Monday, February 4, 2008

Air Force 2.0: Airmen as Avatars

What is it with these fly guys? First NASA announces it wants to create a virtual world, now the Air Force Education and Training Command issues its vision of the future: a new learning system built around "a virtual, exploratory and interactive environment." Yep, from MySpace to MyBase, a synthetic Air Force base that will be part recruiting tool (read: America's Army takes to the air), part training center and part operation planning facility for the service's more than 700,000 military and civilian members.

At the end of January, the command released a white paper "On learning: The Future of Air Force Education and Training," detailing the overhaul needed to counter enemies who are "digital warriors who are highly educated and capable of leveraging our open information architecture" and who "will make every attempt to capture or destroy our information networks and thereby our knowledge."

The Air Force is focusing here on new recruits from Generation Y, known as "the millennials," born between 1980 and 2001. They are a must-attract group of tech-savvy digital natives, especially in light of the fact that just 27 percent of American youth now even qualify for the Air Force. Vying to get the best of this generation into blue uniforms, the Air Force is betting on virtual worlds.

Part of the plan is "precision learning"--delivering the exact information needed exactly when it is needed and in the best format to generate the specific results needed. It's the backbone of the oft-heard, rarely defined "continuous learning" idea: just-in-time training. And you can't do it if you rely only on classroom education, bulky flight simulators and costly and incrasingly scarce flying hours. Enter MyBase.

It's envisioned as the portal to all things Air Force, from lectures by long-dead flying aces via avatars who are accurate down to their appearance and attitude to in-world collaboration and cooperation not only within the Air Force, but across the military services and with academic and other institutions. The paper includes three groovy vignettes--imaginary scenarios displaying the hoped-for capabilities of MyBase. In one of them, a Capt. Wilson spends lunch hours and evenings attending, via avatar, a lecture at the University of Texas and participating as an Abrams tank driver in a joint exercise teaching air-to-ground combat coordination.

In another, a promising high school student is hooked when he stays up all night flying a virtual plane in MyBase, playing its interactive game, "Air Force Warrior," and being wooed by a recruiter who called up his school transcripts via Facebook and offered him three career fields with associated bonuses on the spot (or Web).

The third vignette goes all Ender's Game, with Lt. Maria Stringer's quest to find a mentor to get the insight she needs to thwart a Soviet-trained hacker's attack on critical U.S. infrastructure.

One small point, if the Air Force hopes to launch itself into the virtual future, it needs to learn to spell "avatar," which is rendered "avator" in the glossary, though the definition is fine.

Hat Tip: Virtual Worlds News

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