.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

ISTE10 Denver Conference Take-Aways

Without even leaving my desk I had a surprisingly fun and rewarding time at the ISTE conference this year. That's because I focused on virtual world presentations, many of which were presented on ISTE Island in Second Life.

Aside from my crazy virtual bike ride, here are some of my take aways:

  • The mixture of hyper- and multi-media made my head spin. I was forced to upgrade to SL Viewer 2 which I don't particularly like but it did allow for some amazing new options, like HTTP on a prim. The result was experiencing multiple simultaneous realities as presenters stood in the physical Virtual Environments area in Denver talking to a real audience WHILE projecting their avatars in Second Life to that audience WHILE directing their avatars in the Red Rocks presentation stage in SL to an audience of virtual attendees in-world, WHILE the attendees also watched the ustream broadcast of the real life presenter in the physical space on a dynamic HTTP surface behind the presenter's avatar. It gets complicated, right? You can imagine the complications of setting up the audio feeds.
  • There were more than a few tech issues for myself and others, but it was gratifying to see how calm and helpful everyone was. Somehow, the show always went on.
  • JB Hancroft gave an exciting presentation on the possibilities of scripting and media sharing with Viewer 2.0 and in a way what was most interesting was that for a while his examples didn't work and as he grew more apologetic and despondent we kept plugging away at figuring out how to interact with his prims to make his effects visible and finally got it. It was a mixture of JavaScript and lsl that gave you a button on the prim surface you could click to reveal a text message and hide it again. Really amazing. I was so impressed by the breadth of his innovations and the support coming from the audience reminding him it's all a work in progress and really great that he was trying this stuff.
  • I caught enough of Kyle Gomboy's presentation about Reaction Grid to know that I have to set something up there. As much as I enjoy OS Grid I think it's focus on software development and innovation makes it a hard place to set up a dependable educational region. I always crash when I go there for whatever reason. Taking a quick look at some of the regions in RG convinced me that's the place to take students and start working out some collaborative possibilities between schools. Having our standalone in our school has been great and of course we'll continue using it but the ability to share things with a wider audience is an important ultimate goal.
  • Bernajean Porter and Peggy Sheehy: "Get away from museum mode, move into narrative."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mars Simulation for distribution

This is the quick-and-dirty version of this tutorial for creating a 3D simulation of the Mars crater Tharsis Tholus from scratch. Actually it's really long, but this is a big project, at least an hour's worth if all goes well. I'll do something more extensive soon in some form, but I just finished making the distributables (OAR and IAR files) so I wanted to get it out there. No previous OpenSimulator experience is required, but some command line stuff will be necessary and there are many opportunities for getting stuck, which I may or may not be able to help with.
This is a standalone 2x2 sim run on Windows XP SP2 that one would connect with using a client viewer like Second Life that is configured to connect over a wired LAN to the IP address of the computer running the sim. All this is detailed below, but there are many other configurations you could have, so I just wanna make that clear. One thing, for the client computers using the viewer app, you MUST use computers with high end video cards. Desktop PCs will tend to have them, as will all (in my experience) newer Macs, from MacBook Pros to iMacs. If you don't have a good video card, the orange sky effect created in step 26 just won't happen, which almost makes it not worth it in my opinion. The space station is set up for 7 astronauts, or a class of 14 students working in pairs to direct the avatars. The lesson I've implemented is documented here. So let's go!
Permissions: "One or more textures on this 3D model have been created with images from CGTextures.com. These images may not be redistributed by default, please visit www.cgtextures.com for more information."
  1. Choose a host computer for the sim. Preferably a desktop, definitely wired to your LAN. Assign--or have your network administrator assign--a static IP to that computer.
  2. Download .NET framework 3.5. OpenSimulator requires this on a PC to compile and run. Install it (takes a while, requires a restart). If you're running this on Windows 7 skip this step as .NET 3.5 is included in the OS.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cool Tool

Paraphrasing, The most important tool of industrial designers is the factory.
-Masamichi Udagawa of Antenna Design

Thursday, June 03, 2010

OpenSim Virtual Acting/Machinema

8th grade drama project, best on full screen:

Machinema with Students in OpenSim

Our virtual drama project is wrapping up. Towards the end I need to make machinema recordings of the students' rehearsals of their 2- and 3-person scenes that they watch and use to improve their in-world performances and in the final class I make recordings of their performances. It's taken me a year, but I finally have an optimal recipe for making the machinema recordings:

