Since late 2007, I have touted the revolutionary training, product design, and test capabilities of virtual worlds like Second Life (SL). In January 2009, I implored the engineering community to stop thinking of SL as a game and embrace it as a product design tool. For my trouble, a reader with the handle JWM commented, “It’s a game, get back to work.” (See “Second Life’s Recognition as an Engineering Tool is Increasing“). So, what is it going to take to convince engineers to see past the stigma of Virtual Worlds as games and begin adopting this technology for design and training?
How about a NASA endorsement backed by $1.65 million?
The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Learning Technologies Project Office recently released a request worth $1.65 million for research proposals on so-called Persistent Immersive Synthetic Environments (i.e., Virtual Worlds). Winning proposals must demonstrate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content delivery approaches that promote technical workforce development and training. This NASA solicitation is open through August 11, and is entitled “2009 Research in the Design, Usage, and Evaluation of Massively Multiplayer Online Games and Immersive Synthetic Environment for NASA STEM Education and Training.”
A complimentary NASA release entitled “Development of a NASA-based massively multiplayer online learning game” posted on NASA’s massively multiplayer online educational game site says that “Virtual Worlds with scientifically accurate simulations could permit learners to tinker with chemical reactions in living cells, practice operating and repairing expensive equipment, and experience microgravity, making it easier to grasp complex concepts and transfer this understanding quickly to practical problems.”
I don’t think the engineering community could receive a kick in the pants to adopt Virtual Worlds any more blatant than the one we just got from NASA. It is time for engineers to put old stereotypes to rest and adopt Virtual Worlds for design and training. If we don’t, some other technical profession will fill this niche without us. For example, my colleague, Dr. Yunfei Du, of the Department of Library and Information Sciences at the University of North Texas recently won funding for a project entitled, “Enhancing Students’ Experiential Learning on Academic Libraries Using Wimba Classroom and Second Life“. This project built a virtual library in SL to train students seeking to become librarians. With a few enhancements, this project could be used to train engineers in a virtual laboratory.
It is time we all followed JWM’s advise to “get back to work,” but instead of working on conventional engineering activities, let’s focus our efforts on Virtual Worlds for engineering design and training to assure our profession does not fall behind in adopting this technology.