Safe Simulations?

For years, I’ve been talking about one of the major benefits of simulations: a safe environment. Flying planes, firefighting, police work, and surgery are dangerous jobs with many dangerous tasks. One of the often stated benefits of a simulation is that they allow practice in a safe environment. If the learner makes a mistake, people (airplane passengers, victims, and patients) don’t die. However, it seems we (and especially I) may have been wrong.

In a conversation today with Eric Kramer from Trimm, a Netherlands-based simulation company, he made a statement that threw that concept out the window. In a conversation on the levels of realism necessary in simulations, he said “If it’s safe, it’s not real.” For me, it was like being hit over the head with a new revelation. Of course we don’t want simulations that are so real that people die, that defeats the point of a simulation. However, it’s important that the learner feel that the patient could die, that the plane could crash, or that people could die in the fire. The appropriate (a very important word) level of realism needs to include the environment, visualizations, decisions, responses, and results/impacts in order to create the impression of danger. If it feels safe, it won’t have the same learning impact.

All too often in learning (whether classroom or online), designers work to take out the risk. Here are just a few of examples:

  • Writing multiple choice questions with an obvious correct answer (lest anyone get a less than perfect score)
  • Not letting a learner finish a course unless they meet a minimum score (everybody must pass after all)
  • Letting people move forward/graduate/get certified regardless of whether they’ve demonstrated mastery in the material
  • Make sure everybody feels comfortable and happy (lest they give the instructor a low rating)
  • Designing learning modules for the lowest common denominator
  • Designing easy simulations, games and activities that don’t challenge the learner

Let’s put the realism (and the danger) back into the learning modules and simulations that we create.

For more on Eric’s work on simulations with their local police department, be sure to check out the upcoming Visualization in Learning report being published by VizThink in about a week. In addition, Eric will be facilitating a session on realism in simulations at our next big event which is being held in Berlin, October 12-14, 2008.

“Inexpensive” 3D

A few weeks ago, I ended up in Orlando somewhat by chance. Since it had been a few years since I had done it, I took the opportunity to check out a few of the newer exhibits. One that struck me in particular was Mickey’s PhilharMagic (Disney, wikipedia) which is staged somewhat in the middle of the Magic Kingdom. The theater itself is somewhat designed like the ficitional theater in the 1993 John Goodman film Matinee (imdb, wikipedia). In the film, Goodman’s character, Lawrence Woolsey, introduces what he calls Atomo-vision and Rumble-rama. These innovations bring more senses into the movie watching experience like touch through things like vibrating seats just at the scary moment. In the current Disney version, they use lots of gimics like spraying water, various scents, smoke, and bursts of air to enhance the experience.

One of the additional features is the use of 3D with more modern glasses that almost look like cheap sunglasses. Of course, there are all of the standard 3D gags like pies flying at your head, trombone slides popping off the screen, and gems floating in the air that appear easy to reach out and take for yourself. We’ve seen all of that done before. What I found interesting was the other applications of 3D like flying through the clouds with Donald Duck, swimming under the sea with the Little Mermaid, and riding the magic carpet through narrow streets and buildings with Aladdin. The 3D models of those environments in combination with the use of the 3D glasses made it feel like we were actually flying through those environments.

So here’s my question, couldn’t we do that same thing with computer screens with video game technology? It shouldn’t be that hard for the “cameras” in video game engines to split and display the image to work with a set of inexpensive 3D glasses. Rather than spending all of the money to create heavy and expensive head gear, couldn’t this be a simpler, less expensive, and faster solution? Sure, maybe the image resolution won’t be as high, but it was more than enough to create the illusion. Can some of my engineer readers fill me in on this?

Minority Report for Real with the Wii

Much thanks to Peter Durand over at the Center for Graphic Facilitation blog for the post pointing this out. Want multitouch, but the big multi touch screens are too expensive or unavailable? How about converting your Wii into a glove sensor device with all the same functionality and more? They don’t talk about it in the video, but you could go well beyond the demonstration of moving and sizing photos. Multitouch has a limitation. It’s forced to be on a 2D surface (hence the “touch” part of the name). Therefore, any 3D manipulation is forced and unnatural. The gloves remove the 2D limitation and give the entire 3D space to work with (as long as you can reach it). Imagine rotating 3D objects or zooming in on them, simply by grabbing them and turning or pulling them closer. Very cool.

