Salute the Virtual Admiral
By Jay Friess
One of the things Karen Cooper, research scientist for the Naval Air Warfare Center’s Future Workforce Technologies and Strategies office, is studying in virtual worlds is how much human interaction changes in a computer-generated environment.
Do real life social cues and behaviors translate? How close can avatars comfortably stand? Do you salute a virtual officer?
The operator for the virtual Rear. Adm. Randy Mahr, commander of NAWC Aircraft Division, remained cautious and directed his character to give the virtual version of Vice Adm. David Architzel, Naval Air Systems commander, a crisp salute at today’s Second Life technology demonstration at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center.
“Thanks for the demo,” the virtual Architzel said.
Cooper’s demonstration, coordinated by the Patuxent Partnership, consisted of a tour of NAWC’s island in the Second Life virtual world, a tropical paradise punctuated with modernist architecture, models of Navy technologies and even screeching seagulls. Cooper pointed out that the island is designed to demonstrate how information can be geo-spatially arranged.
Cooper said NAWC is studying virtual worlds, such as Second Life, to determine their usefulness as platforms for teleconferencing, rapid prototyping, training, skill building, showcasing and data visualization.
“We can actually see what we’re working on instead of ‘Death by PowerPoint,’” said Gary Kessler, executive director of NAWCAD, drawing a laugh from the audience. Kessler participated in Cooper’s demonstration using his own character.
However, Cooper demonstrated that Second Life has its own slide display function, similar to the notorious Microsoft program.
The demonstration was not completely smooth. Kessler’s audio feed occasionally glitched out. Cooper’s Second Life browser crashed once. And, at one point, Kessler’s character failed to load correctly, leaving it with the appearance of being shrink-wrapped in a suit while wearing clownish shoes.
“This is a pioneering technology,” Cooper said. “Sometimes these interruptions occur.”
However, Second Life has come a long way, Cooper said, since she created Memoree Lane five years ago.
“Things were very cumbersome and very cludgy,” Cooper said, noting that the program did not yet have voice chat and would frequently crash. Even when voice was introduced, it took a while for the character animations to catch up. “There was no lip movement. From a human perspective, that was very disturbing.”
Cooper said the NAWC engineers are experimenting with various input methods to make virtual worlds less keyboard intensive and more interactive, even using Nintendo Wii controllers to generate real-time gestures.
“The time will come when our gestures and full body language will be transferred inside these virtual worlds,” Cooper said.
In the meantime, NAWC is using Second Life as an experimentation and demonstration platform. Cooper’s team is also testing an open source, free version of the software, known as Open Sim, as well as other platforms, such as web.alive.
“[Second Life] is a great place for us to experiment in, but Open Sim is going to give us the ability to put [Department of Defense] content behind a firewall,” Cooper said, noting that the platform has the potential to be more secure.
Only one of NAWC’s several Second Life islands, NAWCT3D, is open to the public at this time, since the rest are still in development. Cooper compared the development of virtual worlds to the development of the Internet in the 1990s, when it started with the simple concept of putting remotely-stored text on a screen.
“This is where we start,” Cooper said. “We start in sandboxes.”