DHS joins the virtual world

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New classroom platform will provide real-time communications and will be integrated with a National Guard system that provides training for first responders.

The Homeland Security Department is joining the military services, intelligence community and a growing number of other agencies in the virtual world.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Engineering & Computer Simulations in Orlando, Fla., will build a 3-D, secure social network that DHS employees will use to virtually train and take courses. The company will integrate Homeland Security's world with the Joint State Response Training System's Emergency Management Nexus, which ECS is constructing for the National Guard bureau. EM Nexus is a platform where emergency responders from all levels of government will train and collaborate.

The National Guard plans to hold large-scale training exercises using the platform, in which people are represented by avatars and locations are modeled as generic town squares, where building and street signs change. Like Nexus, the DHS virtual classroom will allow real-time communications via Voice over Internet protocol, instant messaging and exchange of presentations, documents and other materials.

Nexus will accommodate so-called massive multi-user events, in which thousands of people worldwide - in this case 5,000 to 10,000 users - can simultaneously interact with one another in a virtual world, said Lt. Col. Gregory Pickell, chief of the National Guard's training technology branch. Pickell spoke at the Federal Consortium on Virtual Worlds conference in Washington on April 3. The platform will support users at the city, county, state and national levels.

Nexus is built on the same base as Disney's Toon Town a multiplayer online children's game. "For the management of a large number of users, the best architectures are kids' games," Pickell said.

Nexus' town square concept mirrors that of Toon Town, but Nexus is not a game environment, he said. For example, it lacks the artificial intelligence common to online gaming. Nexus is slated to go live in August or September.

Meanwhile, the University of Central Florida plans to use a $2.6 million Army research grant to buy an IBM supercomputer to develop massive multiplayer 3-D war-game exercises, with potentially thousands of players worldwide. The funding came from the Army simulation center in Orlando, which has become a center for online training research and development.

"The trend line in virtual training is going toward these massive multiplayer environments," Michael Macedonia, general manager of the national security division at Forterra Systems Inc., told the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday. Forterra makes online virtual training spaces.

"The fact that UCF and the Army are making this kind of commitment to supercomputer electronics will make this region a leader in the field," Macedonia said. Forterra is a technology partner of the university.

News of the virtual training initiatives prompted Virtual Worlds News, the online publication that broke the story, to suggest that a national virtual world, with a special military and intelligence segment, might be planned.

The Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence took a step in that direction on Tuesday in a joint announcement of "combined efforts to deploy compatible 'authorize and attribute' services" on their computer networks. Such services determine who is using a network and, based on their jobs and clearances, allow or deny them access to information. The agreement will boost the DNI virtual work environment called A-Space.

"A-Space will provide an interactive work space for intelligence analysts to solve problems," noted Dale Meyerrose, ODNI's chief information officer. "We're working closely with our DoD partners to ensure that A-Space offers agile access to the department and [intelligence community] resources across the top secret network."