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Rebutting the Rebuttle

So, in my Kindle…the Single Function Device post, I took Mark to task a little bit for his overly-amibitious praise of Amazon’s new e-book reader. You can also find his return comments both as a comment on my post and in an additional set on his blog.

His first rebuttle is on capacity. To do that, he leverages the image of over-filled book bags breaking the back of his son on his walk to school and of other kids using roller bags to avoid the back strain. Sure, no one wants to see kids injured, but I think it’s going to be a long time before we see grade school text books available on the Kindle. It wasn’t designed for kids. It’s not kid-proof or done with a kid sensibility. If they were going for that market, then they missed the boat even more than I thought they did.

Then he get’s to form factor and says “Its not pretty. Its also first generation.” First generation is no excuse for poor product design. There are plenty of great products out there they could have based it on. They learned a little from previous e-book attempts, but clearly not enough. The main navigation buttons (back and forward) are right where you place your hands causing pages to turn when you don’t want them too. The shape of the device is so large, you have to place the device on your lap to type on it, yet the keys are designed for thumb typing. Sure, the iPhone wasn’t perfect out of the gate either, but it was a whole lot better version 1.0 than this is. They would have been better to take the time to get the design right. It’s not like anyone else was rushing to get out another failed e-book reader.

Finally for my rebutting the rebuttle, he talks about the $400 price by saying that the price of textbooks for a semester would justify the purchase. That might be true, if the books were discounted for being e-books. However, not only do you have to purchase a $400 reader, you also have to still purchase the books…at full price! That doesn’t sound like a savings to me. There are two general business models here…use the Kindle as a loss leader by giving it away or heavily discounting it and make the money off the e-books…or sell the hardware and discount the books heavily. Pick one business model, not both if you want this plan to succeed.

For even more discussion and a link to a great paper on the topic, check out Mark’s follow-up post.

Kindle…The Single Purpose Device

In Mark’s recent post on the Kindle from Amazon. Now normally, I find myself agreeing with Mark which probably scares both of us. However, this time, I don’t think he could be more off base.

First, out of the many eBook attempts over the last 5 years, none of them have been even partially successful. In fact, calling them miserable failures is probably being generous. So, expecting this one to succeed is a gross over-expectation at best. Sure, it solves a few of the earlier problems…lighter, longer battery life, simpler technology. However it still misses the whole point. For it to be successful it needs to fulfill a market demand or unmet need of some sort.

Capacity: I don’t need to carry 500 books with me. I’ve already got a stack that I can’t seem to find time to get to. I don’t think I’m alone here, but carrying books with me wasn’t a problem that needed solving. It actually works quite fine right now.

Form Factor: Look at the thing. It’s ugly. The technology _appears_ old school. (Yes, I know they’re using the fancy ink/paper thing). At 10 ounces, it’s still to heavy and way too little of the interface is used for the actual book. Sure, the integrated keyboard makes it so that a computer isn’t required, but they could have taken a lesson from Apple here and spent a few more dollars on design. Additionally, it’s not a standard size (either paper back or sheet of paper) so it won’t fit securely in the regular places during transportation.

Price: $400??? Are you kidding me? Plus I still have to pay the regular $10 for the book? Maybe if they worked it like the heavily subsidized razor/blade or cellphone/subscription models it might be more attractive, but please…at $400 the switching cost is way too high. Of course, I did hear one report (on Cranky Geeks) saying that at $400 it probably was already subsidized…which makes you wonder how much it really costs.

Single Function: When was anything anymore a single function device? For $400, it should have a scanner or a printer built in. Maybe I should be able to display and edit other documents. Hey wait, that’s a PDA or a laptop and I can do a lot more with those. In fact, I could even by a decent laptop for less than $200 more and it could do a lot more than read books.

Location: I often read when I’m in a spot where electronics aren’t allowed (like an airplane). So, with this, I’d still need to carry print with me. Great, now I have to carry both? How does that make sense?

Mark’s final point was that companies should by these for employees and put the manuals on them? Really? Mark? Come on now. First, who’s writing manuals anymore? Second, shouldn’t we really be talking about wikis, blogs, help systems, knowledge management, search, or any one of a dozen other approaches to organize structured and unstructured information rather than converting print manuals to an e-book form factor?

