Companies Explore Virtual Worlds As Collaboration Tools

Virtual worlds like Second Life aren't just for games; companies are experimenting with virtual environments for everything from training exercises to meeting spaces for remote workers. But the technology still has pitfalls.

For emergency responders working along Interstate 95, accidents aren't a game; they're a way of life (and death). So it seemed odd to a group of firefighters, cops and medics when researchers from the University of Maryland suggested it use a virtual world to collaborate on training for rollovers, multicar pileups and life-threatening injuries.

More on CIO.com

IBM's Partnership with Linden Lab

Inside Sun's Virtual World

This Is Not a Game: Virtual Worlds Coming to Your Business

The phrase virtual world is often associated with Second Life, the much-hyped 3-D environment hosted by Linden Lab that allows users to talk to friends, sell T-shirts, fly around on carpets and even build amusement parks—in other words, to play. At first, the emergency responders who make up the I-95 Corridor Coalition didn't take seriously the idea of a virtual world as a training tool, says Michael Pack, director of research with the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology.

"It wasn't until we started to do elaborate demos that the first responders started to realize the true potential," says Pack, who has since begun rolling out a virtual world pilot project that could accommodate training for hundreds of emergency workers.

Virtual training for first responders
A University of Maryland project creates a virtual training exercise for first-responders working on Interstate 95.

In fact, as the consumer buzz over Second Life has faded, organizations like the I-95 Corridor Coalition, accountancy Pricewaterhouse and healthcare technology provider Greenleaf Medical have quietly explored business uses for virtual worlds. From setting up 3-D environments for geographically dispersed workers to giving therapy to troubled teens, early adopters are testing virtual worlds as a collaborative tool.

Industry analysts and developers of virtual worlds believe that by immersing users in an interactive environment that allows for social interactions, virtual worlds have the potential to succeed where other collaborative technologies, like teleconferencing, have failed. Phone-based meetings begin and end abruptly, at the mercy of the person or service administering it. In a virtual world, conversations between employees can continue within the virtual space—just like they do in company hallways after a meeting ends. "The informality of a virtual world can lead to great conversations," says Roo Reynolds, a Metaverse evangelist with IBM. Metaverse is a virtual world for Big Blue employees. "It leads to discussions that otherwise would have been missed with the formality of older technologies."

However, businesses must overcome many technical and cultural obstacles before they adopt virtual worlds on a major scale. The technology often lacks robust audio capabilities that business users need to communicate, and it can be frustratingly slow without a high-performance desktop. Meanwhile, users have to get over the novelty of working as their virtual selves. And there's a learning curve for older workers who didn't grow up with richly rendered video games.

Perhaps even more important than the technical challenges, companies must tackle the issue of workers' online identities. People's 3-D representations, known as avatars, must be constructed in such a way that allows users of virtual worlds to have faith they're talking to the right colleague. Security challenges abound; most companies using virtual worlds today do so on a public or externally hosted platform with limited options to protect corporate data.

"You want people to be so comfortable in the virtual world that they're not concentrating on how to use them," Pack says. "They can't be worried about how to turn left or talk to someone. They need to be worried about how to do their jobs, just like they would in the real world."

Training in Virtual Worlds

This video from the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology shows a virtual world where emergency workers can practice real-life emergency response.

Video provided by the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology, University of Maryland.

Early Adopters Get Down to Business

Many first adopters have proceeded carefully when implementing virtual worlds, in some cases opting for trials and low-risk options that require modest investments. Jonathan Reichental, director of IT innovation at PricewaterhouseCoopers, started researching virtual worlds for the professional services firm more than a year ago. Since then, his team has tested virtual worlds that are hosted outside the company's firewall. He's looking for one he likes. Reichental hopes virtual worlds can be used for recruiting, innovation, business modeling and training. Editor's note: This story was updated on 3/13/08 to clarify how PricewaterhouseCoopers and Greenleaf Medical use virtual worlds, and to provide specific titles for two sources. View the correction.

"We'll extract more uses over time as it becomes even more enterprise-ready," he says.

University of Maryland's Pack got the idea to use a 3-D environment for first responders after a group from the I-95 Coalition took a tour to Europe to observe the training techniques of emergency workers there. "They had great simulations, where if you did the wrong thing [in a virtual world], everything would get worse," he says.

Pack says training in a virtual world presents a desirable alternative to real-life exercises, which can be pricey and inefficient. "You'd go out in a field and flip a car over and have people act as victims," he says. Trainers couldn't introduce many variables (such as mounting traffic). In virtual worlds, Pack and his team can program multiple scenarios into the software. For example, if a first responder gets out of his car and fails to put on a reflective jacket, the system might respond with a car hitting that person's avatar.

"It's supposed to be as human as possible, so anything goes," he says. "We've put together lots of scenarios, from fender benders to 20-car pileups. We put [the participants] in dangerous situations to see how they will respond."

While Pack and Reichental remain optimistic about virtual worlds, however, most organizations lack the developers with the proper skills to work on them, says Erica Driver, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Most places don't have 3-D developers on staff to build this stuff," she says. "Initially they'll turn to vendors with out-of-the-box [software] to get them started."

