Category Archives: Research

Link Between Violence and Games Refuted

kingsmouth2The evidence has been there in dribs and drabs for years, but a recently published study puts the hole issue to bed in a commanding way:

This article presents 2 studies of the association of media violence rates with societal violence rates. In the first study, movie violence and homicide rates are examined across the 20th century and into the 21st (1920–2005). Throughout the mid-20th century small-to-moderate correlational relationships can be observed between movie violence and homicide rates in the United States. This trend reversed in the early and latter 20th century, with movie violence rates inversely related to homicide rates. In the second study, videogame violence consumption is examined against youth violence rates in the previous 2 decades. Videogame consumption is associated with a decline in youth violence rates. Results suggest that societal consumption of media violence is not predictive of increased societal violence rates.

So there you have it. Those who have worked in the field aren’t likely to be surprised, but the general public will have their preconceptions pretty heavily challenged by this. What’s your take?

The Omni: Another Piece In The Consumer VR Puzzle

I have to say, it doesn’t get much more exciting in this field than what’s occurring from an equipment viewpoint over the next year. I’ve talked about the touchless Leap Motion interface already (it’s due to be released pretty soon) and then there’s the Oculus Rift as arguably the first high quality consumer VR headset. Both of these are likely to form part of my PhD research, but there’s a third piece of the puzzle that while unlikely to be used in my research, will fulfil a long term desire in regards to gaming.

It’s called the Omni and it looks like it’s going to bring an affordable human movement option. I’ve always loved the idea of being able to get fit from gaming, and the Omni may just pull that off if it achieves what it’s planning to.


Have a look for yourself and note that the headset is the Oculus Rift, not a component of the Omni:

The team are still currently raising funds – they were seeking 150K and close to 900K has been pledged, so there’s no shortage of interest. Check out the full details including some further videos here.

The Lab: virtual worlds and support for Asperger’s

This story originally appeared over at The Metaverse Journal.

Over the past few months or I’ve followed the efforts of Dale Linegar and Stefan Schutt in establishing what is now known as The Lab. Dedicated to providing support and skills to 10-16 year olds with Asperger’s Syndrome, The Lab is already showing some great results. It’s one of those initiatives that deserves much more kudos and funding than it is currently receiving. You’ll understand why after reading the interview I conducted with the Lab’s co-founders.

David: First, a little about The Lab team. Can you give a snapshot of your backgrounds?

Stefan: For the last seven years I’ve been an educator and researcher at Victoria University, working with technology and young people and teaching multimedia. Before this I worked in the Internet industry during and after the dot com boom as a content editor, producer, web developer and interaction designer. I also set up Australia’s first Computer Clubhouse, a tech skills club for underprivileged kids in Fitzroy based on the model established by the MIT Media Lab in Boston. Before all this, I worked as a writer and played in bands.

Dale: I started working with Stefan at Victoria University (VU) in 2007, teaching in Creative Industries. He had a lot of faith in the virtual worlds work I was doing then, and we have collaborated on at least half a dozen projects together since. We work well together, our skills complement each other. I run a business called Oztron, which does work for VU, Monash School of Pharmacy, and a range of other clients – most involving research and education in virtual worlds.

David: So what specifically has let you to working in this area?

Stefan: We had taught multimedia students with Asperger’s at VU and they seemed to particularly enjoy working with technology, especially the virtual worlds activities Dale was running. This led to a trial with two teenagers in Gippsland funded by Optus Communities. The results were promising and from this we applied to VicHealth for a one-on-one research project to pilot different kinds of technologies with young people with disabilities and other disadvantages. This project found that one-on-one technical tutoring seemed to work particularly well with kids with Asperger’s, and this led to the setting up of The Lab.

Dale: I think after that there were a few factors involved with us deciding to give this a go. We had established through those projects that this approach could work, and that there was a need for it. Once you reach this stage you can either publish and hope that somebody will eventually read what you write and take action, or you can give it a go yourself. The amount of money involved wasn’t huge so we decided to do it ourselves. At this time I was also meeting one young boy with Asperger’s and his mother for regular mentoring at McDonalds, we initally started at the library but were told we were making too much noise. This wasn’t ideal, and it required a lot of travel time to deal with one person.

All of this coincided with my business needing a physical location to work on a few larger contracts. This has provided us with the space, the technology and the human resources required to run The Lab.

David: For those not in the know, how prevalent is Asperger’s amongst the teen population?

