Avatars rising in the enterprise

Virtual worlds are finding a niche in the workplace for purposes such as training, simulation and prototyping

Avatars aren't just for the movies or for techies with time on their hands. Organizations are using virtual worlds for training, simulation and prototyping, among other things.

The U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) is making the most of what officials call "immersive learning" in secure, virtual work environments replete with avatars, to augment existing training curricula and to facilitate collaborative engineering.

"Immersive learning is all about the true power of a virtual world where gravity is optional and scaling is arbitrary, and objects can be made to be transparent," says Steve Aguiar, virtual worlds project lead at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport, one of the NUWC's two primary units, in Newport, R.I.

NUWC is charged with research and development and technical evaluation of everything that goes inside a submarine. In 2008, the center began investigating the various virtual worlds on the Internet and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, with the goal of helping the division build better submarines and more effectively train sailors. Last year, NUWC began experimenting with some of those virtual worlds to look not only at training, but at other issues like collaborative engineering, rapid prototyping, battlefield simulation and cognitive modeling as well, says Aguiar.

For the testing phase, NUWC has chosen two virtual-world platforms, Redwood City, Calif.-based Teleplace Inc.'s eponymous product and Second Life, from Linden Lab in San Francisco.

Aguiar notes that while the NUWC has used 3-D design tools for a long time, the difference with a product like Second Life is "I can have stakeholders from around the world log in on a secure military network as their avatars, rather than having to fly them in and collocate them in a physical design-review session."

For collaborative engineering, that means the ability to replicate a submarine's command-and-control space in a virtual world. For training, it means creating an information space where a sailor's avatar can "walk" into the data. Officials have taken computer functions such as target-motion analysis, which involves estimating the location of shipping traffic, and sound visualization, and made the images three-dimensional and scaled so an avatar can actually enter into the data, says Aguiar. So instead of merely looking at the data, they have created a unique information space that is exponentially larger than the avatar's size.

"By doing so, they are learning things about that data that otherwise is difficult to absorb and retain from traditional means," says Aguiar.

Avatars in early-adoption phase

With all the hype surrounding avatars and virtual worlds right now, it may strain the imagination to believe that the technology has a viable place in the enterprise, but it is very clearly in the early-adopter phase, according to Erica Driver, principal at analyst firm ThinkBalm, which specializes in the work-related use of the immersive Internet.

"In a 3-D, immersive environment, you can create anything under the sun," says Driver. "You could meet with your colleague inside the human heart and teach students about it." Another example: A pharmaceutical company has just finished a clinical trial, there are 6,000 data points, and decision-makers need to view the data from different angles. "3-D is ideal for situations like this," Driver says.

Companies are eying immersive environments as a way to increase engagement and to "share experiences you could not have in any other way," she says. The software can be installed on a corporate network, delivered on a hardware appliance or accessed via software as a service (SaaS). Whichever form is chosen, these are customized and/or secure versions of the virtual worlds freely available on the Internet.

ThinkBalm estimated enterprise immersive software as a $50 million market in 2009.

Barriers include technology

For widespread adoption to occur, however, Driver believes companies need to overcome three key barriers: technology, cost and perception. Although tremendous improvements have been made in the past year as laptops are being purchased with more powerful graphics cards and memory, she says another technology barrier is that most large companies have security restrictions that don't allow this type of information to flow through the firewall.

The virtual exhibit

Not only are virtual environments being used in the workplace, they're also making a splash in the trade show space. GE Healthcare, which conducts between 400 and 500 trade shows each year, recently created its first virtual exhibit for people who couldn't make it to the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) trade show. The event, which opened in Chicago in late November, drew 5,000 attendees.

"We decided to give the person who couldn't attend as close to an in-person attendance as possible and make them feel like they were on the actual show floor," says Jim Salinsky, global webmaster for GE Healthcare in Milwaukee. Officials worked with virtual provider InXpo to help them "create a look and feel that can be reused and present a consistent branding message globally."

Using InXpo, GE Healthcare developed a virtual exhibit that was identical to its physical booth at RSNA, complete with 3-D renderings of the booth and actual equipment that was on the show floor, Salinsky says. "We wanted to see if we could connect with our virtual customers in a way we never had."

The virtual exhibit featured about 25 products, including MRI, CT and ultrasound systems. Visitors could also click on the staffers -- actual GE Healthcare employees who were represented on the site through an uploaded photo or graphical icon/avatar -- and chat with them live.

It took six weeks at a cost of about $100,000 to create the virtual booth, which Salinsky says was about one-third less expensive than the Flash-based, static microsite the company has used in the past. "This is all about connecting customers to specific GE people," and is "more one-to-one than a microsite might be for a company to broadcast its information," he adds.

The virtual booth will never replace the company's physical presence at the bigger trade shows, Salinsky says, but he sees it as a way for it to cut back on attending smaller shows.

Virtual booths are "definitely more cost-effective, and that's why GE corporate wants all of its businesses to explore this," Salinsky says, since it gives them more bang for the buck. He estimates the cost per lead at a physical booth at $3,500, versus $50 per lead at a virtual booth.

The only negative Salinsky sees is people's perceptions about visiting virtual booths. "We need to make a better case on the site for people to continue through the registration process" -- an area where users tend to log off early on. Overall, though, comments on the site indicated that the virtual booth was "unique" and "fascinating," and people liked the concept.

GE Healthcare is now looking at creating a permanent virtual exhibit that would be available year-round as an entry point to GEhealthcare.com.

Right now, while organizations can test and play with immersive software at very little cost, once a team wants to spend money on an actual pilot and deploy the software in a production environment, it will have to justify the expenditure. This is no small task, as it can be hard to build a business case for immersive software, which some see as frivolous, Driver says.

Longer term, barriers include the challenge of integrating immersive software with other business systems, she says. Today, immersive software is largely stand-alone. It integrates with enterprise directory systems and sometimes with office productivity software or learning management systems, but with little else. To derive additional value from their immersive software investments, organizations will need to integrate them with other business systems, like computer-aided design, product life-cycle management, supply chain management, business intelligence, business process management and more. This will cost money.

And taking the time to figure out how to use virtual environments and develop meaningful applications can be daunting for most business people. Additionally, "there are a lot of negative perceptions that this looks like a video game or cartoon and is not appropriate for the workplace," says Driver, calling this "a formidable barrier."

Robert Bloomfield, a professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, agrees. "You say the word avatar, and people start giggling. There's the game taint," says Bloomfield, who also hosts a virtual worlds show called Metanomics. "They think of World of Warcraft and computer games."

Bloomfield also fears that the trend toward smaller mobile devices, which have limited bandwidth and processing power, will be a deterrent to using virtual environments in the workplace.

Another mixed message: Oracle announced in February that it is dropping support for Sun Microsystems' Project Wonderland, a Java-based platform for developing 3-D virtual worlds. But now that Oracle's deal to purchase Sun has been finalized, a blog posting noted that a "core group of the Wonderland team intends to keep the project going" independently.

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