Virtual World Training

So maybe you are, or maybe you are not a gamer. A 2011 study by the Entertainment Software Association showed that at least 72 percent of American households actually are gamers. That number has risen by almost 10 percent in the last two years. In addition, the study showed that 42 percent of gamers are women and that women ages 18 years and older represent more than one third of the gaming population.

Parents are even getting into it, the study showed that forty-five percent of parents play video and/or computer games with their children at least once a week. The report stated that parents actually believe in the education and mental stimulation that the game brings to their child.

So much for the ‘ol board game and quality family time.

National Defense Magazine featured an article this month on Avatars invading military training systems. Interestingly enough the Army is looking into training where an avatar is created for each soldier. These digital figures would stay with the service member throughout their training career. Training would then be customized to each individual trainee by a full fledged digital representation of oneself. My thoughts are that if it can be done cost effectively and the “realness” of the avatar makes the soldier more immersed in the game then I am all for it. But if the personalization options are limited then it may be money/ time wasted and the military may be better off just training with general avatars so that the trainee can escape reality for time and become someone else.

My how time flies… We are quickly approaching the end of 2011 which reminds me that it is once again time to reflect back on a prediction that I have mentioned in past blog entries. Way back in 2007 Gartner predicted that “By the end of 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a “second life”, but not necessarily in Second Life“, according to Gartner, Inc. Where do we stand now with this?

Multi-user 3D environments once held so much promise, the idea just may have been ahead of its time. Back in December of last year I wrote about the hype cycle provided by Gartner which shows a timeline of 5 to 10 years for mainstream adoption of public virtual worlds. Funny that three years after the fact of Gartner saying virtual worlds would have 80 percent of all active internet users that just last year they said another 5 to 10 years for mainstream adoption. According to a post on Hypergrid Business Virtual worlds gained 214 million new users in the second quarter of 2011“, according to virtual worlds research firm KZero Worldwide. It was the largest quarterly increase since the company began tracking these numbers in 2008.” Second Life has 27 million registered users, so they say. How many of them have actually logged in within the last 3 months is unknown to most.

I believe that since the growth of mobile computing and the sea of apps that 3D virtual worlds might just once again have a chance. So let’s not completely write them off- perhaps Gartner should extend their prediction and also expand it to include some other popular virtual worlds of today rather than yesterday’s world of Second Life. I believe that 3D virtual worlds (with purpose) still have a lot of unreached potential to capitalize on in the future.

The Department of Defense has been in the news on a number of occurrences in past months highlighting the use of virtual worlds by the organization. They are utilizing virtual worlds for a host of different applications, one of which deals with post-traumatic stress in our soldiers, see this story for more details. This project is called The T2 Virtual PTSD Experience and is based in Second Life. By being based in Second Life it does allow an extra layer of interactivity as the player/ trainee is able to interact with anyone else that is experiencing the simulation. It just goes to show that the immersive nature of virtual worlds make them a prime candidate for this type of training and much more!

Another article on the website published back in May featured Frank DiGiovianni, the director of training readiness and strategy in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for readiness. As quoted by the article, “Five years from now, if Frank C. DiGiovanni has his way, warfighters from every service will learn aspects of their trade on a world in cyberspace.” Furthermore, “For the DOD virtual world experts are working on “a governance model that makes sense” in which everyone in the world can participate, DiGiovanni said, much like the Constitution allows American citizens to participate in their government.

“A governance model allows you to take all the efforts that are going on and synchronize them, integrate them, so you have a comprehensive whole, and not four separate efforts,” he added.
“I don’t want four separate worlds, I want one world … to be able to leverage all that content building that’s being done by everyone out there,” the director said.

The Strategic Plan for the Next Generation of Training for the Department of Defense, which was published in 2010, features leveraging emerging technologies to enhance the overall DoD training capabilities.

The blog post title may have you scratching the top of your head a little bit…The “Uncanny Valley” is a phenomenon that leads to a reaction from an all ‘but-not-quite-right’ simulated human form, whether it be robotic or animated. The term was invented by roboticist Masahiro Mori to depict the negative emotional response ‘real’ humans exhibit when a robot (avatar) seems practically human. Appearance and action are the two biggest factors that could potentially lead to this phenomenon playing out while one is immersed in a virtual world. Thus the overall quality of the avatar is paramount in any type of training simulation, the worst thing you can do is lead the player to possess detachment from the training. The human brain never ceases to amaze me.

“Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.”

“This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.”

You can see by the graph representation below that the “valley” in question is a dip in the graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

In all fairness, I guess I should disclose that one such study that examined the Uncanny Valley principle did involve monkeys…Monkey see, monkey do.

