Friday 30 October 2009

Adventures in OpenSim

I have been playing about with OpenSim for some time now with the intention of using it for the purposes of teacher CPD initially, but have been bowled over by the educational possibilities for students in the process.
My recent experiments have included an educational resource to teach local history about the cholera epidemic through the reconstruction of an abandoned mill which was used as a cholera hospital in the 19th century. Students are presented with the building and an inventory of items which they must place in the rooms to recreate how they think the hospital would have looked. From this they can deduce what measures were used to prevent the spread of the disease in such infirmaries.
The picture left is a view in the upstairs bedroom before the task begins with no items yet placed.

This activity was previously done on paper and students created sketches of how they think the hospital would have looked. The advantage here is that they get a physical sense of what it would have felt like to be there, amongst the paraphernalia associated with cholera victims. It also allows a new degree of collaboration due to the objects being shared and movable by any member of a group of students. Once complete, it can act as a physical tour for other students who can roam around the scene at will. This version of the activity lends itself to the idea of cross curricular working whereby the recreated scene could act as inspiration for writing or the set of a machinima directed, 'acted' and shot by students.

I included in the environment a 'reflection area' just outside the building where the processes undergone by students in the completion of the task can be discussed. I intend to add tools for the recording of thought processes such as Salahzar Stenvaag's Wiki3D scripts which allow the building of rich 3D wikis and mind maps in-world.

The other experiment I have been cooking up struck me when I discovered the Environment Editor in Windlight-enabled Second Life/ OpenSim viewers. I have been considering for sometime a possible epic cross-curricular activity based around the idea of a mission to Mars and came across recently the NASA MOLA Mars terrain data and the freeware 3DEM and Terragen which enable you to use real terrain data and import it into OpenSim. So I did a quick test to see whether a relaistic Martian environment could be created from real data. Below is the result.
Now from what I know of the Martian environment, this looks very convincing and has the potential to give students an idea of what it would really be like to stand on the surface of Mars. What is more, they can collaboratively build a settlement together!
Combine this with other free tools and you have the bones of a completely immersive, cross-curricular, epic learning experience. Google Mars could be used by students to select an appropriate landing site based on criteria decided upon with the aid of an expert from NASA brought in by videoconference to the school. The site could be recreated in OpenSim and used to build a settlement. The settlement could form the set for a machinima which determines the progress of the mission, putting the students in charge of the direction the experience takes. Using the MIT Outdoor AR Toolkit you could overlay the Martian environment on a region of the school grounds, placing clues at strategic points as simulated scientific 'finds', similar to FutureLab's Savannah. I have been playing with the idea of doing remote field trips using a Rovio mobile webcam over Skype which is controlled by the students in school. This could be used as a way of experiencing what it is like to explore using robots and how much more challenging it is than using humans. All this could be glued together with the school's learning platform as a forum for discussion across teams, sharing of created resources and inter-team communcation. I shall blog further as this idea develops.
If anyone is interested in recreating the scene above in their own OpenSim, it uses a 2x2 megaregion and I will provide you with the terrain files and Environment Editor presets if you contact me or leave your details in a comment.


  1. Drew,
    These are fantastic projects. What age students are you working with here? I'm currently doing a drama project with 13-year-olds, rehearsing and performing in-world, which is quite challenging. As a later project I think the Mars terrain experience would be great and interest the science teachers in my school. I would appreciate the use of your terrain files and Environment Editor presets if you can send them to eriknau at Thanks!

  2. Hi Drew!
    I was just poking around these MOLA files to try and get a terrain made for
    OpenSim of Gale Crater, where Curiosity will be landing this summer. I was
    able to figure out which file
    where the crater is but I wonder how you managed to get a high enough
    resolution image when you did it. The size of the entire crater is really
    small, maybe 20 pixels, when I bring it into 3DEM. If you have any
    suggestions I would appreciate them.
    Hope you are well!

  3. I'm on the SL Grid, and not OpenSim. Is it possible the Mars windlight settings would work in SL too, and would you be able to email me the xml file? We're hoping to do a 'John Carter of Mars' roleplay and I think the windlight settings would be perfect!

    I can be reached at lisa . fallbrook @ gmail . com (minus the spaces). Thank you in advance!