Virtual worlds emerge within agencies


Several years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintained more than a dozen virtual environments for online visitors to explore in Second Life. Now it operates just one.

For NOAA and other federal agencies, the focus of virtual world activity has moved beyond Second Life and diversified onto other platforms and gaming engines, according to Eric Hackathorn, a 3D Web designer for NOAA and one of the federal pioneers in virtual worlds.

“Virtual worlds are in need of some rebranding,” Hackathorn told Federal Computer Week. “Historically, virtual worlds were synonymous with Second Life, but that is no longer the case.”

While several agencies, including NOAA, NASA, Defense Department and National Library of Medicine maintain a presence on Second Life, several current initiatives have shifted to open source and in-house platforms and interagency efforts, he said. For example, DOD's PTSD Experience invites users to learn about post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is a lot of activity and many different use cases,” Hackathorn said, with initiatives for training, innovation and research in 3D and gaming environments.

The upcoming Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds’ annual conference starting on May 16 will highlight some of those programs.

NOAA was one of the first federal civilian agencies to explore using Second Life for outreach to the public. In its heyday on Second Life, it built and operated a series of colorful three-dimensional virtual locations for visitors to explore. For example, it had simulated environments for the bottom of the ocean, northern lights and an interactive weather map.

NASA, the National Library of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and the Internal Revenue Service all operated locations in Second Life at some time.

However, many federal agencies found Second Life, while a great learning experience, had limitations. The problems included security and access, technical difficulties with access and the expense and time needed to maintain the virtual environments. Agencies also often lacked administrative authorities to reuse the environments in other applications, Hackathorn said.

NOAA has shifted most of its virtual world activity to its Fragile Earth Studios, an in-house lab that has developed data visualization initiatives including 3-D weather mapping, Virtual Hawaii, Virtual Alaska and virtual Rock Creek Park.

Another direction for virtual worlds is in utilizing elements of gaming. With research showing that gaming can facilitate learning and innovation, NOAA and other agencies are trying to harness that resource, Hackathorn said.

For example, gamers helped to map the structure of the a human immunodeficiency virus more effectively than traditional researchers, Hackathorn said. He suggested that the same could happen if game applications were used to develop innovative ways to map tornadoes or hurricanes.

NOAA has been working directly with gaming engines to develop game-based virtual environments for education. While NOAA hosts several games on its website, it also is working to begin promoting its games to the 1 billion Facebook users within several months, Hackathorn said.

NOAA also is hosting an internal website for a federal interagency working group dedicated to games and challenges, sponsored by the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. The initial meeting of the group in November 2011 involved 23 agencies, according to a White House Blog post.

Other federal virtual world activities include:

  • The Federal Virtual World Challenge, sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Lab for Simulation and Training, named winners of this year’s competition on April 11.
  • The Agriculture Department’s Virtual Government project is being developed under an Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contract with SAIC Inc. and other companies that runs through September 2013.
  • The U.S. Army’s “MOSES” (Military Open Simulator Enterprise Strategy) is operating on the open source Open Simulator website.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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