Saturday, March 28, 2009

    Gov 2.0 Camp: Virtual Worlds

    Virtual Worlds is a topic that I find popping up more and more. I've always taken it with a grain of salt, though, as most of the time I hear it in relation to talk about how it'll make everything better. I shy away from that kind of talk as I know that silver bullets don't exist.

    Further, my only real experience with a virtual world stems from the time that I played World of Warcraft. So, in my mind there's extra baggage attached in that I have a hard time seeing how a virtual world could be more than a game. When I entered this session, I decided to try to leave behind my baggage or, at the very least, dispel some of it.

    This session was given by members of the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds. There were four panelists, but I did not, unfortunately, get their names or contacts.

    As I entered this session, I had one question in mind: Are virtual worlds useful for more than just playing?

    Surprisingly, there are three government agencies which are using virtual worlds in some capacity: NOAA, NASA and the CDC. All three of these agencies use virtual worlds for information delivery and training. NASA may be the least shocking example here, though, as it makes sense for them to create, say, a virtual world of Mars and then use that virtual world to train rover drivers. It's NOAA that has the most fascinating use of virtual worlds.

    NOAA Islands (see towards the bottom of the page under the heading "NOAA Virtual World") is a virtual world that runs in Second Life (a very popular virtual world). In NOAA Islands, one is allowed to create their own mini-planet and then strive to create a stable weather pattern on that planet. As you add one effect, though, its repercussions are seen in other parts of the mini-planet. If you add too much rain, well, you'll flood the crops that are growing in a valley or low-lying area. If you make the world too hot, you'll melt the polar ice caps. In this way, NOAA attempts to convey the intricacies of climate to the uninitiated.

    Another example of using virtual worlds in unique and non-playful ways was anecdotally related by one of the panelists. He commented on a school of engineering that he knew of that was using virtual worlds in order to prototype the buildings and structures they were designing. Specifically of use was the ability to determine if handicap access was sufficient for a given building.

    However, of all the examples given, the most common example given was that of collaboration. The idea was set forth that in today's world of budget cuts and massive organizational structures which can span a country if not the globe money could be saved if, instead of collaborating face-to-face, people could collaborate virtually.

    To this, I asked the question of what advantages do a virtual world provide that more traditional forms of telecommunication don't? The response was both intangible and interesting.

    Basically, the consensus from the panel was that virtual worlds provide a sort of solidification of knowledge based on their immersiveness. One presenter described it as "informational bandwidth". Virtual worlds, being immersive, allow one to convey large amounts of information faster. Further, this immersiveness adds context to the memories created, making the information conveyed more "solid" or "real". The information has a better chance of sticking due to the immersive nature of a virtual world.

    This concept, that the immersiveness of a virtual world added to the quality of the information that was transmitted seemed to find fertile ground in the audience. One audience member stated that "where it is is what it is", meaning that the memory of something can be tied in no small part to the place where the memory was experienced.

    However, someone else asked a very probing question: Do virtual worlds limit or enhance productivity?

    The answer to this was less than satisfactory, in my mind: The worlds are getting better with productivity software. Currently, many virtual worlds allow for desktop sharing and persistence of environment. But, does "getting better" mean "good enough"? In my mind, no.

    So, how did this session shape my opinion on virtual worlds? Are virtual worlds useful for more than just play?

    Yes, they are useful for more than just play.

    First and foremost, I was highly impressed by NOAA's forward thinking in this space. So many times allowing people to just get out there and attempt something is the best way to convince them of your point. Allowing people to experiment with climate by actually creating it is ingenious and something that NOAA should be commended for.

    Further, I can see how virtual worlds will soon play a huge role in training. Being able to attempt a task in a similar environment to the environment in which you will actually be performing the task is of great value. I can see how this could lead to safer working conditions in hazardous work environments, from military applications to industry.

    I can also see that the advantage to prototyping is huge. Being able to put yourself into a users shoes (as in the case of testing handicap access in a building which is to be built) is of immeasurable value. If you add realistic physics to that, well, you've simply added even more value to the tool.

    However, the one place I remain unconvinced is in what is probably the most important space of all (as far as widespread adoption of virtual worlds is concerned). For virtual worlds to be adopted whole-heartedly across government and industry they must facilitate the work that people do. To hear that the tools for productivity are still developing in my mind means that they are not ready yet for the main-stream.

    That's not to say that virtual worlds don't have potential value in this most important space, though. Indeed, I feel that they have great potential. But, until I can see an example of where they make collaboration as easy, or near as easy, as actual collaboration is in real life I don't see that they will be widely adopted for this purpose.

    With all that said, I'm going to keep my ears out, and my mind open, to this topic. I think that there is great work that can be done here and I look forward to what the researchers of today will do with this technology.