Energy offers online training to employees in 3D virtual buildings

Energy Department employees are being trained on how to make office buildings more energy efficient in virtual “3D” environments with virtual rooms outfitted with virtual energy users such as toasters and refrigerators.

The department has developed many other web-based virtual training courses at relatively low cost by utilizing open source 3D technologies and collaborating with universities and other partners, according to Michelle Fox, chief strategist for education and workforce development in DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

“We leveraged a $19 million investment into a $1 billion training solution,” Fox said at the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds conference on May 18. While speakers appeared at the conference at National Defense University in Washington, DC, many others participated online in virtual world platforms such as Second Life or watched a live video feed.

Energy created the National Training and Education Resource online portal as an integrated platform to collaborate and share virtual training solutions. A next-generation beta version of the training platform also is operating on the web.

The national training platform is free, interactive and open source and offers a warehouse of available workforce training courses. Public and private entities can use the system to more easily develop their own customized training with virtual environments, Fox said.

For example, in the green buildings training, a user can “walk” through a 3D house and examine possible sources of energy loss, such as partially-opened windows. The training program also instructs the user to make safety checks on gas lines and on fragile ceilings in the simulated building before conducting a test of energy loss.

In real life, those safety checks would be important to protect against gas fires and possible ceiling collapses that could result from a common energy-efficiency test that involves suctioning the air out of a house to identify air leaks in the structure.

The national training platform courses are built upon WebGL, which Fox said allows them to operate easily within a Web browser instead of needing to be downloaded. Also, builders can build their own training courses relatively easily, without programming.

The advantage of an open source platform is that it allows for substantial and ongoing community involvement, which helps in spotting problems, creating modifications and maintaining reliability, Fox said.

“It shows the power that we have to work together to produce what we could not afford to do alone,” Fox said.

Energy also is collaborating with the Defense Department and other agencies on additional virtual world projects. However, some government virtual world activity has been stymied by strong security requirements, disagreements on metadata, duplications of effort and difficulties in searching and finding information in virtual data repositories, she said.

“Cybersecurity needs are preventing access to virtual worlds” for federal agencies, Fox said.

Notwithstanding those problems, the younger generation entering the workforce wants and expects virtual and game-based learning tools, and the tools have been proven effective, she added.

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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