SL11B: Lab issues limited edition avatar

Second Life’s eleventh anniversary is a fast approaching – as if you needed any reminding! And in keeping with last year, Linden Lab have entered into the spirit of things by giving away another celebratory avatar.

The SL11B celebratory robot avatar
The SL11B celebratory robot avatar (via Linden Lab)

SL10B saw the Lab offer a large, materials-enabled bear to residents. This year, it’s a robot, and it comes as a rigged mesh avatar supporting fitted mesh. Also in keeping with 2013, it appears to be the first in a series of surprises coming from the Lab during June.

The blog post announcing the offering reads in part:

This robot is sleek and ready to explore the landscapes of Second Life. Made with Fitted Mesh, you can put your own stamp on this android by playing with some of the shape sliders. Just make sure you’re upgraded to a Viewer with Fitted Mesh enabled. There are two ways to get your robot – pick it up inworld at Hairy Hippo Fun Land in Bay City or just visit the Marketplace.

I have to say the little fellow (he is around the same height as the female mesh avatars supplied by the Lab) is rather cute and, in difference to the original release of the mesh avatars (which were updated today!), he does have a modifiable base shape, so can the height and shape can be adjusted using the supported shape sliders.

While it’s always controversial, given that AOs are very much a user creation and a part of general commerce within SL, I still can’t help but feel the Lab could also provide a very basic AO system with items like this – not everyone is liable to have robot-specific AOs in their inventory, so providing one with a basic “robot-y” walk and standing pose wouldn’t go amiss. It might even encourage people to wear the avatar more and go out and purchase additional walks and poses to add to it. But that’s just a very minor point. As I said, the little fellow is rather cute.

A closer look at the robot avatar
A closer look at the robot avatar

Elsewhere in the blog post, the Lab again references the SL11B Community Celebration, and give a reminder to all who are planning SL11B celebrations of their own to make sure they  submit it for inclusion in the special SL11B category of the Destination Guide (use the “Misc” category when submitting the form and indicate the event is for SL11B in the description). For those who prefer, they can send their entries for the Destination Guide via e-mail to: editor@lindenlab.com, and using “SL11B” in the subject line on the email.

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US Army targets Second Life and virtual worlds for healthcare

An interesting article published by the Official Home Page of the US Army came to light recently highlighting the use of virtual worlds as a part of studies into providing better healthcare and support to US soldiers and veterans.

For the last three years, Colonel Valerie Rice, Director of the US Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate located at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, has been spearheading a team studying the use of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as way of teaching army personnel and veterans how to manage PTSD and similar disorders which have resulted from their military service. The work is part of a broader series of research activities funded by the US Army aimed at providing suitable care and support for those afflicted by PTSD.

Colonel Vice Rice
Colonel Valerie Rice

Mindfulness –  “being in the moment” – is a means of stress and anxiety relief using age-old techniques such as meditation and yoga to help focus and clear the mind. It has become a popular means of therapy and support in many areas of life.

The studies being undertaken by Dr. Rice and her colleagues have a twofold purpose. Firstly, to determine the effectiveness of MBSR techniques in helping US Army personnel and veterans deal with PTSD and related issues. Secondly, to identify whether a programme using these methods could be reasonably and effectively adopted by the Army for widespread use.

In this latter regard, MBSR is seen as a particularly worthwhile means of assisting service personnel and veterans because not only is it a proven means of treatment in civilian life, but also because instructors do not need to be qualified healthcare professionals; they only need to have successfully completed a comprehensive training and certification programme. This significantly eases the challenges involved in leveraging it for more widespread deployment and use.

MBSR is also something ideally suited to leveraging the use of virtual worlds, notably Second Life and All These Worlds LLC, which bring with them unique opportunities and benefits which are not necessarily achieved with courses and therapy conducted in the physical world.

The Mindfulness studies take place as 2-hour weekly sessions over a period of eight weeks apiece, and involve some 66 participants at a time, 36% of whom were soldiers on active duty, and the remaining 64% veterans. Half of each batch of participants meet face-to-face in real life, the other half in a virtual world environment.

In both the physical and the virtual environments, sessions are experiential in nature; participants in the study meet, go through various exercises designed to focus the mind, ease tension, and reduce stress. Classes as cumulative, each building on and reinforcing the last, providing techniques participants can carry with them into their daily lives. There are also opportunities for discussion and feedback on individual’s experiences with the techniques, and so on.

Those participating in the virtual classes are encouraged to physically perform the exercises rather than just perform them with their avatar. There is a high degree of interaction between session leaders and participants, and courses include homework sessions – exercises participants are asked to carry out when away from the sessions.

A US Army MBSR session being held in All These Worlds (via alltheseworldsllc.com)
A typical US Army MBSR session being held in All These Worlds (via alltheseworldsllc.com)

Virtual world environments are seen as a particularly beneficial for conducting sessions due to the level of anonymity they offer. There is still something of a stigma attached to seeking help for disorders such as PTSD which can make individuals shy away from any involvement in actual behavioural health classes due to misplaced feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy or shame. The use of what is essentially an anonymous avatar in a virtual environment helps eliminate these feelings, and any associated stress or anxiety which might otherwise be experienced.

