SL vs. WebEx: The myth of Second Life as a platform for education [Update 2]
Surprisingly, Opensim fares quite better than SL in that respect
[See the list of updates at the end of the article]
A Google Buzz by Mo Hax alerted me of the existence of an article in PC Pro containing yet another interview to M Linden. M explains there that SL is being used for “meetings”, as a “virtual collaboration tool”, and that it provides “incredible savings”. This is not new. If you google for “Second Life Education”, the second hit leads you to “How Education Enterprises Use Virtual Worlds“, a page by LL detailing how great is SL for educators. Similarly, the Second Life Blogs are full of references to SL as a tool for educators. For example, in a one year old article, As Seen on CNBC: New IBM Case Study Showcases Value of Meeting Inworld, Amanda Linden compares Second Life to Webex and says that Second Life “creates a [more] immersive experience”.
Does really “immersion” provide an advantage for online meetings? Is “immersion” something that can be asked of somebody, a student or an employee, for example? What is the cost of being able to offer “immersion”, and how does it relate to the supposed benefits? Are Second Life/Opensim and other tools, like Webex, comparable? If yes, how do Second Life and Opensim fare when compared to them?
In this post I will try to address these questions. To do so, I will use two strategies: on the one hand, I will make a product comparison between SL, Opensim and Webex, comparing features, price, quality of technical support, etc: on the other hand, I will resort to my own experience: I have been working for companies that have used Second Life and Opensim for education and meetings for more than two years, and I’ll share some of the things I have observed.
| Second Life | Opensim+Skype | WebEx
Voice | Builtin | Builtin(Skype)| Builtin Slide shows | Complicated | Complicated | Builtin Whiteboards | -- | -- | Builtin App/Desktop sharing | -- | -- | Builtin Real-time video | Third-party | Third-party | Builtin Mixing it all | Bad | Better | Builtin
The needs for educators and for people wanting to hold online meetings are quite similar and very clear. First of all, they need some form of voice conferencing system. In most cases, there is a need to present slideshows (ideally, Powerpoint presentations); a form of shared black- or whiteboard is also very useful; the possibility of sharing an application or the full desktop comes also very handy; and having some form of real-time video streaming is also very desirable, so that “remote” people can see the teacher or the person who’s currently speaking.
For our feature comparison we will use three scenarios: Second Life, an Opensim grid with voice over Skype, and WebEx.
Voice is a built-in feature of both Second Life and WebEx, and can be implemented using Skype in Opensim grids (there’s also an Opensim solution for voice, Freeswitch, but I haven’t used it and I can’t comment about it). Both Skype and WebEx have excellent dynamic noise and coupling cancellation algorithms — many participants won’t need to mute their microphone while not speaking because of these algorithms. On the other hand, Second Life voice algorithms are much more sensitive to noise and coupling, and this implies that everybody has to be very careful to mute their microphone when not speaking, and that you’ll have coupling problems in mixed reality scenarios in the RL end of the meeting.
Slideshows are directly supported in WebEx — you can directly share a Powerpoint presentation, or, if you are using a different application for your presentation, you can share that application. In Second Life/Opensim, on the other hand, even such a simple task is painful and unreliable. You can capture all your slides as images, for example using a screen capture program, upload these images (which costs some additional money in Second Life, but not in most Opensim grids), and then build a slide presentation tool (or buy one) and put all the textures inside the tool. The textures get rescaled to a maximum of 1024×1024, which can be a nuisance in some cases, and when you change textures there’s a good chance that some of the clients don’t load the texture in time, so that they see a gray screen or a partially rezzed texture (there are some ways to overcome this problem, but they imply extra work and they vary between releases).
Another possibility is to create some web pages that contain your presentation, and either write a small program that interacts with the parcel media to show these pages in a screen or manually change the displayed page. In all cases, you have to play with the texture so that it fits the screen and your presentation is not cut or has ugly extra margins, which is tedious and wastes some time.
It should be noted here that while Second Life forces you to choose between showing a web-based presentation or a video stream, this is not the case with Opensim: you can use the OsSetDynamicTextureURL function to load a presentation from the web into a prim while still showing video via the parcel media.
WebEx has a built-in whiteboard, and you can decide with whom to share it. Of course it’s not very comfortable to use, but no softwate whiteboard is. In Second Life or Opensim there is simply no way to implement a whiteboard.
