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3. Immersive Training Spaces


Video: NOAA demonstrates its virtual world training environment.

Imagine the job interview to be the person who travels on an aircraft through hurricane conditions to gather weather information–or being on a trawler on treacherous seas gathering data vital to understanding and protecting, the oceans?

It’s the job of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to find these people and train them. The cost and duration of training in the physical world is a serious challenge, so NOAA has been exploring ways to train more people at lower cost. Virtual training is smart for organizations and businesses that work with complex tasks or machines, because it allows individuals to practice dangerous skills in environments in which physical harm is impossible. NOAA invested in a robust virtual development program including the creation of one of the most sophisticated projects in the virtual world Second Life.

The first time we visited, Eric Hackathorn, NOAA program manager, was in Virtual Alaska and physical Alaska at the same time, teaching students how to build out the virtual oceanic environment. The resulting digital ocean, complete with marine life, would span from the equator to the poles with special emphasis on some areas, including Alaska. In a virtual ocean, time can be bent so participants can see, for example, the long-term death of the coral reef in a condensed format. Watching the vital bright red color fade to ghostly white in seconds instead of centuries is a powerful way to illustrate a point in a way that comes to life and sticks.

Hackathorn took us on a tour of the space, including a digital replica of NOAA’s spectacular Science on a Sphere. Dozens of locations around the physical world will host the Science on a Sphere globe, onto which various stunning and informative data visualizations are projected. In Second Life, participants can choose from a panel of data visualizations to see them projected onto the virtual sphere’s surface.

Virtual environments offer many such opportunities to solve problems. Virtual environments are an asset for practicing as complex as a hospital evacuation or preparing for other local disasters that require safety plans to be tested ahead of time.

The participants at 3D Squared’s Digital Workforce Initiative weren’t just playing games. They were training for the type of skilled positions already available for workers prepared to take them. Americans are currently faced with a shortage of jobs, but by 2018 the nation may be faced with a shortage of educated workers. Int Louisiana, 100,000 skilled labor jobs are currently unfilled. The issues facing Louisiana are particularly dire. Environmental disasters, both natural and man-made, aren’t the state’s only major issue. The state is at the bottom of the list when it comes to health and education as well.

“Some youth with few job prospects and little hope for future advancement may see little alternative to criminal activities or joining armed conflicts,” the Population Reference Bureau has noted. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that Louisiana’s per capita homicide rate has ranked first among the states for 20 straight years.

The best opportunity to analyze the relationships between complex factors related to cities might also come from simulated environments. Eric Beidel’s article “Video Game Tackles Serious Urban Problems”  in the September 2010 issue of National Defense Magazine details IBM’s CityOne game.

“The work force of tomorrow can learn a lot by playing video games today,” IBM told Beidel.

IBM’s recent CityOne is a free online game that takes the concepts behind the popular SimCity series and tries to up the real-world ante. IBM’s version of the city simulator features problems and solutions that leaders in urban environments actually might encounter when they go to work. A game scenario involves a water crisis, with usage outpacing demand to strain supplies, coupled with pollution and leaky pipes while energy costs continue to rise. Players must come up with a way to deliver high quality water at low cost.

Much like 3D Squared’s attempt to introduce a broad range of social issues into the game development experience, CityOne presents an array of challenges related to financial, environmental and sociological interests. The next step could be to tailor the platform to specific real world cities and challenges. Real cities are also starting to use technology to crowd-source ideas from citizens.

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