Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 10 (Oct. 2008)

Knowledge and Career - 11/08


TAKING THE INITIATIVE
To the thousands of K–12 and higher-ed institutions already using immersive education applications, it might sound like old news to hear that the technology’s time has come. But it has, for thousands upon thousands more schools that have yet to test the waters.

If the forces behind the Immersive Education Initiative have their way over the next two to three years, an ever-increasing number of students and teachers the world over will be exploring 3D environments, playing interactive learning games, and enjoying virtual collaboration sessions with peers a state, or even a continent, away. Changes are also in store for those schools already using immersive education; they will experience a major upsurge in terms of content, tools, usability, and image quality.

One example of what is to come is the Virtual Egypt Immersive Education environment developed for the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College. The original Virtual Egypt was created in 2003 using Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), Extensible 3D (X3D) QuickTime 3D, Flash, streaming video, and the Unreal 2 game engine. (In 2006, the Second Life 3D platform was incorporated as well). Users, or rather their avatars, move through a high-resolution virtual tomb created by hand and also using scans from the Theban Mapping Project (www.thebanmappingproject.com), interacting with content such as objects, text, video, or games.

The upgraded, or third-generation, Virtual Egypt will feature richer imagery, such as near-photorealistic avatars created with photo-mapping software, and a variety of 3D formats (including VRML, X3D, and OBJ). The new Egypt will also have more customization options. Teachers who want to focus on a particular area—archaeology or mythology, for example—can populate the environment with unique content, such as videos of excavation techniques or text translations of hieroglyphics. But for educators simply wanting a ready-to-go application to complement class material, Virtual Egypt can also be downloaded and used as is.

The overarching idea behind the Immersive Education Initiative is that schools of all kinds, including those with tight budgets, will be able to access a universal library of objects that they can use to help engage students more thoroughly. Reaching students through digital media is increasingly viewed as a must, as each new generation arriving at school seems more media-savvy than its predecessor. Many of those library objects will be 3D, but there will also be video, audio, Flash, and interactive games, among other types of media.
 

Second Life, one of the open-source platforms serving as a client, is a mature utility that is easy to use and offers many rich social tools.
 
“It’s important to have different kinds of content,” says Aaron Walsh, founder of the Immersive Education Initiative and a director of its parent organization, the Media Grid. Virtual Egypt, he  says, is just one example of the types of complete immersive education learning environments that the Initiative plans to provide free of charge to educators.

“Many more are under development, including a full suite of K–12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning environments,” Walsh says. Pre-built courses and modules can be used out of the box, so to speak, but everything will also be “infinitely customizable,” he adds. All content, by design, will be cross-platform and open source.

Organizational Forces
The Immersive Education Initiative (www.immersiveeducation.org) is a nonprofit collaboration among colleges, universities, research institutes, and various companies. Among its members are Boston College, Columbia University, Sun Microsystems, The Burke Institute for Innovation in Education, the Israeli Association of Grid Technologies, and the NMC (New Media Consortium), itself with more than 200 members. The Initiative was founded in 2007 to, in the words of its literature, “define and develop open standards, best practices, platforms, and communities of support for virtual worlds and game-based learning and training systems.”

The Initiative’s parent organization, the Media Grid (www.mediagrid.org), was founded in 2003 to promote the use of a computational grid platform as a public utility for developing and delivering virtual-reality and 3D simulation programs. The Media Grid was designed specifically for networked applications that produce and consume large quantities of digital media, and is currently powered by rendering farms, clusters, high-performance computer systems, computational grids, and other systems.

The concept of grid computing, also known as distributed computing, was developed during the 1990s. The technology involves hundreds, thousands, or even more computers all working together on the same task in order to get it done more quickly. Although grid computing has to date been used primarily in scientific communities, notes Walsh, the concept can be applied to film and video rendering as well, ultimately making it possible for immersive education applications to employ even Hollywood-level special effects and rendering.


In the Virtual Egypt Immersive Education environment, students move their avatars through a high-resolution digital tomb, where they interact with objects, watch videos, and play games.
 
The increasing availability of grid computing power was one of the factors that led to the creation of the Immersive Education Initiative nearly two years ago. But Walsh and other like-minded individuals have been working to promote the technology for longer than that. In 2001, Walsh began teaching some of his digital media courses at Boston College in VRML-based environments. All his courses are now conducted that way. Because he was using immersive education techniques at the same time he was teaching students to create immersive environments, Walsh was ideally situated to see where the technology needed to be headed in order to work.

For example, by 2003, it became clear that shared immersive environments were only so effective without voice chat, which VRML did not support. “Typing back and forth wasn’t good,” says Walsh. A move to Unreal Technology’s Unreal 2 game engine eliminated this roadblock, and allowed for more fluid interaction with real-time voice connection. But there was, and still is, according to Walsh, a need for a reliable, high-quality virtual-reality environment that is cross-platform, open source, easy to access, and easy to use.

