Tuesday, January 24, 2012

EDUC 8848: Second LIfe - Disruptive Technology or Fad?

Second Life and other virtual worlds like it have received a tremendous amount of attention across different disciplines including education. Some have labeled them the future of the Internet while others regard them as yet another fad that will come and go. So how do we judge this technology? If it is truly a disruptive technology, then any analysis of this type must begin by examining what it seeks to replace, as well as its success in doing so.

Philip Rosedale delivered a TEDtalk in 2008 in which he discussed his vision and ideas in developing Second Life. He described how he hoped a virtual world would allow individuals to create and explore ideas unfettered by the constraints of the real world. More interesting, Rosedale proposed that virtual worlds such as Second Life challenge conventional assumptions about the web and how information is produced and consumed.  He pointed out that for much of the history of the Internet, content mimicked older traditions such as books or documents. Textual representation in the form of words dominated the way in which information was presented and consumed. Second Life, according to Rosedale, seeks to return proximity to discussion and information creation & consumption by placing individuals in a representational space. In doing so, direct experience (or a simulation of it) replaces abstract representation, thus reintroducing interaction both individual-to-individual and individual-to-object. Rosedale went as far as to suggest that this creation and consumption process in innately social, and where the Internet represented a model for consumption, virtual worlds offer a more collaborative, interactive space.

A second important question that an analysis of this type must ask is whether or not the technology is truly disruptive in the sense that it 1) establishes an alternative paradigm that appeals to non-consumers of the existing technology and 2) incites some level of change in the mainstream technology. In terms of offering an alternative paradigm, I would not classify Second Life as purely disruptive. Without deeply researching the characteristics of Second Life users, I would guess that they continue to use the Internet. Certainly Second Life offers a different paradigm, but the users attracted to it are not necessarily non-consumers of conventional Internet applications. In fact, many Second Life users rely on conventional Internet applications such as text-based web pages and blogs to narrate their adventures, provide information, and direct others to e-commerce offerings within Second Life. Thus, on this principle at least, I would not classify Second Life as disruptive.
In the second criteria, inciting some level of change in mainstream technology, Second Life might be considered more successful. The transition from so-called web 1.0 technology to web 2.0 technology represented the emergence of far more interactive, collaborative applications and designs. Spaces like Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia interject social interaction into how information is created and digested, one of the fundamental principles Rosedale cited as core to virtual worlds. Can one attribute the transition from web 1.0 to web 2.0 to Second Life? I would argue that Second Life along with a wide variety of other technologies certainly influenced and informed those developments, although I would be careful not to overestimate the importance of any one innovation. 

Yet, the three-dimensional representation of space does not appear to have diffused across the web. Perhaps typical consumers perceived it to be a little too similar to a video game or perhaps the prospect of learning to navigate in a three-dimensional space was simply too much a departure for the current generation. Many disruptive innovations first appear well before the point at which general society is ready for them. Sometimes the radical departure from the norm they represent takes time to diffuse and gain acceptance. It is at least possible that Second Life or another application like it will be far more popular and accepted in 5, 10, or 20 years, assuming that another technology does not emerge in its place. 
So, how do we evaluate Second Life? Is it a disruptive technology and if so, how successful has it been? If we define a disruptive technology tightly, then it does not appear to meet the two criteria outlined. However, if we are more liberal with our interpretation, we can say that Second Life has had an effect on the status quo and forced mainstream web technology to evolve and adapt. While Second Life itself may not persist into the next decade, its emergence does represent a significant step in the redefinition of the web.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rhymes of History

Exploration & Discovery

For much of human history, we have been explorers. Something in our nature drives us to seek out the unknown, sailing across vast oceans, traversing the highest mountains, and even propelling ourselves into space. Yet, as our civilization has evolved, we have become far more sedentary. Museums, zoos, aquariums, and planetariums emerged as a way for the average person to experience the unknown and the exotic, bringing those interactions into translocational spaces. Marxist criticisms aside, these spaces served an important function, allowing people to fulfill their innate need to explore and discover. Yet in recent years, budget cuts, dropping attendance, and ethical considerations around the fetishism of cultural and natural artifacts have had an enormous impact on these institutions. Some might argue that technological innovations have contributed to this phenomenon, and while that might be true, it is equally true that these innovations are rekindling that sense of exploration and discovery (Laureate Education, Inc., 2009). While one could select any number of technologies to represent this trend, those that bring the stars and space exploration to the fingertips of the user are especially interesting.