Stefan: For Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in general (which includes Asperger’s Syndrome), estimates for Victoria ranged in 2006 from 27 per 10 000 to 54 per 10 000. The prevalence appears to be increasing rapidly and there is debate about whether this is due to increased rates of diagnosis or increasing numbers of people with ASD.

David: Onto The Lab: it’s only just really started in earnest, what’s the journey been like to get to this stage?

Dale: Fascinating and rewarding. It’s a simple idea but when you see the immediate impact it has on both the children and their parents it’s incredibly satisfying. The process actually started with myself and Stefan walking around Footscray knocking on doors asking about vacant office and retail spaces. After a few hours we had found a suitable space, and once it becomes real like that, it takes on a life of its own. It took around 5 months from that day until we opened the doors for kids.

Some simple tasks have turned out to be a nightmare, like getting connected to the internet, and other things which initially seemed complex, like getting somebody who could work with the parents on board, involving our technology mentors, and attracting the right young people, have worked out better than we dared imagine. The physical space The Lab is in is also Oztron’s office, and it has been designed to encourage collaboration. The kids are very comfortable there – it feels more like some kind of gaming den than an office or school.

Stefan’s role at Victoria University and our previous project work means that we have a wide support network, and we have drawn on that throughout the process for advice and support in the many areas we lack knowledge in.

David: So who is funding The Lab at present and is the funding relatively secure?

Stefan: The Lab is currently unfunded, or more accurately, indirectly funded through the virtual world software development projects Dale runs for a range of organisations, as well as small amounts of left over funding from previous VU projects. Funding may be forthcoming later in the year via a Cooperative Research Centre in youth, technology and wellbeing run by the Inspire Foundation that we’re part of – but this is yet to be fully discussed with the CRC. Until then, we’re looking for other funding sources.

David: What is the scope of activities The Lab is involved in?

Dale: We currently run one session a week for 3 hours for 8 kids, and more sessions during holidays for a wider audience. What we try to do is provide as many different technology platforms as possible for the young people, which they can use to explore their own interests. Our aim is not to lead the students, but to support them and encourage collaboration. We provide students with a laptop stand, keyboard, mouse, second monitor, and network connection. We have a local server which is currently running Minecraft and allows filesharing – the kids can also log into this and play together from home. Once the kids come in it’s a case of – ‘What do you want to do?’

One of the hit pieces of software so far has been Minecraft, and this has ended up serving as a social and creative outlet for the kids. For young people who need to learn about social interaction, this has been great, they need to co-operate and respect each others’ territory. Last week we introduced an Arduino, an open-source electronic hardware and software kit comprising of a circuit board that can be programmed to do specific things, starting with simple things like making flashing lights and musical instruments and going up to projects like complex sensor-based triggering and robots with avoidance detection. The Arduino proved to be very popular, and we have now ordered a few more kits. It’s a great way to introduce kids to programming because the payoff is immediate and satisfying.

We also have a separate room where Stefan and Trish (our parent co-ordinator) hold an informal gathering for the parents each week. This gives both the kids and parents a bit of personal space. They can chat about issues they are having over a cup of tea, and discuss possible avenues of support. Trish has just organised for a psychologist to attend every fortnight, and we also have other experts with an interest in the field dropping by to offer assistance.

David: You use OpenSim, Spore and Minecraft to name three virtual environments. Let’s talk OpenSim first: has it primarily been a cost issue that’s led to its use versus say Second Life, or has there been other advantages to OpenSim?

Dale: As a business we use Opensim for nearly all of our work at the moment including Pharmatopia for Monash and a construction world for Victoria University. Second Life doesn’t provide a space where where we have total control, and people of all ages can interact, so as educators we were forced to make the switch a couple of years ago now. Like many people out there I personally have a love/hate relationship with Second Life – I love the possibilities it has created, but I have issues with the way it has been managed and promoted.

David: So what exactly are you doing in OpenSim?

Dale: We haven’t really introduced it to the wider group at The Lab because we are waiting for that opportunity to present itself, it’s up to the kids. We will run our own Opensim world which will be available to the group only – the plan is to create 8 islands and the rest is up to them. Many of the young people with Asperger’s we have worked with over the past couple of years continue to use Second Life. One young lady is using Second Life to bring her characters to life. She has written an amazing story about a group of female superheroes, and drawn pictures, and is now using the virtual world to bring her characters into the third dimension.

Another young man we work with has his dream house in Second Life and is constantly renovating, he lives in rural Victoria so for him it’s a great escape. We have also used Comic Life quite a bit in the past and will probably introduce this to interested Lab participants at some stage.

