Open Wonderland

This is a guest post by Nicole Yankelovich, the Executive Director of the OpenWonderland Foundation.

As the Executive Director of the newly formed Open Wonderland Foundation, I get asked a lot about the value of virtual worlds for education. As a non-gamer, I wasn’t immediately drawn to virtual worlds, but as I’ve worked on the development of the Wonderland platform over the past three years, I’ve come to understand that virtual world technology is going to have a profound impact on education heading into the future.

Space exhibit in Wonderland virtual museum

Space vehicles exhibit in a Wonderland virtual museum

About Open Wonderland

Before I dive into that subject, let me first tell you what Open Wonderland is and why you might care to learn more about it. Open Wonderland is an open source toolkit for creating 3D virtual worlds. I emphasize toolkit because unlike Second Life or World of Warcraft, Wonderland is not a destination in and of itself. It’s a set of tools that people can use to create virtual world destinations. The toolkit is quite rich, so out of the box, you can build some pretty nice worlds. And with a bit of software development effort, you can create highly customized, special-purpose virtual worlds.

Think in terms of the world wide web. There’s no single, giant document collection. On the web, millions of individual organizations own and operate highly specialized web sites both inside and outside their firewalls – travel sites, video sharing sites, endangered turtle tracking sites, charitable giving sites, financial planning sites, and so forth.  To create these web sites, developers use tools like CSS, PHP, content management systems, Flash, blogging software, and many others which you can collectively think of as the web toolkit.

The Wonderland toolkit is analogous to the web model. Individual organizations can use the Wonderland tools to create their own specialized virtual worlds. For example, worlds for learning Roman history, worlds for conducting physics experiments, worlds for designing gardens, worlds for simulating molecules, or worlds for remotely controlling laboratory equipment. And these worlds can be linked together, allowing a visitor to the Roman history world to “teleport” to the garden design world, just like visitors to the travel web site can link to the endangered turtle tracking web site. Like federating web sites, federating virtual worlds enables the concept to scale without requiring any individual world to be extremely large.

Value of Virtual Worlds for Education

Like any new technology, it’s natural to try to use virtual worlds in familiar ways (think horseless carriages). Educators always come to me and say they want to build a classroom in the virtual world. This makes me cringe. Why have a virtual person sit on a virtual chair around a virtual table to look at 2D slides which you probably can’t see as well as you could if the slides were being viewed on your desktop. Once we can get beyond this horseless carriage stage of adoption, I believe we will begin to see the real value of virtual worlds for enabling activities that are not possible with other collaboration technologies or not possible in the real world. Let me give you some examples.

Multiple activities

Unlike web conferencing, phone calls, or video communication, virtual world technology enables multiple simultaneous activities. This makes virtual worlds more like the real world than any other communication technology. Multiple groups of people can be talking in a virtual world at the same time in the same place. From a learning perspective, this type of remote communication capability is essential for learning to work together in teams. It enables informal conversations that can divide and converge naturally. We know from research on collaboration that informal communication helps build trust, and teams with high levels of trust are the most effective teams.

Multiple simultaneous activities in Wonderland

Multiple simultaneous activities in Wonderland: Event participants all write about their background on sticky notes at the same time. Then they walk around and read one another's notes while engaging in multiple short conversations.

Not only can people be engaged in multiple simultaneous conversations, but they can be working on multiple activities at the same time. So if I’m teaching a distance education business class, for example, I can have one group of students working on a business plan together, while others are finding marketing data, working on financial forecasts, or identifying images to include in the pitch to investors. In a virtual world, the teacher and students can simply look around to see one another’s progress, walk over and ask each other questions, have impromptu brainstorming sessions if anyone gets stuck, and generally behave as if they were in a co-located team room. Collaboration is the default. Nothing special has to be done to share.

In the business class scenario, there are even some advantages over the real world. One major complaint people have when working in physical team spaces is lack of privacy for things like private telephone conversations and distraction from noise. In a Wonderland virtual world, private audio channels can be used for phone calls or private chats. There’s even a feature to listen to the background conversation at a low level so that you can hear if someone calls your name, even if you’re in a private conversation with someone else.

Role playing

In talking to a course designer in a corporate education department, he told me that the most difficult content to deliver over the Internet was soft-skill training. For those classes, they still fly people into a live training centers because the most effective training techniques for these skills involve role playing. Virtual worlds are a perfect way to set up role playing exercises. Unlike in a physical classroom, in the virtual world you can easily create the visual context for these conversations. For example, an economics professor is interested in having her students understand principles of supply and demand in a virtual marketplace where they can role play and try out different pricing strategies. Other examples include work done as part of IBM’s Rehearsal Studio project where employees could practice giving talks or could rehearse scenarios for different types of sales situations.

