Well, if you’re still reading after a glance at the title, and not sniggering as you mutter “Second what?” you are probably either very interested in technology or perhaps just naturally curious. I was initially attracted to the virtual world, because, well, yes, because I like technology, but because it gave me the chance to attend conferences from my own sofa at home, and being in Second Life gave me the feeling, to some extent of “being there” rather than simply watching a video, or attending a webinar.
The image you can see here shows me, or rather my avatar, attending the SLanguages conference in Second Life in 2012, and I was so enthusiastic about it all. The delegates, it has to be said, were either young, slim and attractive or, well, just strange. It was not uncommon to see pigs flying around, for instance. The presentation theatre, you can see on the left, literally took you out of yourself. Some people used to give classic presentations loading their slides onto the screen there, but others took us on workshops exploring this virtual world. I remember being teleported to art galleries, to a reconstruction of the Bayeux Tapestries and to an amazing place where you could experience Hamlet as never before and to a Danish design place where we wandered around houses and my avatar got stuck n a bath!
An Immersive, Democratic Space
Yes, but how is that connected to teaching? I hear you cry. Well, there were, and occasionally still are, many universities and campuses and language schools at the time, including a space created by the British Council and and it was hailed as a democratic space for various reasons. I remember stories of the disabled or elderly feeling free to move around there or not to be discriminated against. One lady said that she was doing an English course and the other students just treated her as ‘a peer’ so for her it really was a ‘second life’. It was described as an immersive space because you could actually ‘move around’ or your avatar could and one school, I remember, teaching airline safety procedures, had created an entire aircraft where crew members could practise safety procedures. The possibilities were endless, limited only by your imagination, and a lot of money was invested in ‘building’. Workshops were held to teach anyone interested how to build and create objects, and we thought the future had already arrived.
Facebook arrived on the scene
Then, Facebook arrived on the scene and the Second Life users began to leave. It was not so much that Facebook was a competitor, but rather a sea change in the general way people were using technology. Social media was becoming more and more popular and smart phones were taking off. Nowadays, phones are much more popular, in fact, than computers and Whatsapp is king…. At least for the moment. So what happened? Why did a world that promised so much actually not catch on? There is no simple answer to this, but I remember balking at asking students at the university to invest the time in creating avatars, dressing those avatars, creating inventories of objects and learning to move around in a world that looks suspiciously like a game. Intellectually, I could see the promise but my heart, somehow, was not in it. There were also a few bugs with the beta version of the software, that was introduced, and it did not really work on smartphones (although I don’t know if that is still true).
All these things, however, might not have been unsurmountable but the basic problem, I think, was another one. It was, at least, as far as I was concerned, that although this was supposed to be immersive, it actually did not go far enough and Leslie Jamieson puts it perfectly in an article in The Atlantic written in December 2017, entitled The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future:
“One day when Alice and I met up as avatars, she took me to a beach on one of the Virtual Ability islands and invited me to practice tai chi. All I needed to do was click on one of the poseballs levitating in the middle of a grassy circle, and it would automatically animate my avatar. But I did not feel that I was doing tai chi. I felt that I was sitting at my laptop, watching my two-dimensional avatar do tai chi.”
When I read this it struck a chord with me, because that was how I felt too. Watching my Avatar drink a coffee was simply not the same as actually drinking a coffee. Second Life was, and is, a breathtaking place, and I went back to visit last week, stopping in at the Edunation islands where I had so enthusiastically taken part in the conferences, but it was also a very sad visit because so few of the places I used to visit still exist and the ones that do were deserted.
So where is the future?
It’s hard to tell where the future lies, and in fact, most people, I think, embrace technology as part of their real lives, rather than wanting to escape to virtual worlds. Linden Lab, who created Second Life, have now created a new world called Sansar, which was recently launched to the public, which is a virtual reality space compatible with VR Headsets like Oculus Rift as well as being able to explore it on PCs. It aims to provide a democratic space where virtual reality experiences can be both enjoyed and created. As with Second Life, it has great potential. Virtual Reality in any case is predicted as being the next big thing, and it is certainly true that my learners, for instance, find the immersive experience of rehearsing presentations or job interviews with apps such as Virtual Speech and Oculus or Google Cardboard headsets to be extremely useful, but once again, these are being used by putting smartphones directly into the headsets, so there is an element of slotting the virtual reality experience into your normal life. Who knows if this is the future or not. I am always open to new ideas but I must say that the whole Second Life story leaves me feeling a bit sad.