David: A common criticism of OpenSim (and Second Life) is the initial learning curve: has that been a greater or lesser issue with the teens you’ve been working with?

Stefan: Yes and no. What surprised us in our last project is how much Second Life and OpenSim rely on text-based navigation. We’d always thought of them as visual interfaces until then, but as we found out when working with kids with very low literacy levels, so much of the navigation is achieved by typing in text, which can cause issues for some kids. For others, they’ve taken to it like ducks to water, especially the younger ones. We also wonder whether the ‘learning curve’ referred to is related only to the ‘end user’ or also the people running the activity (ie teachers and managers) – this is where a lot of the problems seem to arise in terms of access, web speeds, and associated lag, plus generational issues like people not used to navigating in 3d or navigating via arrow keys like, erm, me. I always get Dale to do the practical demos because I’m so unskilled at it!

David: Now onto Spore: how are you using it?

Dale: We only use the free creature creator, firstly because it’s free, and secondly because it’s all about being creative. It’s a great icebreaker, many of the young kids we work with have already played it, and it acts as a catalyst for communication. It also gets kids into a more creative frame of mind, to feel the pleasure of making something as opposed to getting stuck competing in other games.

David: And Minecraft?

Dale: It can appear to an outsider as one of those ‘click-click-click’ games but when the kids are playing on a server together it allow for some wonderful creativity and encourages communication and collaboration. One of our mentors has built his own computer in it and knows it backwards, and the kids respect this.

David: Has Minecraft been a bit of a revelation for the work you are doing? It sort of came out of nowhere and has caught on quickly.

Dale: It has been surprising how many of the kids enjoy it, I think every one of them has played it at some stage now, and there are regularly 5 or 6 of the kids on the server during our sessions. There is a lot to learn, so I see it as the group exploring a new territory together – in this case a virtual one. They feed off each other and go on journeys, learning things they might not learn alone.

David: Talking more broadly again now, what are the individual benefits and outcomes you’ve seen so far amongst the participants?

Stefan: One big factor so far seems to be the environment of The Lab – i.e. a space where young people with Asperger’s are not picked on (unlike school, where bullying is constant), where they’re accepted and where being a ‘geek’ is even cool, and where they are surrounded by other people like them – both other kids and the programmers who are a kind of role model. Also, where their parents aren’t hovering the whole time! They’re relaxed because they’re not pushed to do anything, or to interact if they don’t want to. They can sit happily at the screen without being bugged – but the expert advice is on hand whenever they request it.

Having said that though, the level of kid-to-kid interaction to date has been quite amazing – here we’re talking about kids who don’t have any friends at all in the outside world, but who are happily chatting away and playing with others, both in-world and in the physical space.

Another factor is the technology itself, and the presence of experts to whom they can look up and respect (they usually run rings around other adults when it comes to IT). Tied to this is the sense of possible future careers, and a way into the future. This is very powerful – already we’ve heard reports of one parent halving her child’s anxiety medication dose due to his reduced anxiety levels about his future.

David: Let’s talk research: is there an underlying research methodology being used for The Lab?

Stefan: We would classify our approach as ‘participatory action research’ – our focus is on hands-on outcomes driven by all stakeholders in collaboration, and implemented (and continuously improved) by all involved. It’s based on making a real difference to real people’s lives rather than sitting back as the researchers in the white coats. It’s proudly interventionist and practical, and has a strong element of social activism.

David: Are there specific research projects underway and if so can you give a brief overview of any?

Dale: The Lab is it! We may choose to work with others in the future to measure outcomes empirically – especially researchers who are experts in ASD (which we’re not)

David: What are the measures of success for you with The Lab?

Stefan: In the short term, happier kids, happier families, and a sense of progress amongst participants. We rely heavily on feedback from the kids and the parents. It will always be tough to measure our impact in a quantitative way as each of these young kids is so unique and we are only dealing with small numbers. It’s not like we can create a control group. But we are looking to work with experts in the Autism field who may be able to measure the effects on individuals and their families over time – this is where the Cooperative Research Centre, and its 70 or so partner organisations, will hopefully come in.

David: Are there any qualitative or quantitative outcomes you’re able to see already?

Stefan: Yes. We’ve already had remarkable email and verbal feedback from participants’ parents about their children’s improvement, only three weeks into the beginning of the program. We also have 20 plus kids on our waiting list. Other parents have been ringing us daily after finding out about The Lab. It seems to have really hit a nerve. As stated previously, we’d like to get other measures too, working with field experts.

