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Real Learning, Virtual Worlds

by Koreen Pagano

May 4, 2009

Feature

by Koreen Pagano

May 4, 2009

Much of what happens in a virtual world mirrors what happens in real life: people respond to the events that surround them and those interactions build the context, or community. But there needs to be a reason for people to come into the virtual world in the first place. Whether it’s for social or for business reasons, virtual worlds must have a purpose.

Susan has a busy Monday scheduled. Working in learning and development for a large global corporation, Susan starts her day in Germany, leading a learning debrief with a new hire class. By 10 am, she’s back at the home office in Boston, interacting with her fellow learning and development peers, finalizing a proposal for a new training initiative. By noon, she’s in Chicago with these same peers presenting the proposal to the executive committee. At 3 pm, Susan needs to be in Portland to support a sales presentation with a client on how her company provides training support for their products.

Susan isn’t racking up Frequent Flier miles and breaking the sound barrier speeding from location to location. Nor is she simply dialing into conference calls. Susan has the ability to be “virtually” present in all of these locations on the same day through virtual world technology.

Many people have heard of virtual worlds, or have been in-world themselves. In a recent article, Michael Risch estimates that approximately 20 million people worldwide have explored a virtual world. Although virtual world use is becoming more and more pervasive, exploration of the uses of virtual worlds for learning is just beginning.

This article will define the characteristics of virtual worlds, and provide current examples of virtual worlds that are appropriate for corporate use. I’ll also discuss the types of learning experiences and subject matter that might best be delivered via virtual world technology, and describe issues that organizations should prepare for in implementing virtual world technology.

Virtual worlds defined

What is the definition of a virtual world? It is perhaps most useful to define virtual worlds by their common features.

Immersive environment: Virtual worlds have a physical space, or location, that represents the world. This can be one location, or a series of locations. Although many virtual worlds are 3-D, 3-D isn’t essential to the definition of a virtual world. However, a sense of place is an essential element, regardless of the technology used to create it.

Avatars: The physical representation of you in a virtual environment is an “avatar.” An avatar is some representation of you over which you have control, and through which you are able to interact (for example, to communicate, to move, to react) in a digital environment, such as a virtual world. And while the avatar represents you in the virtual world, it does not have to have any similarity to how you look, act, talk, or generally appear to others in the real world. An individual has the opportunity to create an avatar to look and behave however that person chooses.

Interaction and communication with other users: One of the defining features of virtual worlds is that they are multi-player, allowing multiple users to log in to the same physical space at the same time and interact with each other. Communication may include text messaging, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), or, in some cases, video. One of the more interesting aspects of virtual worlds is that they allow for non-verbal communication as well, through avatars. Gestures, movements, and expressions are all opportunities for communication with others in-world.

Interaction with the world: A critical differentiator of virtual worlds is the ability for people to interact in some way with the world itself. Navigation and movement in the world is one component, but your ability to affect the world is another. Virtual worlds allow people to do things within the world and interact with different aspects in the world. In some instances, a virtual world is so open that it allows for user-generated content.

Context: This is perhaps the trickiest aspect of virtual worlds to define. Simply put, there needs to be a reason for people to show up. Unlike a massive multiplayer online game (MMOG), virtual worlds don’t have to have a storyline or goals associated with participating in the world. Much of what happens in a virtual world mirrors what happens in real life: people respond to the events that surround them, and those interactions build the context, or community. But there needs to be a reason for people to come into the virtual world in the first place. Whether it’s for social or for business reasons, virtual worlds must have a purpose.

Persistence: In order to consider something to be a “world,” it is necessary that it exist outside of the influence of any individual person. In other words, a virtual world continues to exist, perhaps even to change, whether you are in the world or not. In this sense, a virtual world is like any physical location; it doesn’t go away just because you’re not there. You can leave the virtual world, but its presence is persistent for others who may visit and it will be there whenever you choose to return.

In summary, virtual worlds are persistent digital environments where people, represented by avatars, go to interact with others and the world itself for some common purpose.

Virtual worlds for work

While there are literally dozens of virtual worlds, only some are appropriate (or ready) for corporate deployment. One of the first considerations is whether your company is able to use a public virtual world platform, or if it requires a private platform that it hosts behind your firewall. The answer to this question will determine which worlds are worth exploring further.

Currently available worlds for corporate applications include (see Figures 1 – 8):

 


Figure 1 Active Worlds


Figure 2 Multiverse

Figure 3 OLIVE


Figure 4 OpenSim (Alpha stage)


Figure 5 Protosphere


Figure 6 Qwaq


Figure 7 Second Life


Figure 8 Vast Park



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