New Military Reality

Second Life becomes an integral defense tool

Second Life becomes an integral defense tool

By Mac Carey

There is a neighborhood where you can attend movie premieres and Major League baseball games, stay in a four-star hotel for free and take classes at more than 15 top-ranked universities. Crime is nearly unheard of, and all rent is a few hundred dollars a month. It’s called Second Life.

And the only catch is that it isn’t real.

Except it is—in a way.

Launched by Linden Lab in 2003, Second Life has become the most popular virtual world online, a space in which real people interact with other real people via avatars, virtual alter egos who can resemble the user or possess such non-human characteristics as wings, fangs or purple skin.

It began as entertainment, a fringe experience for people with unusual hobbies, unusual tastes and unusual Internet skills, but as membership ballooned, companies both public and private began try out Second Life. And its mix of virtual possibilities and limited financial requirements was not lost on the U.S. military, as it aims to use fewer dollars to increase registration and train more soldiers.

The military now has a compound of 20 islands with 10 more on the horizon. “We want to reach a larger audience than before. By researching into virtual environments, we reach people we normally don’t reach. [The Army] is looking at it as a recruitment and public relations tool,” explains Tami Griffith, science and tech manager at the US Army RDECOM Simulation and Training Center, based out of Florida. The Army has two virtual islands. One is a welcome center with an information kiosk and the means to contact a recruiter. The second offers a range of virtual experiences, such as jumping out of airplanes and rappelling off of towers.

A Virtual Push
Second Life is primed for recruitment, since it casts such a w ide net when it comes to users. Membership stood at 18 million as of January 2010, though more like 600,000 are thought to be current and frequent users. The site has come a long way from its somewhat esoteric beginnings. Now you can attend balls, fundraisers and dedications, as well as speak to local and federal representatives in the 125 square kilo m eters of virtual real estate.

“It’s not a game. It’s a platform that can be used for games,” Griffith is quick to explain of Second Life.

In 2004, when the Army first began to explore the possibilities of virtual worlds, Second Life seemed the perfect vehicle to push the military closer to two of its goals at once: expanding its exposure to trained, tech-savvy potential recruits, and—especially pressing in the recent economy—doing so on the cheap. According to Griffith, “We started working virtual worlds in general in 2005, Second Life in 2007.”

In a time of tightened belts and sl a shed budgets, avatars, through a wing and a prayer, are an effective way of saving money, if people will use them. For companies small and large, Second Life is cheap. Though members pay fees to buy real estate on Second Life—land plots can sell for nearly $2,000 real money—just as with a tangible land market, one can rent, usually for a few hundred a month.

But there were other recommendations for Second Life, most notably planning in a virtual space before conducting events in a real one. Military members stationed at Fort Belvoi r in Fairfax hold monthly virtual events and conferences at Military Lands, or MiLands, a series of islands launched in 2008. This use of modeling and simulation is especially useful to the military, which is often caught up in elaborate simulation schemes that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. With Second Life these simulated environments can be created at a fraction of the cost and time. The potential savings are massive. A complete virtual mockup of a battle field, or the inside of a nuclear reac t or or submarine in danger, could be done in a weekend, versus the old time- and money-consuming way of ac t ual physical reproductions. Necessary changes can also be made in real time, by designers at any location in the world with Internet access.

“It is significantly low cost. One of the things that draws us to these environments is that there’s a blurred line between developers and consumers. We don’t need to go to a large corporation, we can do that ourselves and use other individual developers. [This] allows us to keep costs down and keeps us nimble,” explains Griffith.

Turning Up ‘Pockets of Excellence’
In 2009, the Army was the first military branch to fully embrace the new vehicle with the Federal Virtual World Challenge, a contest to solicit ideas from the public on how to best use virtual worlds for training and data analysis with methods the government might not have before considered. “The intent is to reach out to the world and ask how they would use a virtual world for training,” says Griffith. Anyone, American or overseas, public or private sector, with a Second Life membership and some tech skills, could create and enter a training package for anything that a military recruit might need to be trained on, from language skills to power grids, family support centers and actual combat.

Griffith considers the project a success at discovering “pockets of excellence.” “There are some people who make their living off of government contracts. Most people in the world don’t even know our proposals exist. So this was a great way to reach out to developers we otherwise wouldn’t have reached.” This year there were four competition categories—collaboration, skill building, visualization and instruction—with government and non-government contractor winners announced during the March Defense Users’ Game Tech Conference in Orlando, Fla.

