Made in SL: education and CNDG in Second Life

The CNDG FutureWork Institute, as 2-region setting within CNDG’s spread of some 42 regions for education, training and showcasing

On Thursday, August 29th, 2019, the Lab launched the first segment of the new Made in SL series of videos. Carrying the  banner name Learning In SL, it would appear to be the first of a series (likely interspersed with segments covering other subject matter, as indicated by the original Made In SL series announcement) looking at the use of Second Life for educational / learning / training opportunities. Specifically for this piece, the work of the international and very successful Chant Newall Development Group, LLC (CNDG) is peviewed.

CNDG is a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) developer. We specialise in creating tailored, user-friendly VLEs, offering a fully supported service on all major virtual reality platforms.

We provide our clients with networked environments where instruction, learning activities, assignments, and synchronous and asynchronous exercises are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

– From the CNDG website

Students on CNDG’s Environmental Studies course (run with Florida State University) take to the water in SL simulating studies in climate change and ocean acidification. Credit: CNDG

CNDG is deserving of being surfaced in this series as their track record is impressive – but perhaps largely unknown to Second Life users. The organisation operates an impressive 42 regions within Second Life, which are split between what might be considered “core” regions, together with sets of “demo” and “live” regions and a series of specialised study regions – including sea / undersea settings. Not all of these are open to the public, being focused on servicing clients and students.

The organisation was founded in 2006, and has grown into one of the most respected providers of VLEs for clients – universities and other educational organisations, working in partnership with Pearson, the largest education company and book publisher in the world. This success also includes working with a number of commercial clients, including the likes of US Department of Veterans Affairs, Honeywell Corporation and Pfizer, the pharmaceutical conglomerate, to provide various specialised environments and facilities in Second Life.

We are not interested in building completely automated, run-on-their-own, no-contact systems: we build environments that help educators communicate their expertise and their knowledge to students in a direct, impactful way … We have the technology needed to create more opportunities for all students at all levels and all over to enter into relationships with mentors and teachers as needed. Virtual Learning Environments which are live and networked give us the ability to break down those barriers, and bring people together across boundaries.

– CNDG CEO and founder, William Prensky

Scotty’s Castle, a recreation of the idiosyncratic villa in Death Valley, was at the time, both CNDG’s first project and most elaborate and realistic buildings in Second Life. With the help of Linden Lab, it brought CNDG to the attention of their first commercial client, America’s Public Broadcast Service. Credit: CNDG LLC

Within SL, CNDG has developed and provided courses in biology, chemistry, economics and environmental science, working particularly with Florida State University and the University of Central Florida, which have seen in excess of 2,000 students participate in activities – with around 25,000 students having participated in programme developed by CNDG as a whole over the past 12 years.

A key part of the courses and units supplied is that students can access the in-world environments through the CNG gateway. This, like SL Community Gateways, provides sign-up, avatar selection and log-in at the main CNDG campus, where tutorial-style guides familiarise them with the viewer and their initial assignments. For clients – universities, collages, and so on – CNDG can provide tailored courses based on a client’s own materials, while Pearson can provide supporting printed material for CNDG’s broader courses (including access codes to sign-in to the CDNG virtual environments), which can be made available to students through the likes of university bookshops.

Within the video itself – running to just under 2.5 minutes, we are introduced to CNDG and its work, touching on some of the successes and partnerships that have arisen from 12+ years of supplying networked educational solutions within Second Life. It’s a fascinating glimpse and well worth taking the time to watch – hence embedding it below for ease of reference.

Given the sheer breadth of educational uses SL is put to, I certainly hope that Learning in SL will  – as seems to be implied by the title itself, as noted at the top of this piece – continue to be a theme within Made in SL as the series continues to evolve.

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Love Made in SL 2: Lily and Charles

Logo by Marianne McCann, courtesy of Linden Lab

It seems the UK is a popular place when it comes to people in Second Life finding love that brings them together in the physical world as well as the digital! For the second part of the new mini-series Love Made in SL, the camera turns to Lily Swidlehurst from the UK and CharlesDe Beaumont from Germany.

Released on Monday, February 25th (does the mark the series as being fortnightly in releases?), this is another short video which tells – in the participant’s own words – how their relationship blossomed on both side of the screen.

It’s a story that piqued my curiosity, as Lily and Charles are both Second Life mentors. Together with Aullere Ocello and her SL partner, Notfragile Gausman, they run the Helping Haven Community Gateway, which has been the subject of an article in this blog (see Community Gateways in Second Life: Helping Haven).

This link to mentoring is also reflected in part of the video being sent in Ahern, which also reflects the fact that Lily and Charles actually met at a welcome centre. However, this also perhaps reveals something that tended to be true of Second Life at one time (although I have no idea if it is still the case): that the friendships made during our earliest exposure to Second Life can actually be the most enduring over time.

