Friday, April 16, 2010

Heritage Key -- a virtual world designed for learning

At Heritage Key, visiting Stonehenge as it was in ancient times

We know that learning takes place in virtual worlds. It isn’t always something that the designers of those worlds intended, and if they did intend for learning to happen it doesn’t always take place in the ways that designers hoped for or expected. Nonetheless, what we have seen happening--both in the unplanned learning that takes place and within the context of conscious educational experimentation--is giving some groups and individuals a sense of how they can try to do a better job of fostering structured learning experiences in virtual immersive environments. A wonderful example of this is Heritage Key, an independent learning grid utilizing OpenSim, software that is based on an open source version of Second Life code.

Heritage Key is a project of Rezzable, the company that is responsible for creative experiments such as the “Greenies” build in SL. However, rather than being a purely artistic or creative endeavor like the little green guys, Heritage Key is a stand-alone grid designed specifically for didactic purposes. Its elements include a number of archaeology/ancient history themed “exhibits” and immersion environments that are crafted to achieve specific learning goals, and to convey specific messages and information.

Elements of a structured learning experience in HK are distributed throughout the exhibits to provide context and meaning for the builds.

You come away from an experience in Heritage Key knowing something you didn’t know before, or having seen something you thought you were familiar with in a new light--and that information and perspective is more than likely one that the designers of the spaces wanted you to get.

This is real different from the type of learning I have been a part of and am familiar with in Second Life. There it’s not so much something that was intended, as it is a series of serendipitous light bulbs going on and someone suddenly saying “holy crap, I think we just learned something here, didn’t we?” It’s different and it’s intriguing. I have been visiting Heritage Key and watching their progress for a while. And yes, it is very much a work in progress. You can go visit it right now, but keep in mind it is changing almost daily.

Back when I started visiting HK, I was delighted to find that some old friends were part of the project: Viv Trafalgar and Jasper Kiergarten. They, along with some other folks who work there have been very friendly and forthcoming, answering my numerous questions. And when I hit them with some things they couldn’t answer, they directed me to Rezzable’s top guy, Jon Himoff.

Jon was likewise very helpful, especially as I was seeking to understand as well as possible the background of the project. Here are some of the questions I asked him, along with his answers:

DAK: I gather Rezzable Productions is a for-profit entity that generates income from advertising and providing services to facilitate virtual marketing initiatives for corporate clients (even the use of the term "sponsorships" implies an underwriting approach borrowed from the non-profit world). But I am unclear as to how Heritage Key is underwritten. I was wondering if perhaps it is actually not meant to generate income and is in fact a sort of "loss leader" designed to kill two birds with one well-crafted stone: doing something civic-minded and positive in terms of fostering learning in the metaverse; and actually creating a successful and innovative educational grid, thereby highlighting and promoting the creative and practical skills of Rezable and its partners?

In short, I'd really like to get a handle on why you're doing HK and what the goals are.”

Jon Himoff: (Our) goal is to make money with all this work on Rezzable/HK. We have equity funding to get all the technology and methodology in place. We started in 2007 really with the challenge of figuring out how to attract mainstream online users to more engaging, immersive experiences. Heritage key is our brand and we are using a combination of rich media--including virtual experiences to delivering unique, compelling content around the idea of traveling to ancient world sites. As this rolls out we are also looking at other types of brands that would benefit from real-time community capabilities. “

....Education is not as much an objective as making history relevant to people (or maybe that is what education should be?). Clearly if people find something intriguing or even fun then they will pull on it and drill into the material. The ancient world content fits the virtual online well--it has a level of imagination but also the facts are rich and many stories have not been told to large audiences (like Boudicca)."

DAK: “I would also like to know if there were there academic partners involved in each segment--content specialists who were partnered with the virtual worlds experts like Viv and Ordinal to create a successful and meaningful experience for the visitors? (I'm big on the idea of partnerships that cross boundaries of disciplines and worlds, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like that must be part of your philosophy in trying to make your projects work)."

Jon Himoff: “The hard research comes from the experts. We are not subject matter experts, but the packagers of that into something engaging online. We actually spend a lot of time learning about the things we will make virtually -- in fact almost the entire content of the .com is the work in progress on that effort. We would like to work more with universities and museums. “

DAK: “I gather there is some connection between this open-sim grid version of King Tut and the VotK build, and a similar previous project on the SL platform (but that in moving to HK, the concept was refined and expanded). If I am correct in that, then I am curious why the use of SL was abandoned?”

Jon Himoff: "We use our own OpenSim-based grid. We did some initial work in SL, but it is too expensive and integration is impossible. SL will also not scale."

