This assignment was taken from the fourth chapter of the book Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interactions, written by Helen Sharp, Jenny Preece, and Yvonne Rogers.
The aim of this activity is for you to analyze the design of a virtual world with respect to how it is designed to support collaboration and communication.
Visit an existing 3D virtual world such as the Palace, habbo hotel, or one hosted by Worlds. Try to work out how they have been designed for taking account of the following:
Question A: General social issues
- What is the purpose of the virtual world?
- What kinds of conversation mechanisms are supported?
- What kinds of coordination mechanisms are provided?
- What kinds of social protocols and conventions are used?
- What kinds of awareness information are provided?
- Does the mode of communication and interaction seem natural or awkward?
Question B: Specific interaction design issues
- What form of interaction and communication is supported, e.g. text/audio/video?
- What other visualizations are included? What information do they convey?
- How do users switch between different modes of interaction, e.g. exploring and chatting? Is the switch seamless?
- Are there any social phenomena that occur specific to the context of the virtual world that wouldn’t in face-to-face setting, e.g. flaming?
Question C: Design issues
- What other features might you include in the virtual world to improve communication and collaboration?
Virtual world selected: Second Life.
What is the purpose of the virtual world?
According to Linden, Second Life does not have a specific purpose. They describe Second Life as “a free online virtual world imagined and created by its Residents.” Most people use Second Life for entertainment. It enables them to escape to virtual world where then can interact with other real people. It offers an experience that can be likened to the birth child of the SIMS game crossed with a social network. A small segment of Second Life users actually make a living from creating virtual artifacts and owning virtual land.
What kinds of conversation mechanisms are supported?
Second Life supports many of the same conversation mechanisms that people are accustomed to using in real life to govern turn taking. In my personal experience, I continued to follow conversation practices that I am accustomed to using when speaking to someone in person, even though the conversation was taking place on a text-based medium.
The conversation turn-taking model developed by H. Sachs et al. [link] seems to be applicable to this environment (at least according to my very unscientific research). I assume that conversations using voice, which is available in Second Life, support standard conversation mechanisms even more effectively.
Another conversation mechanism that is supported by Second Life is body language. Let me clarify what I mean. Citizens are able select from a large pre-defined list of gestures that enable them to communicate attention, emotion, mood, and more. This is pretty cool feature that can be likened to emoticons on an instant messaging application or social network.
What kinds of coordination mechanisms are provided?
Second Life does a pretty good job here again. They offer robust support for both verbal and non-verbal types of communication. As stated above, users can communicate using a text or voice/audio interface. Avatars are also capable of using a variety of different gestures for communicate. These include nodding yes, or shrugging, clapping, blowing a kiss, and more.
Rules are the foundation of this virtual world on its most basic level. The software code provides a set of rules upon which the entire virtual world is build; these basic rules are documented in the online user guide and help tools. They define the “virtual-physical” world of Second Life, which is the platform upon which user coordination can take place.
One also encounters many rules while exploring the world itself. These external representations are created by users and Linden Lab. They inform other users and help coordinate personal and shared activities. Maps are another key mechanism that supports coordination. They are available to help the users easily locate and transport themselves between islands.
What kinds of social protocols and conventions are used?
Most people seem to mimic real world conventions in Second Life. Conversations are initiated in a manner more akin to real world conversations compared to other types of text-based conversations. Users are conscious of the organization and appearance of the physical artifacts in this virtual world. This is reflected by convention such as the practices of users face one another when speaking, and the fact that many users are extremely conscious of their avatars clothing and style.
What kinds of awareness information are provided?
At the most basic level of awareness, Second Life users are able know who is around them via the visual representation of the virtual world. For the most part, users are able to understand what is happening though this varies considerably based on expertise level. It is possible to overhear others’ conversations as long as they are not having a private chat. Most of the groups of people that I encountered whose physical proximity insinuated that they were having a conversation must have been holding private chats. An interesting design element from the game is how the avatars make a typing movement in the air when they are writing a reply in a conversation.
Does the mode of communication and interaction seem natural or awkward?
The mode of communication and interaction offered in Second Life is natural on most accounts. The natural feel of the text-based conversations is in large part due to our modern-day familiarity holding conversations using messaging applications such as IM and SMS. The overall look and feel of the virtual world is natural. The communicative gestures of the character are fluid and clear in their meaning.
What form of interaction and communication is supported, e.g. text/audio/video?
Second Life supports all main forms of interaction: text, audio, video, and computational.
What other visualizations are included? What information do they convey?
Second Life is well crafted from a visual perspective. The visual flair is actually provided mostly by the creativity of the members of the community, who develop most experiences and structures that exist in this world. Visualizations that are built into the interface include different modes for displaying chats, maps that provide location information, and the main interface of the virtual world environment.
How do users switch between different modes of interaction, e.g. exploring and chatting? Is the switch seamless?
The switch between different modes of interaction is seamless. If a user is exploring he can easily start chatting with someone else nearby by typing; if a user has a voice-enabled system then they just have to talk. Gestures are not integrated as seamlessly; these have to be selected from a drop-down menu.
Are there any social phenomena that occur specific to the context of the virtual world that wouldn’t in face-to-face setting, e.g. flaming?
As with any medium that allows people to communicate from a distance, people are definitely less concerned with politeness and manners. One social phenomena that I witnessed was a user who kept repeating everything that was said in a conversation between me and a third user.
Overall, I think that Second Life does a thorough job at providing users with effective communication and collaboration tools. So much so that technology companies such as IBM have built virtual campuses where they hold meetings with employees from around the world. Here are a few ideas that could be explored:
- Allowing users to select moods and emotions. These features would work in a similar way to gestures. The main difference is the duration of a mood or emotion in comparison to a gesture. Moods and emotions last longer and would be controlled using on/off switches.
- Make it easy for users to create and share documents on the fly. Provide capabilities for users to work on documents simultaneously with seamless ability to switch back and forth between focus on the document and on the virtual world.