And in an age where all the emphasis on digital interactions and the “need” to have all the widgets offered by VR  – facial expression, etc – in order to make communication and interaction “real”, Charles points out that actually, quite a lot can be revealed simply through text.

If you get to know someone over several months just typing … then in the end, the personality is becoming very clear.

– CharlesDe Beaumont

Simply put, while it is so often maligned in this the so-called VR age, and disparagingly dismissed as “getting in the way”, the keyboard is actually a magnificent tool for communication, honesty and openness. Perhaps because – like our avatars – it removes us by one step from those with whom we’re communicating, offering an opportunity for consideration and the freedom to offer feelings and emotions that might otherwise remain hidden due to things like embarrassment.

Lily and Charles: sharing their experience through Love Made in SL

As with Teal and Wolfie in the first part of this series (see Love Made in SL: a new video mini-series), the relationship between Charles and lily grew to a point where, after 11 months, Charles took the plunge and moved from Germany to the UK. Around six months later, they were setting up home together.

Also like the first segment in the series, the story is simply and beautifully told, making further commentary here somewhat superfluous. So why not watch the video below, and keep an eye out for the next in this series in a couple of weeks time?

Love Made in SL can be found on the Second Life You Tube channel.

Love Made in SL: a new video mini-series

Logo by Marianne McCann, courtesy of Linden Lab

On Monday, February 11th, the start of 2019’s Valentines Week, Linden Lab announced the launch of a new video mini-series filmed by Draxtor Despres.

People within Second Life often flag their profiles with a comment along the lines of “SL is SL, RL is RL” or warnings that they don’t like to let their virtual lives overlap with their physical lives. And that’s fine; the beauty of Second Life is that no-one has to conform to any specific set of all-encompassing rules (outside of the Terms if Service and Community Standards, of course!).

However, there are many who do allow their physical and virtual lives to overlap and intertwine to varying degrees.

Love Made In SL, the new series, focuses on some of those in this latter category; specifically: those who have found love as a result of meeting in Second Life. Some of these relationships may be confined to Second Life, simply because of circumstance, geography, and so on, but some might more fully cross the boundaries into the physical world, with the love between two people leading to their meeting and even in marrying one another.

This latter point is the case with RaglanShire community members Teal, from the United States and Wolf, from the United Kingdom. They are the subject of the first couple to be featured in the new series – and fittingly so, given that after and 18-month engagement, they are now together in the UK and due to be married.

Teal and Wolf in the UK via Love Made in SL

When Wolfie and I got together, I was very settled. The thought of changing my life that drastically, just didn’t occur to me … At age 71, I closed my business, sold my house, packed up everything, and shipped myself across the Atlantic.

– Teal Freenote, Love Made in SL

Their story is beautifully told in this short piece – less than a minute-and-a-half long – and in their own words. It needs no added commentary here, other than the images accompanying Teal’s story of travelling to the UK to be with Wolf are wonderfully fitting in the use of Second Life whimsy (where else can you travel an ocean on the back of a whale so you can be with your loved one!).

My only other comment would be to thank Teal and Wolf for sharing their story and to wish them all the best for their upcoming wedding, and for their future together!

As the Lab notes, if you’d like to be considered for a future edition on Love Made in SL, please contact Draxtor Depres in-world.

Erik Mondrian: master of fine arts in and beyond Second Life

A still from Empty, the 9th video in Erik Mondrian’s [MFA] Thesis video series, filmed in Second Life
Erik Mondrian is a writer, artist, and scholar who makes work about place, belonging, love, longing, and madness. He holds an MA in Mass Communication & Media Studies from San Diego State University, focusing on virtual worlds as new media, and is close to graduating with Interschool Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Voice Arts & Creative Writing and supplemental concentration in Integrated Media from California Institute of the Arts.

He is also a Second Life resident, and someone I’ve come to know, albeit indirectly through social media, and I’ve  been enriched by our acquaintance.

For his thesis work at CalArt, Erik has produced a series of eleven videos to illustrate his writing, and filmed within Second Life. Each of the first ten videos offers and examination of an aspect of life or identity, or of emotions or feelings, personal reflections or desires; each narrated by Erik, words and images combining into a series of stunningly moving and deeply eloquent visual poems (even those presented as prose) which are quite breathtaking in their breadth and meaning.

Making: the first video in Erik’s Thesis series

As companions to Erik’s words, these are films which are fabulously unique and perfect in reflecting and amplifying his words; each marvellously frames his thoughts and the emotions of each piece without ever intruding or distracting. Through them, Erik displays that not only is he a master of words, but he is also deeply visually creative; the composition, framing and presentation of each video is utterly captivating.

