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

Virtual Immersive Environments: From Theory to Practice, Part 5: Encouraging Adoption

Posted by Rich Mesch on Nov 17, 2010 7:24:00 AM

shrugby Rich Mesch

This is the second entry based on my conversations with Dr. Keysha Gamor, a fellow aficionado of 3D learning. In the last entry, I wrote about Keysha’s experience implementing Virtual Reality solutions in secondary education. In this entry, I wanted to share some of the conversations we had on the effectiveness of Virtual World platforms and the acceptance (or lack thereof) that we’ve seen in organizations. As Keysha works mostly with government and military, she brings a unique perspective (I work almost exclusively with corporations). Generally speaking, government and military have had a higher adoption rate for 3D learning than the business world. What are they finding effective about the virtual environment, and what does the corporate world have yet to learn?

I asked Keysha if she was seeing higher levels of adoption of Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) in the public sector, and she agreed that was the case. However, many of these initiatives are in a pilot or exploratory phase. And the biggest concern in the public sector is similar to the private sector: how do we ensure data security?

So how do we mainstream this capability? We brainstormed many possibilities, but it really comes down to three categories:
  • What are the barriers to adoption now? Much has been written about the technological barriers, but not enough about the cultural barriers. For example:
    1. Treating VIEs as if they are a unique technology. Most people see learning and performance improvement as a system; they want to understand how each part of the system contributes to the whole. VIEs are too often introduced as the hot new technology; that builds temporary interest, but actually works against adoption. We need to answer the question: how will VIEs contribute to overall performance improvement and not just be a flavor-of-the-month.
    2. Cognitive Load. The good news is that VIEs (like many simulated environments) can create a profound emotional reaction from learners. That’s a good thing, because we want a learning environment to mirror the real world and evoke the same response the real world does. But we also need to be prepared to address and process those reactions. It’s okay when training makes people upset (or elated), as long as that response is used for growth.
    3. If you build it, they will come. Yes, they will. Once. So many VIEs are just like billboards, just a shingle hung on the wall where there really isn’t anything to do. There needs to be a reason to come back again and again and again. There needs to be a compelling reason to return, a reason to engage, not just watch.
  • What are the clear success stories? One of the most successful implementation of VIEs today is military simulations. Military trainers have identified real problems troops face in the field and created scenarios to address those problems. Obviously, many military situations involve life-or-death decisions, so accuracy is critical. Military simulations use real geospatial data to map the terrain to closely match what the real life experience. And the military is not satisfied with 3D learning, but is also looking to bring smells into the virtual space; not only is the ability to analyze what you smell critical in combat situations, olfactory is often identified as the most evocative sense as pertains to memory.
  • What’s changing in our culture that will support adoption? Some of us are old enough to remember when e-mail was a new and scary technology. But not only was it adopted, it became integral to the way we live our lives. As we move to adopt VIEs, we need to consider the social climate. We need to realize that we aren’t in the mainstream. One of the factors that is helping us to move forward is Social Media. Social Media has become highly integrated into our lives. Now that people have had their eyes opened to the possibilities of online social environments, they’re starting to dream a little bit. That’s the momentum we need to make this capability mainstream.

    One of Keysha’s parting thoughts was how much the movie Avatar helped her talk about VIEs. While the movie itself doesn’t have anything to do with VIEs, many people were unfamiliar with the word “avatar” before they saw the film. Avatar helped build the common language that allows us to have these conversations with others—and a common language is the first step to successful change.

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Series, Performance Improvement, Simulation

Virtual Immersive Environments: From Theory to Practice, Part 4: From Virtual Reality to Virtual Worlds

Posted by Rich Mesch on Oct 5, 2010 8:10:00 AM

woman with virtual reality head gear
by Rich Mesch

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the SALT conference in Arlington, VA. While there, I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Keysha Gamor, a fellow-presenter who also has a passion for Virtual Immersive Environments and 3D Learning. Keysha was good enough to allow me to interview her for this article.

Given its location, it probably won't surprise you that the SALT conference attracts many participants from Government and Military, some of the earliest advocates of 3D Learning. Keysha works extensively with both areas, so I was anxious to learn about her experiences. But what most intrigued me is that Keysha's perspective was firmly rooted not in Virtual Worlds, but in Virtual Reality. What connections can we make, I wondered, between the effectiveness of Virtual Reality (VR) and the effectiveness of Virtual Worlds?