David: Given the central use of virtual environments in the program, are there any plans to expand the program geographically?

Stefan: Currently The Lab has three interlocking elements that work together: participant socialisation, technical tuition and parental networking/support. Any of those three elements would be useful in themselves (for instance, we’re arranging for a software engineer to undertake private volunteer programming tuition with one of the kids on our waiting list), but the combination of the three is especially powerful. So we could run virtual programs, and they could be useful, but some of those three elements might be missed.

Dale: My feeling is that having personal contact is still important in modern society, in this case for both the kids and their parents. We hope to build online resources which can help people at home, but nothing beats a one-to-one conversation with somebody who knows what they are talking about. I hope that we can inspire other real-world institutions to become involved.

David: Getting out the crystal ball: what are you hoping The Lab has achieved a year from now?

Stefan: What we are striving for is an effective model that can be replicated in other places and can positively influence the way society thinks about these kids, particularly in the education system which seems to be manifestly unsuited to a group of young people who are very talented.

Dale: Currently so many of the young people and their parents simply have nowhere to turn – they are stuck between normal schools and special schools, neither of which meet their needs. These people have a lot to offer to society – we deal with kids who can program their own games, but aren’t able to attend school and are at risk of being disadvantaged their entire lives. I hope that we can help support people and organisations who are interested in adopting this type of model, and I hope we can expand and deal with more kids more regularly. We live in an age where we have the opportunity to use technology to create
positive social change, and we are enjoying every moment of it.

JVWR latest issue

The latest issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research has been out for a few weeks now, and I’ve been meaning to posts a synopsis, so here’s exactly that for  the peer-reviewed articles in Volume 3, No.3, with some horribly abbreviated summaries of findings for those too lazy to read the articles or the abstracts themselves.

 Synthesizing Presence: A Multidisciplinary Review of the Literature

 A detailed cross-discipline review of research on presence. 97 citations were found across Mass Communnications, Human-Computer Interfaces, Education and Psychology. Findings: there are very different perspectives on the issue depnding on the discipline and that an agreed framework for understanding the area is needed to move forward.

Collecting conversations: three approaches to obtaining user-to-user communications data from virtual environments

A very interesting look at how one effectively captures user-to-user communications in a virtual world environment. There’s a focus on establishing accuracy and three methods of collecting data are assessed within a Japanese MMO, Uncharted Waters Online. Findings: All three approaches explored are statistically viable and the choice of method depends on the individual research.

Developing an Obesity Prevention Intervention in Virtual Worlds: The International Health Challenge in Second Life

 A detailed look at a Second Life-based health initiative tackling obesity. An in-world exercise program, health information and social support was provided with promising outcomes. Challenges and opportunities of the approach are outlined. Findings: Good participation occurred, there were challenges in recruitment and retention and technical hurdles with Second Life were a barrier to a number of potential participants. Further research is recommended on optimal in-world exercise programs to deliver physical world results.


Aside from those three articles, there’s a group of research papers:

 Design Principles for Doing Business on Second Life: an immersive ethnographic study

 Virtual Assisted Self Interviewing (VASI): An Expansion of Survey Data Collection Methods to Virtual Worlds by Means of VDCI

 Third Places Take First Place in Second Life: Developing a Scale to Measure the ‘Stickiness’ of Virtual World Sites

Methodology of a Novel Virtual Phenomenology Interview Technique

It’s fair to say that the research being undertaken continues to grow, although I remain a little concerned at the level of research demonstrating detailed qualitative or quantitative outcomes. It’s happening, but unfortunately at this stage the industry is still very fragmented and disseminating that information is challenging. Journals like the JVWR are obviously helping in that regard.

Telenoid: the next generation in simulation

As a clinician fascinated by the use of new technologies to achieve outcomes, it’s hard to go past anything that is looking at bridging the divide between human emotions / touch and technology. Telenoid is one such project. It’s aim is to provide an effective way to transfer people’s presence.

The research on telepresence is booming and it’s fairly widely accepted that videoconferencing is superior to teleconferencing and that platforms like virtual worlds provide even better telepresence sometimes. Telenoid is a step further again, providing a tangible means of interacting with someone remotely. In the second video below you’ll see its creator citing a key inspiration was the ability for remotely located grandparents to interact more with their grandchildren. That alone is laudable but for me the clinical simulation potentials stood out pretty strongly.

Real patients as simulation

Imagine the ability to have a ‘patient’ reflecting the emotions and speech of a real person in combination with the current simulation functionality i.e. feedback, monitoring of biometric data etc. Taken a step further: a real patient experiencing a real health issue is able (with consent of course) to have their experience transferred to a simulation exercise in real time. There are already consumer devices on the market able to control avatars via thought processes, this is only a small step beyond that.

