Entering the virtual world
In spite of the barriers, some companies believe strongly in immersive technologies and are making forays into the virtual world. Oil and gas giant BP, for one, chose immersive technologies for its 2009-10 Game Changer program, which annually identifies an emerging technology the company believes can deliver $50 million or more in savings.
And Denver-based ACS Learning Services, a provider of training services in corporate career development, has also embraced different virtual world environments. The reason? Clients were saying it was becoming increasingly more important to be able to train people effectively without having to fly them all over the world, says ACS learning strategist Caroline Avey.
Another issue is the ability to raise the bar on innovation. "We started seeing in RFPs, 'What are you doing that's innovative in learning?' " she says. "So we started seeing the need to be an innovative organization inside to create a culture we could bring to clients."
Avey was familiar with gaming environments because of her sons, and it occurred to her when she started spending time on Second Life that it could be a natural place to conduct learning. Unlike in a webinar, where "it's difficult to get that emotional engagement," Avey felt that in an environment like Second Life, ACS could trigger tension to force users to make decisions or engage with other people.
For example, the time management simulation ACS is building on Second Life looks like a classroom. Once a user logs in, he goes to the ACS space and sits down at a desk, where a virtual phone rings. His avatar clicks on the phone, and there's a message from his boss telling him to perform a task. The idea is to create stress, Avey says, since the person has to figure out how to prioritize his time for the day, then work on his task while dealing with an interruption from a peer.
Other virtual public and private tools ACS uses to provide learning include Olive (On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment) from Forterra Systems Inc., Teleplace, ProtoSphere from ProtonMedia Inc., and Sametime from IBM.
In one instance, rather than flying team members to Dallas, one of ACS's clients gathered a group in Sametime and used avatars to post their ideas on a virtual wall regarding account planning for 2010. One team member served as the facilitator, and the group conducted discussions on trends and then prioritized the ideas and voted on them. "In the course of 45 minutes, they were able to brainstorm, generate and cluster 60 different ideas," Avey says.
Yet today, only a small percentage of ACS's clients are using immersive environments, she says, because of the investment they need to make, which can range from $2,000 for a one-time session to upwards of $100,000 to build out a whole virtual environment.
Back at NUWC, training has become, literally, larger than life. "I can log into Second Life as an avatar and walk into a USS Virginia [class] submarine attack center, which is the command-and-control space, where the commanding officer positions and executes missions," explains Aguiar. Using Teleplace on an internal network in the prototype virtual attack center, operators can go in as their avatars and run the actual shipboard systems.
NUWC also plans to conduct experiments using Teleplace. "We will be able to practice and run experiments of how the fleet will be able to use future attack center designs, without actually having to build them in a physical space," Aguiar says. Testing without having to build a physical space could save NUWC "millions" of dollars over the next few years, Aguiar notes.
Another example of what an NUWC avatar looks at in immersive learning training spaces is the way sound travels under water. Sound doesn't travel in a straight line under water; it is affected by many environmental factors, such as temperature, salinity, depth and pressure. "So the avatar dives under water and can see glowing lines that trace sound and the curves they follow," Aguiar says. By having the sound visualized around him, the avatar is immersed in the information.
A hard sell
Even with all the benefits virtual environments present, early users acknowledge that it can be a tough sell to upper management.
"This is new territory for our customers," says ACS's Avey. "You have to get the ROI for it, and you've got to work with technology groups on bandwidth and download issues."
"Virtual worlds are very unfamiliar, so there's a lot to learn, and that's a big challenge," says Cornell University's Bloomfield. But he believes that in spite of the perceptions about these types of environments, the industry will still move forward. He points out that it wasn't all that long ago when people were daunted at the prospect of using the Web in a business context.
Aguiar concurs. "Virtual worlds are going to keep growing and very quickly turn from a novelty concept into something as ingrained as the Web is for us today."
Esther Shein is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.