3-D Virtual Worlds: The Next Training Frontier

3-D Virtual Worlds: The Next Training Frontier

Research Ramps Up to Define Value Beyond Gaming, Into the Learning Realm

Three-dimensional immersive environments, such as VirtualWorlds (VWs), are a pioneering technology. The world’s information network is making a shift from a two-dimensional, text-based, language dependent, asynchronous infrastructure to a three-dimensional, real-time, geospatial, experience-based and interactive one. This change is perceived to be as disruptive and transformative as the emergence of the Internet in the early 1990s.

Often, trainers “dip their toes” in the virtual space by using the environment as a replacement to a brick-and-mortar classroom or a collaborative boardroom. Though this can be a useful first step, it certainly does not tap the potential of what virtual worlds provide. In the hands of virtual training enthusiasts, the learning experience can be nothing short of magical.

One factor that makes VW exploration enticing as a training or education option is a growing community of mentors and enthusiasts available as a resource. Innovative trainers often begin by reaching out to that supportive community for resources, training and advice.


Research has shown that there is a statistically significant relationship among engagement, contact time with training material, and achievement. Additionally, literature suggests that the opportunity to learn in an immersive manner is even greater, because VWs are information-dense.

Our research shows learners tend to lose their sense of time and place and feel empowered and challenged in a positive way. This is often referred to as achieving “flow”—which in various research has been associated with improved learning performance. Practice and interaction are potentially longer and more meaningful than what was originally required, yielding greater comprehension and increased learning. Additional positive consequences of the research included the suspension of disbelief (belief that the simulated environment is real) and a sense of co-presence (the sense of really being part of the environment). Creativity, innovation and flexibility have proven to be extremely important to making virtual experiences engaging while creating a sense of autonomy and empowerment among users and learners.


VWs are often inappropriately seen as a game environment. The fun and exploration aspects of VWs foster enthusiasm for learning. But it’s important not to underestimate the power of the platform for serious purposes. Some other unique attributes VWs provide to the learner are:

>>The ability to access them 24 hours a day, seven days a week from any Internet connection anywhere in the world.
>>The three-dimensional environment brings a sense of information-density.
>>VWs are socially constructed with realtime interaction at the human level.
>>They can be affordable, because VW technologies are typically available and
editable from personal workstations and laptops.
>>For most learners, VW environments yield a level of creativity and innovation
that is far beyond that of traditional settings.
>>Existing literature supports the fact that virtual worlds are well suited for open, innovative, creative opportunities to learn and perform.
>>There is evidence that even shy learners can be more secure and comfortable in
VWs; and if learners are more comfortable, the learning environment becomes more effective. Instructors state that more questions are asked during virtual learning experiences than live ones, suggesting that opportunities for instruction are possibly being missed in live environments.


There are areas of concern with respect to effectively using virtual worlds to train and educate:

>>Trainersmust be proficient. They have to be comfortable and capable of making use of capabilities that the platform offers.
>>Visual accuracy (“fidelity”) can be a very important factor. High fidelity isn’t always required, but as training requirements dictate, it’s important to establish what level of realism is necessary for the training purpose and build to that.
>>Providing learners with feedback and gathering metrics is different than
gathering data from more traditional learning environments.
>>Not all learners are technically savvy or are gamers. Unless proficiency is established, a certain percentage of students may disengage if they get lost in the
technology — and once they’re lost; they may not be willing to re-engage.
>>Bounded learning activities or projects should be clearly articulated.
Otherwise, the environment may lend itself to users wasting time or wandering off in a different direction.
>>Security is always a concern. On the Internet in general, it is important to
be thoughtful about what data you’re transmitting and receiving. Access should be balanced with safety and security in mind.
>>Some VWs are pre-built off-the-shelf; some can be constructed. But the latter
may require a team of artists, engineers, software developers, managers and instructional designers, depending on your goals.
>>There is a potential risk that the environment itself could become a distraction
to the learner. The learner can engage with the platform at the expense of the content.

These issues are manageable if the trainer is aware and learns to use the environment’s strengths to their advantage.


