Thankful for Community…. and Cake!

November 26, 2008

On this eve of the US Thanksgiving holiday, there is a lot in the world that’s unsettling, but fortunately the Wonderland team has much to be thankful for. We love our work, we are surrounded by people who are both smart and caring, and we feel the excitement of helping to invent the future. But at the top of our list of things to be thankful for is our community.

We knew from early on that we had the best open source community, but this week has surely confirmed it. Several days ago, Wonderland made it to the top position in the Popular Forums list on

Wonderland most popular forum

In addition, a number of community members who have started exploring the Wonderland 0.5 code base have posted encouraging comments about the new system. After working heads-down for the past few months, we find this feedback highly motivating and we deeply appreciate the time spent to share these kind words.

But I also want to share one act of kindness that has had an impact on not only our team, but on many of our colleagues as well. Just the other day, we received a delivery of cake. Not virtual cake, but real-life delicious, fresh, sweet, cake.

iSocial cakeNo one we’ve talked to at Sun has heard of any other project that has received a thank-you cake from a member of their open source community. The cake story has been spreading around Sun, bringing amazing smiles to people’s faces. The cake story has become an antidote to financial turmoil and unsettling news. It’s a story that reminds us to be thankful for all the great people that surround us every day.

So on behalf of the Wonderland core team, I’d like to say thanks to all of you for helping to make the Wonderland community the world’s best open source community.

 Happy Thanksgiving!

PS. As much as we are grateful to the iSocial team for sending us the cake, if you have the urge to give us a gift, we ask that you create it in Wonderland so that everyone on the team can share the pleasure equally (not that I’m feeling guilty or anything that only the east coast members of the team actually got to eat any of the cake!).

CSCW 2008 Trip Report

November 18, 2008

Jon Kaplan and I attended the 2008 Computer-Supported Cooperative Work conference (CSCW 2008) in San Diego, CA. last week. Sun was a benefactor-level sponsor of the conference, having donated a dozen computers to run a 3-day long virtual worlds event. This event was run and organized by a crack team from PARC made up of Mike Roberts, Greg Wadley, and Nic Ducheneau (not pictured).

Mike Roberts Greg

Each day they featured a different virtual world – World of Warcraft on day 1, Wonderland on day 2, and Second Life on day 3. Each morning, one of the organizers ran a tutorial on the virtual world of the day, which attendees paid extra for. In the afternoon, anyone attending the conference could drop in and work through the tutorial materials on their own.

Jon loaned a hand getting some small kinks worked out of the internal Wonderland server setup and the two of us acted as TAs during the tutorial session. There were a total of 10 client machines and two participants per machine. The first part of the tutorial involved exploring the world and using shared apps. The second part of the tutorial involved building a world with world builder and trying it out. Mike had an individual server installation set up on each client machine for this second part, so everyone could start with a completely empty world of their own.

Wonderland Tutorial Wonderland tutorial

I guess I shouldn’t admit to being surprised at how smoothly all this went. Performance was awesome with the local server. The 0.4 software proved to be quite stable. There was not a single crash, or even any noticeably bad software glitches as people stopped, started, and fought for control over every shared app in the world.

This virtual world event was happening in parallel with the rest of the conference. The opening plenary was delivered by Cory Ondrejka, one of the Second Life co-founders. Cory no longer works at Linden Labs, but he talked about how the company got started. His talked focused on how Linden Labs arranged their work environment and he attributed much of the success of the company to the decision to use the software internally for all distributed collaborations. This "eat your dog food" approach is certainly one that the core Wonderland team lives by as well, so hopefully he’s right about that being an important ingredient for success.

The rest of the conference was heavily weighted towards social science research, with a number of presenters talking about ethnographic studies (ones in which researchers observe the "natives") of inhabitants of virtual worlds. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, all the papers are available in the ACM Digital Library.

Rather than describe in detail papers you can read for yourself, let me instead tell you about the virtual worlds workshop, "Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, and Workplace Productivity," that Jon and I helped to run. The position papers for the workshop are available from the workshop site.

The first session of the workshop involved three fairly in-depth "demos." Jon showed clips from 4 or 5 different Wonderland videos and talked through the compelling parts like extreme extensibility, the ability to connect to external data sources, standards-based scripting, and fine-grained security.

Steve Rohall from IBM did a video demo of a virtual world called Bluegrass that he and his colleagues built using the Torque engine. This world has some interesting features, including using streams of floating bubbles to help users see at a glance where there is activity in the space. There is also nice integration with the corporate directory so you can find out more information about others in-world.

