One of the most promising avenues for delivering digital experience is through Multi-user Collaborative Virtual Environments, or CVE'e. A CVE is virtual, computer-generated, 3D environment that seems in some sense "real" to its users, who are represented in the space by avatars.
CVE's do not typically require expensive and specialized hardware, relying instead on freely distributed clients that display 3D environments on ordinary computer monitors. Even without the full immersion of classical VR, these worlds create a feeling of "being there” which is vital for effective distance learning, commerce or entertainment.
For example, here are two scenarios, doable now with existing products, for using CVE techniques to facilitate communication and learning for geographically distributed groups:
We can use a CVE to teach a section on biology or neuroscience, perhaps through a university or trade school. Alternatively, this could be a learning component of a medical or scientific site, for instance M.D. Anderson Hospital, the National Science Foundation, etc.
Learners, possibly on different continents, meet with a teacher/facilitator in real time in a virtual world. These persons, in their avatar forms, are floating in 3space around a large model of a human brain. They can take a tour of the brain, inside and out, visiting areas with various functionalities, which are called out by clicking. They can then warp instantaneously to an area laid out for building with models of nerve cells. These cells are intelligent objects, and when the learners combine them correctly they form a neural circuit, causing a state change in some output object. These virtual nerves can be examined at magnified levels to see, for example, neurotransmitters traversing the synapses. Incorrect combinations of nerve cells result in messages suggesting how the learners might redirect their efforts. Alternative situations can be presented, e.g. the myelin sheath might be damaged. Models made with such cells can then be compared with models made with fully functional cells.
Here is another scenario for using CVE techniques to introduce a globally distributed group to a newly designed drill bit for oil exploration. The group, which consists of people from Sales and Marketing, plus a few engineers, will be logging in from various locations in North and South America, the Middle East and the North Sea. The purpose is to give local sales and marketing teams a thorough experience of the drill bit, to better inform their efforts at introducing it to their markets.
All participants, regardless of physical location, are located in a virtual meeting room, where they are represented by appropriate avatars. There is a text channel and also a voice channel for communication. The room has no conference table; the drill bit itself is suspended in the middle of the room, where it can be manipulated in real time by those present. The walls are lined with information about the bit, such as CAD/CAM drawings, 3D cutaway views, animations of the bit working through different kinds of rock, etc. The informational displays in this “active war wall” can be called up as needed during the presentation.
The drill bit object itself is based on the actual design model, so it is an accurate representation. Not only can the group examine it from many angles, they can also change the scale to see various levels of detail; they can even go inside it if they choose. The presenter can swap out different components to show the various model variations are achieved. Teleports can take the group to alternate locales, where they can see the bit in operation, view manufacturing stages, etc.
These scenarios utilize collaborative building with persistent objects. This kind of direct manipulation is fully consistent with Constructivist models of learning-by-doing with technology. Additionally, the “meta-geography” of CVE’s means that the learners, as well as the teachers, can be in widely dispersed locations, yet still share a common experience. This commonality of experience and community is fostered by avatar representation of users, giving an almost visceral sense of reality to the shared space.
Here are some other scenarios, doable with current technologies:
· Corporate training or workgroup coordination for geographically distributed operations.
· Branded virtual communities built around consumer products or entertainment properties.
· Product catalogs and corporate information centers conceived as buildings or parks.
· Virtual stock trading rooms.
Et cetera. Of course, this is a rapidly changing field, and Broad-band’s fat pipes will enable a multitude of improvements and enhancements, such as spatialized audio, better resolution and tighter interactivity.
· Multi-user online virtual environments
· Community/collaborative learning
· Simulations/modeling systems
· Scenario-based instruction
· Distance learning
· Social learning