‘3D Virtual Campus Tours’ gains traction

I had a note from Andrew Hughes, Adjunct Instructor at the University of Cincinatti and head honcho of Designing Digitally Inc, on the success to date of their 3D Virtual Campus Tours product. Mirror worlds are of course well established and were one of the original ways universities and business have utilised virtual worlds.

Universities in particular are an obvious market, in that new students have a genuine interest in learning how to find their way around, to which virtual environments are ideally suited to help out.

I shot some questions back to Andrew Hughes to get some more information on where 3DVCT sees itself in the marketplace and where it sees its unique value is.

Q: What was the original impetus to develop specifically for campus tours?

A: We have built over 30 campuses inside Second Life, Opensim, and other virtual worlds only to find that we’re not thinking about the convenience factor for novice users. On the web we give around 2 seconds for a website to load before we move on. We were looking to build a browser-based campus and it just so happened that the United States Air Force Academy was looking for a virtual campus tour that was online and completely a browser based replica of their campus. We won the contract and have built a browser-based high end campus tour with built in communication tools and live and AI guided tours.

Q: What sort of response have you had to date from universities, including international universities?

A: We launched the product in March of this year. With the build we have done with the United States Air Force Academy, they have had four thousand recruits through the space at this current time. We have a handful of Universities both in the USA and outside the USA we’re building now but we are under NDA’s with them and cannot disclose their name, the nature of the campus’s needs etc until they are launched on the client’s website.

Q: We have a lot of readers who are educators: can you give a little insight on the platform 3DVCT is built on, including how easy it would be to implement at a university with more restricted IT infrastructure?

A: We’re using the Unity 3D gaming engine and a complex MMO system that is connected to a dynamic server or servers. The development of the system has a complete content management system for users, history, macros for the tours, and even the ability to control the AI bot and what she says within the CMS. The databases are able to fully integrate into an existing CRM or ERM software used by the university so that there is one streamlined process.

We work hard to learn the process from day one of a potential student to the date he or she signs up for the first class. We then build the system to be as integrated and as easy as possible for the University. We also have extensive experience in building in Unity 3D to the extent that we’ve been quoted by their CEO for our talents. The reason I state this as we can change the ports used to adhere to the client’s specifications. We also can cloud the system so that it loads faster and is a little less processor heavy on the end user.

Q: Obviously it will vary but can you give a ballpark cost for a standard university campus tour from development to implementation? And how do you think this compares to other options in the marketplace?

A: Our company is very good at what we do and so we’re in line with any other completely custom built browser-based virtual MMO developer. We also do pricing per enrollment size. So a smaller college will get a discounted rate depending on the pricing of the current student enrollment. Right now there is not a virtual world focused on just giving virtual campus tours. Right now in the industry other virtual campus tours are 360 panoramas or Google overhead maps. An experience like that won’t let the student see how big the dorm room is compared to his or her size, nor would it allow them to actually walk around a to-scale campus to see where everything is and get familiar with the campus by actually walking around in it or talking to a live admin rep through voice and text chat we have built in.

Our virtual space is built in the high end gaming engine called Unity 3D and has had over two years of R&D built into it, so that the process can be done quickly and at a professional level you cannot get from Second Life or any other virtual world out there.

Q: What arguments would you make for your platform as opposed to say a university going it alone and developing an OpenSim grid on which to mirror their university and conduct tours?

A: We have the ability to do the following, unlike the virtual worlds you speak of above:

1. Full AI Technology
2. Control over the avatar experience
3. Custom ability to change ports
4. Higher quality of development
5. Runs in a web browser
6. Does not have a large learning curve to get into the world
7. Fully customizable both interface, experience, branding, etc.
8. Ability to be skinned and placed on your website for full ownership
9. Full content management system for the ability to control bots, users, history user tracking where they were, etc.

This is far beyond what those other platforms could ever do – I state this as we’re well known for our SL and Opensim builds and we found that we cannot recruit students effectively.

Q: What are Designing Digitally’s plans for the coming year?

We are working on 3D training simulations, and virtual worlds for government and corporate clients. Many of them are either under NDA or classified government projects. We will be launching a financial literacy system for people to learn how to manage money, buying houses, etc. This will include both Flash and Unity simulations within it. We are also going to be going to the following conferences:

– ASTD 2012
– SALT 2012

3DVCT will be at:
– Noel-Levitz 2012
– NACAC 2012


So there you have it – the 3DVCT product has hitched its wagon firmly to the Unity3D platform, an obvious trend in the simulation field in particular. For what it’s worth, the time I spent checking out 3DVCT further reinforced to me the responsiveness of Unity3D. It’s not the panacea for everything but it’s dominating some key virtual world niches – which lays down a significant challenge to competitors. That can only be good for the ongoing evolution of the industry.

