Feds expand virtual worlds use

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

This year’s Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds Conference, which concludes today at the National Defense University on the grounds of D.C.’s Fort McNair, is focusing on the use of fully-immersive virtual worlds technology in a new way: collaboration.

Over a year ago, the U.S. Army announced it was using a simulated island in the popular virtual worlds social media site, “Second Life” as a recruitment tool, appealing to young people. It was also studying virtual worlds technology for long-distance training.

Now, the military services have moved beyond Second Life as a virtual recruiting station to an actual collaboration environment called “MilLands”.

Douglas Maxwell is the Science and Technology Manager for Virtual World Strategic Applications with the U.S. Army Simulation and Training Center in Orlando, Florida:

We use Second Life as an enabler and a collaboration technology, both on the public side and on the private networks. We can pump synthetic data into it for unclassified purposes, for prototyping, and we can put real data in whenever we do experimentation. When we meet in the MilLands initiative, for example, we cut across the services, and we collaborate on various experimentation initiatives. We’re not meeting in Second Life for the novelty of being able to meet, we meet to discuss real business.

Maxwell tells Federal News Radio that the MilLands environment is useful when its members are looking for expert advice on a variety of special subjects. He says it’s also useful for setting up training exercises for the Navy, as an example, and getting a different perspective on how to execute that training from someone in the Air Force or the Army.

Maxwell also says MilLands provides a center for guidance and expertise within the military about best practices in the use of virtual worlds environments for everything from training and recruitment to collaborative engineering exercises.

The organizer of the Virtual Worlds conference is Dr. Paulette Robinson, with the iCollege at the National Defense University. She says that along with the military applications of virtual worlds described by Doug Maxwell, civilian federal agencies will also soon have their own ability to test drive virtual work environments.

We have the V-Gov project, which will be discussed Friday at the conference, which will set up a secure virtual world for the whole federal government. Not just one environment, but four. It’s going to be a more robust environment, we have four partners, and we’re going to see how much it’s going to change the possibilities in the federal government. No longer do you have to worry about it being secure because it will be behind a firewall in a government agency. The Department of Agriculture is hosting that effort.

Robinson says the time is right for expanding experiments into government applications for virtual worlds technology because agencies are now willing to invest funds and look beyond simple exploration.

“We’re going to have to do use cases, and metrics for buy-in,” by agency officials she says, and adds that some are looking beyond virtual worlds technology for just training. Robinson says, for example, that the huge snow storms that closed most of Washington and the federal government for a little over a week demonstrates the potential for virtual worlds as a tool for employees to meet without having to battle a blizzard.

Down the line, Robinson foresees a day when virtual world technology will allow citizens to interact in a meaningful way with government agencies, enhancing openness and transparency – current watchwords of the Obama administration – but also allowing for a problem-solving interactivity in a virtual environment as well.


Related story:

Federal News Radio: Coverage of the 2009 Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference

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