Caspian Thinking Worlds
Immersive 3D learning environments and game-based learning (AKA ‘serious games’) have been appearing in the e-learning, educational and training press for a few years now. The premise is to combine the immersive experiences provided by video games with a specific learning purpose.
Some have taken this field very seriously, for instance the defence sector have heavily invested in the development of realistic training and combat scenarios, most notably America’s Army in the US. Others have found the development budgets for bespoke solutions beyond their reach. Freely available environments like Second Life offer an alternative but may feel too open or unstructured for some.
Caspian have just introduced a commercial version of their own 3D authoring platform Thinking Worlds, which offers an affordable solution to creating bespoke learning environments. Kineo have been playing around with Thinking Worlds to see what it can do.
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Thinking Worlds can be used to design first or third person 3D games and environments (think Doom, Second Life and the like) in which you can interact with your surroundings, people and objects. What makes it a particularly interesting proposition for e-learning is that contains the building blocks to create interactions that are suitable for learning scenarios. You can create environments in which you can meet and interact with other people, have conversations and carry out both simple and complex tasks. Question screens and game timers enable you to build quizzes and time-based challenges. You can also collect and use objects to complete tasks, similarly to the likes of Tomb Raider and many other games. Environments can be brought to life through the use of camera fly-throughs, characters moving about and carrying out their own activities, effects such as fire and rain and the use of audio.
Goal-based learning instantly springs to mind but there are all sorts of applications that could be developed with this versatile tool. Let’ see how it works.
A scene developed in Thinking Worlds
Our initial impressions are good. The software is easy to install and the programme interface is clearly laid out. Add a scene and choose a character and you can be exploring your own 3D environment in virtually no time.
To create an interactive 3D learning environment you essentially follow the stages below:
1. Create your environment (Settings)
2. Add people and objects (Entity List)
3. Create interactions (Interaction Editor)
4. Link objects and interactions (Scene Flow)
5. Explore your environment (Publish Your Journey)
You’ll find yourself jumping between these stages, adding objects, interactions, linking it all together and publishing your creation to try out your latest changes.
Creating your environment and adding objects
Thinking Worlds is not a 3D modeller, so you can’t create new objects within it. It does however come with a reasonable range of environments, buildings, people and objects to get you started and we are told it will import models in standard formats from 3D Studio or Google Sketch Up. Caspian will also be releasing plug in model packs in the future.
Adding a character
As a world builder, we found Thinking Worlds easy to use. You’re led through creating an initial environment and adding your character then you can go to town from there. The ability to toggle collision detection (stopping you from walking through walls) and snap to landscape (so you don’t leave your objects floating in mid-air) make it pretty easy and quick to put environments together. The mouse controls for navigating the environment are pretty intuitive, though can be a little frustrating at times. Graphical navigation tools (such as in Google Maps) are being added in the next release, which will help here.
You can select objects from the ‘Entity list’ which quickly helps in locating yourself and other items in a scene. Objects can be moved, scaled, stretched and set to move, e.g. rotate or walk along a user defined path. The path builder is good but could benefit from a spline editing function in a later release.
Making your environment interactive
Having created an environment and a few objects and people you now need to start adding some interactions. Initially, interactions aren’t attached to the objects in your scene, so you create all your interactions and objects separately before linking them together. This enables a great deal of flexibility and reusability in constructing interactions and helps you to keep things organised.
The type of interactions you can initially add include conversations, questions and branching, which give you the basic building blocks to interact with people and objects in a scene.
Adding an interaction
Linking your scene together
Things get more complicated once you start to link your objects and interactions, which is all done in the Scene Flow area. This uses a flowchart approach to link together all the elements of your environment. You create the flowchart by adding and editing Nodes, which represent events such as a question being asked when you approach a character, a person walking along a path or a quiz outcome.
Scene flows quickly become large and complex but Caspian have made these easy to navigate and you can group items together to make it easier to manage. Whilst adding and linking nodes can at first take a while you’ll quickly find that the strength is in re-using (cloning) similar nodes and sequences of events, saving you time on recreating everything from scratch.
Using nodes to link objects and interactions in Scene Flows
The variety of different nodes gives you a lot of flexibility including:
This is the most complex part of using Thinking Worlds and we found that it takes a bit of time to familiarise yourself with the sequence of nodes required to perform functions, some being more obvious than others. As we were using a pre-release version we didn’t have access to the help files or tutorials, which you’ll find invaluable here.
You really need to start by planning out what you want to do before you get too stuck in. Whilst you can quickly put together an environment with some people, objects and interactions present, you can get bogged down in the complexities of your scene and waylaid from creating a good piece of learning.
As everything is editable you can go back and update text, change objects and interactions and even change the whole scene with relative ease, so it is also possible to sketch some ideas out and build on those.
Exploring your environment
It’s very satisfying to publish your created environment and start exploring it. You can do this as soon as you’ve selected a scene and added your character, so basically straight away! Although the graphical quality is more Second Life than Xbox 360, as with Second Life the experience is nonetheless immersive and engaging. Just how engaging is down to good learning design and making your scene realistic: avoid walking through walls, bad dialogue and dodgy camera angles! You’ll be amazed at the extra depth some ambient audio adds too.
Exploring your new world
The publishing tool is great as it actually sense checks the logic of your scene flow whilst it’s building and gives useful feedback where you’ve made a mistake or omitted a required field.
You can save time when previewing your environment by skipping straight through to the section of interactivity that you’re currently working by linking this to the start point in the Scene Flow area.
From an end user’s perspective, games or learning created with Thinking Worlds require the Shockwave player plug-in to run. It is estimated that about 60% of people have this already on their kits and it is in any case it is a fairly small, freely available and platform independent plug-in, much like Flash player.
Caspian recommend developing games to be downloadable in chunks, so that whilst a user is completing one stage the next is pre-loading. The initial stage may take a little while to download but after that the experience is relatively smooth.
Thinking Worlds will output SCORM compliant modules so that it can integrate with your learning management system (LMS), allowing learner access, usage and scores to be tracked and reported on. This will be of real interest to educators and companies looking to track the effectiveness of their learning environments.
Putting it to use
Here at Kineo we’ve developed a range of successful, non 3D, game-based learning solutions, which are often based around branched interactivity with scoring mechanisms, giving learners instantaneous performance feedback. Thinking Worlds enables the kind of models we’ve used but with the extra dimension of 3D.
We’re keen to see the different scenarios that people develop using Thinking Worlds. A few areas where we thing it will have good application are:
As well as being used to create stand-alone applications Thinking Worlds could add value to other e-learning applications.
It’s early days for Thinking Worlds as a commercial tool but, despite a few areas that could do with improvement, it is a powerful tool, good value for money and fills a gap in the e-learning market.
The fact that you can now create your own SCORM compliant, 3D learning environment using a £1,000 piece of software, without needing 3D modelling or programming skills is impressive and makes this a viable option for those who my have found this area of e-learning previously out of reach.
A few things we’d like to see improved in later versions:
To find out more, including demos of programmes developed with Thinking Worlds and a 30 day trial version check out: www.thinkingworlds.com
See a demo at http://www.caspianlearning.co.uk/SSMovieGDVersion-1.wmv