Virtual Immersive Environments: From Theory to Practice, Part 6: It's a Poor Craftsman Who Blames His Tools

Posted by Rich Mesch on Dec 14, 2010 9:54:00 AM

 by Rich Mesch

I’ve been a musician for most of my life, and over the last several years I’ve focused my energy on the mandolin. The mandolin is a diabolically complex little instrument, and I became fascinated with the way they were constructed. So, perhaps ill-advisedly, I purchased a mandolin kit and set about building one myself. Initially, I thought it turned out rather well, looking like this:

And I kept feeling that way until I played it. The tone was not unlike a cat battling a raccoon in a submarine. I was crestfallen; I had used the same tools and the same materials as the pros, and it looked pretty good. Why wouldn’t it sing? 

So what does this have to do with VIEs? Simply this: producing great results means having more than the right tools—it means having the right skills. I have seen too many organizations go through an arduous process in selecting their VIE platform, only to have the whole effort fall flat when the platform fails to magically change everybody’s lives. I wouldn’t expect to go to Home Depot and buy some wood and tools and come home and magically be a great cabinet-maker. I would expect to spend some time honing my skills—or, failing that, hiring someone who already had great skills to do the building for me.

The rules of instructional design don’t change because we’re working in a virtual environment—they may expand, but they don’t change. Poor tools may sabotage great design, but poor design can’t be overcome by great tools. If you need some ideas on great design, I’ll make my 50th recommendation of Karl Kapp and Tony O’Driscoll’s wonderful book, Learning in 3D. Or feel free to read the other entries in this series.

I’m using VIEs to make this point, but really, the point is pretty universal. Great technology doesn’t create great design; great designers create great design. But great technology makes great design really sing. If you have both, you have magic.

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Series, Performance Improvement, Learning in 3D

Affordances in Virtual Immersive Environments (or, When is a Chair not a Chair?)

Posted by Rich Mesch on Jun 23, 2010 4:18:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

describe the imageA few months back, I interviewed Chuck Hamilton about the way Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) are used at IBM. One of the concepts that Chuck introduced me to was the idea of “affordances,” and how they change in VIEs. According to our old friend Wikipedia, an affordance is “a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action.” The term doesn’t really have anything to do with VIEs on its own, although the concept of affordances is frequently used in describing the way people interact with computers.

Affordances become interesting in VIEs because VIEs “warp” the common way we use affordances. For example, what are the affordances of a chair? Well, it can be used for sitting, for decoration, for standing on to change a lightbulb… you get the idea, I could go on and on. But in a VIE, what is a chair? For sitting on, sure… but your avatar never gets tired, so you never really need to sit. Nor do you have to change light bulbs (and if you did, odds are you could fly up and do it).

Or a roof. What are the affordances of a roof? It keeps out cold, rain, snow, burglars, etc. But what if you lived in a world where there was no weather (unless you wanted it)? Would you need a roof at all?

But if you’ve spent any time in a VIE, you know that we typically recreate the affordances of the physical world. There are a lot of good reasons for this; one of the reasons we have VIEs at all is so we can recreate some of the emotions and interpersonal effects we get in real life. But, of course, there are some things we can leave out: roofs are purely aesthetic; and we have drinks in VIEs only to recreate the conviviality of happy hour, not because we're thirsty.

For VIEs in learning, we often recreate classrooms—which is controversial to a lot of people. Some like the classrooms, because it recreates the affordances of the real world. Others (myself included) question why you would simply recreate classrooms. Sure, we want to create environments for people to learn. But we aren’t bound by the affordances of the real world. In VIEs we can learn anywhere. And what’s the point of creating a 3D space if you don’t use all three dimensions?

Tony O’Driscoll and Karl Kapp talk about The Seven Sensibilities of VIEs in their book, Learning in 3D
  1. The Sense of Self
  2. The Death of Distance
  3. The Power of Presence
  4. The Sense of Space
  5. The Capability to Co-Create
  6. The Pervasiveness of Practice
  7. The Enrichment of Experience

Tony does a great job of explaining it all in the video below. Watch and enjoy!

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Learning in 3D

Virtually There: The Top Ten Best Practices for Implementing Virtual Worlds

Posted by Rich Mesch on Feb 23, 2010 2:10:00 AM

by Rich Mesch 

I’m hoping you’ll join me on March 24, 2010 at the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions Conference in Orlando, FL. Besides the obvious draws of warm weather and Disney frolics, you can stop by and hear my presentation, Virtually There: The Top Ten Best Practices for Implementing Virtual Worlds. With Virtual Worlds still being a comparatively new approach, we’re still defining how to get the most impact with them. I’m hoping my session will help people who are just getting up to speed on Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs), as well as those who may have tried a few things.

