Communicating Research in 3-D Virtual Worlds

5 03 2010

Today you write news releases and feature stories, produce videos and podcasts, and use social media to disseminate research news; but in the near future you could also add 3-D models, interactive simulations, and immersive virtual environments to your communications toolkit. Given that we humans are naturally perceptually three-dimensional, you can imagine how such media could add to the impact and information value of your communications.

The major force driving communications into an online 3-D world is that important audiences are already there. For one thing, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that more Americans already get their news online than from newspapers or radio, although both still lag behind television. And another survey showed that more than half of all Americans play video games of some kind, undoubtedly in 3-D.

The education community is already using immersive Web environments, adapting existing 3-D interactive virtual worlds such as Second Life; and there are extensive materials on use of Second Life in education. Basically, the environment enables students to attend virtual lectures, move around in the cartoonlike world as avatars, and communicate with one another—frankly capabilities that don’t seem to add much value to the educational experience. Indeed, “the virtual world has not lived up to the hype,” writes Jeffrey Young in a critical article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He reports that

Moving around in Second Life can be so clunky that some professors and students have decided that it’s just not worth the hassle …. If all you need to do is chat with far-flung students, there are many easier ways to do it…. Plus, a lot of decidedly nonacademic activity goes on in Second Life, and it’s difficult to limit access so that only students can enter a classroom there.

And while there is a new project called OpenSimulator that aims to improve educational uses of immersive environments, it still does not offer particularly new interactive capabilities.

Writes Young, “It turns out that virtual worlds are at their best when they look nothing like a traditional campus. Professors are finding that they can stage medical simulations, guide students through the inside of cell structures, or pre­sent other imaginative teaching exercises that cannot be done in a physical classroom.”

This promise could be realized by a new flexible open-source system called OpenCobalt. Watch the video below for an introduction:

As the video shows, the OpenCobalt environment enables users not only to naturally interact and collaborate with each other and with traditional videos and Web pages; it also enables them to play with 3-D objects and simulations in an engaging and informative way.

Users of OpenCobalt will not be limited to the usual keyboard and mouse, but can also interact with the environment using multitouch screens, as this video illustrates. To me at least, the authoring system —as illustrated in this video—is intuitive enough that designers can master it well enough to work with communicators to create effective interactive environments and other products.

“Wonderful stuff can happen when you move away from the page metaphor,” asserts Duke researcher Lombardi, one of OpenCobalt’s architects, in an article on the Duke Research blog. “We’re living in a 3-D world. We need to interact with each other and with information in 3-D spaces.”

Certainly, such immersive environment platforms as OpenCobalt are still in their infancy. And, there is an element of trendiness that leads Young to comment that “Maybe 3-D online environments are just one of those technologies that sound cool but never fully materialize, like personal jetpacks.”

But there does seem to be legitimate communications value in such 3-D interactivity. And, of course its flashiness can attract eyeballs. So, it’s not too early to at least begin considering how to use virtual environments to not only communicate research more effectively, but make your communications stand out in the tidal wave of information inundating today’s Web.

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