Linden Lab CEO: enter the bot armies!

Linden Lab CEO Rod Humble has posted an update to Second Life residents on progress and future plans. Have a read for yourself in full here, but the most interesting part for me was this:

Over the next few months (with testing most likely starting in December), we will be rolling out a series of more advanced features. These will make the creation of artificial life and artificial people much smoother. For starters, we’ll unveil a new, robust pathfinding system that will allow objects to intelligently navigate around the world avoiding obstacles. Imagine being able to create advanced pets, creatures or even a living town where non-player characters are walking about. Combined with the experience tools I mentioned above, it should soon be possible to create more advanced MMORPG’s or interactive experiences which use AI right within Second Life.

It’s a good enhancement in so many ways, and its timing is good with the unveiling of improved AI world navigation capabilities for Unity 3.5. It certainly keeps Linden Lab in the game and provides some interesting content creation opportunities currently not available.

Of course, this story’s title is tongue in cheek but it fits this announcement as no doubt someone will use the new features for nefarious purposes…

Why Second Life is already second-best for education

The announcement by Linden Lab in the past 24 hours that their discounting of pricing for educators and non-profits would cease in January 2011, has engendered the expected level of outrage. And rightly so, given the critical mass of educators that have generated significant outcomes for Second Life. In fact, it could be argued that it’s only the good news stories generated by the non-profits that have helped offset some of the negative aspects inflated by parts of the mainstream media and others. The comments section below the announcement is well worth a read: even taking out the initial emotion, the overwhelming attitude is that it’s time to downsize or move on. Of course, the migration to OpenSim grids is already well underway, for a range of reasons.

As someone who follows virtual worlds pretty closely, I thought I understood the specific reasons for the move from Second Life fairly well. However, I only got the full picture over the past month, when I needed to explore options for my own education-related build. Without boring you with detail, I’m looking at conducting some research that will involve some fairly complex simulations. When I wrote the proposal for the research, I was already assuming that Second Life wouldn’t necessarily be the platform due to cost constraints (and this was before the price-rise announcement). That assumption was confirmed after some detailed discussions with a number of people, including someone developing a number of education-related projects including one aligned with my own proposal.

Based on those discussions and my own observations, here’s the key reasons I’ll not be working in Second Life for my education project (and most likely using either Unity3D, OpenSim or both):

Content creation: Although SL provides some great scripting options, the learning curve is significant and there’s minimal support for defacto design and modelling platforms. This leads to the need to either hire an SL builder or give up a significant chunk of time to learn a scripting language that’s not transferable elsewhere (except in some respects to OpenSim).

Structured learning: There is minimal ability in SL to guide avatars through particular experiences. Heads-up displays can work to some extent, but the scene-by-scene capability of Unity3D is head and shoulders above.

Reliability: ignoring historical challenges, the fact remains that down-time in SL is totally at the mercy of Linden Lab. A standalone OpenSim grid or a Unity3D installation aren’t as susceptible.

Client: SL being still being a standalone client makes it a bigger challenge to use for education that a web-based client. That may change in the medium-term but it’s a deal-breaker for purposes where dedicated PCs aren’t an option.

Ease of use: One of the key weaknesses of SL is it’s ease of use, particularly for new users. It’s something that has improved and will continue to improve. Although competitors aren’t markedly better, they certainly aren’t worse.

I want to make an important point: Second Life deserves to continue to grow and I’m still confident it will, albeit with a very different focus to what it has now. The decision on education pricing fits the wider business model as it now stands. Even that is fine, if it’s based on confidence of a new market and unshakeable faith that the current shortcomings of SL will be overcome soon enough. On the face of it, that market isn’t apparent and the improvements still seem a while away.

I’d love to hear from educators / non-profits at the coalface. Emotions aside – have you started considering moving away from Second Life, and if so why?

Update: Linden Lab have made a follow-up statement with a rather interesting take on things.

Merged realities – events and issues for virtual worlds

1. As mentioned previously, Deakin University’s Jon-Paul Cacioli is conducting a study on body image in virtual worlds. He needs around 300 males to complete the survey, and to date has received over 100 responses. If you have time, please take the survey.

2. If, like me, the idea of a Lego MMO appeals like hell to you, it’s not too late to sign up for the closed beta.

3. Don’t forget our newest Columnist, Second Lie, is waiting for your questions.

4. Edward Castronova has a fascinating post over on Terra Nova covering his evolving thoughts on role-playing, the intrusion of monetary transactions and ‘the magic circle’.

5. 3D world development platform Unity has reached 100 thousand registered developers.

6. Tateru Nino has a great post on intellectual property rights over at Massively.

7. Have you joined the Metaverse Aid team yet?

8. Frenzoo continues its evolution with addition of Facebook Connect for new users (with current users receiving that access soon) and a new ‘mini-machinima’ feature.

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