Application or desktop sharing
WebEx has builtin support for application and desktop sharing — if in the middle of a class or a meeting you realize you’d like to show a web page to your attendees, for example, you can open that page in a web browser and share the browser, so that everybody can see the page. Second Life or Opensim do not implement any form of application or desktop sharing. There have been some experiments done with a plugin for VNC, but it’s not still something usable by the general public. Much before the tests with Second Life, RealXtend (an Opensim derivative) allowed VNC sharing on a prim.
Real-time video streaming
WebEx has built-in support for up to six simultaneous video streams. Image quality depends a lot on bandwidth and is generally webcam-like, but the synchronization with audio is perfect, and you experience no delay. Second Life or Opensim do not act as stream broadcasters, so that you have to buy a separate solution for video streaming (like Veodia) that meets the specifications of streams for Second Life (for example, if your streaming provider sends Windows Media or Flash streams you’re out of luck). Then you have to configure Second Life so that the parcel media displays the streamed video, which is not complicated in itself but requires some skills (while the WebEx solution works out of the box). Of course you can only have one video stream, not six like in WebEx.
Mixing it all
Of course in a real class of meeting you’ll want to mix all these elements dynamically following the needs of the meeting. For example, you may want to switch from your presentation to a whiteboard or a web page, and then get back to your presentation; or you might want to enlarge the video signal of somebody who’s making a long speech and then get back to your slideshow, etc. With WebEx all of this is very simple and can be performed with some few clicks; with Second Life, some things can not be done, and others are painful and disruptive to the meeting or class. For example, you can interrupt a web-based presentation and connect a video channel instead, but this takes some programming or complicated manual intervention, during which the class is interrupted, and then you have to wait for the video to buffer — very disruptive.
Opensim and its derivatives fare slightly better that Second Life in that respect: as noted, Opensim allows to texture a prim from a URL, which SL does not, and this can allow for simultaneous web-based presentations and video streams; RealXtend implements some support for VNC desktop sharing and also allows to have several video streams in the same parcel, etc.
| Second Life | WebEx | Min Avg | Min Avg
| ------ ------ | ------ ------ Setup fee | 1,000 1,000 | 0 300 Avatar setup | 0 481 | N/A N/A Streaming video/mo | 0 84 | 0 0 Monthly fees (1 sim) | 295 295 | 42 81 Monthly cost (-setup)| 295 379 | 42 81 Yearly cost (+setup)| 4,540 6,029 | 504 1,272
[Legend: This is a cost comparison for 25 avatars. We have estimated an average of L$ 5000 per avatar to make them look decent. We have converted L$ to US$ assuming a 260 conversion rate. Streaming video costs are calculated assuming a yearly cost of US$ 1000. All numbers are expressed in US$ and rounded to the nearest integer.]
All considered, it’s clear that Second Life/Opensim cannot be compared to WebEx in terms of features and ease of use. Let’s examine now costs.
To be able to have complete control of your experience, you’ll need a private island — if you rent a homestead from a land baron, you risk having your land confiscated at any time without reason or warning and lose all your work and money, and you’ll not be able to do anything about it; things like this are happening every day in Second Life. A full sim has a setup fee of US$ 1000 and a monthly fee of US$ 295. Then you’ll have to invest money in buying the tools you need or develop them yourself. If you want your executives, employees, students etc to look good, you have to spend between L$ 5000 to L$ 10000 per user, and lose time buying clothes, skins, hair, etc — this can be a lot of time if you don’t want to end up with an army of clones. Finally, if you need video, you have to shop for a suitable streaming video provider and pay for the service, which can cost you around US$ 1000 per year.
Opensim in itself is not a service, as Second Life and WebEx are, and this the reason why I have not included Opensim in the above comparison (it does not make sense to speak of “the cost of Opensim”, but of the cost of a determinate solution using Opensim, and there’s no sensible way to determine what’s “minimum” or “average” in this context). Opensim software is in itself is free, and, therefore, depending on your existing infrastructure, costs may start at US$ 0, and add as you need to hire services from third parties (i.e., video, a hosting provider, etc).
WebEx has a small one-time setup fee (something like €200 in Spain, this should be around US$ 300 — I’m not sure this applies to the USA), and a monthly cost of US$ 42 (we pay more in Spain, € 54, which should something like US$ 81).
Webex offers email-based and phone-based technical support. If a user has problems with her connection, you can send them to WebEx support and they help them. With WebEx, you have a single point of support, and it works acceptably well.
