Military retiree launches virtual Army Family Support Center

Virtual world offers links to information and a chat room for relatives of service members.

The Army has developed a range of online resources to support the families of soldiers, especially deployed troops, but these can take hours of Web searches to locate and organize.

Jaque Davison, a retired Army helicopter pilot who has nearly three decades of experience in the construction of 3-D objects and virtual worlds, believes he has found a better way to manage and present that information.

Davison, who runs a one-man virtual world development operation out of his home in Springfield, Va., thinks the best way to organize and present information is through visual 3-D cues, rather than static Web text searches. So, he recently launched the Army Family Support Center in ActiveWorlds, an online virtual world.

Davison selected one of the most familiar visual cues in the world -- the simple sign -- to provide links to online information. When visitors enter the virtual Army Family Support Center, they find themselves standing inside a circle of signs, each linked to Web sites and resources.

One sign reads, "Search Results Military Spouses Family Support," where visitors can link to a article on how spouses of soldiers deployed to a combat zone can prepare for their return home.

Another sign points visitors to the Quality of Life Foundation, whose mission is to help families of severely injured combat service members cope with the challenges of caring for a wounded warrior.

Yet another signpost states, "Deployment: It's a Family Affair," and takes visitors to the Olive-Drab site, which provides links to multiple family support groups.

Besides powerful visual links, the virtual Army Family Support Center also harnesses conversation through its chat function, which allows people to share lessons learned. Real knowledge -- as opposed to data -- resides "in people's heads," Davison said, adding that a question can be answered quicker and often better in the chat room than through a Web search.

Davison said he knows well the difficulty of locating and organizing Web-based information, even on the most focused topic. Hunting down the links embedded in the virtual Army Support Center required hundreds of hours of "serious data mining," he said.

By comparison, building the virtual information room was a snap, Davison said, adding that it took him an afternoon. The structure of ActiveWorlds, he noted, is easier to work in than Second Life, another online virtual world. This approach is suited to displaying all kinds of information, including data used in virtual command centers, he said.

Davison set up the support center on his own dime out of a passionate belief that virtual worlds can turn data into knowledge.

To visit the virtual Army Family Support Center, users will need to download the free client software from ActiveWorlds, register as a guest and then go to this link.