This is not an analytical post (primarily); it's an announcement and invitation to join the new project I've been working on with The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.
The Tech Virtual is a project that allows people to conceptualize and prototype exhibits online. The online platform has two parts: a website, where all projects originate, and a Second Life presence ("The Tech" in Second Life), where participants can communicate in real-time, share ideas, and build virtual prototypes. All participation is under a Creative Commons attribution license, which means that all ideas are available for use by anyone with no financial obligation--only an obligation to credit the originators of said ideas.
For The Tech, this is a new way to conceptualize exhibits. We don't have traditional designer/developers on staff; instead, we have a team facilitating this process and liaising between project participants and fabrication staff to develop these virtual ideas into physical reality. To that end, there's an added incentive for this pilot stage (through June 2008): $5000 to any exhibit concept deemed spectacular enough to develop into a real exhibit here at The Tech. To be eligible for the prize, your exhibit must be on the theme of "Art, Film, Music & Technology."
But this is not just for The Tech; our grant mandates that this project be a service to the museum community at large. Towards that end, we encourage you to use virtual workshop for your own devices, whether to vet exhibit ideas, create, steal, and share exhibit concepts with others, or to learn more about Second Life.
We know there are lots of people out there who have been "peeking in" on Second Life for awhile now, reading the articles, seeing the videos, maybe even creating an avatar. I know that Second Life can be a clunky, frustrating experience. But it's also a new online communication tool, one that significantly improves the real-time chat experience across time zones.
I don't see Second Life as the meat of this project. The meat is people coming together to design exhibits. Second Life is just one tool we're using as a community space for museum folks to discuss and share mockups with each other. I'm planning a full slate of programming, from museum tours to build classes to design reviews with the pros. Yes, Second Life can be a useful prototyping space. But for those who don't want to go through the trouble to learn how to build, it is much more accessible as a programming space, and we hope to offer many interactive talks, workshops, and more.
All of that said, I've learned a lot setting up the Second Life component of this project. A contractor, Involve Inc., built the virtual Tech to spec, so that eventually virtual exhibits could be tested in real dimensionality relative to the building. But the museum is mostly empty right now, since the goal is to fill it with user-created exhibits. I've spent the last month building some sample exhibits, as well as a tutorial on interactive exhibit design. This little building experience was an eye-opener for me. We started with a rather long document on what makes a good interactive exhibit, intended primarily for the non-museum folks who participate in this project. But no one was going to read all that text. Casting it as a walk-through tutorial, with a bit of interaction thrown in, will hopefully turn arduous "instructions" into a fun and informative experience. While I have a good deal of Second Life experience, this was my first time building something from scratch, and I can verify that it was much easier (and somewhat intoxicating) than I expected--and definitely the simplest way I can imagine creating an online "exhibit" quickly.
It's also been a fun team development experience for staff here. This picture was taken at the end of a building class in our virtual sandbox. We were building spheres, trying out the physics engine, when someone decided to sit on one of the spheres. Then everyone piled on, someone set it rolling, and... we had moved from building to experimenting to wacky fun. The Ontario Science Centre has a wonderful brainstorming system, the RIG (rapid idea generation) that relies on building real stuff from all kinds of junk very quickly. I hope we can soon be offering similar sessions in Second Life, where we are neither limited by a lack of stuff nor space nor ways to make things interact. Being in a virtual environment lowers some barriers to social, unorthodox interactions. Hopefully, by learning together in a playful way, we can all jump to new insights and become more brilliant, fulfilled, well-endowed designers.
I hope that you can have similar learning experiences that are directly relevant to your own professional interests and goals via this project. For creative folks still dreaming of a big break, here's a chance to shine. For old pros looking for new ways to design, here's a free platform to exploit for your own exhibits. For executives considering Second Life or distributed design strategies, please learn from and with us.
All of this is a work in progress. Part of the point of this project is that it's a community space--both on the web and in Second Life--and we hope most of the suggestions and improvements that take us to the next step will come with and from you.
So come on in! You can browse, create, and participate in projects on the website. If you don't have a full-fledged exhibit concept, you can browse and submit to the idea lab, a place for one-sentence flights of fancy that might someday become brilliant exhibits.
And the Second Life grid is down at this moment for maintenance, but starting at 2pm PST today you can join us in the virtual world. We are offering museum tours every day at 11am (today at 3pm), and build and script classes each day (starting Thursday) at noon. My name in SL is Avi Marquez. I'll see you at The Tech!