Spreading the Virtual Word

Federal virtual reality enthusiasts gather to talk shop at an annual conference, but they know they'll need hard facts that the technology will improve outcomes if agencies are going to embrace the animated worlds.

052110secondlifeNGins After hours, Eric Hackathorn, center, plays with a multi-touch screen table, while Adam Bogue, far left, president of Circle Twelve, the start-up behind it, explains how it works. Dawn Lim/Nextgov.com

It's after 7 p.m. and some of the staffers who organized the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference are making their final rounds of the booths, telling everyone to pack up for the day.

"Never!" shouts attendee Eric Hackathorn, enraptured by the glow of the giant Google map projected on the table.

Watchers stop to gawk at and play with the map that is displayed on the interactive table, which distinguishes and identifies each user's marks when different people sit around the display to, say, draw up directions of troop movements or highlight at-risk areas on a map. Adam Bogue, president of Circle Twelve, the startup behind the $10,000 multiuser touch table, explains the technical intricacies of how it distinguishes and incorporates different users' commands.

As a frazzled staff member returns to warn the last people milling around that the doors are closing, Hackathorn, a Colorado-based virtual worlds program manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pulls himself away, exchanges last words with Daniel Laughlin, a partner scientist at NASA's Goddard Earth Sciences and Technology Center, and the men part in the dimming light. No problem. They'll see each other later as avatars in Second Life.

Banding Together at the Table

The Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds was held in Washington May 13-14 and brought together 1,600 participants to talk about how to use virtual technology in government. The number of virtual devotees has grown steadily since the consortium first launched in 2007, when only five attendees showed up.

While these enthusiasts say they face a difficult task convincing colleagues at work that virtual reality can improve collaboration, they have a lighthearted outlook. "We left most of the high-level government people behind during Pac-Man," Laughlin said wryly, referring to the video game popularized in the 1980s.

Laughlin develops cutting-edge applications to conduct educational outreach for NASA in its Learning Technologies Project . He said he's received support for virtual reality projects, the key to building support for virtual reality was collecting research to back his case.

"There are so many people for whom virtual worlds are completely alien. It makes it hard for them to jump on board and be behind things. That's when it's good to have a stack of papers to say, 'Here's why it's useful, and here's what we've been doing,' " he said, miming lifting something heavy.

Laughlin recalls that around 2006, a co-worker at NASA was suspended from work for using Second Life on his computer while developing an outreach tool for the agency. He managed to return after a week only because "fortunately, we had documented things," Laughlin said.

In the federal virtual community, Hackathorn is lauded as the first person to establish a virtual government presence on Second Life in 2005, but he said he had to bypass layers of bureaucracy to do so.

"I saw some value in Second Life, but there was no budget and no mandate," he said. Hackathorn's Twitter skin reads, "This Web 2.0 participation is personal and does not represent the United States Department of Commerce. The above announcement was brought to you by a whole fleet of lawyers."

Instead he went to Linden Labs , the company that created Second Life in 2003. Hackathorn said he told Linden executives, "Look, I'm from NOAA, but I can't be here in official capacity. But if you donate me some land, I can build something cool and get people excited."

Hackathorn was given some virtual land. He then replicated in Second Life the display system Science on a Sphere , a NOAA program that projects climate data such as storms and ocean temperature onto a 6-foot, suspended animated globe. Hackathorn's virtual Science on a Sphere impressed the director of the Earth System Research Laboratory , who also was the science sphere's creator.

The Second Life landscape and government perceptions of virtual worlds have changed a bit since 2006, when, Hackathorn recalls, someone at his agency handed him a bar code thinking the virtual island he had built in Second Life had a physical form to attach it to.

Science on a Sphere is now part of the SciLands , an expanding minicontinent on Second Life focused on science and education. Agencies that have created islands in SciLands include the Energy Department, the National Institutes of Health and NASA. SciLands project managers meet weekly in Second Life to discuss co-hosting virtual events, review new applications and "just to keep up with what's going on," Laughlin said.

"It helps that we're all neighbors. Otherwise, everyone sits out there on their own," he said. "We get more leverage out of doing things collectively than individually. We can complain about our agencies and someone will understand."

Laughlin added, "It also justifies my projects. I can point outside my agency and say, if NOAA is doing this, we should do this too."

Will Virtual Worlds Become Reality?

Virtual worlds might be catching on in government. One of the largest interagency efforts is vGov , a secure virtual portal being built for the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments, the Air Force, and the Pentagon-funded National Defense University.

The contract for vGov is capped at $25 million over three years, said Chris North, vGov's executive project manager. This year, the group will spend $252,000 on software to develop virtual spaces for the agencies.

Paulette Robinson, an assistant dean at the Information Resources Management College at NDU who co-leads the project, said vGov has the potential to usher in an unprecedented degree of interagency collaboration and to enhance the government's interactions with the public.

One of the greatest challenges the coalition faced, she said, was the lack of interagency funding models they could borrow from. "We were essentially throwing darts at a wall and guessing," Robinson said.

She said drafting the project's request for proposal was a frustrating process that spanned months.

But it is one that is needed, Robinson added. "Before the government can truly be open, we need to know what each of us is doing. Virtual worlds can provide a mechanism to do that," she said. The obstacle standing in the way, however, is "a bureaucracy as large as the federal government is resistant to all kinds of change."

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