As part of her graduate work, Keysha worked with the University of Georgia and NASA to determine how fully immersive VR could be used to teach complex abstract concepts. The goal of the study was not to look at VR as a unique or special interaction, but from the perspective of everyday usage in a teaching environment. The study, called “The Science Space Program,” focused on teaching science concepts to middle school and high school students, and utilized some pretty serious VR equipment that was shuttled from school to school.

Activities in the study included exploring concepts like velocity (what happens to an object going at high rates of speed?), static electricity, and other types of physics issues. Except that rather than focusing on abstract concepts, students were actually able to get inside a particle; they could actually become the particle to understand what happens to it. Students participated in groups of 3; one student would wear a head-mounted display, another would direct his/her activities, and a third would observe. Each student got to play each role.

For the final exam, each student designed their own rollercoaster, using physics concepts they had learned. Keysha says she was amazed at how well they were able to do—the accuracy of the mathematics and physics used by the students in creating their rollercoasters was remarkable. It’s worth noting that these were “average” students, not gifted; students who were incapable of comprehending these concepts before succeeding with the VR exercise.

It’s a great story, and a great example of how contextualized learning drives comprehension and application. In fact, the first question I asked Keysha was around context; didn’t the success of the study indicate the value of contextualization, and not necessarily VR? Aren’t their other ways of contextualizing learning to have a similar outcome? Her response was, yes, it was definitely about context, but the VR technology provided a contextualized experience that couldn’t be provided any other way.

Most of us don’t have Virtual Reality equipment cluttering up our offices. So are their ways to have a similar impact using more readily-available Virtual Immersive Environment (VIE) technologies? Well, Keysha and I discussed that as well… and I’ll report out on our conversation in the next entry in this series!

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Series, Performance Improvement

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

Virtual Immersive Environments: From Theory to Practice, Part 3: The View from IBM

Posted by Rich Mesch on Mar 22, 2010 4:52:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

[This article explores the impact that IBM has had on the use of VIEs in business. Today’s entry is the first of at least two that are based on an interview I did with Chuck Hamilton, one of the key visionaries responsible for IBM’s commitment to VIEs.]

When you talk about the use of Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) in the corporate world, you can’t help but talk about IBM. IBM has been one of the earliest and most fervent adopters of VIEs for various business uses. While other corporations are dipping their collective toe in the water, what made IBM dive into the deep end? To answer that question, I was fortunate enough to get some time with Chuck Hamilton, the head of Virtual Learning Strategy at IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning in Vancouver, BC.

Chuck works with a diverse and talented group at IBM. He shares, “We’re sort of the go-to people for learning delivery across IBM. We are very seasoned people with expertise in 100 different angles around the intersection of learning and technology. So we help the people with design, we help the people with delivery, we help the people come up with a new way of getting it done—whatever it takes. My particular expertise has always been where new media learning and technology starts to cross.”

With that sort of background, you might expect that Chuck would become interested in VIEs; what you might not expect is that it’s his architecture background that first got him interested: “If my first degree hadn’t been around design and architecture, I probably wouldn’t have been so fascinated about putting spaces together that I could put people in.”

But that interest quickly turned to the application of VIEs for learning: “IBM spends millions of dollars on learning globally, so it is something that is important to us, and Learning has became very important to me.  I always find myself saying, ‘How can I take XYZ technology and make it work for people in a learning context?’”

Chuck was becoming increasingly aware of 3D worlds like World of Warcraft. “We started to say, ‘It’s quite interesting that there’s this parallel universe that’s being built almost next door to IBM, replete with economies and so on. Then we started talking to some of the people who were thinking about these economies and realized that some of these economies were bigger than whole countries—but were happening virtually. That’s what really tipped it for me.”

IBM’s participation in VIEs began with a Jam, a collaborative innovation process designed to bring together diverse mind to create innovations. “One of the focus areas was around virtual collaboration in a global setting. And the reason why that’s important to IBM is that there are 400,000 IBMers worldwide, another 100,000 contractors, and about 70% of those people live outside the Americas. 42% of people don’t have a traditional office. So we were a virtual company by nature, and increasingly having to come together on a virtual global basis.”