There is a real-time collaborative, immersive experience associated with virtual
worlds, and they can provide a real sense of presence for a geographically dispersed audience. For example, in the corporate world, some companies have found that VWs are an economical option for employee orientation and training, allowing concurrent, global participation. VWs also provide an alternative to funding transportation and lodging for a realworld experience, providing a significant return on investment for organizations that have embraced the technology.

Other applications are bound only by a trainer’s imagination. For instance, it is
possible to create a three-dimensional, virtual model of a submarine or a helicopter propeller and invite engineers and program managers to manipulate the model together in real-time in the VW (“inworld”), enabling rapid decision-making and co-creation of appropriate designs.

Imagine a complex, chemical compound represented in three-dimensions. The compound could be manipulated in real time to develop a richer understanding of chemistry concepts.

What if you wanted to learn about China? You could go to a Chinese Website, but the experience may be limiting. This is because the two-dimensional Web is still predominantly text-based with language requirements. However, if you teleported into a Chinese VW environment, you might meet native Chinese speakers or other learners, walk around, experience the culture, visit schoolhouses, temples and landscapes and assimilate a significant amount of information — whether you knew the language or not.

Imagine two people accessing Amazon.com at the same time. Even though they might be logged in at the same time looking at the exact same book and reading the same reviews, they could never experience the review of the book together,
because the Web is still predominately an asynchronous, isolated experience. In a VW, they could enter a virtual bookstore together, chat and collaborate in real time, making it a much more meaningful experience.

In fact, when people view an event (such as a solar eclipse) from a virtual world with other people similarly interested, they ultimately spend five times more time experiencing the event virtually than in the real world. This is attributed to the ability to meet and discuss with others with similar interests. Further, instructors are able to engage students by transporting them to curriculum-relevant areas. Students can learn how tsunamis flow from the ocean floor, travel at the cellular level inside the human body, or see inside a reactor at a nuclear power plant. VWs provide a powerful way to engage learners of all ages.

It is enjoyable to watch new users as they begin to understand the possibilities of VWs. It does not take long for people to realize the new horizons VWs open for training.


When people use Safari, Mozilla or Internet Explorer, they are familiar with how to navigate the application because the interface to the Internet is familiar and transparent. Most casual users do not concern themselves about the technology.

VW technology is still relatively new. Navigation can be more involved and may
vary from one VW to the next. In fact, avatars are not interoperable within different
VW spaces, or even sometimes within environments provided by the same vendor.
Nevertheless, we ultimately expect the technology to converge in a very transparent, frictionless and ubiquitous way. Geospecific terrain will become more quickly and readily available for real-time soldier and sailor training.When that adoption starts to gain momentum — and it may be slower for government institutions — we will likely see a significant leap forward in the ways these environments will be used.

The Defense Acquisition University and National Defense University are some of
the front-runners implementing this technology in the Department of Defense.
There are a few pilot classes where data is being collected comparing VWs to other instructional platforms. One of the first practical uses of VWs in the military consists of immersive cultural trainers that teach language and culture to those deploying to foreign regions.

In our own areas of interest, we’re exploring artificial intelligence in its various forms, from interactive virtual “bots” to real-time instructional tutors that reactively adjust and adapt to individual learners. One way we research the state-of-the art in this area is through the use of a global challenge. The Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge grants an opportunity to learn about pockets of developmental excellence from anywhere in the world while educating government personnel on the potential uses of the technology. To learn more about this challenge and recent year’s results, please go to www.fvwc.army.mil or see us on challenge.gov. Further, we are conducting research using the Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment (EDGE) prototype. EDGE is a government-owned solution leveraging existing game and simulation technology that encourages shared development across all of government. It functions as a mirror to the real world; matching weather conditions, population data, terrain and ultimately cultural functions. The environment is persistent, meaning that things you do in the environment today will shape the environment for future visitors just as the real-world is shaped by us.

Bottom line?We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of how virtual worlds can be used, and we’re enthusiastic about where the future will take us in with this evolving technology for learning.

-Dr. Karen Cooper is a research scientist for future workforce strategies and technologies, Department of the Navy, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. Tami Griffith, a doctoral student in modeling and simulation, is a science and technology manager at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Simulation and Training Technology Center. These organizations are both members of Team Orlando

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