Monday, November 03, 2008

Second Life for Science and Scholarship

Demonstration of a Lorenz Attractor in Second Life.

I created the little video above as a simple example of how you can implement a dynamical 3D model in Second Life. All you need to do make a rudimentary demonstration of a Lorenz attractor is to create a set of particles in SL, and to embed a script inside each of the particles to tell it how to move according to the equations that govern the Lorenz attractor. The simulation itself is then automatically carried out by the SL virtual reality engine, whilst you move your virtual camera around the simulated Lorenz attractor in order to film a demonstration. That's all there is to creating the rather basic video that I posted above.

Some additional points:
  1. Each particle's motion leaves behind it a trail of "hot embers" that gradually cools off yellow/orange/red until it vanishes. This traces out the Lorenz attractor so we can easily see it.
  2. In this example I moved the camera manually rather than by scripting its motion, so the camera motion is rather clumsy.
  3. I had planned to include a voice-over commentary, but found that all my attention was needed just to operate my mouse and keyboard, so all you can hear is the occasional mouse-click.
  4. The background scenery is not actually relevant to this demonstration, which I performed in a small corner of my cliff-top land holding in Second Life. But maybe you can see a few objects of interest in the background.
  5. The almost invisible translucent motion in the background is an animated movie that I am displaying on a large screen I built in SL. More to come later on this...
That leads me onto the main subject of this posting.

George Djorgovski, Professor of Astronomy at Caltech, has a guest post at Cosmic Variance in which he vividly describes his experiences in using the virtual world Second Life for science and scholarship. To those who think that SL is just a game he offers the following advice:
Judging by my own experience, there is no way that you can really understand all this just by reading or listening; you have to try it. It is a fundamentally visceral, as well as an intellectual experience. It is as if you have never seen a bicycle, let alone ridden one, and someone was showing you pictures of people having a good time biking around, and telling you what a fun it is. Please keep that in mind. You gotta try it, then judge for yourself.
On the quality of the virtual experience he writes:
What really surprised me; knocked my virtual socks off, so to speak; is the subjective quality of the interpersonal interaction. Even with the still relatively primitive graphics, the same old flat screen and keyboard, and a limited avatar functionality, it is almost as viscerally convincing as a real life interaction and conversation. Somehow, our minds and perceptive systems interpolate over all of the imperfections, and it really clicks. I cannot explain it; it has to be experienced; it is not a rational, but a subjective phenomenon. It is much better than any video- or teleconferencing system I have tried, and like most of you, I have suffered through many of those. As a communication device, this is already a killer app. Going back to the good old email and Web feels flat and lame.
On the use of SL for science and scholarship he writes:
So the first major scholarly use of [virtual worlds] is as a communication, interaction, and collaboration venue. This includes individual, group, or collaboration meetings, seminars, or even full-blown conferences. You can interact with your colleagues as if they were in the same room, and yet they may be half way around the world.
And he writes much more about how virtual worlds in general (and Second Life in particular) are a key technology in the future of science and scholarship. Commentary, such as this by George Djorgovski, on the serious (rather than gaming) use of Second Life is to be welcomed.

I never have travelled well, typically arriving at conferences totally knackered and not recovering for days, so I look forward to virtual meetings becoming the norm, at least for short meetings, that is. Also, I have a highly visual way of explaining science (to myself and to others), so I look forward to building illustrative 3D dynamical models in SL. I think a key technology that is missing here is ready access to a higher-level set of tools for building and scripting such models in SL, at least that is what I see as being the main thing that is slowing down my progress in using SL.

This is only the start of what is to come...

1 comment:

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