Agencies explore possibilities of virtual worlds

Friday - 4/27/2012, 1:00pm EDT

Paulette Robinson, associate dean for teaching, learning and technology, iCollege

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It's been five years since federal agencies first formed a consortium to figure out how to best use virtual worlds to solve tough challenges, or even to accomplish simpler tasks like training and collaboration.

Back then, platforms like Second Life were relatively new, but federal agencies are still finding new ways to use virtual worlds, and agencies are building platforms of their own. It's the topic of a conference and workshop May 16-18 at the National Defense University's iCollege. Participants can attend in person, or, appropriately enough, via a virtual world.

Paulette Robinson, the iCollege's associate dean for teaching, learning and technology, said the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds has grown from five members from four federal agencies in 2007 to 3,000 members this year.

"They're from industry, academia and government," Robinson said during an appearance on Federal News Radio's On DoD. "The only way you can do this is together. And so we want all these types of people coming together and evolving an answer for the federal government. It's changed, and I think we're in a place where the enterprise versions of virtual worlds are more mature. There's a place with budgets being cut, you can save travel money and still have people meet together, especially when you have a global environment. IBM uses as much meeting space in virtual worlds as they do in physical spaces. Some of their teams never meet physically, so they save millions of dollars of dollars in travel."

Robinson said while agencies are using public platforms like Second Life for testing and development purposes, several federal agencies are also building their own internal virtual worlds. In the Defense Department in particular, using public platforms is a major security challenge.

"Second Life needs hundreds of ports open, and DoD isn't going to open their networks that way. So finding enterprise versions of virtual worlds that work for DoD has been my goal for the last five years, and in the last year they've come out with a DoD virtual worlds framework," she said. "It's open source and open standards, and we need to figure out how DoD can use it across the space, but also the rest of the government."

Other agencies have developed their own 3D virtual environments. Robinson said she and former Agriculture Department chief information officer Chris Smith co-led a project called V-Gov, a collection of four virtual world environments that meet federal security standards and are hosted in a USDA data center.

"In that space, the Air Force has invested some money and created a virtual Fort Sam Houston. They're modeling the hospital there not only for orientation, but for training and simulations," she said. "It's a really interesting environment for medical applications, because telehealth and telemedicine is becoming more and more important for DoD as well as the federal government."

The Department of Transportation used the same system to host a recent conference on bridge building that included participation by vendors demonstrating heavy equipment.

But Robinson said she thinks DoD's open source framework will be the platform that most agencies eventually evolve to for virtual worlds, and it could become the first-ever governmentwide collaboration and communication tool once agencies coalesce around a reliable mechanism for identity management.

"What virtual worlds offer us is interaction and depth that you can't get from a webinar or just reading a webpage," she said. "And just think if we had in the federal government this environment where we could all talk to each other and find each other. There's nothing across the federal government that does that right now. We have no infrastructure for it."