Low- to medium-income Americans are learning how to use credit cards responsibly from a new interactive video game created for a Boston-based not-for-profit organization called Doorway to Dreams (D2D Fund). Players of "Celebrity Calamity" earn kudos for timely payments, and demerits for incurring dreaded late fees, within an entertaining game environment.

"If you can't manage debt, you can't save," says Nick Maynard, the organization's director of innovation and new product development. Maynard is optimistic that the inviting 2D Flash game, developed by Enspire Learning Inc., in Austin, Texas, will benefit the most financially precarious segment of society. It is the first volume of a planned library of instructional games from D2D Fund dedicated to improving the financial literacy of struggling families.

D2D Fund joins a growing number of organizations that are reaching for so-called immersive learning technologies to train and interact with employees, customers, and others for a multitude of purposes. Their new tools include modest 2D "casual" games and simulations, robust 3D massively multiplayer games, and virtual worlds like Second Life.

Proponents say immersive learning and other Web 3D technologies represent the biggest communications advance since the Internet was formed, and promise they will revolutionize how people learn and interact.

Yet as the still-new market continues to evolve, legions of learning executives stare skeptically across the digital divide that separates them from serious gamers and avatar cruising aficionados. Their perspective is colored by the sticker shock of high-end games they can't afford or justify, dubious benefits of unsupervised avatars, and an inbred prejudice against paying employees to have fun.

Developers of serious game and virtual world products have a ready reply: "You're not paying attention." They say instructive 2D games can be made relatively cheaply, often from templates that can be updated with the simple insertion of a new audio track. Even developers of powerful 3D games assure that technology advances will improve efficiencies through scalability, lowering the cost-per-student price.

Big payoff promised

"Serious games fundamentally change learning, using scenarios to fail safely and creating memories through suspended disbelief that improve performance through recall," claims one learning game developer. In short, the concept employed to train pilots for decades will soon become ubiquitous, he says.

Businesses will similarly discover the advantages of collaborating, training, and connecting via 3D virtual environments, predicts Chris Badger, vice president of marketing for Forterra Systems Inc., a leading provider of virtual world technologies. Badger believes the use of online virtual worlds will become mainstream within five years, and that 2009 will be seen as an important year of transition. He says rising travel costs will help hasten the trend.

Yet it is clearly premature to predict how the market will develop. In a universe where 90 million Americans play 3D entertainment games like World of Warcraft, and where Linden Lab's Second Life is capturing the attention of corporate executives, the fledgling market for immersive learning can't even be quantified. That's because most companies experimenting with the concepts won't divulge their activities for competitive reasons, according to developers. They believe that will change, however, when the transition period ends and success stories start to proliferate.

Helping to hasten in the new era is IBM, which is applying muscle and prestige to both the 3D virtual world and serious gaming spaces. Its activities include a business learning game for college students called Innov8, and research activities with Linden Lab to teleport avatars among different virtual worlds. IBM has also partnered with Forterra Systems to integrate its Lotus Sametime software with Forterra's Online Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE) 3D platform. Lotus Sametime users will be able to immediately access 3D virtual worlds via the OLIVE platform.

Even so, not everyone is bullish about the future of immersive learning. Doug Harward, president of Training Industry Inc., located in Cary, North Carolina, says there is currently no strong demand from the corporate sector. "The marketplace will always adopt only what it can afford or justify," says Harward. He claims the learning technologies marketplace is currently more focused on improving user-generated content such as authoring tools.

Return-on-investment data

Enspire Learning is one instructional game developer that is hotly pursuing the market. It offers an array of custom-built solutions including 2D casual games as well as two broader simulation products - the Executive Challenge leadership simulation and an online primer for nonfinancial managers called Fluent in Finance.

CEO Bjorn Billhardt says the current buzz over games and other new modes of online learning is reminiscent of

e-learning's debut. Among the challenges for vendors like Enspire is to teach corporate training managers when and how to employ games and simulations effectively. Market penetration will come with better efficacy testing and ROI data to demonstrate their value to organizations, he says.

Indeed, D2D Fund is doing just that by incorporating performance metrics within its game to chart the effect on players and ensure that the learning tool serves the targeted audience.

One company well ahead of the gaming curve is Sun Microsystems, which employs a popular 2D game called Dawn of the Shadow Specter developed by Enspire Learning as a recruiting and onboarding tool.

Karie Willyerd, Sun's chief learning officer, considers games an integral part of Sun's collaborative learning environment, along with wiki-driven capabilities such as social networking, tag clouds, and other Web 2.0 features. Willyerd says Sun incorporates games around specific objectives such as generating demand for, and greater understanding of, its products. She says immersive learning captures attention and furthers Sun's learning strategy.

Along with Enspire Learning, Austin is home to a variety of gaming and learning companies. They include entertainment game developer Aspyr Media, which recently entered the learning space in a venture with Kaplan Test Prep called futureU. The venture will develop mini-games to prepare students for SAT examinations.