The third demo was also from IBM. Wendy Ark showed how IBM is using Second Life as a "rehearsal" space in their Rehearsal Studio project. By rehearsal, they mean preparing to give a talk or practicing for a consulting engagement. The example she showed involved a training environment for consultants where they modeled a fictitious manufacturing company and had the consultants-in-training work through an entire customer engagement over the course of two days, complete with about a dozen actors playing the role of various company employees. This was quite a compelling application of virtual world technology.

After the demos, everyone participating had a chance to present a quick overview of their position papers. The papers divided nicely between system-oriented papers and research studies. I presented some thoughts we’ve been having about how to improve virtual world presentations.

The most interesting part of the workshop from my perspective was the discussion afterward in which we talked about what data collection features those studying virtual world usage would ideally want baked into the virtual world software. Here’s a summary of the list we came up with:

   Where’s the activity?

  • Number of users over a certain period of time
  • Number of simultaneous users over time
  • Heat maps showing accurate traffic data
  • Record of applications used and for how long

   Who’s collaborating?

  • Avatar locations and proximity to other avatars
  • Number of people in "ear shot" of a talking avatar
  • Number of times control passes in shared applications
  • Number of avatars in proximity to an application being shared

   What happened?

  • Record of which interactive objects or applications were used
  • Automated video recordings of certain spaces
  • Record events to play back later and view from different perspectives

If you’re interested in virtual world evaluation, I have put this list on a data collection wiki page so others can add to it. What logging, data collection, or data visualization features would you like see built into Wonderland? I also highly recommend reading a paper written by Jonathon Cummings (Duke) and Sara Kiesler (CMU) called "Who Collaborates Successfully?" In this paper, the authors study 500 NSF projects that involve collaborations. The paper includes a framework for evaluating collaborations which I believe is ideally suited to helping us evaluate virtual world collaborations.

Let me end by including a fun photo of my former colleague, Bo Begole (left) and his fellow conference organizer David McDonald, who both did a great job in organizing this smooth-running conference.

Bo Begole and David McDonald

iSocial: 3D Virtual Learning

November 3, 2008

Matthew Schmidt from the University of Missouri-Columbia began participating on the Wonderland forums this past spring. As we often do with frequent posters to our forums, we send them an email asking if they can share what they are working on: this helps us get to know our community better and satisfies our curiosity too. Matt is a PhD student and we found his project inspiring. We’ve had the pleasure of interacting with him (matty_x on the forums) and his student, Ryan Babiuch (jagwire on the forums) on several occasions. They’ve made excellent community members. We’re delighted to have them author a guest blog, so that all the community can learn about their work. You can also learn more at Matt’s own blog:

Guest blog contributed by Matthew Schmidt

Introduction to the iSocial Project at the University of Missouri

Team: Dr. James Laffey (, Dr. Janine Stichter (, Matthew Schmidt (, Carla Schmidt (, Ryan Babiuch (, University of Missouri, 303 Townsend Hall Columbia, MO 65211.

iSocial Web Page:

What is iSocial?

iSocial is a three dimensional virtual learning environment, developed using Sun Microsystem’s Project Wonderland toolkit for creating virtual worlds, for teaching social competence to youth who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The goal of iSocial is to provide learners with competencies that make social participation possible in both virtual and natural settings. To this end, iSocial enables social interaction and provides supports for the development of social competence in a safe, completely controlled environment.

The Three Dimensions of iSocial

iSocial is an innovative online system that includes:

  1. a social space,
  2. a social competence curriculum, and
  3. a networked community.

In the social space, learners participate in immersive, interactive and socially-mediated activities that target the development of social competencies. Learners interact within the learning environment by playing games, watching instructional videos, conversing and working on tasks together—all facilitated by a trained guide. These activities are a curriculum called the Social Competence Intervention Cognitive Behavior Intervention (SCI-CBI) for social competence training developed by Dr. Janine Stichter in association with the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the University of Missouri. This curriculum targets individual skills deficits as well as deficits recognized throughout the ASD population. iSocial also aspires to become an online networked community for learners, parents and teachers who may not have ready access to quality training and support. As an online system for community, iSocial can motivate, support and sustain social interaction and progress toward social competence without regard to traditional limitations of time and geography.

Why iSocial?