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Visual DNA

For many people, art seems to be a completely subjective medium. What works for some is completely strange for others. Imagini uses those preferences to compare you to others and see what that says about you. Here’s the results from mine:

While I’m not convinced of the validity of the interpretive descriptions they do, the selection of the visuals definitely communicate a bit more about me. For more about the use of the visual arts for communication, be sure to check out VizThink and register for our upcoming conference.

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Combining Video & Interactivity

The designers of this site do a great job of combining video, interactivity, usability, and creativity. Notice how the video controls are obvious, provide relevant feedback and are easy to use. They even tell the participant where the moment of truth is so they can jump straight to it.

OK, so really, it’s a fun set of videos with some pretty neat controls. Who knew Christmas lights would do that in the microwave?

Thanks to Mike Cohen at Creative COW Blogs for pointing it out.

Another free whiteboard tool…

While this one from Thinkature has some of the same features (collaborative space, free form writing, etc) as the one from GE, they’ve clearly focused this one on the PostIt Note set. I couldn’t figure out how to add images and other icons, but apparently it can be done which also makes this a possible tool for mind mapping. I just wish there were a better selection of shapes than the default PostIt note.

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Cool, Free Collaborative Whiteboard

I found this tool today while searching for Visual Thinking stuff (more on that in a few weeks). In the meantime, GE has created this cool little Flash-based, collaborative whiteboard application. No install required. It works pretty well with a couple limitations. I think it only allows 3 people in the same document and there is a limit to the amount of “ink” that can be on the page at one time. However, the page had to be almost 50% color to hit that limit, so I’m not sure it matters much. I don’t understand what they get out of it…no fee, no advertising…just branding I guess.

Anyway, enjoy! Let me know what you think.

Update: I’ve had a few problems with it on one of my machines. I think it’s actually in the Javascript on the page not in the file itself. It may not work with certain versions of Flash.

Improv for Learning

I’m a huge fan of improv comedy. I watch old episodes of Whose Line is it Anyway (wikipedia), the new (and still trying to find its way) Thank God You’re Here (wikipedia), and especially support my local improv troops in Ann Arbor (Improv Inferno) and suburban Detroit (Second City). For those who don’t know much about improv, the performers (usually 2-4 people at a time, though it varies a lot) take a suggestion from the audience and then play any one of a number of games to create a scene/story generally with the intent of being funny.

What’s interesting to me about improv is that while “everything’s made up”, it actually follows a series of rules that all of the players follow. The rules act as rails that guide (yet don’t restrict) the content. One of the most basic rules is called “accepting the offer”. Each of the verbal and non-verbal actions of a player are “offers”. So, for example, an offer might be one character standing up, stretching, and saying “Good Morning”. Accepting that offer would require building on those clues to continue the story. So to accept, the second player might say “It’s about time you woke up. You’re going to be late for work.” The yawn and the morning were accepted and work was added. So the responsibility of the original character is to then accept all of the previous offers (morning, waking late, and work) and build the next part of the scene with them. Rejecting the initial offer might have been “It’s not morning, it’s evening. You’ve missed an entire day.”

This activity requires the players to provide focused listening and observation skills and take on the posture of collaborative building rather than analytical dissection and destruction. What would if everybody on the team worked to create and build towards a common goal? Interestingly, many local improv troops (probably the most famous being Second City) have picked up on this and began to offer it as an option for corporate training. However, one company here at the show, Performance of a Lifetime, is trying to take it national and work with larger companies rather than local teams. Jay just blogged about a different experience with them as well. I attended their session earlier this week where we were able to try out several of the games and begin to learn some of the basics. It developed practical skills (listening, observation, teamwork), explained more philosophical ideas (collaborative creation, interactivity), and frankly was a lot of fun. I definitely want to go back and take the classes with my local improv troop.

On a side note, a few years ago Cornell was working on a project to animate virtual characters using the rules of improv. In simulations and virtual worlds, the computer controlled characters are almost always pre-scripted. Their actions, paths, and words are predetermined by the creator and the characters can often feel stale and unrealistic. The research was trying to determine whether the rules of improv could create characters with more realistic behaviors. I haven’t seen much about that recently. If anybody knows more about it, send it my way. I’d love to write a bit more about it.

In the mean time, check out your local improv troop and jump over to Performance of Lifetime. Very cool.

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