Virtual worlds often are associated with gaming aficionados and the entertainment industry, but Paulette Robinson, Assistant Dean for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at the National Defense University's iCollege, sees tremendous potential in this sophisticated and evolving technology for streamlining and improving Federal operations – especially telework.
In fact, says Robinson, virtual worlds technology could represent the panacea that managers need to finally overcome their cultural resistance to letting employees work remotely.
Robinson has long been a leading proponent for the expanded use of virtual worlds, a technology that simulates real or imagined environments and enables users to interact with the environment and others via their avatars. In 2007, she launched the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds and has recently been instrumental in working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create the vGov project, a secure, hosted environment for Federal agencies that want to use virtual worlds. The vGov project is scheduled to go online for testing this fall (see vGov sidebar).
Several agencies, including the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security, already are planning to employ vGov to support training and continuity of business operations exercises, but Robinson says that her agency and others, including the U.S. Army, are just as interested in leveraging the technology to spur on their telework initiatives.
"One of the biggest concerns that people have with telework is the feeling that remote workers are somehow not as engaged in their work because managers cannot see them and colleagues cannot interact with them as easily," explains Robinson. "Virtual worlds address that issue head-on because they provide a robust environment where users are completely immersed and engaged in the activity and can interact with each other – whether in the office or at a remote site – on equal footing."
By contrast, virtual worlds require only a desktop client or a Web browser, an Internet connection, and a graphics card, which, fortunately, come standard on any PC made since 2007. As a result, teleworkers can simply go online and easily sit in on daily, regional, or even cross-agency meetings, collaborate with colleagues on a document or project, or participate in high-profile agency events, such as COOP exercises.
Virtual worlds provide a quantum leap in interaction and productivity for two reasons, according to Robinson: presence, which means users "really feel like they are there in the space"; and a three-dimensional environment, allowing users to communicate and engage using a variety of senses, including sight, sound, text, graphical objects, and gesture.
Unlike a user's experience with the telephone or on a Webinar, a virtual world is "completely engaging," Robinson says. "You cannot be catching up on e-mail or filing while you are in there – in fact, if you do not move and do stuff, you will slump over and go to sleep."
Fortunately, that does not happen, she says, and the reason is that there is plenty to keep the experience interesting for users. Data can be depicted in 3D, for example, and avatars can walk around the data, touch it, blow it up, or drill down into it. Users can share documents and other files and collaborate in real-time. They also can hold side chats within a meeting if privacy is needed.
"This is all about setting up productive workspaces," says Robinson, noting that virtual worlds also will help agencies cut down significantly on travel and real estate costs and reduce their carbon footprints. "That is really what government needs most, and virtual worlds allows this to happen, because this approach cuts across geographic and agency boundaries and workers are fully engaged and able to collaborate and experience the same thing, no matter if they are in regional offices, on the road, at home, or in different agencies."
The vGov Project
Public virtual worlds, such as Second Life and Whyville, have been around for several years, and some Federal agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have used them to publicize projects, recruit potential employees, and educate citizens and schoolchildren alike.
Those sites are not secure enough for internal use. At present, according to Paulette Robinson, Assistant Dean for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at the National Defense University’s iCollege, 99 percent of Federal employees cannot use virtual worlds.
That is where the Virtual Government, or vGov, Project comes in. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which already provides shared applications for cross-agency functions, including payroll, has created a secure hosting environment for virtual worlds. Part of the program's security plan requires interested Federal users to complete an application and physically sit down with a trained verifier to prove their identity – before they are provided with authentication credentials to enter the site.
Initially, the vGov platform will offer four virtual worlds, each provided by a different vendor and each slightly unique in its design and functionality. Teleplace and Vastpark, for example, are integrated with SharePoint and allow for easy collaboration, while web.alive (a browser-based world), with its high-end 3D graphics, Voice-Over IP hookups, and 3D spatial audio capability, is optimized for pulling together meetings on the fly.
The platform will begin testing in the fall of 2010, and other agencies are welcome to sign up for participation, according to Robinson. Case studies already set to proceed once vGov goes live are as follows:
- The National Defense Universitys iCollege will determine how well a virtual world offered by VastPark will work in developing a Community of Practice and knowledge management capabilities
- The U.S. Air Force plans to use the Online Virtual Interactive Environment (OLIVE) &nd' a virtual world that provides the kind of 3D graphics typical of high-end, multiplayer games – to provide orientation to new medical students entering Fort Sam Houston, its new medical school facility
- The Department of Homeland Security will run cybersecurity scenarios using the Teleplace virtual world
- The USDA will use Teleplace to conduct a continuity of operations exercise for its datacenter
Robinson says that it will take time for Federal agencies to fully embrace virtual worlds, just as it took them time to adopt and figure out the best uses for the Web.
"The end goal of vGov is to provide an infrastructure for the Federal government to engage in better communications," Robinson says. "And once agencies understand that this is a government network designed to enable government operations and that it's secure, then it's really going to take off and they'll find all kinds of ways to use it."