Important steps toward the realization of that vision were announced at the 2008 Boston Digital Media Summit earlier in the year, through the creation of the Initiative’s Education Grid and Platform Ecosystem. The Education Grid is a server-side resource that will offer the library of learning objects, digital media assets, games, and services, from which educators can obtain or assemble a variety of immersive education experiences. For the time being (there are more to come), the new Platform Ecosystem consists of three open-source platforms that will serve as clients: Croquet, Second Life, and Project Wonderland. For more about them, see “Platforms of Choice,” page 43.

The Case for Immersion
There’s no denying that students, especially those at the K–12 level, are energized and engaged by using computers at school. A well-designed immersive education application with the same level of high-resolution graphics featured in the latest video games would seem to be an obvious boon to educators. Through such an environment—a learning game that resembles those students play at home (though minus the occasional violence and sex)—schools may be able to reach pupils they haven’t been able to before. That goes for students with special needs as well. A child who can’t walk or run freely, for example, can do so in a virtual world. The benefits of the technology seem obvious in these cases.

The students at Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, get excited just talking about immersive education, says executive director Marlon Davis. Benjamin Banneker, an urban K-6 science and technology school, is expected to be one of the early adopters of third-generation immersive education technology. Davis believes the technology will have a positive effect on behavior, in that it will engage and motivate some students who haven’t been as reachable in the past.


In this first-generation environment, created in VRML, an avatar representing a student visits a re-creation of the Voting Hall of Doges Palace in Italy.
 
Davis also sees the technology as a great supplementary learning tool for high achievers. Programs could provide in-depth instruction for those students who are ready to move on in lessons more quickly than their classmates. “Immersive education allows those kids who do ‘get it’ not only to extend themselves, but to be challenged,” he says.

Some experts, however, believe that kids’ affinity for video games is no reason to give them more of the same at school. It all depends on how you use it, according to John Carfora, director of Sponsored Research at Amherst College in Massachusetts and a member of the Initiative’s board of advisors. “Our job is to ask the tough questions,” he says. “Students now want to play more of a role in their education. This technology is what they’ve grown up with, and how they think they learn better. My job as an educator is to ask, is that true?”

Immersive education technology doesn’t lend itself to every academic discipline, Davis notes, but it does to most of them. “It’s important to ask, are the students learning from it?”

Carfora is currently working on a language/cultural curriculum for virtual visits to Rome and Paris. Such an application might have a student avatar arriving at the airport in Rome, for example, where his guide, “Giovanni,” meets him. They take public transportation into the city together, head to a trattoria, and order food. All this can take place in English, Italian, or a mixture of both languages, depending on the student’s level and need. The program is designed to prepare a person for an upcoming visit to another country, give them a general sense of the language and/or culture there, or even provide a virtual visit for a student who can’t afford to go abroad.

Carfora says he has also been approached by a couple of European universities about collaborating on a virtual space station application. “Students would be able to take off and land, and see what it’s like to live and work in space,” he points out.

Carfora does observe that the immersive education concept makes a few teachers nervous about the possibility of being replaced. Getting such educators to buy in is part of the mission. “Immersive education isn’t meant to replace teachers,” he says. “It’s meant to complement what they’re doing.” The most skeptical group, he notes, are college and university professors. “They need the most convincing.” Among K–12 teachers, the most gung-ho are often special education teachers, who are eager to use the technology to engage their students at different levels.

Immersive applications really do energize students, says Walsh. In 2003, he and his class created a 3D model of a ship boarded during the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Using the Unreal game editor, Autodesk’s Maya, and Adobe Systems’ Photoshop, the students modeled the ship and the surrounding Boston Harbor as components of a historical learning game based on the Unreal Engine. Players had to board the ship, break open the tea crates, and throw the bags of tea overboard. Aboard ship were non-playable colonist characters dressed as Indians (just as they did for the real Boston Tea Party), who provided players with historical information about the event as they played the game.

Creating the game was apparently as much fun as playing it. “I actually had to pull the students back,” said Walsh. “They researched everything—right down to how much things weighed, before they started modeling. When you put the content-creation tools into the hands of students, they become mini-experts in their domain.”
 
Platforms of Choice

The three platforms originally selected to be part of the Immersive Education Initiative’s Platform Ecosystem are all open source and cross-platform.

Croquet
www.croquetconsortium.org
Croquet is a software development environment for creating and deploying collaborative, multiuser online applications and 3D environments across different operating systems and devices. The platform began as a working prototype in 1994. Many of Croquet’s principal architects are based in universities.

What’s unique about Croquet in terms of the Immersive Education Initiative are its roots in education.

“Croquet was built from the ground up as an educational environment,” says Aaron Walsh, founder of the Initiative. The platform also features superior ease of use: “I’ve seen it used by three-, four-, and five-year-olds,” he says. Its ability to integrate Webcams, its usability, and its peer-to-peer architecture are also in its favor.

