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View to a Kill: Training in Virtual Worlds


Second technology editor John Stokdyk meets ZeeGerman Zwerling as he steps into the exciting world of virtual training.

Learning and training are likely to be the 'killer application' for computer-generated 3D worlds such as Second Life, delegates heard at the Learning Technologies event in London last week.

Capgemini consultant Marco Tippmer made the claim during a session on the hype and realities of the latest training technology. We have been here before, he admitted, during the 'virtual reality 1.0' bust in the early 1990s, when lack of sufficient computing power undermined expectations surrounding touch-sensitive gloves and immersive 3D headsets.

From the late 1990s, universal broadband access has made multi-player online role-playing games and 3D environments achievable - most notably the Second Life virtual world created and operated by Linden Labs. Market analyst Gartner is currently predicting that by 2011, 80 per cent of all web users will have an online 3D graphical representative - or avatar in netspeak.

"Learning technology has been talked about as the killer application for virtual worlds."

Marco Tippmer, Capgemini consultant at Learning Technologies conference 2008

Tippmer backed his prediction with a string of examples from Second Life, which has been colonised by more than 100 universities and a wider network of learning and training organisations. Just as in real life, Tippmer explained, you can create a classroom for learning where educational presentations, animations and videos can be put in front of assembled learners.

Guided by his Second Life avatar ZeeGerman Zwerling, Tippmer took delegates on a tour and interviewed several online educators in their virtual training spaces., for example, is a foreign language school that operates in Second Life. Unlike its physical organisation in Boston, LanguageLabs can accommodate students from multiple geographies and time zones, explained Paul Sweeny, the director of the firm's online facility. has a conference room that can accommodate 10-12 students and if need be, smaller groups can go off to syndicate rooms to work together on assignments.

"A real world classroom is somewhere people gather to learn, but it has its limitations," said Sweeny. "In a virtual environment, people can be together, but you don't need them to be in the classroom.

"We could go somewhere else - where more effective and affective learning can take place. Virtual worlds are immersive. They can take you out to realistic levels."

By way of example, Sweeny flew across the virtual space to show us a Second Life restaurant created by LanguageLabs to help students practice their day-to-day conversation.

"Market analyst Gartner is currently predicting that by 2011, 80% of all web users will have an online 3D graphical representative - or avatar in netspeak."

John Stokdyk, technology editor, Sift Media portfolio

Mike Kraten, of the University of Boston's Suffolk Business School, runs a course in business and risk management in Second Life, taking in modules in business law and accounting offered at European management school INSEAD's online facility.

"Like any other academic institution, we're trying to increase references, decrease costs and improve productivity," Kraten said. "Second Life helps us do all these things."

While virtual worlds offered a rich environment to explore three-dimensional concepts in 3D - for example a petrol station model to help train lorry drivers - they were not entirely risk-free, warned Marco Tippmer. Organisations subjected to strict compliance rules could find regulations blurring at the edges.

The open, interactive nature of these worlds and anonymous identities of avatars also posed a threat to confidentiality. Second Life's servers are located in California and all the information you load into the online environment will be held there, outside of your control.

Then there were brand and reputation issues. "A virtual world is a public space," he said. "Whatever I say will be associated with my company - a journalist could pick up what I'm saying and I'll be all over the newspapers the next day."

While Second Life is the most widely known online virtual world, there were numerous other environments created more specifically for training purposes, from the US military's Simnet, to others such as Project Wonderland, ActiveWorlds, Croquet and Forterra. Earlier in January, many of these organisations met in Boston for a virtual learning summit that will seek to set standards for what it termed the 'Education Grid'.

As Tippmer said, virtual reality is leaving its gaming heritage behind and entering the educational and corporate mainstream.


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