IEEE Wants Virtual Worlds to Be Taken Seriously

Experts discuss challenges facing growing field

6 December 2011

Virtual worlds—those electronic 3-D environments where people interact in a somewhat realistic manner—are considered best suited for games and entertainment. But some organizations, including IEEE, see the worlds as a potential business tool for lots of other things, include health care, education, and research.


Virtual worlds are already a booming business. Websites such as ActiveWorlds, Jibe, Second Life, and VastPark will generate US $3.9 billion globally in revenue by the end of this year, forecasts the consulting firm KZero in its “Virtual Worlds, 2011 and Beyond” report. The money comes from subscription fees, sale of virtual merchandise used in the games, and third-party advertising. KZero estimates that about 500 virtual worlds are in existence, up from 300 last year.


But if virtual environments are to be applied in business, they face real-world problems such as multiple file formats and applications that can’t operate with each other so that it’s impossible to move avatars and data from one world to another. To help tackle the challenges, the IEEE Standards Association held the vPearl 2011 Summit in September. It brought virtual world experts and users to Sony Picture Studios in Culver City, Calif. (vPearl stands for Virtual: Play, Exchange, Advise, Renew, Learn.)


“IEEE-SA has established a rock-solid reputation worldwide for fostering cross-industry collaboration and consensus related to emerging technologies and state-of-the-art innovations,” says Judith Gorman, managing director of IEEE-SA, in Piscataway, N.J. “Virtual environments will have a radical impact on how we play, live, and work as citizens of the world, and standards and other collaborative endeavors are critical for taking 3-D technologies and applications to an entirely new level.”


Adds Jay Iorio, the IEEE-SA technical strategist who is overseeing the initiative, “Although our ultimate goal is to develop standards, IEEE-SA first wants to get a better handle on this still-immature technology. We see a community that doesn’t realize it’s a community. We want to set the stage for the next generation of infrastructure that will allow interactive media of all types to interoperate. The summit was ground zero to begin the discussions.”


INTERACTIVE EVENT

To show off the technology, the vPearl meeting provided live video feeds to several virtual environments, including the IEEE Islands in Second Life, Web.Alive, 3diva Studios, and NTER. The islands welcomed dozens of visitors in the Sony Studios to interact with each other. IEEE uses Second Life for meetings and conferences, and to post information about its publications and societies, as well as topics related to engineering education and careers.


There was also a link to the Researching Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments conference being held at the same time in Milton Keynes, England. Participants there were able to view live video from the summit in addition to attending it in Second Life.


“That was one unique goal of the summit: to test out real-time interactivity between two widely separated physical locations as well as with several virtual environments,” Iorio says.


Richard Taylor, vice chair of the Visual Effects Society and a member of the Director’s Guild of America, gave the opening remarks in Culver City. The society is the entertainment industry’s only organization representing visual effects specialists in areas including film, television, commercials, music videos, and games.


“It’s time we use our imaginations to fuse immersive technology into an interconnected parade that will change the future of science, education, medicine, and the arts,” Taylor said. “We need to create tools that seem familiar but are entirely new for the user.”


Mark Lowe, CEO of Zero G Games and Twin Monolith, argued for a simplified, unified standard language for design and generation of 3-D realms.


Among the other experts were Paul Casson, CEO of Visual Silicon Machines, a design and production consulting company for visual computing; Neville Spiteri, founder of Wemo Media, which styles itself as a next-generation digital studio; Al Bunshaft, American managing director of Dassault Systèmes, a company focused on virtual universes for fostering sustainable innovation; and William E. May, director of the Visual Diplomacy Engagement Office of the U.S. State Department.


EXPLORING ENVIRONMENTS

To help educate onsite and virtual participants about the benefits of virtual environments, teams were formed during the September meeting to see how the environments could be applied to tackle real-world challenges such as hunger, obesity, and domestic abuse. Various virtual worlds were set up in the Sony studio for teams to contribute ideas using virtual tools. VE CoLab, a real-life community of virtual-environment experts, facilitated the activities. The information collected from the exercise will help build a database for developing standards and best practices, according to Iorio. 


Iorio says he considers the meeting a success. Although standards are still a ways off, he says IEEE-SA can help write white papers and hammer out technology agreements. “Such agreements [which are less formal than standards] could make the technology take off,” he says. “The goal is to have mass-market acceptance of virtual worlds as business tools.” To that end, he plans to lead follow-up discussions to move the effort forward. If you are interested in participating, contact him at j.iorio@ieee.org.


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