A specific example:

a. Marjorie is a patient with bowel cancer who is scheduled to have chemotherapy.

b. She consents to her next outpatient chemotherapy session being used for simulation purposes with third-year nursing students at a local university.

c. On arrival at the clinic for her chemotherapy, Marjorie agrees to wear a discreet headset that both captures her emotions as well as her voice as she goes through the process.

d. At the university the students are in a laboratory environment set up for chemotherapy and the simulation mannikin is reflecting Marjorie’s experience as students use the same clinical pathway as the clinic to simulate providing the chemotherapy. The voice recorder allows the students to hear what the nurse is actually doing for Marjorie, providing the opportunity to contrast practice and to ‘see’ what impact that practice is having on Marjorie.

It sounds a little clunky and requires tight integration betwen education and practice, but the potential is there. Using dementia as an another example (although this is where consent can be fraught with difficulties): imagine the power of a mannikin that spoke and reflected the emotions and movements of an individual with severe dementia. The learning potential is enormous and would have the subsequent benefit of much more confident and confident new practitioners.


The first video shows a conversation with Telenoid:

This one shows Telenoid up closer and note how easily people interact with it:

ars electronica: telenoid from Fabian Mohr on Vimeo.

Thanks to Meg over at Future of Sex for the heads-up. Yes, the potential for this technology in regards to sex is likely to be the driver for its further enhancement and adoption. Who’d of thought?

World of Warcraft and Microsoft Kinect: the progress continues

Here’s a great video showing the use of the Kinect to play World of Warcraft using a software framework called FAAST. After the initial demo there’s some useful discussion by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies on its potential applications.

Those applications are something discussed here regularly: rehabilitation and physical activity. Imagine the impact of the technology shown in the video for someone who plays a dozen or more hours of an MMO each week? Let alone someone with a chronic disease or multiple lifestyle risk factors.

Anyway, have a look for yourself:

For my interest in clinical simulation, these developments are of particular interest. Truly effective simulation is likely when health practitioners are physically able to replicate tasks. With my crystal ball in hand, I can’t see that being any more than five years away.

Methamphetamines, cravings and relapse: in Second Life

UCLA have undertaken a fascinating study within Second Life, using it as an immersive environment to replicate scenarios around methamphetamine use and the triggers those scenarios provide in relation to cravings and potential for relapse.

Read the full details here, plus there’s a short introduction video here. The preliminary outcomes of the study showed that the simulation is proving more effective for cue exposure than traditional methods such as videos and use of drug paraphernalia such as needles, syringes and preparation implements. There’s planned future research on looking at what treatments work best to reduce cravings, using the simulation as the benchmark measurement.

Aside from the obvious benefits this approach is going to bring for improved treatment interventions, some other key points need to be made:

Simulation is more than hospitals: There tends to be a focus on the use of virtual worlds to simulate hospital and paramedical environments. Those aspects are very important, but being able to replicate community environments where problematic behaviours occur, is an equally rich vein to mine as a health professional.

Virtual can be better than real: One of the preliminary outcomes mentioned was that the simulation demonstrated better cue exposure than just interacting with drug paraphernalia. This seems a little counterintuitive, but with illicit drug use in particular, the environment surrounding the use is a pivotal component, so replicating such an environment, if done authentically, is going to beat a counselling room with syringes and spoons every time. There is an enormous number of health issues where the same applies, meaning that not only can costs of interventions be lowered in some circumstances, but efficacy can also be improved.

Second Life: declining as education platform of choice?

This story appeared earlier in the week over at The Metaverse Journal under the title ‘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.

New study funded: Diabetes education in virtual worlds

The Boston University Medical Center continues its work on health and virtual worlds, succeeding in gaining a US$950,000 grant from the US National Library of Medicine. The funding is for a study on the efficacy of using Second Life for Type 2 Diabetes education with African-American women versus more traditional face-to-face interventions.

You can read more detail on the study here, but there’s one key strength of the study that stands out for me: quantitative health data. Each participant will have cholesterol and ‘diabetes control’ blood tests taken before and after they receive the education sessions, as well as blood pressure readings.

The results of the study are likely to be be groundbreaking: either virtual worlds-based interventions for diabetes will be shown to be effective, or a very large challenge will be laid down to virtual worlds advocates if the results aren’t of the quantum expected. This is a study to watch.