DAK: “I would also be curious to know how things that were learned in the course of developing and presenting the previous version may have shaped and facilitated the expansion and enhancement of the new version--and if so, what sorts of lessons were learned in the previous experiments?”

Jon Himoff: "I think major lesson has been that just because you build it, doesn't mean people will come. You need to do a lot of work to make things digestible for mainstream online users. Navigation is major issue. Also we are investing a lot of time/energy into offering quests as parts of dynamic, user-oriented story telling.”

DAK: “HK is obviously open for visitors, but still seems to be very much a work in progress--is there a schedule for opening additional elements and a plan for promoting usage of the HK grid as bugs get worked out?”

Jon Himoff: “Yes, it is a sort of open kitchen right now. We are also getting a lot of great feedback from visitors. There are some technical issues, but main focus is really getting the flow across the content working better. It is hard to get it all right--some people are newbies, others are gamers so their interest and skills are very different. Ultimately they should all gain something by visiting.”

DAK: “Is it accurate to say that the current exhibits you have set up on HK are not just a laboratory to work out how to get "the technology and the methodology in place," but they also essentially function as "demonstration" pieces, to show potential clients what can be accomplished with your platform and the good people you have working with you? “

Jon Himoff: “I think of it as a proof point -- it does work and it can scale. We have done Tut, Stonehenge and integrated rich web content as well. Check all the videos for example, but there are also tons of articles, images, slideshows. See site search results as an example . I think you don't really know how something can work until you get on with it and try to make it engaging. You hit a lot of issues that you wouldn't see as critical until people are using it. “

DAK: “If the current exhibits are in fact demonstrators, I was also wondering if the upcoming British Museum segment is also a demonstration piece or an actual contract job for an institutional customer? ”

Jon Himoff: “The BM is not a customer, but I also don't really see the museums as customers. They should really be partners with us. In general we should be able to work with them to generate more interest in their collections and special exhibitions in order to drive more visits and make online more profitable for them. Especially for the sites--which often don't have strong collections but are very exciting to actually visit if you understand the context of the history.”

DAK: “In one of your answers to the previous questions you said that you gave up on doing projects in SL not just because of the cost, but because "Integration is impossible." Would you explain exactly what you mean by that?”

Jon Himoff: “Trying to create a streamlined user experience from web community to virtual experience is not possible in SL. There are no API's for example. There is no way to brand the viewer etc, etc etc. And I would add that Linden Labs is not a credible business partner. There model is selling virtual land (at a high price) in a closed, proprietary platform--so if that is all you want, then they have it ready for you. We don't see that as a foundation for 3D Web.”

I found Mr. Himoff’s answers well as raising other issues that I am still not clear on. The question of how they plan to monetize HK still eludes me a bit, although I have noted sponsors being associated with various elements such as the Steamfish game on the main Rezzable grid. I also understand British cab company Addison Lee is sponsoring an ancient London element of HK. But I am intrigued that they think of the institutions they are working with--such as the Britsih Museum--not as “customers” or clients, but as “partners.” I am curious about this knowing that there are other organizations that would have an interest in being involved with experiments like the exhibits on Heritage Key, and at this point I am not clear how they would go about exploring the possibilities with Rezzable--I suppose in the end I shall simply tell them to get in touch with Rezzable and see what they can work out, if anything.

So that’s all very cool, but I bet you’re wondering about what the experience itself is like--why am I so excited about this alternate grid.

Well for one thing, they don’t make you use Viewer 2.0, which, for the record, I completely and utterly loathe.

Instead HK uses a simplified version of the old SL viewer. One big difference, however, is that you cannot build here or create new objects. But you can fiddle about with some existing things--and that’s something I shall discuss momentarily.

So let’s start at the beginning: You go through a simple sign-up process and then you get to choose from a series of pre-made avatars (all with a distinct steampunk flavor as they were borrowed from or inspired by the steampunk look of the the educational “Steamfish” game that is on the primary Rezzable grid). You then go into a welcome area that includes basic instructions on how to walk, and teleporters that can take you to a travel center through which you access the various exhibits and environments.

The travel center, in the entry area.

The entry area is clean and attractive--suggestive of a temple/train station mash-up. At times, they have live helpers to assist new visitors. HK/Rezzable staff supervisor Angelina Rhode explained:

“It’s essential to be available to welcome people and show them around. Not everyone who visits the HK grid is an experienced user. I missed that in SL, not having someone guide you if you needed it, taking you by the hand and explaining how the basics of SL work. A virtual experience is something very different and new for many people and it’s important to have someone who can help you with your first steps, to show you where to customize your avatar and then explain how to get to all the exhibitions. Of course we have many signs which do that too, but to talk with someone feels better and you can ask questions the signs probably cant answer.”

