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Content is king in the land of the virtual

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21st May 2009
Head of editorial Sift Media
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The Apply Serious Games Summit in London revealed the future of international training and communication, throwing up some interesting proposals. Technology correspondent Jon Wilcox plugs into the realm of the online trendsetters.

Social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook may be the current darlings of the mainstream media, but there’s an even greater revolution taking place in the underbelly of the web. The application of virtual worlds for business communication and learning is becoming increasingly prevalent, driven further forward in recent months by the current global economic crisis. It may be a sector that’s gaining further traction, but all the more important is that at present, there’s little standardisation to be found: the rules and guides are still in the formative stages. At the recent Apply Serious Games and Virtual Worlds forum in London, some of the leading companies and individuals outlined their thoughts on what the future holds.

A genuine crucible of debate, the summit offers a glimpse at the frontier of a new and evolving future, and was hindered only by a rushed schedule. Debate covers topics like the cementing of future industry standards, the evolution of Second Life, and even whether ‘serious games’ should even be referred to as ‘games’ because of the inevitable association with having fun!
 

“Collaboration is not defined by the office anymore. Ideas and innovation happen all around us; technology is an enabler and unifier, and we need new spaces of operation.”.

Justin Bovington, Rivers Run Red

Utilising new and exciting technology has always proved a huge attraction; if that wasn’t the case then humanity would still be stuck in a cave. However, it’s important to realise that to use technology for the sake of technology, is a mistake. At the summit, Justin Bovington of creative marketing agency, Rivers Run Red, highlights his thoughts on the direction immersive virtual environments should take in the corporate world: “Collaboration is not defined by the office anymore,” he comments. “Ideas and innovation happen all around us; technology is an enabler and unifier, and we need new spaces of operation.”

For Bovington, whose clients include Adidas, Vodafone, EMI, and Disney, such environments need to be less about technology and the avatar (virtual representations of participants), and more about storytelling and ‘mise-en-scene’. In other words, everything in the virtual environment needs context and is there for a reason, rather than cause a distraction from the true purpose of being in the artificial environment. It means that back-end data can be represented in the virtual world, adding value and context, and manipulated by avatars to enhance understanding - people have to adapt to new ways of thinking, says Bovington:  “One of the challenges we found in change management is not getting people to use virtual worlds, it’s about changing the way they work, the way they think.”

Second Life

It all sounds a far cry from some of the virtual environments currently produced, which recreate corporate boardrooms just so an embedded PowerPoint presentation can send participants (both real and virtual) into a bored stupor. 

The recession and increasing green concerns have both had a knock-on effect for business travel, as companies look to slash costs. So the tangible ROI of virtual environments is therefore an attractive proposition, allowing businesses to reduce the need for travel, and the development of immersive training. Bovington explains such is the level of revolution currently underway, that the ‘Institute of Travel Management’ recently changed its name to the ‘Institute of Travel and Meetings’, reflecting current trends.

Many companies using virtual worlds still use Linden Labs’ Second Life, though security issues remain one of the key barriers to the application truly becoming a mainstream standard. One solution is to release a version of Second Life on an optical disc, something its developers are currently beta testing. Aimed at the enterprise sector, this on-premise edition of Second Life can be utilised behind corporate firewalls, adding a layer of security unavailable on the current ‘live’ version. However, simply having the tools to create virtual worlds doesn’t mean that companies should forget about content. In fact, the drive towards a strong implementation of content for eLearning and virtual communication runs across many of the seminars of the day; acting like a mantra woven through the agenda, ‘content’ has became the hot word.

Steve Prentice, a fellow and chief researcher at Gartner, defines content as key to promoting the successful use of virtual worlds and serious games alike (Prentice is behind the ‘serious games shouldn’t be called games’ debate.) Dispelling the notion that future communication and eLearning should rely upon Second Life-style 3D environments, Prentice argues that: “Very few applications need that 3D workspace...3D is important when context is important.”

He adds:“Compelling content drives involvement and drives learning... [there should be a] focus on need, not technology or avatars!” In an apparent elbow to the ribs, Prentice also comments on the lack of creativity by companies using virtual worlds to promote learning and communication: “Why build a conference room in 3D when you can be and do anything?”

More than a fair point to make, and many would agree.
 

Utilising virtual worlds
How virtual worlds can be utilised by corporations in an effective manner is high on the agenda. Rob Edmonds of SRIC, identifies what he regards as the four major virtual world applications with the greatest appeal so far for companies:
 
  • Meetings
  • Learning and training
  • Collaborative work
  • Operational applications
Edmonds’ list includes what Prentice later describes as the ‘killer application’ for virtual worlds: collaborative work. Comparing the current status of virtual world usage on a corporate level to Geoffrey A. Moore’s Crossing the Chasm (which deals with the technology adoption life cycle), Edmonds peeks at the multiple futures and possible structures virtual worlds will have. Will there be a de facto standard (currently, Second Life appears to fulfil this); will there be a ‘grand unified’ structure of multiple standards communicating between each other; or will the Web become the hub in a manner to current IT structures?

The identification of collaborative work as the killer application marks a significant shift in how virtual worlds will increasingly become utilised by companies. Prentice recognised 18 months ago that training was the killer application for virtual worlds; now, thanks to restrictions caused by the recession, training budgets have been slashed – and therefore, so has the pace of elearning development. A tougher stance on business travel, again caused by the current climate, is unlikely to recede even after the recession ends, according to the Gartner researcher. Yet the need for collaborative work remains, and so virtual worlds step in. That’s not to say training and elearning won’t continue to grow in the future, far from it. The evolution of elearning in virtual environments will continue regardless, but at a slower pace for the duration of the recession.

Despite a decidedly frosty reception towards Prentice following his jibe towards the ‘serious games’ moniker, his call for metrics - allowing companies to measure the success of virtual learning sessions - proves a generally agreed upon point. The ability to judge a participant’s involvement in a session has to be implemented, otherwise how can companies assess the virtues of the virtual world? The simple answer is to add metrics, whether in the form of quizzes, or adding game-like objectives to complete. Such functionality is already available in many examples of serious gaming, with some demonstrated at the Apply Serious Games summit itself.

For instance, Incredible Sims’ SubSafe Simulator was commissioned for the Royal Navy, as a means to educate users on the locations of everything from first aid kits to emergency exits. An accurate recreation of one of the Navy’s subs, the sim allows users to wander around the corridors and examine items as a virtual sandbox. From there the serious game offers a selection of metrics, including a time limit mode, to test ‘player’ recall of various items in the quickest time possible.  Such implementation seems key going forward, as virtual worlds offer a safe environment for training across a broad spectrum of scenarios. Expect metrics to feature increasingly heavily in the coming years, as the sector matures.

Build a banal office space - or a fantasy landscape with giant daisies and purple trees in Second Life? Harness 3D applications to learn emergency procedures on a submarine; or just play World of Warcraft as an alternative networking tool to golf? For now, the elearning and online communications landscape remains a playpen of ideas and notions, and won’t mature in the short-term. What’s more important however, is for companies to hold tightly onto the truth: that PowerPoint presentations held in a virtual environment don’t make them any more compelling.  After all, it’s about the content. 

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