For regular followers of the blog you have probably seen me write about avatars a time or two. Well good news- they are getting more and more realistic! So it’s no secret that various branches of the military are looking more and more closely at immersive technologies. A recent article in Signal Magazine entitled “Virtual Humans Keep it Real” outlined the Army-funded research for virtual reality being conducted at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. A terrific example of groundbreaking technology coming from the University is with virtual humans (yes, I said virtual humans). Although these are not your ‘average’ avatar, rather they are computer programmed with artificial intelligence and capable of understanding language and able to respond appropriately. This conversation capability is not assisted in any way by a ‘real’ human and is complete with genuine emotions. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey wrote in Army Magazine, the idea is “to make training more rigorous and relevant by leveraging technology to create challenging training environments for our leaders.” So watch out for more realistic training coming to a computer near you!

I have said it before and I’ll say it again – Gaming technology for military personnel is on the rise. High-ranking officials are getting up to speed and demanding engaging training tools for our troops. These tools are complementary to more costly dedicated training equipment and offer a unique, realistic and memorable experience for the soldier. One step in the right direction is that the military is getting more and more infused with virtual worlds. I have long lamented the benefits of virtual worlds for training our troops. TMCNet reported that “Virtual worlds also provide benefits to the military. They can introduce newer soldiers to a terrain and the local officials found in a country like Afghanistan. Or, they can help teach mechanics about how to repair airplanes or tanks.” Virtual world training allows for the soldiers to practice in a life-like simulation type of experience without all the inherent risks involved in battlefield OJT.

Elearning! Magazine recently came out with a report on Virtual Learning Environments: Trends and Insights. The report outlined that virtual learning environments are one of the fastest growing solutions for learning.

According to the report “In a June 2010 study conducted by Elearning! Media Group, 64 percent of all corporate respondents have implemented virtual learning within their organizations, and 18 percent more plan to add them. The same study reports virtual worlds for learning will grow 250 percent over the next year to 21 percent of enterprises. At the same time, social learning and collaboration is exploding, with 77 percent of enterprise using or planning to use these tools for learning.” Let me summarize that for you in case you weren’t paying attention…64 percent of respondents have implemented virtual learning within their organizations!

Elearning magazine highlights four virtual learning solutions: 1) Virtual worlds, 2) Virtual learning environment, 3) Virtual classroom and 4) Web meetings. While all four types do offer a sense of immersion these next generation environments should be chosen carefully to fit within an organization’s specific needs. For instance a huge benefit of virtual world training is that trainees can make mistakes without fear of being embarrassed in front of an entire classroom full of students. The report further breaks down these advantages of VLEs (otherwise known as Virtual Learning Environments):
-Slash training costs
-Extend reach
-Do more with less
-Create a stimulating learning environment
-Provide “always-on” access to content
I would say that all above advantages can also be transposed into a virtual world training environment as well.

I often take for granted that readers of the blog and our customers know the different types of roles available through Visual Purple’s training simulations. It wasn’t until we re-crafted our website text that I began to realize we had never really spelled it out publicly. So here it is officially on the blog and also showcased on our newly designed website.

An often-overlooked critical aspect of simulation training is the best manner in which to train: individual or collectively. Visual Purple offers three modes:

1) Single Player, Single Role – The trainee will always play one role; synchronous interaction with live players not supported or desirable due to intelligent simulation world.
Available: Decision-Based, Virtual World, Hybrid, Embedded

2) Single Player, Multi-Role– The trainee may select from available roles and play the simulation from the unique perspective afforded by that role; synchronous interaction with live players is not supported or desirable due to intelligent nature of simulation world. Expect longer production time than single player, single role simulations but per role production time and costs will be lower.
Available: Decision-Based, Virtual World, Hybrid, Embedded

3) Multiplayer– Playable by several trainees at the same time with the ability to choose from a variety of different roles. Live interaction supported for collective training but not required through use of intelligent Non-Player Characters (NPCs) that fill-in for trainees that may not be able to participate as expected. In other words, the training can always occur if even only one trainee shows up. Expect increased production costs to craft and support a custom, intelligent persistent virtual world.
Available: Virtual World

I briefly introduced our latest and greatest technology, what we call “Hybrid Simulations” a few months back on the blog. Now I am pleased to say that we have an in-depth whitepaper available for download, click here to visit our home page.

A little more about what Hybrid Simulations are: Think of it as integrating decision-based elements within virtual worlds (and taking the best of each training type). Thus allowing for a lower cost solution with reduced development time to making it enticing to a variety of organization types, large and small.