Thursday, December 24, 2009

Second Life take 2

For those of you interested in viewing my talk in Second Life, you can watch it here on YouTube.

One of the key questions that arises for me is "How does the visual interface in Second Life affect interaction?" My initial feeling was that it adds a layer and increases the probability of confusion and that Skype, or even phone, despite the limitations, is more direct. The experience of others seems to be different. One person describes how he or she finds the visual interface better than the floating video head that one has in Skype or the disembodied voice over the phone.

This observation set me to thinking. Even though one has set up an avatar and one is meeting with another avatar, the visual interface and the action of two people meeting for a conversation has a potential for ritual that would be more difficult to create in Skype. For formal interviews, as in the Zen tradition, the Second Life setting may actually be richer.

Two other observations may be relevant.

In one session of the teacher development program I have just completed, I had the participants create masks and explore the difference between teaching (and interacting as a student) while wearing a mask and teaching and interacting while not wearing a mask. People's experience varied widely. Some simply couldn't teach if the student was wearing a mask. Others could. Some taught more naturally while wearing a mask. Others taught more naturally when they were not wearing a mask. In our discussion afterwards, I noted that in formal teaching situations in some traditions everyone is "wearing a mask". And, in some sense, we are always wearing a mask. From this perspective, the avatars are a form of mask and may enhance interaction for some just as the inhibit it for others.

Second, given how the human organism depends on visual and physical cues, many of them subliminal, the quality of communication deteriorates when those cues are not present. I certainly find this with phone conversations, and though I can tune into subtleties in voice and the general energy, I still feel that I'm missing a lot. This was confirmed by my interaction with one student. When I met with her in person, I was usually pretty accurate in my responses to her questions. But when we conversed over the phone, which was usually the case, I often found myself guessing as I was missing all the usual cues. She also noticed that my responses weren't as accurate over the phone.

Now, the physical cues supplied by an avatar bear only the most rudimentary correlation (if that) with the person's emotional state, but I'm wondering if the visual image itself facilitates a fuller interaction on levels that are hard to recognize or identify.

A final point. When two people converse, communication takes place not only at the verbal level, but also at the emotional level, as each is continually sensing and responding (or reacting) to the emotional energy in the other and in themselves. How does the Second Life interface affect the ability to sense emotional energy? Does the visual interface mislead or enhance the interaction?

Idle thoughts on Christmas Eve. Have a lovely holiday!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Second Life

What was it like, to teach the Dharma in Second Life?

That question has been posed to me quite a few times, since Adam Tebbe, founder of Kannonji Zen Retreat in Second Life invited me to teach there on Dec. 16, 2009.

A week before the date, Adam introduced me to Second Life, created an avatar for me, and taught me how to sit down, strike the gong, and other basic movements. I was struck by the tasteful design of the temple. Clearly, care and attention had gone into creating this alternative reality.

At the appointed hour, I came into the temple, more or less materializing à la Star Trek, into a throng of about 30 people (there are 1300 in this particular community). Everyone, except me, had their audio muted to avoid what would otherwise have been a cacophony of feedback. For the first few minutes, I had the same feeling I had when I did a tele-teaching with Tricycle, about three years ago: the disorientation that arises in the absolute absence of any sense of being with other people. I moved to interaction as quickly as possible, to have some sense of who was present (hmmm, interesting context in which to use that word). Responses to my questions came back through instant messages, but the messages scrolled by a little too quickly. This was a small problem, but it did inhibit my ability to respond to all the questions and comments.

During the actual teaching, it quickly became clear that, to judge from the questions and responses, some of the people "present" had a good level of experience. I did my best in my comments and approach to meet them, yet one can't read much in terms of body language or emotional energy from (or through) an avatar, and I could only guess at how to respond.

In comparing Second Life to other online teaching I've done, Second Life, for me, is a bit thin for two reasons: the setting seems to add an additional layer of separation, the appearance of speaking to a group of people sitting, and the interaction is limited to speaking and responding to comments and questions.

I've used a couple of online classrooms (wimb and dimdim). While they don't provide a visual scene as Second Life does, they do allow people to see a video of me, and, in addition to the voice and IM communication in Second Life, I have the use of a whiteboard, slideshow, screen-sharing, and web links to enrich the interaction.

Of course, Second Life provides a completely different experience and was not designed as an interface for teaching, so the comparison may seem unfair. But I was there to teach and that was what I was trying to do.

Having said all this, I was impressed and intrigued by the size of the group, the level of interest, the level of experience, and, not least, the ability to make it sustainable financially, all of which says that something is happening here (but I'm not sure what it is).