The Tech Virtual Test Zone: Art, Film & Music


of an Exhibition

by Paul Orselli

Published on June 15, 2008, Modified on July 04, 2008

  • Description:

    I visited the Tech Virtual Test Zone with a bit of trepidation - Second Life (SL) is just not my (digital, virtual) cup of tea. How would the premise of the Tech’s experiment, namely, to use Second Life as a collaborative means to develop and prototype exhibits projects, actually play out in Real Life (RL)?

    Overall, I found the exhibition a mixed bag. Of the seven exhibit idea finalists chosen from the Tech’s Second Life competition, some components (Musical Chairs, as a prime example) clearly benefited from moving through the SL process. Other components (Tilty Table and Polar Projections) seemed less products of collaborative SL interaction and more just straight implementations of one person’s ideas that could have just as easily happened without Second Life.

    That being said, I really enjoyed, and enjoyed watching visitors, using components such as Musical Chairs and Connecting Point.
    In Musical Chairs, visitors could choose from different musical styles with a push button interface, such as Jazz, Bluegrass, etc., and then sit and push on seating elements in front of a projection screen that changed to indicate their selections. A little goofy, but big fun. It was also interesting to see how the artist’s original ideas had evolved as they shifted from SL to RL as indicated by graphics and videos accompanying each exhibit component.

    While a big part of The Tech’s experiment touted Second Life’s use as a collaborative exhibit development and prototyping tool, I think it is more realistic to think of Second Life as an idea generation tool. (It would be interesting to use a more user friendly visualization tool such as SketchUp to develop true virtual prototyping possibilities between users.)

    Also, despite the hopes for collaboration, the majority of finished exhibit components seemed to be the work of individuals rather than teams.

    (As an aside, calling the components in the Virtual Test Zone “prototypes” is a bit disingenuous, given the high level of polish and up-front cost of the exhibit materials and technology on display. I seriously doubt if much can, or will, be changed with these components.)

    Overall, while it was hard to leave aside my biases about Second Life, if I had to judge Tech Virtual Zone’s exhibit components on their own merits, I would say that about half of them were interesting and unusual enough to be called successful in their current forms. I applaud The Tech for trying such an interesting exhibit development model in such a public way.

Latest Comments (3)

Now a case study too!

by Nina Simon - June 26, 2008

Paul, thank you for your thoughts on the Test Zone. I’ve now posted a case study on the exhibition that folks can view here:

It’s interesting that in the case of the exhibits that directly reflected the virtual designers’ content (tilty table, human/avatar, polar projections, VJ), while the collaboration was limited, the ideas still came from the outside. Could we have found those folks and gotten their good exhibit ideas without Second Life? Possibly—but we would have just been substituting SL with another tool, whether low-tech like personal outreach or high-tech like SketchUp. It’s all a smokescreen to get more peoples’ ideas into museum exhibits!

One of the surprises for me was how useful SL turned out to be as a platform because of the real-time social element. Sketchup is definitely more useful and exportable from a design standpoint, but it’s not a social environment. When you and I can “walk together” through a SketchUp model and talk about it, I think it will be a fabulous tool. But my not-so-secret desire is that museums of all kinds will try allowing visitors to co-create exhibits. It’s not about technology. It’s about trust and willingness to let go of some control, or at least to change somewhat from being a designer to a facilitator.


by Carey Tisdal - July 04, 2008

I have wondered if SL could not play a productive role in prototyping. I thought about using it early on when one is testing ideas and strategies. Thanks for the review—I appreciate having both a case study and a review.

Visitors as Co-Creators and Designers as Facilitat

by Kathleen Mclean - July 05, 2008

Hi Nina, I’m so glad you are interested in thinking of visitors as co-creators and designers as facilitators. In fact, I have said the same thing for many years now. I know you’ve read my piece in “Visitor Voices,” the book I co-edited with Wendy Pollock, but for those who haven’t, check out “Surviving in Two-Way Traffic” in the book. I talk about visitor co-creation, and liken museum professionals (not just designers) to facilitators and even talk show hosts.

Over the years, I have experimented with primarily low-tech ways to accomplish this. Some have been more successful than others, but when they work, they really work! While I love the SL approach, I know that it seriously narrows the range of people who can participate. That is not all bad, but it means you will get particular kinds of ideas, i think.

I’m doing some new visitor co-creation experiments with the Oakland Museum, and I am very excited about the process. Stay tuned.

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