  • Voice: Rehearse with 3rd party voice app and final performance with onboard voice. Teamspeak was the best option for students to rehearse simultaneously in their own groups as it offers spatial voice by virtue of separate channels. For the final performances we drop that and use the FreeSWITCH module because the rest of the students are being audience members and need to hear the actors.
  • Hide the UI: It takes practice and seems to work better on a PC than a Mac, but looks so much better. Elsewhere on this link there are some other great tips, worthy of another year of practice, but this is the most important.
  • Drop the SLViewer, get Imprudence: Hiding the UI in the Second Life Viewer has the unfortunate effect of filling the space around avatars with swirlies, a problem documented here. Linden Labs has let this annoying feature persist despite its being outdated. Imprudence lets the swirlies decay quickly and has a host of other improvements that I've only begun to discover. The beta installers are here, but it's reported that the weekly updates are actually more stable and my experience bears that out, with the beta 1.3.0 beta 4 crashing pretty frequently for no reason I can see.
  • Getting FreeSWITCH voice in Imprudence: Imprudence can't be distributed with the proprietary SLVoice app so you'll have to drop it in yourself. Fortunately, it's an easy fix.
  • Finally, the setup is complete! But wait, you need something to record it. Fraps is the standard on PC.  Fraps is excellent as long as you have a good enough sound card to get the "Stereo Mix" or "What U Hear" settings and don't use a USB headset as there is a little documented but known issue with them. I haven't found anything for Mac that successfully records the voice when using a separate app, like the Teamspeak/Imprudence combo for rehearsals. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nuts and Bolts

My Advanced Robotics students have made a lot of progress this year. They are so proud of what they've accomplished; autonomous NXT critters, a choreographed dance with TETRIX robots, and just now a joystick-controlled mobile robotic arm. TETRIX parts require a lot of tools and these girls were not used to attaching things with screws, nuts, bolts, allen wrenches, and screwdrivers. I noticed something interesting during one of our classes this week. They were completing their construction of the robotic arms when one student said, "No, put the screw on that side and the back on this side." She referred to the kep nut as a "back" again later. I couldn't imagine why she would call a nut a back. It finally occurred to me she was talking about earrings and when I asked her if that's what she was referring to she smiled, knowing it wasn't 'correct' but it worked for them. One thing they've gotten out of their experience this year is a way to relate to making robots from their own perspectives, nuts, bolts, and all.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Virtual Drama Project in OpenSim

The 8th grade drama teacher and I are in the third cycle of our virtual drama project. The last two groups showed inconsistent engagement in the project, which has been surprising considering they get to act with an avatar and design their own stage sets. With the first group I can understand the lower engagement as they had to weather the bumps of the first run--disappearing prims (after a sim crash) finding the optimal hardware, few pre-made prims, and our lack of knowledge of what might provide a good experience. One improvement we've made is facilitating the students' taking ownership of their performance stages. They really don’t have time in a trimester to learn to build their own props but I’m finding that at least encouraging them to modify what I build for them is resulting in much more engagement. The stage for a scene from Alice in Wonderland is becoming truly surreal and the others are really working to make their sets as convincing as they can. One innovation from a couple groups last trimester was for them to find an image for their stage backdrop and they are all doing that now.We are so pressed for time in the few classes we have for each run of the project (about 10) that we’ve been stingy about letting them edit their props and appearances. Unsurprisingly it turns out this is what makes them want to make it good in the end.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Creating Spatial Voice for Opensim Projects With Teamspeak

I'm currently on the third go-round with an 8th grade drama project on our LAN-based sim. As you could imagine the requirements for voice capabilities are pretty specific in a virtual drama project and after trying several options I've finally found the perfect solution--Teamspeak. Teamspeak is easy to set up, allows up to 32 slots on the free version, and uses a cross-platform codec, Speex, so I can have students on Macs and PCs in the same session. Client configuration is easy as well, allowing for settings I pre-configure, like the server IP, to be global, applying to all users, so students don't have to set anything up. All they do is open the client, type their own name in the connect dialog, and since it has the host IP already in the global settings they can ignore that part. I've set up channels for the students to be able to rehearse in groups and not have to hear the other groups, 6 channels in all.

What I tried before is the Opensim's onboard voice module, FreeSWITCH, which is fine but not spatial. That was a deal breaker because students couldn't practice using voice in simultaneous rehearsals. I heard that Vivox was being integrated as a new voice module and is spatial but after looking into that I found that it costs thousands to get a license to host it. Then I tried Ventrilo, often used by World of Warcraft players, and it worked until I got more that 8 students on the server. Only 8 slots unless you rent server hosting! So I ran two Ventrilo servers on two different computers and had to go around connecting students to different IPs, making sure they were with their group partners. Much hassle.