So Chuck decided to take the Jam team into the 3D world. “And all of a sudden, all kinds of people showed up and wanted to participate. We had these young, brand-new IBMers flying around next to executives, talking about how a World could be used. People were seeing that this had some real possibilities.”

The idea of using Virtual Worlds for collaboration proved to be the most popular idea to come out of the Jam that year, and the team earned substantial funding to build the idea out further.

[In the next post, we’ll look at how the concept of Affordances affect how we interact with 3D worlds.]

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Series, Performance Improvement, Organizational Learning

A Tourist in the Uncanny Valley of Virtual Immersive Environments

Posted by Rich Mesch on Mar 15, 2010 3:45:00 AM

 by Rich Mesch

polar hanksOne of the more controversial aspects of Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) is the use of avatars to represent ourselves. That’s understandable—when we’re just icons on a WebEx menu, we don’t worry about what those icons say about us. And when we appear on a videoconference, we feel pretty good that we’re represented accurately. But avatars are unique; depending on the VIE platform you’re using, you have a chance to customize the way you look—from very accurate, to complete fantastical. So should our avatars look just like us? Should they look like what we’d like to look like? Or should they be creative interpretations of us, which may or may not resemble us at all?

A popular concept, originally applied to robotics, is The Uncanny Valley. In a nutshell, the theory says that the closer a facsimile of a human gets to reality, the more repulsed we are by it. Think about the animatronic presidents at DisneyWorld. Creepy, no? But perhaps uncannyvalley ionine flvthe easiest to understand definition of The Uncanny Valley came in an episode of 30 Rock from last season. Since this is a family blog, I can’t give you the exact context (but feel free to Google for yourself), but this snippet of dialogue between the characters of Frank and Tracy says it well:

Frank: As artificial representations of humans become more and more realistic, they reach a point where they stop being endearing, and become creepy.

Tracy: Tell it to me in Star Wars!

Frank: All right. We like R2D2 and C3PO.

Tracy: They’re nice.

Frank: And up here we have a real person, like Han Solo.

Tracy: He acts like he doesn’t care, but he does.

Frank: But down here, we have a CGI Storm Trooper, or Tom Hanks in “The Polar Express.”

Tracy: I’m scared! Get me out of there!

Frank: And that’s the problem. You’re in the Valley now. And it’s impossible to get out.

Most VIEs use a simplified version of a human being, ranging from extremely cartoonish to moderately cartoonish. If you’ve spent much time in Second Life, you’ll see extremes in every direction, from tools to make your avatar look and move as realistically as possible, to completely non-human avatars such as animals, mythological creatures, and aliens. But even the most realistic avatars don’t look very real. Right now, that’s a technological limitation. But do we really want our avatars to look just like us?

Why do we need avatars at all? Well, part of it is to help us enjoy the 3D aspect of VIEs, But another part is to tell the rest of the citizens of the VIE who we are. Just like we carefully consider in real life how we dress, how we wear our hair, what jewelry we do (or don’t) wear, we use our appearance to communicate. So, too, can we do that in VIE. The only difference of course, is that in real life, we have some limitations—it’s hard to change our height, weight, gender, or age. But in VIE we can change anything, if we want—even our species! So in VIEs, we can tell the world who we want to be. In fact, one of the early wins with VIEs was with people who have physical limitations; a woman who I met early on in Second Life has extremely limited mobility due to illness; she was thrilled with her ability to walk and dance in Second Life, something she cannot do in real life anymore.

Rich in Protosphere smallSo should our avatars look just like us? The Uncanny Valley would seem to suggest otherwise, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying. My Second Life avatar looks nothing like me (try buying curly gray hair in SL), but my ProtoSphere avatar is pretty close. And VenueGen, a 3D virtual conference platform, allows you to upload photos of yourself in order to create a photorealistic avatar. I’ve never been able to get it to work properly, but feel free to try it for yourself.

Time will tell if we’re able to travel out of the Uncanny Valley in VIEs. But for the time being, I’ll enjoy the fact that my avatar seems to work out just a little more often than I do.

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds

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 Immersive Environments: From Theory to Practice

Posted by Rich Mesch on Feb 7, 2010 1:53:00 PM

By Rich Mesch

I recently had the pleasure of presenting at the ASTD TechKnowledge conference at Las Vegas. I had a great time and met a lot of really interesting and talented people. That’s one of things I like best about conferences; trying to get a pulse on what people are doing in the real world.

