The future of virtual worlds–and how they are providing military, health, and government agencies new and more effective ways to train employees–attracted a crowd of more than 1,700 at the National Defense University’s iCollege last week. And nearly 1,500 of them showed up virtually.

What visitors saw was a pragmatic view of animated, artificial worlds: where military health organizations allow recruits to practice making emergency medical decisions; where law enforcement agencies can test how well agents respond to life-like terrorist scenarios; and where transportation agencies train inspectors to learn to spot bridge defects before a real accident happens.

They also got a glimpse of the future, in which the role of avatars is expected to evolve from animated caricatures to computerized companions that in the next few years will be as important to individuals as their Facebook accounts are today.
And perhaps most of all, observed Dr. Robert Childs, chancellor of the iCollege, which hosted the Federal Consortium of Virtual Worlds event, participants got to see new ways to “stimulate learning and teaching.”

While virtual worlds remain at the fringe of most agencies IT departments, their role and importance for accelerating employee development and collaboration is clearly gaining wider enthusiasm and adoption.

The Federal Consortium itself has grown from five members, representing four federal agencies in 2007, to some 3,000 members this year, according to Paulette Robinson (pictured with her avatar, below), the iCollege’s associate dean for teaching, learning and technology who organized this virtual worlds event.

But agencies like the Air Force are moving well beyond pilot projects to build immersive virtual Air Force bases and medical education training centers, such as its MyBase Joint Base San Antonio project. The virtual complex is reflective of a broader effort to recruit and educate airmen and improve Air Force operations through what it calls precision learning.

But the virtual complex also reveals the growing momentum of virtual worlds being used for teaching medical applications, expanding the art of telemedicine, and for dealing, for instance, with soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders and their families.

The Defense Department in continuing to serve as a pioneer for telehealth in virtual worlds, but it occupies only one corner of the larger healthcare community finding new ways to use virtual worlds to improve health care delivery.

Susan Persky, associate investigator at the National Institute of Health, explained, for instance, how immersive virtual environments are helping NIH develop cost effective test environments designed to help NIH “anticipate the future of health care.”

What she and others are learning, she said, is how gaming and simulations are becoming an increasingly effective and inexpensive way to test and implement virtually all kinds of health care interventions.

The Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, meanwhile, earned a top prize at this year’s FCVW conference for its work developing a virtual world of bridges that allow inspectors to look for and explore 15 faults that could lead to an eventual engineering failure. It would take a substantial amount of time and travel to a variety of bridges to see the same number of defects. Instead, inspectors can see all of them in one place as part of a two week training program.

Perhaps the most immersive use of virtual reality was on display from George Washington University’s where professor Robert Daniel (pictured above) demonstrated the use of audio, kinetic and emotion sensors to as part of a course on telecommunications security. The virtual world system tracks how well training participants perform under stress in a series of emergency response exercises. The simulation exercise is an example of “how to train the next generation of cybersecurity analysts,” said Daniel.

In his virtual world setup, participants must practice moving into hostile situations. The system can gauge emotional stresses using a head set equipped with sensors. The system can also track participants in real world settings, using geo-location devices which can direct their virtual world avatars in real time, making it possible to review the interaction of a group of first responders and replay the action for further instruction, said Daniel.

While the economies inherent in virtual world training, testing collaboration are no longer in question, proving their overall return on investment continues to be challenge, said Elizabeth McKenna, who is part of the vGov virtual reality development team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

vGov is actually a partnership of several civilian and military agencies that explores the secure development and application of virtual worlds technology in a secure environment to serve the Federal Government’s business needs.

But it is providing a growing array of ideas and platforms for agencies, such as its cyber security training demo. The training game can be delivered on-demand, over the web and run in the student’s browser using nothing more than a thin clint computer.

Indeed, one of the underlying themes driving the development of virtual worlds for training and simulation is the growing importance of creating game-like scenarios, said Jesse Schell, professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University and author of The Art of Game Design.

Schell predicted that avatars will play an increasingly important and personal role on behalf of individuals who turn to virtual worlds for real world education and training.

“The game people will be there first,” he said, in speaking about the coming wave of virtual world development for organizations and institutions.

For additional perspective, see a summary blog by @pbroviak.