3d visualization

Another huge benefit of virtual worlds in education is taking advantage of the 3D space for those subjects in which 3D visualization is important. An AP history teacher I was talking to the other day was excited about recreating battle fields so that the students could visualize what each general was able to see at various points in the battle. A classics professor was telling me of his plans to have students from different parts of the world work together to recreate Roman spectacles (theatrical performances) in an historically accurate virtual version of a Roman performance venue.  An accounting class in Singapore is using a Wonderland virtual world to learn auditing techniques involving taking detailed inventories in a virtual supply warehouse. In the COMSLIVE project at Birmingham City University, they have created a virtual hospital floor for training nurses in proper hospital procedures, which involve protocols for handing off work to the next shift, interacting with doctors, and communicating effectively with patients and family members, all in the context of the physical hospital facility.

Virtual hospital at Birmingham City University

Virtual hospital at Birmingham City University

And a physics professor at MIT is creating activities that allow multiple students to collaboratively explore visualizations of electro-magnetic fields and run experiments together.

Force on a dipole visualization

Force on a dipole physics visualization from MIT

3D visualization plays a part in many other subject areas as well, including art, architecture, industrial design, and most science disciplines.


3D visualization often goes hand-in-hand with simulation. Simulations can add both interactivity to a visualization as well as helping students to understand how something works. Here’s a simple physics example from a virtual children’s museum.

Mableous physics simulation

The Marbleous module simulates a marble rollercoaster

The Marbleous module simulates a roller coaster track. Students can add and subtract different pieces from the track and then run a marble down the track. After each run, the students are given a timeline slider to replay the action. At any point, they can click on the marble to see its velocity, acceleration, potential and kinetic energy values. They can compare these values to other points along the track.

Virtual reality

Perhaps the most interesting use of virtual worlds in education is allowing students to experience things not possible in real life. This could involve a visit to places too dangerous to visit in real life like a virtual nuclear power plant or a virtual oil rig. But it could also involve experiencing the world at different scales to understand what it would be like to be the size of a mouse, or the size of a flea on the mouse, or even the size of a bacteria on the flea.

Viewing the world from a mouse's perspective

Viewing the world from a mouse's perspective

How about experiencing the world through the eyes and perspective of a mosquito? My colleagues even sketched out the design of a virtual world to help students understand the concept of relativity and how time may appear to speed up or slow down.

Benefits of Open Wonderland

While there are lots of virtual world technologies out there, Open Wonderland offers a number of important benefits to educators and students. For those who are technically inclined, Wonderland’s extreme extensibility allows for almost any sort of customization you can imagine. Since it is based on the JavaTM programming language, taught in many schools, Wonderland programming is accessible to a large number of students and software developers. Even for those who are less technically inclined, the fact that the environment is so flexible means that you can take advantage of new features and content created by others.   We anticipate that students and faculty will start publishing education-related Wonderland extensions – called “modules” – in our recently-launched Module Warehouse. These modules can be added to any Wonderland installation, in the same way as browser plugins can be installed in your favorite web browser.

Another benefit of Open Wonderland is the ability to easily bring in existing content. There is an ever-growing list of document types that can dragged and dropped into the world. For example, if you want to share an image from the web or from your computer, you can just drag it into the Wonderland window. If you have an existing presentation, save it in PDF format, and use the slide spreader to dynamically spread out the slides in row, circle, or semi-circle. You can also make use of any content found in the Google 3D Warehouse. This allows you to create new spaces or enhance existing ones with minimal effort.

One exciting Wonderland module allows you to drag and drop animations created with Alice3, CMU’s educational programming environment. Once a student creates an animation, they can share it with others in a Wonderland world. It’s quite a different experience being immersed in your own animation rather than watching it like a movie.

Alice3 animation running in a Wonderland virtual world

Alice3 fish animation running in a Wonderland virtual world

Perhaps the feature that most educators appreciate the most about Wonderland is the ability to run Java and X11 (Linux) applications inside the virtual world. The Java applications, which can be 2D or 3D, are almost all created with multiple users in mind. For example, there is a shared whiteboard which multiple people can draw on at the same time. There are sticky notes for brainstorming, and a multi-user PDF Viewer for browsing slides independently or in sync with a presenter.

2D applications running in a Wonderland world

Selection of 2D applications running in a Wonderland world

One of the newest Java applications is a poster tool that allows you to type in any plain text or HTML code and create an instant poster that can include images from the Internet.

More Information

To give you a flavor for what people in the open source community have built with Open Wonderland, take a look at the Wonderland Education Projects wiki page. If you’d like to see Wonderland in action without installing it yourself, three introductory videos can be found on the Open Wonderland home page. For more video demos, see the Wonderland Videos page for a complete list.

– Nicole Yankelovich, Executive Director, Open Wonderland Foundation

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