A lot of the focus of the conference was on “Gen Net,” the next generation of digital natives soon to be (or currently) entering the workforce. Rightly so, many presenters observed that these folks have grown up with different ways of learning, and us learning folks ought to be paying attention. I remember thinking to myself: yeah, that’s true, but us 30- and 40-somethings need that, too. Hopefully we’re still relevant.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the gaps that are developing; the gaps between what we’re talking about and what we’re actually doing. I talked to a lot of people about Virtual Immersive Environments, and I heard a lot of great ideas. Some folks I talked to seemed frustrated; so many possibilities, how do we get more organizations harnessing this power? And it occurred to me that although we’re not getting as much traction on the really far out stuff, there were a lot of businesses who were having success with VIEs.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Gartner Hype Cycle, and Virtual Worlds’ place in the Trough of Disillusionment. Virtual Worlds aren’t living up to people’s expectations. And it finally hit me—maybe the problem isn’t the technology; it’s the expectations. We expect the technology to do so much that we miss what it’s really good at. We spend so much time with the theory, we forget about the practice.

So let’s get out of the clouds; yes, there are scores of untapped possibilities for Virtual Immersive Environments. But let’s focus a little on the ones that have been tapped. I’ve reached out to a few practitioners who are using VIEs for learning. Some of them have been kind enough to share their experiences. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share with you what they share with me, the successes and the challenges. It should be a fun ride!

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds

Learning in 3D: Bringing Businesses Aboard

Posted by Rich Mesch on Jan 14, 2010 11:36:00 PM

by Rich Mesch

magazine coverI’m an excitable boy; I admit that. I’m so fascinated by the possibilities of new tools and technologies for learning, that I ponder why everybody doesn’t just jump on the bandwagon. And that’s why, when I read Karl and Tony’s book, I naturally gravitated towards the sections about adoption of new technology. Learning in 3D covers a lot of ground, but I appreciate the pragmatism of the authors to consider the inevitable question: now that we’ve established the effectiveness of the approach, how do we actually get people to do this?

I know of one large company that attempted to implement a Virtual Immersive Environment (VIE) strategy—very smart people doing very smart things. But despite that, their first effort was rocky. Why? Well, in brief, because they tried to do everything all at once. The audience had difficulty coming up to speed so quickly (What’s an avatar? Why do I have one? How do I get in the room? How do I sit in this chair? Why can’t I hear the presenter?), got confused, and frustrated. The fact that the software hit some technical snags didn’t help.

The nice thing about the book is that it’s sort of a “Radical’s Handbook”—if you read it carefully, it’s all about overthrowing the status quo and putting a new learning regime in place. Well, okay, that’s a bit extreme; in fact, a lot of what I like about it is that it recommends a sane, rational, structured way to adopting a new approach—the kind that won’t make people run screaming.

So while the book is full of killer content, there are some sections I was naturally drawn to. Barton Pursel’s section on Designing Learning Spaces in VIE is great. It reminds us that any capability or platform is simply a tool; you need great design to create a valuable learning experience. He makes a great point about the affordances of virtual worlds, those qualities that allow users to perform specific actions. Even though virtual worlds are realistic some things (such as travel) are actually much, much simpler—good design leverages those features. In fact, he makes a lot of the same points I used to make about simulation in general: just because you can make the environment just like reality doesn’t mean you should.  You want to focus on those things that create a great experience. As learning professionals, we need to focus on those things that make Virtual Immersive Environments unique, such as:

  • The ability to visualize, move, and explore in 3 dimensions
  • A persistent environment that you can manage and return to
  • The ability to collaborate in real time
  • The ability to create (and co-create) content (at least in some platforms!)
  • The ability to create an avatar that reflects your own persona, and not just what some programmer told you that you could have

Perhaps my favorite sections are the ones on Enterprise Adoption and the aptly named chapter called Rules from Revolutionaries. These sections focus on the biggest challenges ahead of us: if we believe in this stuff, how do we bring it to our stakeholders? How do we get corporations to see this as a business issue, and not just as a cool new toy. The advice here is perhaps the most valuable in the book; implementing VIEs is a business decision, not a learning decision. Ultimately, a lot of people need to be brought to the table. The most successful corporate adoption of VIE capability that I’m aware of followed the recommendations in this section nearly to the letter. Read this section carefully—this stuff works.

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Series