Since my MFA at CalArts is three-pronged, I wanted (with the support & encouragement of my mentor on the Creative Writing side, Jon Wagner) to do a thesis project that blended all three of my areas of study in some way [written word, voice and media] … The project also came about in part because of my years spent in virtual worlds of all kinds [and] the experiences I’ve had there and the people I’ve met …  I’ve been “on-line” for close to 25 years, and almost as long in virtual spaces from IRC and MUDs through to worlds like The Palace, Active Worlds, and of course, almost fourteen years in SL.

– Erik in discussing his thesis video series

What I personally find engaging in these films is the rich, allusive timbre evident in Erik’s writing. Together with his sheer lyricism, he produces wordscapes that are beautifully attractive. Through a crafted choice of words, he encourages, suggests, points – but never blatantly leads or cajoles. He sets out path of thought, complete with potential branches or turns, where allusion and suggestion lies as much within each word as within every passage. He invites us listen and allow our imagination to take whichever route it may choose through prose and verse. Thus, while there may well be a destination Erik has set for our journey, how we reach it is entirely left in our hands – or rather our thoughts and our mind’s eye.

Escape: the second video in Erik’s Thesis series (and her favourite)

These are also unmistakably deeply personal pieces. By his own admission, Erik is reserved, quiet, introverted. Yet he has the gift of observation and the power of expression, These combine to resonate within each of us and find fertile ground within our thoughts. Thus, while personal to him, the ideas, feelings, emotions, questions, desires, ideas and images he creates are equally personal to those who listen and watch. And this is something that he is himself aware of, as he appears to note through the eleventh video in the series, which stands as both a conclusion and an artist’s statement.

Place without belonging. Longing without love. A special kind of madness that comes from hiding in plain sight, seen but not yet recognised, heard but not yet understood. I move through time and space, observing all, saying far too little. What do you make of this? The lives you live, the memories, the moments—where do they go? Who do you find there? I’ve tried to make that journey here, tried to reconcile my circuitous wandering, outwardly aimless, with a destination that remains forever a step ahead, an optical illusion that pulls away even as it draws me forward.

– From video 11: Artist Statement

It is through this final piece that Erik is most revealing about himself and by extension, each of us. As such, and while billed as an “artist’s statement”, it is integral to the whole series and should be watched and absorbed as a part of the whole.

I could wax further on the subject, but really, the best way to appreciate these films is to see and savour them. So instead, I’ll close with a quote from my fellow Second Life writer and traveller, Ricco Saenz

These videos are brilliant, powerful and thought-provoking. They create an intriguing atmosphere – and udoubtedly deserve to be called art.

– Ricco Saenz, January 11th, 2019

You can see all of the videos back-to-back in their intended order via Erik’s Thesis playlist. And be sure to read the accompanying notes for SLurl to the SL locations featured in each.

Related links

Future Shock: the machinima continues

Future Shock: sci-fi machinima

I first wrote about Future Shock, an ambitious Second Life Machinima series produced by Pryda Parx, in September 2016, when the first part in the series was released, and then revisited the project at the start of 2017, once the entire first season was available on You Tube.

In August 2017, a special “Director’s Cut” version of the first season was released, bringing all eight parts (plus the initial trailer / introduction)  together into a single 32-minute film which included previously unreleased footage, even as Pryda was working on the second season of 9 episodes. The new series was released over a period of several months in 2018, although sadly, the scheduling of things (coupled with other matters) prevented me for covering them at the time.

However, on December 27th, 2018, Pryda released another Director’s Cut, which brings all eight parts of this second season together into a single 23.5 minute film, which as with the first series version, includes previously unreleased footage. So this seems a good time to catch-up on the series, with apologies to Pryda for only now getting to it.

In short, Future Shock is a story of a somewhat dystopian / semi-cyberpunkish world where technology infiltrates every part of people’s lives, watching over them, seemingly providing both a protective blanket and providing various means personal gratification and escapism through the intertwining of their physical and virtual lives. But all is not as it seems. Rather than guiding / guarding / assisting, technology has come to dominate, defining everyone in terms of their net worth, or IP Credit (draw your own conclusions from the use of “IP”). So long as this remains positive, a person has little to fear – not even death; technology allows them to augment / redefine / rebuild their own bodies to suit their desires. But should a person’s net worth zero-out or entire a negative value, then things can become uncomfortable, and survival less-than-certain, with those in debt clinically  – if harshly – dealt with; as is also the case for those perceived to be a threat.

Tracy Grayling: protagonist – but innocent, or self-obsessed mole / agent?

Thus, this is a world of questionable moral and ethical values. people’s lives are determined by what is effectively a line on a balance sheet, while the people themselves are driven by baser instincts: greed, desire, avarice, envy, determined to raise their credit value, wanting to make themselves better physically than their peers through surgery / augmentation, or to be able to have sufficient value to escape into the virtual realm – a place reached not in the home, but within life support centres, the body fed and cared for while the mind escapes – and the all-important credit balance ticks down minute by minute.

