Agencies look to virtual reality technologies to replace live training and outreach at lower cost

Correction:This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate cost of hosting a foreign exchange student in the United States.

It takes about $20,000 to fund a single foreign exchange student for a three-week stay at a high school in the United States, but for roughly $1,000, one State Department program brought together a dozen U.S. and Egyptian architecture students for a three-month project.

The joint project, which took place in the virtual world Second Life, was aimed at figuring out what to do with several miles of underused desert real estate between the outskirts of Cairo and the pyramids of Giza.

The architecture students from Ain Shams University in Cairo and the University of Southern California began by debating appropriate land use and building designs, but ended with solid friendships that played out on Facebook and elsewhere on the Web and ultimately in transatlantic visits, according to William May, director of the State Department's Office of Innovative Engagement.

The Cairo 2 Kansas project, named for a line in President Obama's landmark 2009 address to the Muslim world, not only struck a low-cost blow for intercultural understanding, May said, but it also opened up an experience with real Americans for several Egyptian women whose conservative families would never have allowed them to travel to the country for an exchange program.

May described the project on Thursday at a roundtable on virtual worlds in government sponsored by the National Defense University's iCollege division.

Another panelist, Kevin Holloway, a psychologist with the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, described a virtual world education program his office put together to help returning soldiers recognize and respond to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The simulation begins with a suicide bomber jumping out at the soldier's avatar and exploding, presumably in Iraq. In the next scene the soldier is in what looks like a U.S. shopping mall, but an image of the bomber and explosion bubble up every time he makes a turn. In later levels of the program, Holloway said, the soldiers learn to recognize the signs of PTSD-induced panic attacks and to practice relaxation techniques.

The program, which is conducted anonymously, is aimed primarily at soldiers who don't want to visit a military therapist, either because they're too self-conscious or fear it will hurt their career prospects, Holloway said. The program also is aimed at reservists who may live an hour or more from a qualified therapist, he said.

"People always ask, 'Would this kind of intervention be as good as a face-to-face treatment?' and that's not really the issue," Holloway said. "The issue is how does getting help in a modality like this compare to not getting any help at all and suffering alone."

Government has been slow to adopt virtual world technology, partly because security systems on government-issued computers are too restrictive for most private sector virtual world systems like Second Life to operate well.

But as agencies feel the pressure of tightening budgets, they increasingly seek technology that can simulate vital training and outreach at a lower cost.

The Army, for instance, has been investigating whether it can use adapted versions of virtual world shooting games in its training to save the cost of live trainers and ammunition, according to panelist Douglas Maxwell, a science and technology manager at the Army's Simulation and Training Technology Center.

So far, he said, the technology center hasn't been able to create a simulation that mirrors reality rigorously enough to replace what a soldier can learn from a live trainer.

"If you're a first-person shooter and you run into a room and you want to take out the bad guy, normally what happens inside the gaming engine is it calculates where you're pointing your weapon . . . and if the bad guy happens to be within that arc, that's good enough for the engine," Maxwell said.

Army trainers, though, must take many more things into account.

"We need to know the line of sight and the probability of a kill," he said. "We need to be able to know, if the individual is shot in the chest, if there's some armor there."

Similarly, he said, driving games don't yet simulate closely enough the experience of driving in different countries, on different roads with different traffic patterns and at varying times of day.