I like that a lot -- the idea that there will be times when live people will be there. Yes, if you are used to working with SL, Heritage Key will be second nature for you. But the visitor who is new to virtual worlds has the possibility of getting help from a real person.

There are also tutorial areas where you can make changes to your avatar, get new hair and outfits and learn more about how to navigate, communicate, interact with objects etc. All the usual stuff you get in orientation areas of SL, but cleaner-looking, easier to follow, and devoid of griefing morons.

Tutorial area where various functional skills are taught.

Being the busybody that I am, I quickly found that even if you can’t make your own stuff in HK, you can manipulate most of the hair and outfits to suit individual taste and mix and match. There are also outfits and hair that can be obtained in some of the exhibits. For example, when I got to the “Life on the Nile” environment, I took a man’s tunic and stretched it into a dress, redid the armlets as bracelets to fit me, and then shortened the long hair I picked up in the avatar center. Later on, I got another set of beaded hair from one of the mini-games in that build.

Sitting at the cosmetics table in the scribe's house, where I got my new hair with beads and all. An informative primatar is located in this room (as is the case with many rooms of the compound) to provide interpretive information. The primatars throughout the build were created by the highly skilled Jasper Kiergarten.

So then you go on to the various exhibits and environments. These include, so far, an exhibition of artifacts from King Tut’s tomb, an immersion environment recreating the Valley of the Kings at the time of Howard Carter’s excavations in the 1920s, a series of recreations of Stonehenge (showing how it developed and changed over time, from its initial stages up to the present), and a “Life on the Nile” environment that represents an affluent scribe’s household in Amarna, circa 1350 BCE.

In the Tut exhibit, viewing a the three dimensional, 360 degree recreations of one of the inner coffins. Clicking on various exhibit elements brings up interpretive information about the object, as well as links to additional interpretive materials.

I liked all the elements. The 360 degree representations of the artifacts in the Tut exhibit are just mind-buggering awesome. They can be viewed both in relative scale so you get a sense of their actual size in real life, and as “blow-ups” so you can see the stunning detail. The Valley of the Kings environment can be viewed either just as a cool immersion experience, or you can take advantage of various game-like elements that allow you to “follow in the footsteps” of Howard Carter.

I especially liked the recreation of the tomb, which for the first time gave me a clear idea of how it was laid out and just how bloody cramped the damn thing actually was.

Inside King Tut's tomb. The sarcophagus has theoretically been "removed" so it is represented by a semi-transparent place holder object.

The Stonehenge experience was engaging and attractively done. This is what a virtual space is ideal for: allowing you to move around in a space, see it from different angles, interact with objects, carry out tasks (and get easter eggs in the process) and most of all to see change over time.

Stonehenge, the present day.

At first I wasn't real keen on trying out the various mini-games and "scavenger hunt" kinds of activities. Keep in mind that I'm a terrible museum goer. I never follow the path the designers intended for me; I generally skip reading labels; I don't like feeling managed or manipulated. But Viv kept encouraging me to try some of these elements in Amarna, and soon I found myself getting caught up in them, especially once my competitive instincts kicked in.

One of the simple mini-games scattered through the various exhibits--this one, located in the scribe's house, gives you a mask of the river god as a prize when you get the answers correct.

Of all the areas in Heritage key, my favorite, not surprisingly, is the Amarna build. A number of the HK exhibits had been done before in some form in SL, including Valley of the Kings and Amarna (the Stonehenge one is, I believe, completely new). but they were completely redone by a team that included Viv Trafalgar, Jasper Kiergarten, Ianthe Farshore, My Mackenzie, Pavig Lok and LT Bartlett.

Interacting with a primatar at the scribe's house. He asks you questions to make sure you "belong" there. If you can't answer, you apparently get dumped in the pond.

These folks did a superb job. Just to give you an idea of the kinds of people who worked on these projects, I would like to share with you a bit about Viv's background: she has taught at both the high school level (poetry, literature, and writing) and at the university level (hypermedia design, Flash, web design, etc.). She comes from a programming and a graphic design/writing background, and has an MFA in poetry and MA in Interaction Design and Publications Design.

As an educator and virtual artist, Viv made the following comment about HK:

“I love creating spaces where there's a lot of potential for imagination to play, but there's also a lot of learning potential...and I am in love with this platform because it is more open and new-developer friendly than some of the platforms I've worked on.”

In the immersion environment of the Valley of the Kings, 1920s,

OK, so it’s great, but is it perfect?

No of course not. Nothing is perfect. Especially something like this that is still a work in progress. For example, it usually takes me three or four tries to get logged on. Sometimes funny things happen with what I am wearing. Viv recently told me that periodically all the builders find that OpenSim has hidden all their inventory. As she says. “it’s still very beta...depending on what viewer you use it's got different ways of behaving...and then on the third Saturday of the full moon at 2pm it just decides to go down the pub for a's a bit like working with a cranky, but talented toddler.”

