Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Virtual worlds 2.0: don't call it a comeback

It's not just my gut that's been telling me that virtual worlds are emerging from the Trough of Disillusionment and moving into the Slope of Enlightenment on Gartner's Hype Cycle.

On the corporate front, I've just finished up Phase 1 of a consulting engagement focused on developing an organizational adoption plan for a large, global company that is utilizing a virtual world platform as an emerging tool for delivering immersive learning and fostering collaboration and idea sharing among employees spread around the world. It is extremely encouraging to see companies moving out of the "technology implementation" stage and into the "organizational implementation" stage; this signifies a movement of virtual worlds out of the IT departments and into human resources, training, and other departments focused on internal communication. Organizations who have been thinking about or starting to implement virtual worlds have spent a lot of time focused on getting the technology to work and integrate with their existing corporate systems for the past two years; we're moving out of that focus now and into questions of how virtual worlds can best be leveraged. That's an exciting trend for those of us who've been focused on immersive design and how virtual worlds can support different communication and collaboration dynamics.

Another sign that virtual worlds are headed for mainstream adoption are emerging best practice examples of their use for training and learning. Just today, Proton Media announced a partnership with PPD to develop a Virtual Clinical Trial training solution. I've been working with clients recently on virtual preceptorships, virtual apprenticeships, and developing virtual sales territories. There are more and more conversations emerging of using these "mirror worlds" for realistic practice and this trend will continue.

Aaron Silvers blogged this week about his experience at GameTech 2011 where there was more talk about virtual worlds than games. In February, Aaron and I had talked about the current state of virtual worlds  at TechKnowledge 2011 (where I had presented two sessions on virtual worlds for learning). I had been arguing that they were re-emerging from a lag in interest and I think his observations on GameTech confirm that in the government, virtual worlds are certainly garnering renewed attention as a learning tool.

Earlier this week I did a quick search for "virtual worlds" on my blog and found that in the last three years, I've written 32 blog posts related to virtual world topics. I was pretty surprised. Although I've spent a lot of time thinking and speaking about immersive learning design since starting this blog, I don't think I realized how much I'd actually written down. In December 2009, I wrote a post titled "Virtual World 2.0...a few humble predictions" where I made some assumptions about the emerging characteristics of virtual worlds that would lead them to mainstream adoption. I did pretty good on my prediction scorecard:

  • Browser-based: almost all virtual worlds are moving in this direction, with minimal plug-ins and more consistent web navigational standards
  • Less user-generated content: the most successful serious virtual worlds have provided packaged experiences (eg. Protosphere, VenueGen, web.alive, VastPark)
  • Open source: OpenSim continues to strengthen and expand its reach
  • Integration with other tools (mobile, augmented reality, existing workplace systems like Sharepoint): this has happened on many levels and in different ways across platforms, but the system integration features may be the key to pushing virtual worlds to mainstream adoption
  • More seamless user-experience and navigation: point-and-click navigation is practically standard in the most popular serious virtual worlds. Oh, and have you seen Kinect?
Virtual worlds have been moving through a natural evolution and are beginning to emerge as a valuable tool in corporate and government learning, communication, and collaboration. Our thinking now needs to evolve as well; its no longer a question of if, but when. For organizations who understand this, the real question is, "how can you prepare to successfully adopt and integrate immersive and experiential learning?" 

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