Virtual Worlds in Business and Education

There are two areas where virtual worlds are getting a lot of attention for the benefits they can bring. In both education and business, people are looking at how the emulation these platform provide can offer powerful tools to their respective fields.

Learning Virtually, or Virtuallly Learning?

Education is the practical application in which virtual worlds are gaining the most traction. Because of the low amounts of resources allocated to education in modern times, many educators are looking into different, cost effective mediums to try to increase the quality of education. A very large look is being taken at virtual worlds, where students can interact with the things they are learning about in a way never before possible. Instead of a history class learning about the civil war, a teacher can walk students through virtual battle fields. Instead of looking at slides of Da Vinci paintings, students can now take a stroll through the Sistine Chapel. Virtual worlds allow students to actively participate in the subjects they are learning about, rather than passively absorb information. And the best part is that this experience comes at an almost insignificant cost.

The Sistine Chapel in Second Life

However, it does not stop there. On top of all the benefits brought on by interactive learning, there are studies that show the social interactions teach children how to socialize, how to integrate technology into their lives, and how to be better consumers. Kids that are active members of virtual worlds gain exposure to many different types of people, and learn how to deal with differences of opinion much earlier than kids that do not, which may become especially important in succeeding later in education, and in the workplace. As Yasmin Kafai, an associate professor at UCLA, points out, “In these worlds, there’s a lot of flirting and socializing, a play ground for what comes later.”

Educational Virtual World, Webkinz

Another important aspect is how most virtual worlds create internal economic systems. Studies have shown that this interaction with currency and the concept of ownership is teaching students important skills that are useful later in life. People growing up before virtual worlds did not have this type of marketplace simulated for them, and unless they had particularly responsible parents, entered the world without strong fiscal responsibility.

Doing Business with Virtual Worlds

The other main area virtual worlds are gaining some momentum is business. There are a few reasons there as been interest generated in understanding how a virtual world can help business, but the main two involve expanding into virtual markets and reducing the cost of training.

A huge advantage of many virtual worlds, in particular Second Life, is the non-existent bar to entry and the extremely low cost to maintain any virtual assets. Companies have seen this as an opportunity to expand their markets for very low costs. A great example of this is The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In keeping with their real world goal of educating the world about the role of the ocean, costs and atmosphere in the global ecosystem, NOAA has created a presence in Second Life with the same goal. For the price of the virtual real estate and building materials, this organization has been able to reach a whole new audience. This is especially a great move, as NOAA has not had to take on any IT responsibilities (servers, databases, etc are all hosted by Linden Labs). This case is not unique, and many companies are using virtual worlds to bypass many traditional barriers, like geographic or international restrictions, to open new places in which to start generating revenue... all for a nominal investment.

The other interesting reason virtual worlds are garnering attention is because they offer a great way to train employees for a fraction of the traditional cost. The Children’s Memorial Hospital Chicago has been using Second Life to train upcoming workers for disaster situations. This has been a problem in the past, as there are significant dangers to patients when trying to teach a new employee in a real emergency, and there are extremely high costs associated with simulating them. However, the hospital was able to hire a firm to create a 3D model of the hospital, and due to the unlimited reusability of the virtual infrastructure, is able to get an amazing return on investment. While all training can’t be done this way, especially in places like hospitals, virtual worlds have been able to significantly cut down on training costs. This great case study has led many other companies to trying this type of training.

Hospital Simulation

It is very clear the virtual worlds have huge potential to be a great business tool. They can be used to generate new streams of income, or cut back on massive expenditures already in place. While it is still relatively early in the lifetime of virtual worlds, and it is therefore hard to really judge them yet, it seems like they have some truly valuable things to offer.

Virtual worlds have shown some amazing results in the realm of education, which can mostly be attributed to the immersive reality that they let people experience. However, it is this same property that has led to virtual worlds being far less effective the business world. While many people are still noticing this amazing potential for virtual worlds in business, they tend to shy away because of the “game” feel. It seems like the history of virtual worlds may hold them back from contributing to the corporate world. However, just as most perceptions of a potentially great ideas change over time, in the future we will see much more non-gaming interaction with virtual worlds.