On the other hand it has been consistently improving. Viv further pointed out that, “A year and a half ago, the first opensim tests I went on--you couldn't have more than 8 people not moving or doing anything on the grid. Now? So much is's a huge growth and change rate.”

And not only is it technically improving, but the Rezzable people are taking a direct hand in making it work better for the audience. Yes...that's right: if you give them feedback they will actually listen. One of the things I passed on after my first visit was that I longed to be rid of the dreaded default “duck walk” and desperately wanted an AO. I was told that other people had mentioned it and they were working on it. Lo and behold, when I signed on today there was a gizmo both in the entry area and the Avatar Center distributing a free AO. Admittedly, it's not the best one I’ve ever seen (and slightly glitchy as it was in alpha), but it sure as hell beat the snot out of waddling around and feeling that compulsion to quack.

Are there other things that I don’t like about HK?

Well to be honest, there are some things that I wish had been done differently. I think the inclusion of multiple OOC signs, the steampunky-looking teleporters, and other OOC bits and bobs in the immersion environments does detract slightly from the overall effect of the experience. But at the same time, these elements are important for the “mini-game” and didactic aspects of the builds. I guess it‘s mostly a question of esthetics, and it’s certainly more important that the visitors actually see the pieces that they have to interact with in order to benefit from all the learning opportunities. If these features weren't as visible as they are, a lot of visitors would probably miss them altogether. Also, the freebie Egyptian women’s dresses were a little too fancy for my tastes, and I thought they looked a bit more Hellenic than Egyptian. But that’s just me being a persnickety old harpy. Minor stuff.

From certain viewpoints, the immersion effect is disrupted by the logistical and didactic elements, but they have to be somewhere, right?

The big picture is that I think this works. It offers that kind of improv theater/Kon Tiki/hands-on immersion learning experience that you hope for in a virtual world: it's essentially, as we say, "socially interactive self directed learning" reinforced through play--but in HK they have actually managed to utilize that dynamic combined with the kind of structured goals and desired outcomes that usually don’t seem workable on a platform like SL.

On a big reed boat on the Nile.

Yes, in SL we can have those self directed learning experiences--especially as they relate to world building and the skills connected with content creation, which you can’t do in a place like Heritage Key. But in HK, they have managed to integrate a form of that “exploration” experience with the communication of very specific messages designed by the educators and experts. And every time I go there, something new is underway, and its functionality keeps improving. I think Heritage Key represents an important step in the evolution of virtual worlds as a place to learn and teach.


  1. I think you left off the most important bit - how do the rest of us visit?

  2. oh that. yeah, I thought you'd never ask.

    Go to

  3. Miss Dio - thank you for this! It was a pleasure to talk with you, and to hear your impressions, as always. There's a lot more work, live events, and tours going on the grid, which keeps us hopping. A schedule is on the HK website. Edward, I'm looking forward to seeing you hop over! To get started, register for an avatar at, like the lady said; you can use the HK client, but people also use Hippo, Emerald, and I think Imprudence - and the URI for the grid - There's an FAQ on the site.

  4. hey Viv, thank you for taking so much of your time to talk about HK with me. At some point I'm sure we'll do another post about the programming, events and activities that you have going on.

  5. Dio -- thanks for big effort to capture and share some many interesting points about Heritage Key. I would add that we also have a huge web content project to engage online users and the virtual experience needs to be integrated in some relevant way. For example we have more than 70 original videos on our YouTube channel that have had more than 300,000 views in last 5 months. In fact the is already getting more audience online than the British Museum. Regards, Jon

  6. Thank you, Dio, for any part you may have played in getting rid of the duck walk in HK. :)

    I wandered through Stonehenge with my most gracious guide, Miss Viv, and spent some time in the Amarna area, and both were a blast. I can't wait to find time to explore more. Oh yes, educational, mumble something appropriate here about learning, but, let's face it, if it's not fun, people won't come.

  7. Nicely done, Dio. We might quibble about the clothes (I find them stylin'). It's been great to watch HK grow. I was hard on them last year, when my class beta-tested it and found it laggy and difficult to explore.

    Compared to last fall, today one sees amazing progress there. I'm sure it can provide exactly the mix of content that is useful to educators and still remain fun.

    Kudos to Jon for his honesty about SL: too bad LL has overpriced land and now appeals to the fake-suburban lifestylers. It's fun to mock it, though!

    Those strategic moves post-Rosedale are their loss, as we educators and content creators branch out into a wider universe of VWs.

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