It's coming, but will the virtual environment be the best place
for learning? Are some things just better in person? Ask the avatar
next to you.
A research team at North Carolina State University led by Mitzi M.
Montoya has developed a new way of measuring how "real" online
virtual worlds can be. This is a critical advance for the emerging
technology. Many true believers think this is the wave of the
future for workplace learning because development of applications
and collaboration techniques begin to appear to support the idea.
The measurement scale developed by the researchers for the virtual
world is called Perceived Virtual Presence, or PVP, and compares
how users interact with the virtual environment and factor in with
their work in that environment, as well as with other users. "Now
that we have developed the PVP scale, it can be used to determine
what PVP levels are most conducive to training, collaboration, or
other applications," Montoya explains.
The PVP scale can be used to design a virtual environment that has
the degree of reality that will best cater to a company's specific
needs. Montoya developed the PVP metric with Anne P. Massey, a
professor of information systems at Indiana University.
The rising cost of travel and increasingly tight budgets have left
companies exploring the possible use of virtual worlds to train
employees and foster collaboration in areas such as research and
development. But until now no one has had a way to measure just how
"real" those worlds are. The researchers focused on developing a
measurement tool specifically for business applications in the
virtual world. They noted that the productivity and effectiveness
of workers interacting among online environments is closely linked
to how well the workers are able to feel as if they are in the
It seems perfectly natural that the first discussion of PVPs would
take place in cyberspace. Within hours of the announcement late
last month, bloggers were fired up and jumping into the discussion.
A blogger named David Miller wrote: "It seems that they are looking
at how immersive the virtual world is to employees. How easy it is
to 'suspend disbelief' and feel as though it is a live encounter. I
know that for me, it is very easy to feel a 'real' affinity with an
avatar I am speaking with. This is somewhat true of even instant
messages, but much more so of being near an avatar.
"I even make it a point to be certain that my avatar is looking at
his face. It's all too easy to be looking away, but I identify
quite closely with my avatar. This will seem weird to anyone not in
But even among the most avid of virtual world believers, some
bloggers remained cautious, if not skeptical.
Last week, a blogger called Amilie joined a string of conversation
on the topic: "We are only more productive in virtual worlds for
certain activities that we cannot perform in (real life). For
example, a collection of two-way phone conversations and emails
over the course of a week to bring a team of workers up to speed on
a task is never as productive as a meeting with all of them in the
same room. If you can have that meeting in a virtual world, then
you are already more productive than in the (real world). "I am not
sure that comparing same to same would put virtual worlds out in
front. There are many advantages to meeting face to face and
calling your boss Mr. Smith in a real boardroom, rather than
meeting with him anonymously in a virtual board room."
"Using different forms of realistic online environments, even those
as simple as remote desktop connections for help desks, have
already shown to save large corporations literally millions of
dollars annually," writes Rick C. Hodgin on the website TG Daily.
"Virtual classrooms, meetings, and presentations (have) been
(employed by) users around the globe with stunning success - saving
tens of millions of dollars," Hodgin adds. "In addition, previous
meetings, educational worlds, and demonstrations can all be
recycled, copied, and reviewed at any time in the future. Having
either the original presentation, or a playback of a recorded
version of the original presentation, one given in its exact form,
is as easy as copying a file. And that is one of this technology's
Montoya adds, "This is an important issue because we believe that
if users feel they are 'present' in the virtual world, they will
collaborate better with other members of their team - and the more
effective the virtual world will be as a setting for research and
development or other collaborative enterprises."
In addition, Montoya notes that "an increased sense of presence in
the virtual world leads to better comprehension and retention of
information if the technology is being used for training purposes,
and trainees are happier with the process."
Adds Hodgin: "Education, demonstration, and collaboration are the
future of the business needs of online virtual worlds. Specific
tools like Montoya's PVP may help develop these virtual tools far
more rapidly. And while games, sim worlds, and other 'fun things'
will undoubtedly push the technology, performance, and coding
methodologies as far as they can go, it will ultimately be the
business ends which benefit the most from the application."