Avatars rising in the enterprise

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

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Another mixed message: Oracle announced in February that it is dropping support for Sun Microsystems' Project Wonderland, a Java-based platform for developing 3-D virtual worlds. But now that Oracle's deal to purchase Sun has been finalized, a blog posting noted that a "core group of the Wonderland team intends to keep the project going" independently.

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.

Learning a Virginia-class submarine
Learning a USS Virginia-class submarine in a virtual world.

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.

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