The multiple ways in which participants can provide feedback through a virtual world is also seen as beneficial. Giving voice to the feelings, responses and emotions one is experiencing when in a public forum is not always easy. But in a virtual environment, a participant can, for example, opt to give their thoughts and feedback via IM to the session leader, who can in turn relay the salient points to the class in a way that also doesn’t cause the individual any additional stress or embarrassment. Even the use of voice morphing is seen as advantageous, as it again offers participants relief from any fear that their voice might otherwise be recognised.

Participant in both the physical and virtual studies receive "homework" assignments (via alltheseworldsllc.com)
Participants in both the physical and virtual studies receive “homework” assignments (via alltheseworldsllc.com)

Additional benefits in using virtual worlds are those of accessibility and the ability to establish social networks among peers. Writing in Advanced Computational Intelligence Paradigms in Healthcare 6, Jacquelyn Ford Morie, the founder of All These Worlds, and who also one of Dr. Rice’s collaborators in the study, notes:

Today’s returning soldiers are most likely geographically dispersed, which may make it difficult to get to centres where medical help is typically aggregated. In addition, a social support structure may be lacking, leaving veterans unable to socialise with comrades in person on a regular basis … Online shared virtual worlds, however, are easily accessed from any personal computer, and can support the formation of social networks, facilitate access to care, and provide social activities between soldiers where geography is no barrier.

Jacquelyn Ford Morie. All These Worlds, her company, has also provided virtual environments for the US Army's MBSR studies
Jacquelyn Ford Morie. All These Worlds, her company, has also provided virtual environments for the US Army’s MBSR studies

She goes on to note that most service personal today are comfortable with using technology and in playing computer games, so accessing virtual worlds should not present them with significant barriers to entry or from engaging with online communities.

Dr. Rice and her team report that taken as a whole, the MBSR courses have seen positive results across both actual and virtual sessions, with participants registering lower blood pressure, reduced anger and increased calmness in their lives, as well as  exhibiting increased energy levels and faster reactions. Her team also note that anecdotal evidence suggests that those who have participated in courses are still practicing techniques six months later.

However, the team also acknowledge that further research into the overall effectiveness of MBSR with military personnel is required before any definitive findings on its overall applicability to widespread use within the US Army can be determined.

Even so, despite the fact that such formal determination has yet to be reached, the work carried out to date is encouraging, and stands as another fascinating example of how virtual worlds can be used for the betterment of our health and welfare.

Related Links

With thanks to Ziki Questi for the initial pointer to the US Army article on this research.

LL’s mesh avatars updated

In May 2014, Linden Lab launched a new line of mesh avatars. These were made available on both the sign-up page for new users, and as library avatars within the viewer.

These avatars met with a mixed reception; many of the human avatars looked somewhat bland and perhaps suffered from weak skin textures, but some could also look pretty stunning given the inclusion of materials within them, as Caitlin Tobias powerfully demonstrated (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun).

The demon avatar supplied by LL and as pictured by Caitlyn Tobiason FlickrThe demon avatar supplied by LL and as pictured by Caitlin Tobias on Flickr – click for original

However, several of the new avatars did exhibit issues; there AOs resulted in their feet being buried in the ground, hair styles were not overly appealing. Perhaps most noticeable of all – although the avatars were promoted as taking advantage of fitted mesh, they were released with base shapes set to No Modify.

As I commented at the time of the release, making the base shapes No Modify pretty much undermined the entire fitted mesh aspect of the avatars, since it meant the avatars could not by default be customised using the shape sliders to adjust height, build, etc. To be able to do so meant swapping-out the base shape first, something new users would likely be oblivious of, and thus see the avatars as “not working”.

At the time of the launch, I raised this point directly with Ebbe Altberg, and in fairness, he took it on the chin:

fuck you

On June 10th,  The Lab announced this issue, and those relating to things like AO problems for those avatars supplied with AOs had been fixed, and the avatars duly updated.  The blog post reads in part:

Following community feedback about these new avatars, we’ve made some adjustments, and today we’re re-deploying them with a few updates.

Most significantly, users will now have the ability to edit the avatar shape for the human form avatars. Because these avatars are mesh, not all sliders will affect the shape, but many of them will. Play around and personalize the body, torso, and legs using the sliders now supported with the updated, modifiable shape. Some of the head and eyes sliders will also now work to adjust the avatars’ faces.

Additionally, Sara (the blonde female avatar) got a fuller hairdo with more body and volume, and we’ve fixed the hover position for several of the avatars which helps prevent sinking into the ground.

I’ve only had the briefest time playing with the updated avatars, but they do now appear to work as expected. Some problems still remain – the hands on some of the female avatars still look like they’d be more at home on a guy, for example, but then the avatar meshes themselves doesn’t appear to have been reworked. Some people trying them did report some inventory related issues, which I confess I’ve not had time to poke at.

As it is, the update is welcome, and hopefully will see the new avatars enjoy wider use within SL. That said, I confess I won’t be using them. I’m still a stick-in-the-mud where mesh is concerned, and anyway, I’m more than happy with my avatar as she is, shape warts and all!