Friday, June 27, 2008

Virtual Training 3.0

I had a wonderfully engaging and fascinating conversation yesterday with Roger Smith, chief technology officer for the organization that buys all simulation and interactive-software-based training for the Army. His title belies the fact that Roger really serves as a chief visionary for Army training technology and that's the role in which he talked with me. We were broadcasting live on the Internet via a webinar hosted by Government Executive Events, part of the group built on Government Executive magazine, which I used to run.

The webinar itself was an adventure in virtuality. The staff with the webinar production company, On24, were in California, Roger was in Orlando and I was in the events office in the Watergate in Washington. We all hooked up via telephone and Internet and Roger and I conversed via phone, showed our slides and polls via presentation software on the Web and our audience listened in and watched from all over the country on the Web.

I have spoken before many large audiences, but until now, I always had been able to see their reactions and interact with them. Yesterday, our only interactions with viewers came via the questions they submitted as we conversed. Our audience of about 100 at its peak submitted 25 questions, though, all of them quite on point and many quite specific, so I know they were engaged. I don't know whether they were entertained or amused or bored at times nor whether we were pitching the presentation to the right level of understanding, though, and that made it hard to gauge timing and to calibrate the tenor of the presentation to their needs. On the other hand, the thought that we were were all over the country yet able to present a single face to people also in many places and time zones was exciting.

Not yet having attended any presentations in the virtual world (I know, shame on me) I can only imagine that doing so is in some ways like and in some ways better than conducting a webinar. I'll find out soon enough; I'm signed up to attend one to be conducted by a virtual business presentation firm, Clever Zebra, on the virtual world platform, OLIVE, which belongs to Forterra Inc. Regular readers will recognize Forterra as a company featured in my "Finding FOSE" video and my story, "Virtually There."

In any case, the webinar experience was enlightening and so was Roger's presentation. As I have written, he is a real guru when it comes to the way the evolution of technology is revolutionizing the way the military trains.

And that's as important for nonmilitary organizations as it is for Roger's customers. Government folks know that what starts in the Defense Department usually finds its way quickly into the balance of other federal agencies (think drug testing, pay reform, acquisition reform, etc.). So everyone involved with training or pondering how to more effectively impart information or visualize the effects of programs or policies before they are put in place should keep a close eye on Roger.

Yesterday, he framed his remarks around the effects four key forces are having on Army training. The Army is especially worth watching, of course, because it is being forced to innovate on the run in just about every area since it has more people in harm's way around the world than any other agency right now.

So Roger is watching and thinking about and experimenting with collaborative environments, game interfaces, service infrastructure and high-performance computing and how they each can make it possible for the Army to train more of its members more effectively and more often. That's no small task since there are a million of them--even if you train them in groups of 1,000, it would take 1,000 live or computer training events in a year just to touch each one once!

And military training isn't like responding to a search query, as Google does 380 million times a day, or serving up burgers as McDonald's does 47 million times a day. Creating a lifelike environment where equipment and weapons behave as they do in the real heat of battle to truly prepare soldiers and accurately rehearse missions takes high fidelity. The Army's National Training Center, in the California desert, is the gold standard training facility of all the world because it offers just such a world--in real time. But that very fact limits the number of soldiers who can train there and the number of times they can visit.

Roger's interest in gaming, simulation as a service, collaboration online and high-performance computing spring from a desire to spread the effects of NTC-like training to more people exactly when and where they need it. Thus, he spun a vision of moving training into more and more realistic, immersive online environments that could live on a network and be served to nits and individuals on demand, rather than forcing them to go to the simulation center as is now mostly the case, even with computer-based training. He'd like to see a good deal of the preparation and planning for training events moved onto wikis and blogs and to see lessons learned transmitted via YouTube.

Further, Roger is tinkering right now with using high-performance computing to enable simulation as a service and to support always-on simulation events for many customers at once. What's more, he would like to use high-power computing to simulate vastly larger events, even the populations of entire countries.

To hear more of his presentation about "Simulation 2.0," you can go to the event archive, register and watch the webinar yourself.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Virtual Worlds of Work

Sometime when we all were sleeping, 70 percent of large companies and nonprofits started using video games and other interactive software to train and educate employees. That piece of relatively astonishing news came out yesterday from the Entertainment Software Association, the big kahuna of gaming industry lobbying shops. The ESA study, based on surveys of 150 large entities in March, also revealed that three-quarters of the companies not yet using games and immersive environments to train will do so in the next few years.

Strong evidence that games are getting serious. So too the growing presence of business in synthetic worlds like Second Life. For example, see the Xerox video above, and the one here:

A new report out a few days ago from Forrester Research Inc. underscores the point with an in-depth look at IBM's big roll of the dice on Web3D.

And gaming's getting big in other forms of education and training as well. The Washington Post had a Sunday story featuring former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's foray into gaming the judicial system, er, I mean using a game to explain it, of course!

