Avatars rising in the enterprise

Virtual worlds are finding a niche in the workplace for purposes such as training, simulation and prototyping

Avatars aren't just for the movies or for techies with time on their hands. Organizations are using virtual worlds for training, simulation and prototyping, among other things.

The U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) is making the most of what officials call "immersive learning" in secure, virtual work environments replete with avatars, to augment existing training curricula and to facilitate collaborative engineering.

"Immersive learning is all about the true power of a virtual world where gravity is optional and scaling is arbitrary, and objects can be made to be transparent," says Steve Aguiar, virtual worlds project lead at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport, one of the NUWC's two primary units, in Newport, R.I.

NUWC is charged with research and development and technical evaluation of everything that goes inside a submarine. In 2008, the center began investigating the various virtual worlds on the Internet and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, with the goal of helping the division build better submarines and more effectively train sailors. Last year, NUWC began experimenting with some of those virtual worlds to look not only at training, but at other issues like collaborative engineering, rapid prototyping, battlefield simulation and cognitive modeling as well, says Aguiar.

For the testing phase, NUWC has chosen two virtual-world platforms, Redwood City, Calif.-based Teleplace Inc.'s eponymous product and Second Life, from Linden Lab in San Francisco.

Aguiar notes that while the NUWC has used 3-D design tools for a long time, the difference with a product like Second Life is "I can have stakeholders from around the world log in on a secure military network as their avatars, rather than having to fly them in and collocate them in a physical design-review session."

Immersive learning in the Navy
The Navy uses virtual worlds for immersive learning, where an avatar 'enters' a space.

For collaborative engineering, that means the ability to replicate a submarine's command-and-control space in a virtual world. For training, it means creating an information space where a sailor's avatar can "walk" into the data. Officials have taken computer functions such as target-motion analysis, which involves estimating the location of shipping traffic, and sound visualization, and made the images three-dimensional and scaled so an avatar can actually enter into the data, says Aguiar. So instead of merely looking at the data, they have created a unique information space that is exponentially larger than the avatar's size.

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