Learning from the Mistakes of Second Life

To see the challenges and benefits of adopting virtual worlds, businesses need look no further than Second Life, which analysts say has affected the technology for both better and worse. Though viewed by some as a fatty piece of Web 2.0 excess, Second Life deserves credit for putting virtual worlds on the map.

"This is the first time we can observe a large user community in a virtual world that the users are able to shape and reformulate," says Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who was among the pioneers of virtual reality in the early 1980s. "The mere fact that it can work at all on a social level was only a theory before Second Life. Overall it's been a great success."

But Second Life has pitfalls, including problems with managing user identities, limited security and less-than-perfect audio, all factors businesses must consider when setting up their own virtual worlds. "Second Life is still a wild west," says Jonathan Yarmis, an AMR Research analyst. "Businesses have legal issues and policies they must consider."

Identity Matters

In Second Life, people create avatars with genders, races and eye-pleasing anatomical features that often contrast their own. While businesses shouldn't prevent their employees from being creative (it's foolish to think users will let their virtual bodies surrender to gravity), they need to create policies for avatar creation so that people maintain consistent representations and adhere to appropriate dress codes, says Yarmis.

The early adopters haven't delved too deeply into this issue, though University of Maryland's Pack says the software he bought from Forterra Systems allows for easy customization to differentiate users from one another. First responders will wear appropriate uniforms so their colleagues can pick them out during a training exercise, but that doesn't mean he wants everyone to look the same. "We can easily go in and change the body shape of the avatars," he says. "If you want to make them fat, or have a rounder face, we can."

Companies should aim to maintain consistency and accountability, without sacrificing creativity, says Aaron Delwiche, cofounder and CEO of Elastic Collision, a company that consults with organizations on how to deploy virtual worlds. "We encourage people to be imaginative and playful because virtual worlds are a freeing of the imagination," he says. "But you do need to have guidelines."

The Need for Good Audio

Many Second Lifers with imaginative avatars don't want anyone to know what they really sound like, observes Ian Wilkes, Linden Lab's director of operations. "A big criticism we got from Second Life residents when we released audio was, well, this kind of pulls back the curtain on who I really am and it isn't what I want."

But business users require it. Experts even argue that users typing what they have to say could disrupt their thought processes. "The typing would have been a showstopper for us," says Dan Gillette, lead designer at Greenleaf Medical, a Palo Alto, Calif., company that recently worked with a residential treatment facility in Camden, N.J., to use virtual worlds to provide therapy to children with psychiatric disorders. Virtual worlds allow patients to communicate in a stimulating environment where they might be more willing to open up about sensitive issues than they would face to face. "We need the patients to go in freely and have these social interactions [with their therapist]," Gillette adds. "For that, you need voice."

Unfortunately, for companies looking to use virtual worlds on a larger scale, audio needs to be perfected in such a way that takes into account spatial considerations. "When someone walks up to you from your left, you want to hear it in your left ear," says AMR's Yarmis. "When this happens, it takes virtual worlds beyond the realm of being a cartoon and it becomes a reasonable substitute from being in the same room."

Getting Users on Board

The prospect of an avatar that improves upon one's looks won't be enough to get employees to venture into a virtual environment. For one thing, people have to get used to it. Younger workers will be comfortable more quickly navigating around a virtual world because they grew up with game consoles such as Nintendo and Sony PlayStation, says Forrester's Driver. "The 30-and-younger crowd will pick this up in a few minutes," says University of Maryland's Pack. "That doesn't mean the older folks won't get it too, but it will take a little longer."

Even once users learn their way around, PWC's Reichental says you need to allow for the novelty factor to wear off. But he adds that this can be a pretty painless process with some users. "Our first meeting [in a virtual world], as you'd expect, people stood on tables and had fun and roamed around," he says. "Remarkably, though, by the second meeting, people became engaged and were ready to talk."

Are Virtual Worlds Right for You?

Driver believes using virtual worlds for meetings and training is the tip of the iceberg. She imagines that in five years, each knowledge worker will have about four monitors on her desk, perhaps with one dedicated to the Internet and e-mail and the rest to internal and external virtual worlds where people collaborate with colleagues and customers.

But to get started, you have to understand what virtual worlds offer today. Yarmis has spent a lot of time in Second Life, and suggests that people interested in virtual worlds for business do the same. "To grasp what's really going on, you need to make a commitment to spend a number of hours there. That's the only way you can see how rich an experience it really is," he says.

As end-user companies wait, big tech vendors have begun building and testing new virtual worlds on themselves. At IBM, developers are building the Metaverse, a place for Big Blue's employees to meet informally. Sun Microsystems, meanwhile, is developing MPK20, a virtual world extension to its 19-building facility in Menlo Park, Calif. According to Nicole Yankelovich, principal investigator of the collaborative environments group, at any given time more than half of Sun's employees work remotely (which Sun encourages because it reduces the need for office space and has environmental benefits). Virtual worlds are a compelling alternative to the boring old audio conference. "We need a way to bring everyone together and get some informal brainstorming going," she says.

Accessing MPK20 from the comfort of her home might help Yankelovich and her colleagues avoid the traffic on that wide stretch of concrete near their Burlington, Mass., office, known as I-95—a place the I-95 Corridor Coalition's first responders hope they won't have to visit, at least in real life, anytime soon.

Related:

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

Survey says! Share your insights in our 19th annual State of the CIO study