There's lots more here, in a piece I did today for

And come this Thursday, I will be talking with Army simulation and training guru Roger Smith about gaming as a disruptive technology in the military simulation market. You can register for free here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Fox in the MMORPG Revisited

"Bill Moyers Journal" aired a nice piece about government surveillance on June 9 by reporter Rick Karr. In it, he neatly and quickly explains how virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online role-playing games work. Then, he recaps the Director of National Intelligence report revealing Reynard, the plan to surveil such worlds and games for "suspicious behavior and action." What's particularly interesting is the way Karr ties this in with the still controversial, still live program to intercept phone calls in the service of the war on terrorism, or whatever we're supposed to be calling it now.

Those of you who read this blog regularly and/or followed the Reynard link above should pay special attention to the way the Karr story ends. Seems like "The Agile Mind" ought to have at least gotten a hat tip, no?

Tip 'o the brim for the clip to: WNET New York

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pity the Coyote

That poor coyote had better head for the hills. The Roadrunner is now the fastest supercomputer ever.

This new bird owes its speed to a gaming console. Inside Sony's PlayStation 3 is a processor that works hard to make the virtual worlds of games more realistic. It's called the Cell. Programmers and researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and IBM teamed up to tinker with the Cell so it could power Roadrunner, which, the lab announced June 9, doubled the speed record previously held by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's supercomputer Blue Gene by performing 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second, something knows as a petaflop amongst the cognoscenti.

The Energy Department intends to use Roadrunner to perform calculations needed to ensure that nuclear weapons still are working without testing them underground.

I've written elsewhere about the symbiotic relationship between games and military training and especially the growing use of game controllers to operate weapons and unmanned equipment. So it's no great surprise to see a controller at the core of the fastest computer anywhere. It's just interesting commentary on where America's R&D power is located and where it's focused. More and more, the government is content to let game companies make the tactile and training breakthroughs and then simply to convert them.

Hat tip to Popular Mechanics

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Government 2.0

With Barack Obama clinching the Democratic nomination today, comes a rare return to the feeling that anything is possible here in Washington. It likely won't last long, but it's stirring and wonderful, like the fresh breeze after one of our sudden, thunderous storms washes the stale, humid air of summer.

Yesterday, I had another taste of fresh air at a conference of all places. And it, too, was redolent with memory, hearkening back to the early days of the National Performance Review under President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. (Remember when they tossed the football while wearing plaid short-sleeved shirts and khakis to conjure those iconic images of Camelot in the Kennedy compound?)

The Deloitte-National Academy of Public Administration conference, "Web 2.0: The Future of Government," June 3 was awash with the inevitability of transformation, the cracking through of silos and the reconnection with customer-citizens long ago pushed out of problem-solving. It sounds familiar and even quaint to those of us who've grown jaded chasing NPR and GPRA and PART. But the hardy band of reformers who still believe government is a vital vehicle for little "d" democracy, can't help but be energized by each new effort to turn the battleship.

This time, it's collaboration that's certain to fix federal failures. A breadth and depth of collaboration within government, with it and other entities and with Americans heretofore unimaginable enabled by the tools of Web 2.0: wikis, blogs, social networking and even virtual worlds. And it's hard not to be swept away in the vision of agencies harvesting the ideas and plaints of employees and citizens online and addressing them in Internet time. Hard not to be enchanted by the notion of using Google maps and real-time information feeds to really get a handle on infrastructure, or disaster planning or improved grant making. Hard not to like the idea of smart people inside and outside the halls of power sharing what they know and what they don't without the endless, enervating vetting and cleaning process that slows most real interchange to a halt still today.

It was refreshing to learn, for example, that it's no longer true that when an FBI agent calls an NSA analyst, he or she must hand the phone to a supervisor to get permission to speak outside the silo. The success of experiments like Intellipedia, where intel analysts can post what they know and watch it grow as others in the community add to and edit it, is exciting. Improvements wrought by TSA's internal Idea Factory blog will improve all our travels. Checkpoint Evolution, for example, is a pilot project built in the factory that will bring mood lighting, ambient music and wireless headsets instead of cacophony and shouted commands to the baggage checkpoints of a few lucky airports.

And the Transportation Security Officers who screen your luggage are likely to be a bit happier now that another suggestion harvested online allows them to swap jobs with officers at other airports if they can entice their colleagues to move.

Conjuring an image of government as facilitator or as partner with nonprofits, companies, interest groups and anyone else who can help address intractable problems is fun. Imagining every manager, and even better, every policy-maker and elected official, asking "what is the public value we are trying to add? before creating or implementing a program is thrilling.

But the splash of cold water comes quickly: The not inconsequential number of federal employees using computers running Windows 98 won't have access to Web 2.0 tools. The lawyers and IT security guardians already are pouncing, finding YouTube indemnity agreements verboten and virtual world software downloads a threat. As with every cultural change, fear is the greatest enemy and incrementalism the most debilitating wound.

All this opening up and "transparency" threatens big cracks in many rice bowls. The notion that no one of us is as smart as all of us implies a sharing of information antithetical to the cherished belief that information is more valuable when it is not shared than shared. And after all, when we all have collaborated on a project, how do I claim credit to enhance my performance appraisal? How does a manager award evaluation points for collaborating?

"How can we make government a place where everything becomes possible," one speaker asked. Such a lovely aspiration but quixotic, no? Sort of like a black man as a serious contender for the presidency.

Hey, wait a minute.

Photo credit: Obama campaign