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Multi-User Virtual Reality Technology as a Laboratory for Learning
about Social Research: Issues and Prospects
10. Data Capture about Virtual Populations
It was envisaged that the teaching session would include data capture of population movement in the virtual world - such as numbers of users in different world. This proved impossible, first, because it would have taken too long (students had just enough time to carry out interviews and performing additional tasks would have at least doubled the time of the session) and second, because the programming for this task was more difficult than expected. Nevertheless, this part of the project was carried out separately and involved capturing information about the population in Activeworlds over the course of one week. These data were captured at five-minute intervals and includes the number of users per world as well as the total number of users. Data for the number of users active in Activeworlds and in `The Gate' over a 24-hour cycle show definite patterns or regularities. The `ebbs and flows' of virtual populations are fairly similar on any weekday, and this is especially noteworthy since the population of users comes from all over the world
These data can therefore also be used for introducing students to issues concerning sampling. At present, when students on social research methods courses are introduced to sampling issues, it is usually assumed (though this is often not clear) that what is being discussed is area sampling, of the kind typically used for population surveys. On the Internet, however, one is typically more interested in flows of users onto and off a particular site. As Internet methodologies become more common in disciplines like sociology, teaching about appropriate flow sampling methods will become important. Such issues do not usually at present form part of the social science curriculum. Put differently, exposure to data of the kind that we have captured about a virtual population will allow students to appreciate the differences between area and flow sampling.
Gathering this type of information will be useful not only in teaching about social research, but also for the social scientific study of multi-user virtual worlds. A key issue that must be taken into account in the design of these tools are the ethics of gathering data about online behaviour. There has been some discussion of this issue for text-only worlds, but graphical worlds also pose some distinctive issues (see below). This is also an area where new software tools might help researchers and teachers. For our purposes, it was possible to use 'frame-grabbing' software and software for arriving at the total numbers of users. Such tools could, however, be developed for wider use among researchers and they could also be designed to include additional functionalities (tracking the number of encounters between avatars and their movements within and between different worlds). Again, the ethical issues of gathering this type of data remain to be resolved.
Graphics Multimedia Virtual Environments Visualisation Contents