So until Vivox offers an affordable package for use with Opensim Teamspeak will be the best option for this project. Which is a project I should describe in more detail. Will do, soon.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Who's Afraid of Copyright Infringement?

If you saw this on your computer would you think you'd done something wrong? Probably, because most of us have copied something or other without permission. It's pretty scary looking, too. I took this picture of a student's screen after she got this crazy alert. But I wonder how effective this is. Are people really afraid of getting caught illegally downloading music, movies, or TV shows? A small percentage must click the "settle and avoid court proceedings" button; enough for them to make money off the hoax.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Papert's Prediction

From Mindstorms: "My conjecture is that much of what we now see as too 'formal' or 'too mathematical' will be learned just as easily when children grow up in the computer-rich world of the very near future." Not with the iPad.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Reading Papert's "Mindstorms"

I'm finally reading Seymour Papert's Mindstorms from the early 90's. The two main ideas throughout the book are: "It is possible to design computers so that learning to communicate with them can be a natural process," and "Learning to communicate with a computer may change the way other learning takes place." These two ideas have been so ingrained in my thinking since I started teaching with technology I can't wait to see how he talks about them in the book.

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.

Instructional Videos With Storytelling Alice

I had a more successful time using Storytelling Alice with my 7th grade students this year. Last year I constrained the content of the animations to their current biology topic, genetic inheritance. Understandably, this didn't excite them, though a few came up with some good animations. Instead, I decided to let them choose any topic for their animation as long as it was something students learn in our school in Kindergarten through 7th grade with the intention of making the good ones available to teachers to teach with. I thought they would be more invested in their topics if they could choose them and knew that they might be used in the future. Here below is one of the best examples:

Some observations:
  • I required them to use at least two scenes and they did for the most part. One interesting thing is some of them simply scripted only one scene, fading the camera to black and back up in the middle of it to transition to the second scene, avoiding the somewhat confusing process of creating a new scene and that business of moving the camera tripod.
  • Many of them manipulated the camera angles a lot more, such as following a character, resulting in much more dynamic animations.
  • Looking at them as pedagogical resources, many of them ended up looking more like lectures rather than showing their topic with some kind of illustrative narrative. The above example follows the latter approach, but many of them simply depicted a teacher in a classroom talking to the students about the topic! I think this is a result of the dominant paradigm in my school. Students are so familiar with the lecture format so that's how they imagine their animation being used.
  • Widening the availability of topics appeared to work well. The topics they chose ranged from teaching math strategies and topics to history topics to French vocabulary to social development, which they learn about in their "life skills" class. This last topic was quite popular, as it allowed them to focus on issues of friendship, social status, and bullying.
  • Students this year discovered a couple new things about Alice. One is the ability to drag methods and drop them onto characters even in "adding objects" mode to move them around, which surprised me. They also became very interested in recording their own audio to make the characters speak and matching the audio with the say content using do together. In some cases this resulted in file sizes above 10 MB that became hard to save to network folders and I had to make them keep their audio clips really short.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Scalable Shapes

I'm just about done scripting the first interactive models for our ScienceSim parcel; a cube and sphere that can be scaled up or down, giving their new sizes and volumes when touched. The info is given by llSay so it appears in the lower left. The sphere volume is the only part not working yet. While the formula is indeed correct, the script calculates it differently than when I do it myself. So I've got something wrong in my order of operations or something.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Messaging Prims in OpenSim (lsl)

I just had a big realization about how to make a lot possible in scripting prims with LSL in OpenSimulator. A great way to get prims to play off of each other is to have them send messages to each other on specific channels. This capability makes OpenSimulator and Second Life pretty special environments for network simulations, but that's another topic. What I have done so far with this is make a button that opens and closes curtains on a stage, and clothes that pack themselves when touched. In the first example, you can see the two scripts, the button on the left (the red button itself behind its script), and one of the curtains on the right. Both curtains can listen for the button's message and more than one button can be placed around the stage for easy access.

For the second example, the clothes message the suitcase, which responds with its position so the clothes know where to move. One piece of clothing is shown on the left and the suitcase is on the right. I thought there would be some way to dynamically update the suitcase's position for the clothes and this is it. It gets a little more complicated because there are three pieces of clothing, requiring three different messages from the clothes and three different reply channels depending on which message is received by the suitcase.