I wanted to use some blogspace to share the best practices. Today’s focus is on number 5, “Redefine the word ‘content.’” Simply put, “content” means something different in VIEs then it does in more

traditional learning approaches. Without redefining what we mean by content, we run the risk of creating virtual experiences that are not engaging, or do not take advantage of the robust environment. As Kapp & O’Driscoll observe, “In the past, content was king; today context is the kingdom.” Content is still critical; however, in VIEs we have a fantastic opportunity to redefine what we call content.

The first step is to get out of the trap of “Content = Course.” Yes, you can bring courses into VIEs; however, recreating the classroom in a Virtual World is one of the least compelling ways to use a 3D collaborative environment. How about these other options:


  • A talk show (to see how well the talk show format can work, watch some of the videos at
  • A live speaker
  • A scavenger hunt (try building teams to increase the collaboration); not only is this approach engaging, it really takes advantage of the ability to explore in three dimensions
  • A simulation; while most VIEs allow you to program avatars to create simulation experiences, it’s even easier if you have real people play the simulation characters; your start-up investment is minimal
  • A collaborative activity, such as building something, exploring together, or reviewing data in 3D
  • Product demos; create a 3D version of your product and let people walk around it, on top of it, or inside it

Most importantly, don’t forget the social aspect of VIEs. In simplest terms, providing a social space such as a café or a lounge near your learning space will encourage your learners to chat and engage in informal learning. If that’s not social enough for you, consider having a purely social event that precedes or follows your learning event. VIEs support social interaction really well; why not take advantage of it?

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Series, Learning in 3D

Virtual Immersive Environments: From Theory to Practice, Part 2: A Matter of Life and Death

Posted by Rich Mesch on Feb 15, 2010 4:01:00 PM

by Rich Mesch

[This is part 2 of series that started here. I met Dr. Glynn Cavin at this year’s ASTD TechKnowledge conference. He shared with me some of the work he is doing using Virtual Immersive Environments, and was good enough to allow me to interview him for this article.—RM]

Is your training a matter of life and death?

For Dr. Glynn Cavin, it is. Glynn is the Director of the Transportation Training and Education Center at Louisiana State University and a PhD in Human Resource Education and Workforce Development. One of his responsibilities is training road maintenance crews in Louisiana. Road crew errors have resulted in thousands of injuries and deaths over the years. How could he turn those numbers around?

A former Air Force Colonel, Glynn spent 24 years in the military. His military experience taught him that he needed to be out there, working side-by-side with the people he was responsible for, and to get to know them.  "It felt like training had two different camps," says Glynn. "There was more sophisticated training for professionals like engineers, but only classroom training for the highway maintenance crews. There's nothing wrong with classrooms, but a lot of the crew members were intimidated by the classroom.  It isn't their natural setting, for many of them it's an environment where they haven't historically been successful, and it isn't really relevant to their job. And then we wonder why they aren't getting it."

As a curious learning professional, Glynn had spent some time in Second Life, and found himself wondering if Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) might be an option for him. After all, road crews didn't work in classrooms; they worked out on roads and highways. Although the classroom training provided opportunities for practice, it wasn’t very realistic; there’s a big difference between trying a skill in the classroom versus doing it in the midst of busy traffic, noisy construction, and unpredictable weather. What if learners could practice in a safe environment that replicated many of the auditory, visual, and emotional cues they’d experience in real life?

“There’s no way to experiment or practice in the classroom,” says Glynn. “You learn the basics of work zone safety, and next thing, you’re out in the real work zone with cars whizzing by at 50 miles per hour. At least if you get clipped by a car in the virtual world, the only thing that gets hurt is your feelings.”

“We don't know a lot yet about how people learn virtually,” Glynn adds. “When the virtual world has the same cues as the real world, then those cues should help in the recall process when it's time to subconsciously recall that learning. We are looking to get the ‘Sense of Self’ and the ‘Power of Presence’ that Kapp & O’Driscoll talk about.”

Glynn set out to create a training experiment, where he would compare the effectiveness of blended training using both classroom and a Virtual Immersive Environment with training that used classroom lecture methods exclusively. In order to make his experiment work, Glynn put together a collaborative team, including Marty Altman of the Louisiana Immersive Technology Enterprises (LITE), an incubator for innovative technologies; Dr. Krisanna Machtmes, from the  LSU School of Human Resource Education, and expert of distance learning and statistics; and Mary Leah Coco, a doctoral student at LSU.

The team chose the Unity 3D engine as their platform. “We chose Unity because we could track everything-- where they put their avatar, how long it takes them to do certain tasks,” Glynn notes. “We may use something like Second Life in the future, if it could support our data tracking needs.” To avoid any intimidation involved with using a PC, learners will use a Logitech game controller, similar to an Xbox controller. To further simplify the learning curve, the controller has only a few buttons enabled. While this is technology-based learning, the goal is for the technology to be invisible to the learner.