Life in this world is very much factionalised; not everyone may approve of the way technology is all-pervading, or the way in which humanity has come to rely so wholly on it. Others simply seek to exist not caring for anything more than the next opportunity to become immersed in the virtual, while some seek to improve themselves, whilst also seeking a means for self-expression.

What made the first series engaging was both the visual style used throughout: the physical world is a dark, cold monochrome place for the most part, where colours are minimally used – blue to highlight technology, for example; red as a negative. Conversely, the virtual realm is a place vibrantly alive with colour and imagination, warm and inviting and far removed from the physical. Also, the storytelling is richly layered. This opening drops us into the middle of things, roughly 19-20 years hence. We’re quickly introduced to a number of the core elements – particularly the idea that humans are regarded as little more than constituent parts of the whole, to be recycled as required, plus the main protagonist for the story, Tracy Grayling, but the overall context can only be understood and the pieces fitted together by watching all the segments in turn – and at times returning to a previous segment in order to gain further insight.

Being in sufficient credit means you can afford exotic changes to your body – such as wings. But there is still the mystery / threat / salvation hidden within the Dark Grid …

This approach is continued through the nine episodes of the second season, which adds a further layering, in that the series records the events of the first, but from the perspective of a another group of characters, the “rebels”. Slightly shorter in length overall than the first season segments, the second series also lifts the production values seen within the production. In this, Pryda made no bones about the fact that in filming the first series of Future Shock, she was also going through a learning curve in terms of machinima production – and the second season shows that she has learnt a lot, and has a very definite approach to style, nuance and overall production.

Future Shock is an engaging series, one that tells both a story and raises questions about the future and our increasing reliance on technology and what it may mean for personal freedoms – including the freedom of expression. These questions have perhaps become more salient over the course of the two years in which Pryda has been working on the series; as such it is worth viewing from this perspective as well. For those who wish to see more, Pryda has also produced a series of short pieces providing insight into the principal characters. However, I would recommend only watching these after seeing the entire series; they contain significant spoilers!

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A world first for Second Life Machinima?

via the UWA Second Life website

I’m “borrowing” the title of this article from a UWA blog post by Jay Jay Jegathesan (Jayjay Zifanwe in Second Life), who also e-mailed me about the forthcoming Eugene International Film Festival and the special place Second Life machinima has within it.

In short, Metaphor, a film directed by Basile Vignes  and produced by Jay Jay, has won the Best Animated Short Film at the festival, in a competition that included the internationally acclaimed animated short iRony, which has already won 120 awards world-wide, and has been short-listed for 5 Academy Award Qualifying festivals.

It is believed that no other Second Life machinima has previously won the top prize in open competition against ‘conventional’ animated short films from across the spectrum. As the winning Animated Short Film, Meatphor will be shown at the festival, which takes place over the weekend of the 9th through 11th November, 2018, in Eugene, Oregon, USA, along with all the other selected entries.

Commenting on the announcement that his film had won the award, Basile stated:

I am very proud and honoured that Metaphor won this award for best animation. This in competition with a selection of films each of which could have had the first prize. A big thank you to the jury who chose my film and congratulations for your excellent movie Festival.

Metaphor excerpt

The film, which Jay Jay and Basile bill as French-Australian co-production although Basile is currently based in India, is a story about identity – the faces we wear in life, both public and private, with the synopsis stating:

The protagonist in this film, uses the avatar and handle ‘Fallen God’ when accessing social media and virtual worlds. In his virtual journeys, he comes across the mysterious, beautiful and enchanting ‘Encre’. Will this encounter turn into a relationship touched by the spark of the infinite? This animated French-Australian film, based on true events that happened 2017 explores the many masks we wear along with the question of identity and relationships in the modern world in all its shapes and forms.

Also responding to the award, Jay Jay paid tribute to Basile’s work, noting:

Over the years as Festival Director for numerous UWA machinima film challenges, Basile proved to be among the finest exponents of this genre, along with his chief animator, Tutsy Navarathna, and when the thought came to me to try to take Second Life machinima across the globe on the international film festival circuit, I could think of no one better to partner with on this endeavour.

This is the very first win for Metaphor, and I do hope that it’s not the last. I also look forward to the film’s Australian premiere next month at the Perfect Light Film Festival in Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Congratulations to Basile, Jay Jay and all involved in the project on winning this award.

I’d also like to point out that iRonymentioned above, is in fact an animated short by Jay Jay’s son, Radheya Jegatheva (it is also narrated by Jay Jay). Radheya is fast emerging as a talented film-maker, and I’ve been fortunate to cover some of his work previously in these pages (see here and here for more). This being the case, I’d also like to pass on congratulations to him on also having iRony accepted by the Eugene International Film Festival and featured as one of its selected films, and on his film having already achieved so much internationally.