Virtual double take

Our cover story on virtual-training applications such as Second Life might cause some readers to scratch their heads and say, “Wha…?” I probably count myself among you.

So I put a few questions to FCW News Editor Michael Hardy, a longtime resident of Second Life, to help explain the appeal of this 3-D animated world. Of course, because he’s in the office adjacent to mine, we conducted the following conversation by instant messenger:

Q: How would you explain what Second Life is in a phrase?

A: Awesome.

Q: I mean to someone who has no idea what you’re talking about.

A: Second Life is an immersive 3-D virtual world, with most of its content — objects, buildings, avatars, gadgets and animations — created by its users. Almost anything you can do in real life — and many things you can’t — you can do a virtual version of in Second Life.

Q: What makes it better than, say, webinars, for training seminars and conferences?

A: The sense of presence. Of actually being together in the same place with the other participants.

Q: But isn’t it hard to relate with someone who looks like a centaur?

A: Well, maybe. But people who are using it responsibly for business purposes should save the centaur look for their personal time.

Q: Isn’t it hard to learn how to manipulate your avatar?

A: I don’t think so, but that may be a function of familiarity. People who already play computer games have a grasp of using the keyboard to control things, and have an easier time of it than people who haven’t done that. SL controls are not complicated.

Q: How long did it take you to get good at it?

A: For me, it was only a couple of hours. But then, I’d been playing "Doom" and other PC games for years, and it’s not any different.

Q: What makes it so inviting to actually spend time in? I’ve seen it, and signed up and spent a couple hours with it. I thought being able to fly across the Grand Canyon was pretty cool. But what is the psychic phenomenon behind this?

A: Well, I think the appeal of it for group meetings is that you can feel like you’re all in the same place even though you’re not. The visual cues create a really effective illusion. I can’t say if it has that effect on everyone. A lot of people might find it distracting. But I have taken part in online message boards and other social fora for years, and never felt that sense of proximity. In terms of imparting information, I don’t know that it’s any more effective. In terms of having scattered people feel that they’re still part of a team, I think it could help for that.

About the Author

David Rapp is editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week and VP of content for 1105 Government Information Group.

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