There are an abundance of mobile and web applications being released each day that allow the user to track the stars, explore far away galaxies, see satellite images of other planets, and experience what it is like to pilot a space shuttle. Particularly innovative are the so-called augmented reality applications that overlay digital images onto real life perspectives. Kevin Kelly (2007), in his discussion of the next 5,000 days of the Internet, suggests that as the web evolves, we can expect more and more blending of the atomistic and digital worlds, culminating in an Internet of things. While I understand and agree with much of what he suggests, I might characterize it as the Internet of experience rather than the Internet of things. Technologies such as these astronomy apps present a level of interactivity that museums and planetariums rarely were able to provide. And perhaps more importantly, the experience is individualized and on demand, making it a far more personal experience.

Star Walk is one of the most popular iPhone applications on the market today. The application allows the user to point his or her camera at the sky and see what stars, planets, and constellations they are looking at in real time. It also allows the user to “zoom in” taking the user on a digital exploration of astronomical phenomena such as supernovas and black holes. Applications such as these challenge the barriers of physical space, allowing the user to take a journey without ever leaving the comfort of their own backyard while simultaneously rekindling the childhood fantasy of one day walking on the moon.

Kelly, K. (2007). The next 5,000 days of the web [speech]. Speech delivered at the EG 2007 Conference, Los Angeles. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/kevin_kelly_on_the_next_5_000_days_of_the_web.html

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2009). Rhymes of history. Baltimore, MD: Author.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

EDUC 8848: Module 2 Posting - McLuhan's Tetrad and the iPad

The iPad: if you haven't heard of the iPad by now, then you are most likely living in a cave in some remote region of the world. The learning community I am working with chose to explore this emerging technology through McLuhan's tetrad. As an emerging technology, the iPad has had a profound influence on the technology market despite the short amount of time it has been on the market. A number of software applications have been rewritten to accommodate the iPad, while other new applications have been introduced to take advantage of its capabilities. In addition, other companies are beginning to introduce touchscreen tablets based on the iPad's success. While the future of the iPad is uncertain, it will no doubt be remembered as having a significant effect on computing.

The iPad is revolutionary because of the way in which it challenges the typical human-computer interface story. It is far more mobile than a laptop, yet almost as powerful, rivaling smart phone capabilities. Furthermore, Apple's application-based system coupled with touchscreen interface narrows the gap between user and technology, providing a more kinesthetic and contextual level of interaction. All of this makes the iPad a much more versatile and personal experience for computing, which in turn will, at least in theory, help integrate the iPad into people's day to day lives more seamlessly.

The iPad has also challenged the notion that smaller, more streamlined technologies are suitable only for consumption. The iPad provides a highly powerful yet compact technology for creation with a wealth of applications developed specifically for this type of task.

I find it unlikely that the iPad will replace desktop or even laptop computers, at least not within the next 20 years. There are still tasks and operations that require much more processing power and screen real estate than the iPad can provide. However, the iPad will obsolete netbooks rather quickly. The simplistic design coupled with a revolutionary interface herald the demise of stripped down laptop computers intended for surfing the Net.

The revolutionary interface represented by the iPad is actually a throwback of sorts. The notion of direct interface with a task or operation has laid dormant since the introduction of the keyboard and mouse. Yet, many people still crave the tactile sensation that comes from manipulating an object or a technology in a direct manner. The iPad reintroduces that ability, providing users with more direct interaction experiences. This is perhaps particularly intriguing for games and simulations. Already we are seeing the introduction of hybrids that incorporate more tactile gaming experiences. In 2012, Nintendo will introduce Wii U that relies on a tablet-like interface as a game control. This functionality will enhance the already popular motion gaming trend, adding additional momentum to the re-introduction of direct experience.

The iPad represents a significant leap forward in further minimizing the distance between the user and the technology. I see it as a step in the direction towards direct user input through neural interface. As I look across the evolutions, I see the technology becoming more and more integrated with our physical forms. I suspect that it will not be long before the technology is directly integrated into our biology. While this may sound like science fiction, consider how various technologies such as bluetooth headsets and motion capture gloves are more and more commonly employed.