Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Looking at There.com

For a while now I’ve been a fan of the virtual 3D world There.com. Although it isn’t as developed and hasn’t had a fraction of the publicity of Second Life I think there are a few things in its favour and for anyone wanting to take some steps into teaching in virtual worlds or for students who are interested in finding others to chat to or practice their language skills with, they could do far worse.

What is there.com?
It’s a simple 3D online virtual world where multiple players can create avatars, create worlds, build and interact with each other. The interaction is mainly through movement gesture and text chat, but voice chat is also possible too if you opt to pay for a premium membership rather than free. Have a look here if you want to see the maker's description.

If you want to see what it looks like, there is a video here created by the company, but it's quiet a big download (30Mb)

What I like about it.

  • There are a number of attractive features within There.com. The most striking one for me is the way the text chat appears in cartoon-like balloon bubbles, which order themselves as the conversation progresses. This makes the conversation very easy to follow.

  • I also like that when you register you get a free hover board (a bit like a small flying surfboard) and there are areas of the world where you can go to do speed trials or join other hover-boarding enthusiasts for races or lessons. See how to ride a hoverboard movie (3.5Mb)
  • The visual graphics of the world are far less detailed than in Second Life, for example, but this means that the hardware and bandwidth requirements are much less, so you don’t need an expensive computer with high-end graphics card to join in the fun. The system requirements also claim that you can enjoy the world even if you are on a 56k dial up connection, though this I find much harder to believe.
  • During my visits to There.com, I’ve generally found the other inhabitants to be much friendlier than in SL and generally more willing to talk to strangers (though I have a female avatar in There.com, so that could be part of the difference).
  • There are regular organised events taking place so you can go along and be sure that someone will be there and something will be happening. You can see what’s going on in the ‘There Fun Times’ new site: http://www.therefuntimes.com/
  • There.com offers a range of developer tools including a style maker for those interested in designing clothes etc.
  • There are some ready made ‘Quests’ so there are things for students to do which will get them working together and exploring the world.
  • The world is much more controlled than SL so there isn’t the ‘adult’ type of sexual imagery and content. Though that isn’t to say that it is safer in terms of the people who may be visiting, so the normal precautions apply. There is a guide for parents though and Online safety tips
  • The picture taking tool is handy for getting students to produce follow-up assignments. Here’s a picture of me (my avatar) exploring an Egyptian tomb close to the Pyramids.
  • There.com has some very active machinima projects and also has a yearly machinima film festival
What isn’t so good

  • Generally it has a much smaller population so there tend to be less people about than in more popular worlds. So if you are recommending it as a place for your students to just hang out and meet other native speakers, then they might be disappointed.
  • There is a voice client that enables audio voice chat, but to use it you have to have a premium membership and that involves paying. Though it is just a one-off single payment of $9.95 (about £5) and this also allows you to start building and selling things for ‘there bucks’.
  • If you make things within There.com you have to pay to store them in-world.
  • There.com isn't Mac friendly and you can't log into the site through Firefox either

How can I use it with my students?
  • You could get them to do some Quest activities together.
  • You could ask them to visit various places and take photographs (Using the camera tools), then produce an illustrated report or narrate a story.
  • You could ask them to find out how to ride a hover-board and how to drive a ‘there’ buggy and then teach each other.
  • If you have distance students, you could host your class in a There.com beach hut.
  • Start a machinima project. Get your students to write a script for their avatars, storyboard the action and act it out in world. Then film the scenes and edit it together as a movie. Here's a guide on how to create machinima in There.com
  • Organise a hover-boarding tournament for your students
  • Take a series of pictures and get the students to create a story around them
Really though I think for these environments to work well for language learning you need to use them with distance learners or within a blended learning context. Not one where students are meeting regularly face to face.

Conclusion
On the whole I think There.com is a fun and very sociable environment where teens are likely to enjoy hanging out and meeting people. There are things to do there and it has the potential to be quite accessible because the makers’ claim that it can run on much lower spec computers without broadband. It doesn’t have the visual impact and programming potential that more complex worlds like Second Life have, but if you just want to make a start on understanding how these worlds work and what the potential is, before you invest serious money in a powerful computer, then There.com is well worth a look.

I'd be really interested to hear what other people think of There.com, especially with ideas to use with students.

best

Nik

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Nik,

You can change your SL text preference to use bubble chat. It's about 3/4 of the way down under the text chat tab.

Nik Peachey said...

Hi Anonymous,

That's true you can change the SL chat to bubbles, but they don't respond in the same way. The ones in There.com are proximity sensitive and the software threads the bubbles of the conversation so that you can see the order they appear in along side each other. The ones in SL just tend to remain above the head of the speaker and make it hard to make any connection between speakers conversations, especially if there is a groups (3 or 4 ) that aren't close together. I have to say though it's been some time since I tried this in SL, so it might have improved. I just find it much clearer and easier to read in there.com

Best

Nik