On the other hand, although technical support people from Second Life are very polite, helpful and nice (at least at the concierge level), getting effective support there is always a mess, and in some cases plainly impossible. Since Linden Lab only sells you “the platform” and you have to buy your tools elsewhere (for example, a scripted screen for presentations), if that tool fails you can’t call the Lindens for help — you have to contact the author of the tool instead. Most merchants in SL are fine people and are very helpful, but in case they are not, you don’t have a place to complain. The same is true when you want to solve a problem with video streaming: the Lindens can’t help, because they are only selling “the platform”; the video provider will say that you have a problem with your ISP, and your ISP that you have a problem with your streaming provider. To summarize, in a typical setup you may have 10-20 points of support, and this is clearly a mess and not efective at all.
I can’t comment on the level of support for Opensim hosting providers, since I have never tried one. Anyway, if you are using Opensim you’re supposed to have a good technical level, since Opensim is alpha software. And the Opensim community is very enthusiastic and helpful. In any case, at the moment Opensim is not for amateurs.
A theoretical approach
We saw that Second Life/Opensim do not compare to WebEx in terms or features or ease of use, and we have just seen that it doesn’t compare either in terms of costs or support. Since many people insist on the interest and even superiority of Second Life as a platform for meetings and education, and this superiority cannot be attributed to the features, ease of use, costs or support, there must exist a different factor which is exclusive to Second Life/Opensim (or where Second Life/Opensim excels) and which compensates for the inferiority of the product in other areas. But the only candidate for such a factor is immersion.
Contrary to “features”, “cost” or “support”, which are objective qualities of a product, “immersion” is a psychological quality of experience, and therefore a subjective factor and ultimately something which cannot be attributed to a product, but to the way users experience it — and this will vary wildly from one user to another, as such is the prerrogative of everything subjective. Defining “immersion”, as with everything subjective, is difficult. If you ask somebody who has experienced immersion whether they know how to define it, they will reply “yes, for sure” — but when actually confronted to the task of defining it, they will begin to hesitate — this is due to a very common fact: mistaking the certainty of having experienced something with one’s ability to define what one has experienced.
Thus, we will not attempt to define what immersion is — this would be a task for an essay, not a blog post. What we will do is to look at how the term is used, what are its most usual synonyms, and proceed from there — this will be enough for the purposes of this post.
“Immersion” is usually used as “the feeling of being there”. When used in this way, the argument of those defending immersion runs as follows: products like WebEx (or even more sophisticated teleconferencing systems) don’t provide the feeling of “actually being there”, because you are permanently confronted to a screen which gives you, at most, an abstraction of what’s going on “in the other side” — immersion, however, makes you feel “present” in that other side, and therefore somehow abolishes the separation between “your place” and “the other side”. The argument starts to falter when you ask why that feeling of “presence” or “immersion” should be benefical for attending a meetings or a class. Indeed here the argument mistakes “being there” in the physical sense for “being there” in the intellectual sense. What is needed for a successful meeting or class is not “the feeling of being there”, which is something psychological and ultimately cannot be evaluated, but the actual fact of being involved in the conversation and participating in it, which is something objective, can be evaluated, and does not depend on “feeling that you are there”. In fact, the actual surroundings are of no importance when you are actually involved in a conversation — this explains why some people close their eyes when concentrating: surroundings are distracting, a nuisance — be them “there” or “here”.
“Immersion” is therefore a state of the mind. It always involves some dose of roleplaying: you have to pretend that you are your avatar, you have to act as if the other avatars actually “are” other people, you have to behave as if “you” are sitting when your avatar “sits”, “you” are actually shaking hands to other people when your avatar shakes hands with another avatar, and so on.
The fact is that not everybody experiences immersion. See for example what Eric Krangel, reporter for Reuters in Second Life, had to say in an interview for the Silicon Valley Insider: “As part of walking my ‘beat,’ I’d get invited by sources to virtual nightclubs, where I’d right-click the dancefloor to send my avatar gyrating as I sat at home at my computer. It was about as fun as watching paint dry.” You could argue that Mr. Krangel was somehow immersion-impaired, and that Reuters could well have chosen somebody with better feelings towards the product — but the fact is that my experiences with other people are very similar to Mr. Krangel’s experiences.
Now I hear the legions of immersionist fanatics starting to organize a lynch mob in which I would be the unwilling star. Stop it. I’m an immersive avatar, I enjoyed immersion since my first second in Second Life, I have an active and wonderful social life in Second Life, and I’m myself in love with virtual worlds. I even host an Opensim-based micro-grid. Go check my Flickr, my YouTube or this blog for details. It’s not about me that I’m speaking, but about what’s happening to most people.