With Second Life, the military can not only reach more people, but target demographics they are interested in attracting. At 36 years old, the median age of a Second Life user is more advanced than one would at first assume, compared to a median age of 26 for popular social networking site MySpace. And the military likes it that way. It has plenty of people with piqued interest; 2009 boasted the highest application numbers in 35 years. But the interested people are not necessarily the people the military are interested in. What the military needs are tech-savvy, skilled, slightly older recruits. In short, Second Life users.

Other military branches quickly followed the Army’s venture into Second Life. The Navy, Air Force and National Guard all established their own virtual presences.

“I guess you would call it [MiLands] an archipelago of islands: Air Force, Navy, Army efforts are all located together, and we have regular meetings. All started about the same time, and there are a lot of innovations continually developing there,” explains Griffith.

The Air Force’s Training Command entered the world of virtual learning in December of 2008 with MyBase, a recruitment and training Second Life land, also referred to as a “set of regions.” The National Guard has focused on distance learning applications, and has discussed plans for programs aimed at improving rehabilitation for injured war vets.

The Navy fully embraced the program, quickly seizing on its potential for saving money with underwater simulations. “In fall 2007, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport (NUWCDIVNPT) recognized that rapidly evolving virtual world technologies like Second Life had the potential to radically change the way [the] Navy approaches many aspects of Undersea Warfare (USW) research and development and decided to start a program of exploration and application of virtual worlds focused on fostering collaboration and enabling innovation,” says Steve Aguiar, project lead for Virtual Worlds Exploration and Application. “Virtual training allows the student to learn through experience, and that is what studies show provide the best absorption and retention.” In 2010, NUWC plans to launch a selective adoption of mature virtual world technology.

Large-scale virtual training exercises are still in the nascent stages, but the possibilities are endless—as are the potential dangers, according to some. It hasn’t been all plaudits and innovation for Second Life, concerning both its military and non-military ventures. The United States government has begun to keep an eye on this Neverland, pondering tax rules for the more than 500 million in virtual commerce (mostly real estate and virtual merchandise for one’s avatar) which is accrued each year on the site, and more closely monitoring the actions of avatars on the site, for fear that some people are meeting to plan illegal activities.

Neverland Not All It Seems?
For the military in particular, there are understandable concerns about the security of online informa t ion and training. Aguiar, though, believes the security risks have already been adequately addressed. “Of course being a military institution, security is one of our top concerns. The solution, though, is straightforward and is addressed by our only deploying virtual world training on secure networks that exist behind NUWC firewalls.” Though nearly all training exercises sit behind a firewall, precautions are still in place. “We absolutely treat the public grid as a coffeehouse. We never say anything we wouldn’t say publicly, though a lot of training is not classified, such as language and cultur a l training,” Griffith says.

The other drawback to Second Life is that advanced age, which was so welcome with recruiting, turned out to be not quite so beneficial when it came to training. Some entry-level recruits, or anyone for that matter, just don’t operate well in a military virtual environment, which is not necessarily a concrete indicator of how they will operate once they arrive in the actual environment. “A certain percentage will not accept or benefit. Most people are a little resistant. But I find that once they dip a toe in, they really embrace it,” says Griffith. And dislike of the programs seems to cut across all ages. “A lot of research shows that a surprisingly low number of new recruits are gamers or virtual world aficionados. You have to plan in train up. A lot of people think [recruits] are already going to be computer natives. You can’t assume that,” she says.

It’s not just security and efficiency, but the lasting viability of these virtual world forays that creates lingering questions. Some contend that Second Life is just another flash in the pan. So far there are no hard statistics about the success or efficiency of the military forays for recruiting or training. Aguiar admits that “actual savings are not yet determined.” A 2007 study by Gartner, Inc., a technology and research advisory company, found that nine out of 10 business forays into virtual worlds fail within 18 months.

But don’t count Second Life out just yet. Research shows that while many corporations flopped a year after joining, most of these failures were due to a lack of clear objectives and a limited understanding of demographics, something the military is actively trying to avoid. And past failures aren’t slowing down the military, or anyone else for that matter. By 2012, Gartner estimates that 70 percent of organizations will have established their own virtual world presences. Commercially, Second Life is still flourishing. More than 50 virtual world businesses made more than $100,000 last year, and total transactions for 2009 were a 65-percent jump over those in 2008.

With unbeatable financial and logistical benefits, it doesn’t seem the U.S. military will stop its march into the virtual world anytime soon. A U.S. Military Veterans Center is in the works, as well as a virtual school with certification and degree programs for the Air Force. “As the capability matures (which is occurring very rapidly), utilization of virtual worlds as a tool will migrate from isolated experiments to wide-scale adoption, like the Internet in the 1990s,” says Aguiar. Griffith also sees the situation as reminiscent to the Internet in the late ‘90s, adding, “the possibilities are just going to open up so that you can’t not use virtual worlds.”

(August 2010)