Archive for the 'multimedia' Category

Second life and libraries: let’s sort out the first life first

In the past year or so, there has been a lot of hype about Second Life, both in libraries, and in general. First-life companies have been trying to figure out how to commercialise Second Life (somewhat unsuccessfully, it would appear), and some social problems that have involved Second Life (which is not to say that these problems weren’t there anyway, just that Second Life lowers the barriers to them) have emerged.

Because of the library hype surrounding Second Life, I decided I should give it a go (much like I gave LambdaMOO a go once upon a time), and like all 3D environments, I hated it. I found the graphics clunky and slow, the interface difficult to operate, and I never got off the tutorial island. Mostly I hated it, though, because I couldn’t drive my avatar, and I suspect this is because (like 8% of young people, and a significantly greater number of older people) I have reduced stereoacuity, and the 3D model presented on my screen is very little like anything I see in real life.

So, what should Swinburne Library be doing with Second Life? My answer would be “nothing” for a number of reasons, including:

  • As of August 2007 (the latest statistics I found) there were 13,567 active* Second Life Avatars based in Australia, and approximately half of all users operate more than one avatar (meaning we can guess that about 9050 Australians log in regularly). Given a population of 20,434,176 Australians, this means that about 0.000443% of Australians are “active” Second Life users — even assuming that Swinburne, being a technical university, has a disproportionately high number of users, we wouldn’t be serving very many people by setting up in Second Life. Of course, we could increase the number of Second Life users by advertising our services there, but I think we would be better off evaluating and improving the services we know our users engage with outside Second Life than creating new services that rely on a commercial third party product, and which our users may not use anyway.
  • Second Life requires a very high-speed internet connection and a good graphics card to be at all usable. This may put it outside the reach of many of our users — there are 17.4 broadband connections per 100 people in Australia. Even assuming that there are multiple people sharing most of these connections, and that Swinburne community members have a higher rate of broadband connections than the general population, for many of our community the only way to access to Second Life would be on campus where the video cards are not up to specification.
  • If the library’s business is information, then 3D environments are not the place for us; studies have shown that users of 3D information environments perform worse in finding and management tasks than users of 2D environments.

Before I get howled down as a complete luddite, I do believe there is scope for Second Life to be used in educational environments; design schools (like the one at Swinburne) could make (and are making) excellent use of the 3D properties in teaching interior design (and I have heard of at least one example of a student fashion show in Second Life). Also, like LambdaMoo, there is scope for sociological study in Second Life, which may be interesting to Swinburne’s Institute for Social Research. Until there is evidence that research like this is happening at Swinburne, though (and that the researchers want our help in Second Life), or until large numbers of our student population “lives” there, there is little scope for the library to do anything useful there — interesting, maybe but useful definitely not. Given that we have loads of scope to do interesting and useful things in our first lives, for now, I’m going to stick with that.

*Active according to some Linden Labs (the people responsible for Second Life) definition.

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Podcasts: an alternative, not a replacement

This post is another of the reasons why I have been ignoring this blog: I struggled to get into podcasts at all. According to this “learning styles” test (which may or may not mean anything), I should not be averse to receiving my information in an auditory/verbal format — I fall right in the middle of the verbal/visual scale (and indeed, I often listen to the TV while I am surfing the net, cook while talking on the phone, and listen to music at work). And yet, somehow, podcasts feel cumbersome and inconvenient. Nonetheless, I managed to find this podcast describing usability testing methods and when to use them (mp3, time unknown — less than 10 minutes, size unknown), and this one about folksonomies, taxonomies and metadata (an interview with Karen Loasby from the BBC — mp3, 18 minutes and 20 seconds, 8.6MB), both from the User Experience Podcast.

So why did I find podcasts so hard? For me, I think the problem is affordances (the properties of an object that dictate what you might do with it). Podcasts are hard to search for, and it is almost impossible to tell before you listen to a podcast from an unknown creator whether you will find it interesting or not (partly because the blurbs written about podcasts are near-universally unhelpful). Of course, if I were using podcasts “correctly” (i.e. finding ones I liked and subscribing to them) this would not be such a problem but I don’t have time to listen to podcasts — and this is another affordance problem: I can read very, very quickly, and I would absorb most of the information in a podcast much faster from reading it than listening to it. What’s more, if I am listening while I sit in front of a computer, I am inclined to attempt to do other work while listening, and then I lose the thread of the podcast.

Away from the computer, though, I could believe that podcasts might come into their own; in theory I could download interesting radio shows or documentary podcasts onto my shuffle and listen to them at a time of my choosing — even away from the internet (for me, the example that springs to mind is while travelling in a car — I get very carsick if I read as a passenger). Podcasts are also useful where they contain information that users already know exists — podcasts of lectures would make a great alternative to lecture notes for visually impaired students, or those with reading difficulties, or those who simply learn better from auditory material. They could also be a lightweight way for me to catch up on the things I necessarily miss at conferences because something I want is going on in another room — these “known item” uses sidestep the search problem.

So in terms of user experience, when are podcasts a good idea?

  • When your users generally have a high speed internet connection, because podcasts are much larger than text files and users hate waiting for content to download
  • Only if you are prepared to label each with a good blurb, length, and file size
  • When the content is something that natively appears in an auditory format, such as lectures, radio broadcasts, conference presentations, concerts, etc.
  • When you know you have users who find text hard to access, and you want to offer an alternative to a screen reader
  • When your users already know your content exists so they don’t have to search for it using a non-google search interface (while iTunes’ podcast search is fairly effective it also means downloading and installing 3rd party software, which your users may not be able to do at work, or in the lab, for example).
  • When you are doing it purely for your own enjoyment, and (like so many bloggers) don’t really mind what audience you have, if any.

Used well, podcasts can almost certainly make for better user experiences for students, conference-goers, radio-listeners and the like, however for vital information, they should be an alternative way to get information, not the only way. And me? I think I prefer to read my blogs, thanks anyway.


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