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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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.

Total immersion

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.

General Electric's virtual trade show
General Electric's virtual trade-show 'floor.' At the bottom of the screen are avatars of GE employees available to answer customers' questions.

"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 eshein@shein.net.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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