Second Life
www.secondlife.com
“Second Life is most mature in terms of its utility,” says Walsh. The Internet-based virtual environment, developed by Linden Research, launched online in 2003 and now has millions of registered users. Second Life members can create avatars, and converse and operate in a virtual world. The service is free at a basic level, and costs more if you want to access richer features. Many of Second Life’s features—textures, objects, and so forth—come ready to use, which makes it appealing to educators with neither the time nor the inclination to learn programming.

“A teacher can download it and use it,” Walsh points out. “It’s easy to get started with.”

Because the site was designed as a virtual world in which to meet and coexist with other virtual beings, Second Life is also rich in social tools, Walsh notes.



Project Wonderland

https://lg3d-wonderland.dev.java.net
The Wonderland client is built on Sun Microsystems’ Java 3D-based graphics engine. It allows users to manage and customize worlds, animations, and avatars, and supports application sharing (initially Java and X applications).

Walsh points out the strength of Wonderland’s collaboration tools. A feature called bridging, for instance, allows those who are not in the virtual environment—without a computer screen in front of them, perhaps—to take part in Wonderland collaborations. “I can dial up a phone number and call into the session,” he says. “And everybody sees me as a glowing orb,” for example. “I’m able to bridge through a telephone.”

Developers are also working on bridging with video cameras and shared applications, says Walsh. –Jenny Donelan


Three Generations of Immersive Ed
The Boston Tea Party project was an example of what Walsh calls “second-generation immersive education.” The previous generation, which involved VRML, not only had the voice chat limitation, but also was somewhat daunting to use from a content-creation perspective. In addition, it was a Windows-only platform; a large percentage of schools have Macs.

The solution was the Unreal Engine, which Walsh describes as “very stable,” and its results as “very good-looking.” It supported both Windows and Mac platforms, as well as voice chat, which was vital for the complete immersive experience. Participants’ enthusiasm really built as voice was added, he says. Additionally, the graphics looked great. But there was a drawback. Unreal was commercial and, therefore, expensive in terms of licensing fees. Users couldn’t modify it on an unlimited basis.

So Walsh and others started looking at options, with the requirements being that whatever they chose as the next-generation immersive computing platform had to be cross-platform and open source. They wanted to create a resource from which students and educators could use ready-made applications to supplement their lessons, or customize them to fine-tune and add content. And, just about needless to say, the content had to look great.

That third generation of immersive education, with development well under way now, incorporates the Education Grid and the Platform Ecosystem consisting of Croquet, Second Life, and Project Wonderland.

Everything is open, and if a teacher or student is already comfortable using Second Life, for example (the most mature of the three platforms because it has been available online for some time), he or she can still access Immersive Education environments created in Croquet.

All kinds of collaboration efforts are currently in the works. “Right now, there is a multi-institutional effort under way to develop several applications based on the Croquet SDK,” says Julian Lombardi, assistant vice president of Academic Services and Technology Support for Duke University’s Office of Information Technology, and one of the principal architects for Croquet. “One of these is a type of ‘browser’ for accessing 3D spaces over the Internet.”

What’s to Come
In practical terms, the Initiative is preparing to get the word out to educational facilities that might not yet be familiar with immersive educational tools. Institutions interested in becoming pilot schools can contact the Initiative through its Web site, Walsh says. Tools and usage are currently free of charge for nonprofits. In fact, it is part of the Institute’s agenda to ensure that schools which might not have the capital equipment or the infrastructure to run these applications can do so. “It’s important that we get this into the hands of students who might not be able to afford it,” says Walsh. Carfora agrees, saying that it’s vital not to ignore “the question of the digital divide.”

To that end, there is what Walsh calls a sustainability model for for-profit companies that want to get involved with Immersive Education Initiative projects. “If game companies, for example, want to use the Grid, they can sustain it by putting some money into it,” says Walsh, noting that the Initiative is sponsored by foundations, philanthropists, and universities, and is not commercially backed.

High on the list of future features are high-resolution graphics of the caliber of those that appear on the Sony PlayStation 3 or the Microsoft Xbox 360. Progress is happening. “The quality of what I’m seeing is getting better all the time,” says Carfora. “The environment is more absorbing, more realistic. And it’s better in terms of the emotion, the actual sense of being there. It pulls me into the domain—it’s very attractive.”


Imagery used in immersive education has evolved, keeping pace with technical advancements in the graphics industry, as illustrated by these avatars.
 
Walsh also says it’s important that the new generation supports various shared applications, since collaborating on projects in Power­Point or Web browsers has become the norm for students. It’s not enough for students to occupy the same virtual space—they need to be able to work together there too.

Walsh likes to describe immersive education at this point in time as having “traction.” It’s poised to catch hold due to the right confluence of factors: availability of mature, open-source programs, grid computing, and general acceptance—and even appetite for high-quality immersive applications that can capture the imaginations of students.

“The whole idea is truly transformative in terms of the experience,” says Carfora. “We’re on the precipice of a new way of teaching and learning."

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. Based in Peterborough, NH, she can be reached at jenny.donelan@comcast.net .

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