Monday, February 15, 2010

OpenSim Virtual Architecture Flythrough

Crash course on building in OpenSim with nine 10-12 grade students. Here are the results:

Friday, February 05, 2010

ScienceSim Land Grant Program

I'm really excited to be a recipient of a ScienceSim Land Grant. I will be developing a parcel from now until June with interactive educational content, with the assistance of science and math teachers and a few students. One student in particular is very interested in architecture and wants to design and build our welcome/info center. The content we have in mind so far range from scalable two- and three-dimensional objects that will assist in students' understanding of area and volume, representations of mathematical formulas, such as distance = rate x time, and molecular models.

Vocaroo, a nice little audio service

Vocaroo looks like a great little service. It seems to do just what you would want with your voice recording-link to it, embed it, or download it. And there's no sign-up and account hassle. You just use it. And it looks simple.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Rotating Sculptures in OpenSim

I've been playing around with overlapping rotating volumes in OpenSim. They make nice sculptures but could also make for nice visualizations of concepts in Calculus. Some math teachers got excited when they saw them.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Virtual Architecture Course in OpenSim

I've been teaching a week-long class on virtual architecture with nine 10-12th grade girls at my school using one region of our school sandbox 4x4 megaregion. It's been one of the most enjoyable teaching experiences I've had. They've taken to the project of building homes on the mountainous terrain I've provided with so much care and attention, placing some furniture I provided just so, and yet they clearly delight in the ability to defy gravity by building in mid-air or jutting over a sheer cliff. There's a general thing for circular houses, one of the most impractical shapes you could have in real life. One student made a diving board off her 20-meter-high pool only to find that she landed on the ground when she walked her avatar off it. So she moved the diving board to the other side of the pool and happily flailed her way down to the water. They've been having fun visiting each others' houses and pushing each other around when they feel too cramped in houses they wish they had made bigger. One student has been working very hard on a more thoughtfully planned spacious house and it turns out she is interested in studying architecture in college. I mentioned that the architecture departments of many colleges have land for their students to work with in Second Life. I had to tell her to stick to campuses, though, with the wild west atmosphere of so much of "mature" SL.

Possibly the most exciting event was the sim crashing. At one point everyone reported losing control of their avatars. I logged in to the server to see a big alert and lots of red errors on the console. They all logged out and as I restarted one student mentioned a warning message she had gotten when linking the prims in her house that the limit for linked objects was 255. She had the craziest staircase with dozens of irregularly placed steps that turn out to be really easy for avatars to ascend and descend. So she crashed the sim trying to link them all with her house. Once it was back up they logged in to find that half of their work was gone. They were so upset and old enough to laugh at how upset they were. Fortunately I had seen this before and knew that the sim probably needed a second restart after crashing to put things back in order, which turned out to be the case.

Virtual building is an amazing creative medium for teaching. The students learned the tools fairly quickly and in just a few classes have applied them to developing such unique visions for their spaces. I'm interested to see how they want to wrap up the class. I'll leave them the option of working on their creations when they have time after this week but this will end our collaborative effort. I plan on trying to corral their avatars in one place long enough to snap a photo at least.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Computers and Hard Work

This week I'm teaching three special courses for our Winterim session: Virtual Architecture with OpenSim, Mix Your Own Tunes with Audacity, and 3D Storytelling with Storytelling Alice. I'm having a great time. I love putting building tools in kids' hands and watching what they will do with them. The students range in age from 9-18 in three separate age groups and I've noticed a common reaction to the content of all of the classes. On the first day, once I'd finished my intro to each program and the goals of the course, students started working and very soon became whiny and frustrated. Across the board, they were confused by the unfamiliar interface of each program as well as the workflow required to complete different tasks. Once they realized what making a song out of audio clips, scripting a story, or building a house piece by piece was going to involve, they pushed back and wanted it to be easier.

My response was to say that we had four more days (1.25 hr classes each) to work with this and that they would get used to it once they decided what they wanted to do. Basically, each class is just a lot of time to work! Since then they have complained--mostly to their computers--but it's hard to get them to stop when it's time. They have settled into a rhythm and are focused on making their musical, animation, or building ideas work. Almost without exception I haven't had to tell any students to get to work. One student confessed that she is still completely lost in Storytelling Alice and will need more guidance. And another student finished one audio mix and exported her MP3, saying, "There's no way I can start another one right now." I know how she felt. You finish a big project that's required a lot of focus and the last thing you want to do upon finishing it is jump back into a new project.

When students complain about work on the computer being hard it's often a knee-jerk reaction to having to think and focus with something that in most other contexts is used for entertainment. But they will stick with it through all the complaining if they feel that what they are doing is meaningful.