Youth identified with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have deficits in social competence that can lead to problematic social behavior and social isolation. This can lead to a lower quality of life, as well as deficits in other developmental areas such as language and cognition. The iSocial project undertakes research and development to test and advance a set of principles and methods to enable and enhance social interaction for individuals with ASD. The long term aims of the project are to implement a virtual world that supports positive social interaction, enables learning of social competence with transfer to other settings, enables learning of other academic and workforce preparation subjects for youth with social deficits, and supports a community of educators, parents and youth as they address the needs of youth with ASD.

How Might a Youth with ASD Experience iSocial?

In the below sections we provide a sample usage scenario, outlining how learners experience a lesson in iSocial.

Two learners log in to iSocial where their online guide is waiting for them. Their avatars appear in the environment and they await instructions from the online guide. (You may click on the images to view them full-sized).

Two students log in to iSocial where their teacher is waiting for them. Their avatars appear in the environment and they await instructions from their teacher. The teacher instructs the students to follow her into the Turn-Taking Lighthouse. This is a building in which all of the instructional materials and interactive activities for the Turn-Taking in Basic Conversation unit of the Social Competency curriculum are housed.
The students enter the Turn-Taking Lighthouse and make their way to the foyer, where the first part of all four of the lessons that comprise the Turn-Taking Unit will take place. When the students enter the Foyer area, they are instructed by their teacher to review the posters that are located here.
Students review their daily schedule, the rules they must follow during the lesson and the previous lesson that they completed, Sharing
Once students have finished reviewing the rules, schedule and previous lesson, their instructor opens the first turn-taking activity of the day. This activity is a turn-taking game in which the students must cooperate in order to complete it. Students have a different turn-taking game for each of the four lessons that comprise the Turn-Taking Unit.
For today’s lesson, the game is a memory game. Each student gets one turn to try to match the faces, after which the student must let his or her partner take a turn. Turns are managed by students telling each other that they have finished their turn and that it is the other person’s turn. Students offer each other encouragement and hints in order to beat the game. When students beat the game, the plan for the rest of that day’s lesson is displayed. The students discuss the plan for the day with their instructor.
The teacher then instructs the students to teleport to the next part of the lesson, where they will work through four curriculum components in four different rooms. The rooms are: Introduce the Skill, Model the Skill, Verbal Practice and Practice Activities. Students begin the lesson by navigating their avatars to the Introduce the Skill room. In this room, their teacher uses a slideshow presentation to introduce them to the skill of conversational turn-taking and discusses the skill with them, answering their questions and providing further explanation where needed. This is an activity that will be repeated for each of the four turn-taking lessons, albeit with different aspects of turn-taking introduced as the students progress through the unit.
When the Model the Skill activity is completed, students navigate their avatars to the Verbal Practice room. In this lesson, students review appropriate and inappropriate conversational manners, and are required to produce examples of each. This activity changes across lessons. In the second lesson, students plan a trip to Los Angeles together. In the third lesson, students solve a logic puzzle together. In the fourth and final lesson, students play a role-playing game where they are lost at sea. After the skill has been introduced, students navigate their avatars to the Model the Skill room. This room contains instructional videos that model appropriate turn-taking behavior. Students watch the videos and discuss them with their instructor. This is an activity that will be repeated for each of the four turn-taking lessons, albeit with different conversational turn-taking skills modeled as the students progress through the unit.
After students complete Verbal Practice, they navigate their avatars to the Practice Activities room. For this lesson, each student gets to pick one movie trailer that he or she wishes to watch. Student 1 chooses Wall-e. The students watch the movie trailer on the video screen.
When the video is finished, the students discuss it. Students are provided with virtual posters that designate their role in the conversation: speaker or listener. The student who chose the film gets to take the first turn as speaker and the other student takes the role of listener. When they are finished, they switch roles. Then the other student gets to pick a movie and they repeat the same activity. When students complete the practice activity, their teacher instructs them to teleport back to the foyer area. When they reach the foyer area, the instructor brings up a window with another turn-taking game for the students to play.
For this lesson, students complete a jigsaw puzzle collaboratively. Each student gets one turn to move a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, after which the student must let his or her partner take a turn. As with the first turn-taking game of the day, turns are manag
ed by students telling each other that they have finished their turn and that it is the other person’s turn. Students offer each other encouragement and hints in order to complete the puzzle.
When students complete the puzzle, they receive a blue ribbon designating that they have completed lesson 1 of the Turn-Taking Unit. In addition, they are provided with a “sneak peek” of the next lesson.
Finally, the instructor discusses the next lesson briefly with the students, and the lesson is completed.

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