Dr. Paulette Robinson admits that she enjoys spending some of her leisure time as Paulette Darkstone, her online alter ego in Second Life, a virtual world that lets her travel about in a different reality, meeting new people and socializing with friends, visiting “islands” of interest or participating in new activities.
In her day-to-day existence as assistant dean for teaching, learning and technology at the National Defense University, however, Robinson has long recognized that virtual worlds — computer-based, 3D, online environments that allow users to immerse themselves in seemingly real-life interactions via their avatars — offer not just diversionary entertainment but infinite possibilities for better, more efficient, more cost-effective government operations.
“Virtual worlds are engaging because users really do transfer themselves into the space and actually believe themselves to be there,” says Robinson. “You can talk to people and participate in a conversation or even an activity in a way that you just really can’t in, say, a webinar — which, let’s face it, is really, really boring.”
She was such a believer in the practical potential that in 2007 she created the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds, which quickly attracted 1,600 members from federal, state and local agencies.
Bringing Worlds Inside
Robinson and her equally enthusiastic colleagues soon realized that while many agencies — among them the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — had embraced Second Life and other virtual worlds for public-facing purposes, such as promoting agency missions, recruiting employees and providing information about public health and other issues, these same agencies had serious security concerns and other challenges that blocked internal applications within government.
“Right now, 99 percent of government employees cannot get to a virtual world from a desktop because their only options are sites like Second Life, which require hundreds of ports to be open,” explains Robinson. “Of course, that’s never going to fly. No government CIO is going to allow that. It became very clear that we needed to have trusted-source hosting of a virtual world environment if the government was ever going to reap the full benefits of this technology.”
That’s where the Agriculture Department came in. It was already hosting secure applications for shared services at its Financial & IT Operations/Audit Regional Office in Kansas City, Mo., including accounts payable. USDA CIO Chris Smith, after meeting with Robinson, agreed to try something similar with virtual worlds.
The result is the Virtual Government Project, or vGov, which includes partners from the Air Force and Homeland Security Department. The secure, hosted environment, which is currently being built, will allow federal agencies to use one of four virtual worlds for applications such as staff meetings, interagency collaboration, training, continuity of operations exercises, rapid prototyping and telework. (See “Worlds Apart.”)
By this fall, the four partners (and any other agencies that want to participate) will begin testing the virtual worlds concept to see how effectively they can function in that realm with such tasks as education, cybersecurity training and COOP.
The ultimate goal of vGov is to create a virtual world that “feds can take advantage of from their desktops,” explained Chris North, a project manager for the USDA, during a spring presentation at the Government IT Executive Council Summit in Orlando, Fla.
North noted that the technology provides a number of benefits including cost efficiency; the ability to record and review sessions and integrate with other social media tools; and a significantly better sense of interaction than with other conferencing tools. In fact, with virtual worlds, the sky’s the limit.
“Anything that happens in real space can be done in some form in virtual space,” North said.
A New Reality
How and the degree to which federal employees will ultimately use the technology on a day-to-day basis still needs to be determined, but the options are evolving, says Eric Hackathorn, a NOAA program manager.
“I like to compare virtual worlds and the rise of this technology to the Internet,” he says. “If you go back into the 1990s, everyone thought web pages were cool, but we weren’t real sure of where it was going to take us. That’s how it is currently with virtual worlds. We still have a lot to learn about its potential use, and the technology is really still in its infancy; it will only keep getting better.”
NOAA currently uses virtual worlds to provide environmental literacy to the general public. The technology lets the agency reflect the realism of extreme weather events — without the danger.
Number of people worldwide expected to inhabit virtual worlds by 2015, a 244% increase over the 186 million using the technology in 2009
“You can read about tsunamis in a textbook, or you can actually experience them in a much more real sense in the safety of a virtual world,” Hackathorn says. “And certainly, to most people’s minds, the latter would be more memorable because you’re engaging more senses and more emotion than you can from just reading text.”