“In a traditional classroom, when you ask for volunteers, everyone looks at the floor,” Glynn observes. “You may get an extrovert, or the instructor may select someone. Nobody wants to be the one making a mistake; in a VIE, everyone gets a chance to do it, and there's no 'public humiliation'-- nobody knows but you and the instructor. And you get to keep doing it again and again until you get it right.”

The experiment will be held in mid-March. The initial audience will be 200 learners from various parts of the organization. The control group will receive the traditional classroom training, while the treatment group will experience the blended approach. “We’ll have a Beta model for testing by March 1, and then the experimental group by March 15. We will have up to 15 classes with 20 students per class; it’s about a four-hour class. When the students report for training, they will not know which group they are in, or that there even are two different groups. Control and treatment classes will be on different days.”

Effectiveness of the blended learning will be measured in multiple ways:

1. Pre- and post-tests on content

2. Empirical data from use of the virtual environment software (decisions made, reaction time, etc.)

3. A qualitative interview with learners after each class

4. An evaluation of learning retention after 6 months

Actual improvements in road safety will also be tracked; however, with so many variables impacting road safety, the team isn’t convinced that they can make a directly correlation of the results to the training

While the experiment hasn’t been completed yet, the team is already excited about it.  Glynn says, “We think this is a big step forward. In our literature review [on Virtual Immersive Environments], we did not find a lot of empirical data to back up the claims. We hope this will add to that body of knowledge, especially for a diverse workforce. We couldn't find any literature where researchers were using blue collar workers who hadn't been in a school a long time.”

In the end, Glynn thinks this effort will be successful because he knows these learners very well. “There are a lot of naysayers out there who say this won't work because this group doesn't use technology. But if you watch them day-to-day, a lot of them have Smart phones or Wiis or Xboxes. So they may not be comfortable with a PC, they are comfortable with technology.

"This has the potential to be transformational for the adult education community as virtual learning reaches out to those who learn best visually or who may be functionally illiterate.  Virtual learning environments could offer a whole new frontier for educators and developers hoping to reach out to marginalized populations.” 

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Series, Performance Improvement, Learning in 3D, Simulation

Virtual Worlds Year in Review

Posted by Rich Mesch on Jan 6, 2010 4:58:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

I’ll start by saying I’m hardly the first blogger to write about the state of Virtual Worlds in learning. Many have gone before me—in fact, Karl Kapp has summarized it nicely in his own year-in-review post. It’s a great place to start reading about what the blogosphere has to say about the topic. But, of course, the fact that other people have their opinions will not prevent me from sharing mine! So here are the trends and changes I’ve seen in the space this year:

Virtual Worlds have become more mainstream—primarily with kids and gamers. And that’s a good thing. One of the biggest barriers to changing the way we think about online collaborative media is having a relevant point of reference. I’m surprised when I talk to people about Virtual Worlds that their main point of reference is not Second Life, but kid-oriented sites like Club Penguin or Tootsville. Children are wonderful innovators, because they have no idea they’re innovating. The other thing they’re doing is teaching mom and dad about the power of immersive environments in a way that bloggers can’t ever hope to do!

Corporate America is still behind the curve: While there is an uptick in corporate users of virtual worlds, we still haven’t seen broad acceptance of the platform in corporate America. Part of this is the natural Hype Cycle. But another part of it is that virtual environments are still perceived as the purview of gamers, not “serious adults” (who are these serious adults, anyway?) And those who have adopted virtual worlds still are using perhaps 1/10 of 1% of the potential, still perpetuating the “WebEx on Steroids” model of chairs and whiteboards, instead of taking advantage of three dimensions, a collaborative environment, and persistent space. Perhaps we can get them to read more blogs?

Second Life continues to be a leader: It’s rare that the early entrants get to remain major players, but Linden Labs has demonstrated the ability grow and rethink. Second Life’s main grid grew up a little by requiring age verification to access the adult content that defined SL to a lot of people. But of course, the big news is Second Life Enterprise, Linden Labs’ corporate-oriented behind-the-firewall solution. The robustness of Second Life still impresses; let’s see if big business is buying.

Browser-based worlds make it easier: Corporate IT departments hate downloads, so it’s can be tough for corporate folks to even get a good look at the possibilities. Browser-based worlds make it easier. Virtual Conference Centers like Venuegen may be the gateway experience that helps corporate America “get it”; they can use it for single events with a minimal technology investment, and begin to understand the value. Venugen apparently also lets you create avatars that look just like you… which is a little scary. My Second Life avatar apparently spends a lot more time at the gym than I do..

Onward to 2010!

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Learning in 3D