Virtual Preparedness

If your real-life emergency training is a logistical nightmare, consider Second Life.

By now you have probably heard of Second Life, the online community created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab in which people, or their animated representatives, can buy virtual “goods” and “land,” construct homes and buildings, conduct business, and essentially live second, imaginary lives—spending, and sometimes making, real money in the process. The Web site (or “World”) has been alternately described as “some unholy offspring of the movie The Matrix, the social networking site My Space.com, and the online marketplace eBay”1 and “the perfect capitalist system in which you pay for fake stuff (clothing, housing, hookers) with real money.”2 Linden Lab itself describes its creation as “a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences, and opportunity.”

That the site is “teeming” is not in doubt. Since it opened to the public in 2003, the number of people using Second Life has never gone down. By the end of June,by Linden Lab’s own tally, the number of total participants (or Residents, as it calls them) was 14,158,048, some 840,000 of whom were logged-in during the month. By one count, between 31,000 and 65,000 Residents are logged-in at any given second of the day.

Included in this cyber-population is Rameshsharma Ramloll, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello. Ramloll’s background is in engineering and computer science, but as the technological director for Play2Train—a virtual training space in Second Life designed for conducting emergency preparedness exercises—he also is something of a Second Life expert, and he says there is far more to it than merely the sexual role playing, shopping, and real estate you hear about, although all those aspects of it are alive and well.

“I think Second Life is not well represented or well explained in the media,” Ramloll says. “To me, the single most active community in Second Life is the education community—and, in fact, Second Life would not be what it is today without it. You have hundreds of universities building virtual campuses and lots of experimentation— people looking at how you can actually create on-the-fly models of molecules, for example— people working with, visualizing data in real time.”

Islands in the Cyberstream
For the past two and half years—or roughly half of Second Life’s life—Ramloll has overseen all operations, virtual and otherwise, of Play2Train using Second Life’s wealth of graphics applications and other techno tools to build synthetic environments in which companies can conduct their various online ER drills. Those who design the actual training that plays out in Ramloll’s creations are subject matter experts he hires as consultants, many of whom he has met “in-World.” Ramloll maintains full control over who gets access to the otherwise private town and two hospitals built on the three islands that currently comprise Play2Train’s presence on the Second Life platform.

Up until last month, all business conducted on the Play2Train site was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Service’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in support of the Idaho Bioterrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program, of which Play2Train is part. Because of the grant, Ramloll has been able to create the various training projects without worrying much about the costs involved for either Play2Train or the various federal agencies and private companies who have been the site’s “partners,” but he estimates his team’s efforts to date would likely cost “in the millions.” Because the ASPR funding ended in August for the first time in Play2Train’s life, Ramloll says he has been “exploring new ways to monetize all we are doing, because we need to keep this effort going. These are the things that have been keeping me awake at night.”

High Fidelity
Ramloll is the first to admit that training carried out on a computer screen has its limitations, but he also strongly contends that it has its place and that its benefits far outweigh the perceived drawbacks. He cites the airline industry’s standard practice of using flight simulators as one area in which virtual environments are deployed for very high levels of comparatively cost-effective training, and he sees the types of ground disaster preparedness scenarios he constructs as being similarly effective, and eventually similarly accepted.

In terms of cost-effectiveness, for example, unlike real-life disaster preparedness training, which can necessitate shutting down a whole facility or section of town and thus can take place only once every year or two and even then at high cost, virtual training can be conducted as often as needed—on weekends, at night—with virtually no disruption to normal business schedules. And he notes that as a tool for competency evaluation, virtual training allows managers easily to determine whether employees are at the level of preparedness they need to be prior to deploying real-life, full-scale training.

From a networking perspective, Ramloll adds that nothing is easier than conducting online, in-World business between agencies from various states or even other parts of the world. “We never say we are going to create virtual environments for training to replace any face-to-face training or any full-scale exercises,” he says. “We create these virtual environments to create more opportunity for interactions between people who are involved in the exercises, so whatever they learn in those virtual environments can be used to complement any of the full-scale exercises they might have in the real world.”

Having created a number of these virtual environments, Ramloll says that an unexpected benefit to trainees is that their participation allows them to use, albeit virtually, the latest in emergency preparedness equipment for the first time. “This is equipment that would cost millions of dollars even for the state to buy,” he says. “So, from the perspective of bringing state-of-the-art emergency awareness products to the eyeballs of people who might not have seen it otherwise, this also is a big plus.”

Examples of such high-dollar “products” are in abundance in one Play2Train project that involved creating an exact, 3-D replica of the Elk’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Boise that Elk’s staff were later able to use to conduct evacuation and disaster drills. The project required on-site photographing and videotaping of the facility’s campus, buildings, operations, and machinery for detailed reproduction in Second Life. A slideshow demonstrating the hospital’s virtual construction, some of the disaster scenarios deployed, and some of the replicated equipment used is available via a link at Play2Train’s site, www.Play2Train.org.

Whole Other Worlds
Ramloll says Play2Train’s exploration in virtual environments for training does not stop at Second Life and that he and his team are currently exploring Project Wonderland and also have set up a room on Google’s Lively, both of which offer similarly interactive scenarios but on a far less scale than Second Life. One advantage of such lesser-scale platforms is found at the user’s application level, allowing people to choose whether they want to have access to the high-degree “realities” possible or whether they want to stick to a lower level of fidelity so that the environments respond appropriately using their current hardware.

With Second Life, if you have the right computer and high-speed connection, the virtual environments can be transporting and are something to behold. Ramloll says the platform’s graphic rendering possibilities were on the cutting edge five years ago and have only gotten better since.

From a creator’s point of view, he says the software and other tools available for adding fidelity to the environments—dropping in ambient sounds, getting the real-time shadow play just right, adding smoke from a burning building or high hurricanic winds—are a snap to use in Second Life when you know what you’re doing. From the user or trainee side of things, you just need to have a really good graphics card in order to experience it. With my middle-of-the-road equipment, just making my avatar walk in any way resembling reality is an achievement.

References
1. Hof, Robert D. “My Virtual Life.” BusinessWeek, May 1, 2006.

2. Stein, Joel. “My So-Called Second Life.” Time, Dec. 16, 2006.

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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