For example: In the companies I worked for, I personally trained 20+ people: executives, teachers and advanced students. I showed them how the client worked, accompanied them to buy nice skins and clothes, taught them how to use the tools needed to manage a meeting or a class, etc. Of these 20+ people only three (3!) found the experience interesting enough that they devoted some of their free time to explore the world, socialize, etc. Other people ranged from a sudden and immediate loss of interest (i.e., they never used it except when it was needed for their work) to a clear phobia to use the system: they said that they felt “ridiculous using that game”, that they felt that their avie was “a sinister puppet”, and they could never go beyond the feeling that they were being forced to use a game that was distracting them from the tasks they had to perform.
Horrors of (non) immersion – a sample case
Here’s a case I followed closely: classes were held in a mixed-reality scenario; some of the students attended the class in RL, while others came via Second Life. An image of the SL class was projected in the RL class, and a real-time video of the RL class was shown in SL. The audio system was configured in such a way that what was being said in RL was channeled to the audio stream of SL, and when somebody from SL spoke, their woice was heard in RL through the speakers.
Well, in reality it was not cool at all. Let’s see what happened:
In the SL side, things got pretty boring after the first minutes. The sitting animations are mostly static, and animations for teachers are dull and repetitive. After taking a peek at their fellow students and at the classroom, the interest of people participating in the class via SL faded quickly — the only visual element that could show any novelty was the video stream, which had a delay of 5+ second with respect to the voice channel and therefore gave a somehow creepy impression. Most people ceased to look at their screens or opened another application (to sort out their spam in the meanwhile, for example). This had the unwanted side effect to make them fall in the “away” state rather quickly. Since many of them had absolutely refused to spend a cent in bettering their appearance, they were not precisely nice looking. And they were away. Very depressing :-)
In the RL side things were not much better. Since most RL students were not aware of the existence or meaning of virtual worlds, projecting an SL image in the RL class gave them the impression they were being shown a video game. SL has glicthes and SL students weren’t very skilled at managing the product, so that they ended up sitting in the head of some fellow student, sitting on a table, suddenly unsitted and started to fly, etc, which was extremely distracting for everybody, real or virtual, and interrupted the class. Spatial voice is a disaster for classes; when a student that was sitting far away from the camera spoke, the RL teacher had to quickly move the camera so that she could be heard. Changing web-based slides was a mess and interrupted the class, and so on.
The immersive people
I’ve already mentioned that some few people had immersive avatars. You could quickly identify them because their avatars were much more beautiful, they took the time to change outfits for each meeting, etc. They explained that they spent most of the time looking at themselves and at their immersive fellow students (as everybody does in SL, by the way). After some minutes, they also got bored and started some other application while listening at what the teacher had to say.
So, is immersion absolutely useless?
Please notice that I’m not saying that immersion is completely useless for education. To the contrary, I’m convinced that there are scenarios where it is a wonderful tool — for example, real-time collaboration in 3D modelling. What I am saying is that, in the general case of meetings and classes, the use of virtual worlds is presently useless.
Of course one could argue that this is due to the current imperfections of the technology. Better technology, goes the argument, would eliminate all the current pitfails of SL as a tool for meetings: the user interface will be more intuitive and less intrusive; animations will reflect accurately what the user is doing, and so they will stop being dull; avatars will automatically resemble their humans (if their humans so desire), and they’ll even show facial emotions (like in James Cameron’s film), etc. All of this might happen, and I for one would be very happy if it happened as soon as possible; but unfortunately this speaks of some possible future products and platforms, not of what we have today.
Wishful thinking, collective delusion, or a marketing strategy?
Since it appears clearly that it cannot be rationally claimed that virtual world technologies are useful, in a general sense, for business meetings and classes, we can ask ourselves why so many people are insisting that this is the case. It could be that the people making these claims were victims of some form of wishful thinking; it could also be the case that they were victims of a collective form of delusion; finally, it could also be that they were making these claims as some form of marketing strategy. My personal impression is that these three factors operate simultaneously.