Col. John Thompson, future learning advisor for the Air Education and Training Command within the U.S. Air Force and a former active-duty pilot, helps the uninitiated understand the potential of virtual worlds by pointing to the effectiveness and efficiency of using flight simulators for training.
“Virtual worlds are kind of nonflying simulators,” he explains, noting that they apply especially well in situations where an agency needs to repeat a lesson over and over or when a realistic training scenario is either too expensive, too dangerous or impossible to conduct.
“That’s why a lot of agencies are talking about doing mass-casualty exercises using virtual worlds,” he says. “You can’t realize a biological hazard in real life, but you can in the virtual world. And with a virtual setup, you can scale it up big enough to, say, test the response of an entire military base.”
In addition, virtual worlds have potential benefits for more mundane tasks, such as meetings. Federal users in different regions could get together without leaving the comfort of their own desks, or two feds in Washington could meet without the hassle of either traveling across town and going through a security check.
NDU’s Robinson notes that virtual worlds offer a new prototype as well for collaboration, offering not just a common space but new ways to represent objects or data sets in 3D for more in-depth analysis. The vGov project, she notes, includes a service that will let agencies build 3D representations of data from a number of applications, including Excel spreadsheets and SQL databases.
“With your avatar, you’ll be able to walk around the data that you’ve queried, touch it, interact with it, do mashups, drill down into the data, all sort of things,” Robinson says.
The partnership approach taken by vGov provides the added benefit of allowing agencies to leverage and share content, the most expensive component of virtual worlds, according to North. The plan calls for building data and app repositories that agencies could reuse and share with one another, reducing the costs of proliferating and maintaining virtual worlds.
What’s more, early vGov adopters are eager to share their experiences with other agencies that they hope to attract to the project, says Thompson.
“It’s a case of, now that we have these new tools, let’s go out and use it to start learning lessons,” he says. “Since we’re the ones with the requirements and we’re the ones developing it, we should be as proficient as possible and as generous as we can in terms of sharing our knowledge with others that want to follow us in using these tools.”
Despite the advantages and the security offered by the vGov platform, there remain hurdles to getting additional agencies to utilize virtual worlds. One of the biggest is overcoming the stereotype that virtual worlds are glorified games and getting the necessary buy-in at the highest levels of federal agencies, says Dr. Daniel Laughlin, project manager for NASA learning technologies at the Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center.
“The idea that virtual worlds and avatars can somehow provide a sense of being together is a hard concept for people,” he says. “To the people who haven’t been in a virtual world and aren’t really inclined to go there, it’s extremely alien, and it’s hard to explain. It’s like trying to convince someone why we should be having this conversation in Latin when they don’t speak Latin.”
Robinson points out that even as agencies discover the benefits, the vGov project and its partners intend to address other challenges. One is authentication, proving that the person on the other end of an avatar is really whom he or she claims to be, and the fact that common access cards in many agencies are different than those used at USDA.
Under vGov, federal users must have human avatars dressed in business attire (no hornets or gryphons, please). Using an avatar creation application, federal employees will be able to design and publish avatars using a downloaded photo (with a few harmless enhancements, such as fuller hair).
vGov will rely on the NIST Level 2 e-authentication standard, which allows federal employees to fill out an online form but requires them to physically show up in front of a designated and trained verifier and show identification before they’re allowed to use the platform. Robinson also expects that the platform will eventually work off of the Identity, Credential and Access Management identity framework being developed by the General Services Administration.
Another challenge is funding: There is no cross-government fund for the needed infrastructure. “Each organization has to contribute to the use of it, and the costing model by law is that they get equal services for equal money,” Robinson explains, noting that because some organizations have more money than others, it would automatically create a lack of parity. “We can’t just pool the money and move forward, so we will have to find funding that goes across government.”
All of these challenges aside, the interagency vGov project is the perfect vehicle for testing and working out the virtual worlds concept, Thompson says.
“What we’re really doing is just sort of dipping our toe in the water and taking different environments and different applications to see whether or not they work like they’re supposed to,” Thompson says. “The answer might be: It works for some, and it doesn’t work for others. We’re all just hoping that virtual worlds work for the majority of us.”