Virtual world ventures

Another center of immersive learning activity is North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, home to numerous learning and healthcare institutions, game development studios, and new media companies. Among them is Virtual Heroes Inc., a 3D game developer that creates high-end serious games for government and commercial clients.

Several North Carolina companies are pioneering the next generation of immersive learning and social networking within online virtual worlds. Within the past year, two partnerships have been formed with Icarus Studios, a provider of multiplayer online games, virtual worlds, and serious games. Both combine the Icarus 3D immersive (3DI) game platform with virtual world technologies.

One of the ventures, called PowerU, serves the learning community with an advanced platform that marries serious game technologies with the fast-growing virtual world concept. A partnership between Icarus and training provider American Research Institute, it employs the proprietary Icarus Real Time development engine and its nScale network architecture to combine networked 3D environments and advanced simulation systems with ARI's educational platform. The result is a hosted, full-featured learning content management system with supporting services that provides a rich assortment of la carte features.

PowerU's customers are able to create and deliver game-based training courses that provide 3D approximations of real-world scenarios in a graphically rich educational and professional training offering. Customers will pay only for what they use.

"We offer customers private and secure virtual worlds in which they can train people on proprietary skills and behavior," says PowerU President Richard Kristof. He says this combination of live training with gaming has not been previously available to the corporate learner from a single vendor.

Another partnership with Icarus Studios merges 3D virtual world technology with social networking and learning applications. The Venue Network (TVN) was recently launched by entrepreneur David Gardner to provide an array of practical and secure virtual world enterprise applications - a Second Life experience within a structured and protected setting.

The firm's flagship product, VenuGen, is a browser-based application that enables users to quickly create and customize virtual events. In doing so, they can leverage their 2D content as easily as setting up a WebEx presentation, says Gardner. Designed specifically for the corporate on-demand user, the product allows desktop content created with tools such as PowerPoint and Flash to be used seamlessly inside 3D venues.

Gardner says the technology will enable live event presentation in a virtual setting, including collaborative meetings, learning events, awards ceremonies, debates, and even family reunions. No special hardware is required.

He says it offers users a low-risk way to experiment with virtual worlds, one of the hottest concepts in the learning and meeting space. "This is about more than reducing travel costs," he says. "It's about being able to collaborate and share information at any time in a realistic setting."

Kristof says such advanced learning technologies will enable companies to expand the learning toolbox rather than replace existing training methods. For example, training managers can now insert "virtual field trips" to enhance instructional courses they already own, he says.

Forterra Systems, based in San Mateo, California, is similarly primed to serve the 3D virtual world customer. "We initially regarded ourselves as a 3D training company, but it became clear that a big opportunity is in collaboration," says Badger. He says the two areas will blur together as clients realize the many benefits of online virtual communication. In addition, he says, customers will be able to integrate access to formal learning from an LMS, combined with informal knowledge from wikis and blogs, within virtual environments.

Badger says a primary sponsor of the IBM-Forterra partnership is the U.S. intelligence community, which has been seeking additional avenues for secure collaboration and real-time information sharing among agencies to fight the war on terror.

But other key prospects include financial services, healthcare, energy, transportation and retail sectors. In all cases, collaborators will be able to share multiple data forms in parallel including documents, graphic displays, and human expertise through the Internet or mobile phone, he says.

3D sales training

One New Jersey-based training company is working hard to make game-based learning and virtual worlds both useful and affordable for its customers. Tricore Interactive Inc., Princeton, serves numerous clients in the life sciences and pharmaceutical fields with learning tools aimed at generation X and Y employees.

"The way we design learning today to reach these employees is entirely different than a few years ago," says President Bruce Haghighat. He says pharmaceutical firms, which traditionally represent the vanguard of advanced learning, are using 2D and 3D games and simulations, as well as virtual worlds, to reach their global employee and customer base.

"Companies today are under severe economic pressure," says Haghighat. "To meet their needs, the quality of training is far more important than quantity. The question is, how do you teach with didactic content and show learners how to apply their knowledge in the real world, and do so within a learning attention span of 45 minutes? Games and simulations are part of the answer."

Tricore creates 2D and 3D simulations for clients that feature scenarios such as pharmaceutical reps interacting with physicians, pharmacists, hospital formulary committees, and other healthcare professionals.

The simulations can be developed with global audiences in mind, allowing the content to be transitioned inexpensively to different markets. Audio tracks in any language can be inexpensively inserted into the generic settings. Haghighat say that such simulation learning is also heavily used for compliance training to identify bad responses and reinforce good habits during discussions with healthcare professionals.

One Tricore pharmaceutical client is also succeeding with virtual worlds, according to Haghighat. The training company recently rolled out a program to demonstrate how physicians can expand their practices to offer vaccinations. By plugging an interactive CD, some 12,000 physicians can tour a virtual practice and "visit" various rooms and learn how to efficiently order and store vaccines, administer doses to patients, and bill for their services.

Like many other providers of immersive learning technologies, Haghighat is encouraged by the initial reaction of his customers to the new reality-based content. What's more, he says, the technology is arriving just in time to meet the real-world training needs of today's new employees. t+d