It’s human to mistake one’s own desires for reality. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to you, it happens to everybody, daily. When I entered SL, I immediately experienced immersion. Since I was experiencing it, I didn’t understand how it could be that other people weren’t experiencing it. I attributed this fact to several factors: they were not so good with computers as I am, the technology was too new and they needed some time to adapt, they were future-shocked, etc. It took me several months to realize the truth: they weren’t experiencing immersion because they were not interested in experiencing it; they simply didn’t want to “be” an avatar. I call my self-delusion “wishful thinking” because at the time I really desired that everybody had an avatar. One could do so many nice things if everybody had one and experienced immersion as I did! But, as time has teached me, my wishes and how things are in reality are completely different things.
Sometimes I think about Linden Lab. I don’t know the company from inside, but I can imagine it — a big company, formed by enthusiasts of virtual worlds. At least this was surely so at the beginning. Now the have hired new people, but it’s a dogma that they all must pretend to be very immersive and enjoy their virtual lifes very much — else LL would risk enraging the residents because they’ve put somebody who’s not “one of us”, who “understands nothing”, to manage a certain part of the company.
Isn’t that a perfect field for collective delusion? People from Linden Lab always explain how much they meet in Second Life, how they save considerably by doing so, and so on. If you think of it, it’s no surprise — it’s as if you asked people who attended a party in SL whether they believed they had attended a party: of course all of them would reply they had.
What I’m arguing here is that Linden Lab is not a good example of the composition of your average company or your average school. What they say they are experiencing must be true for them, but it cannot be generalized to other collectives. So that they must be suffering of some form of collective delusion, believing that what is good for them can be immediately extrapolated to other businesses.
We could also be a little more cynical and think that some Lindens are not under any form of delusion, but that they are speaking about the superiority of Second Life as a tool for companies and educational institutions as a form or marketing strategy. Saying so would give them part of the market, and in the meanwhile they could invest to better the platform, so that in a short time it would not be such an inferior beast, but more comparable to WebEx and the rest of the competition. They could also be hoping that virtual worlds would “go mainstream” (M Linden actually says so in many places, including the interview cited at the beginning of this post), etc.
The problem with such an strategy is that it is very risky. What’s happened to the companies I’ve been working for is happening now to a big number of other companies, and will happen in the near future to still more companies. And Linden Lab will have burnt these customers. As Adam Frisby says about a related topic (tele-workers), this risks provoking “yet-another-media ‘Are virtual worlds over-hyped?’ rush.”
Virtual world platforms like Second Life and Opensim are today not developed enough to be of use, in the general case, for companies wanting to hold meetings and for educational institutions. This does not mean that it’s false that, as the homepage for Opensim says, “many people are doing exciting things with it”. Promoting the use of Second Life or Opensim as a tool for enterprises and educators, without adding big warnings or disclaimers, is the best way to actually delay adoption of the technology for several years: early adopters will get burned and start a backslash against the technology.
I will end this post citing part of a comment by At0m0 Beerbaum in an article by the Second Life Alphaville Herald about my Openspace Fiasco article. It’s a comment that made me think a lot, and, seen in perspective, I have to say that I tend to agree with everything he says.
However, I said this months ago, SL is not a platform to do business on, it’s more of the spider enticing the fly into its web. Linden Labs has no interest in actually providing enterprise support, they just want to push out a half-assed system, claim it has business potential because it can play embedded video and has voice, and profit from it with lots of feel good sales speak.
Hell, they havent even properly implemented shadows in their mainstream client, nor did they go anywhere with windlight.
You can easily go with a cisco conferencing solution or any other video conferencing solution, and pay much less overall than what Linden Labs wants to charge for zero support, and small pieces of server space.
SL is an entertainment platform, aka, a game. If you want to conduct real business, go with a company that has experience in this field. Otherwise if you just want a time waster and some eye candy, or a marketing hook, then look into getting a sim.
Update 1: There was an error in the calculation of costs for Opensim which has now been corrected. Given the variety of uses and configurations for Opensim, it’s very difficult to estimate meaningful “minimum” and “average” values for the cost calculation. I’ve opted to set the minimum value to zero, assuming an intranet use where all services (voice, streaming video, etc) are provided by the intranet, and set the “average” value to the cost of a well-known provider + the cost for streaming video.
Update 2: I received some comments that made me realize that including Opensim in the cost table was not a good idea after all. Opensim is not a service (as Second Life and WebEx are), and therefore it doesn’t make sense to speak of “minimum” or “average” costs “for Opensim”. It would make sense if we chosed a determinate Opensim hosting provider, but again in this case there’s no clear “average”: OSGrid is free (if you can host your own sims), for example.