Paul Jagger FBCS asks: whatever happened to virtual reality learning platforms, and is a second life being given to Second Life?

It wasn’t all that long ago that virtual worlds were being touted as a platform for design, development and delivery of all manner of enterprise learning needs.

Second Life, Thinking Worlds, Unity3D and others were all making inroads into the realm of corporate learning and there was a buzz about it in the L&D market, which, at the time, had a reputation for churning out spectacularly boring and poorly designed compliance-based eLearning.

One major mobile phone network with whom I worked back in 2008 had a vision of enlivening their learner experience by providing a 3D avatar-based portal into their learning management system, which at the time hosted solidly 2D page-turner eLearning of a very pedestrian nature.

Another client envisaged classrooms and conferences being hosted in a 3D virtual world, with break out rooms for smaller coaching sessions and even professional examinations being delivered in this virtual world.

These were just two among many exciting opportunities to explore the capabilities of 3D virtual worlds as a platform for learning, so 10 years later what happened? Why have 3D virtual worlds not become a mainstream aspect of workplace learning for the vast majority of learners?

On the face of it 3D virtual worlds had enormous potential with their ability to personalise the learning experience, to handle vast audiences, to recreate costly physical learning environments in a digital realm, and to allow social collaboration between learners.

Novelty is not the same thing as utility, and yet the novelty of 3D virtual worlds caused such excitement that questions about its applicability or usefulness to work-place learning were peripheral to the ‘wow’ factor of experiencing something new and engaging. However, the promise of 3D virtual worlds had some fundamental drawbacks, from a learning perspective, that haven’t been overcome.

Complexity of the user interface

Most 3D virtual worlds allow an enormous degree of customisation of the user’s avatar, and permit a bewildering array of actions and interactions in and with the virtual world.

If you want to swim, fly, hover or dress up as a dragon it’s all possible in a virtual world, but with this immense flexibility comes a level of complexity in the user interface that can take days to master. Learners cannot spend hours learning the user interface, especially in an era when they are time poor and need to learn ‘just enough, just when they need it’.

Another consequence of the complexity of the user interface is that experienced learners have to put up with a constant supply of uninitiated learners operating in the environment, and this can be a source of frustration and distraction, not least the instructor or facilitator.

Technical demands of delivery

At the time when 3D virtual worlds were receiving lots of attention as a platform for workplace learning the technical specifications required to deliver the learning were beyond the reach of many desktop PCs.

High demands on graphics processing, memory and network bandwidth meant that few users could experience 3D in the glorious detail and smooth rendering that had become the norm on games consoles. While desktop PC specifications have since caught up, the shift to mobile and tablet devices has created new technology barriers to adoption.

Distractions of the virtual world

Several companies won major industry awards for their deployment of learning in 3D virtual worlds, by building environments that allowed classroom learning, coaching and assessment to be deployed without the need for physical infrastructure.

However, the 3D virtual world was often used to deliver 2D slide-ware, facilitated by an instructor using audio to present to an audience seated in a virtual lecture theatre. In these situations, the distractions of the virtual world simply replicate those of the real world where bored learners will look for stimulation elsewhere.

When the user can interact with the environment there is a temptation to explore the environment rather than focus on the learning. The environment also becomes a distraction when 2D content is deployed in a 3D world, such as a slide presentation, application simulation, reading an article or watching video.

These elements need to be delivered through a 3D object such as a virtual screen or virtual computer terminal, which usually cannot be expanded to full screen, thus leaving the learner watching, listening, reading or interacting without the benefit of a full screen experience.

Cost and complexity of building the virtual environment

While virtual worlds are usually far less costly and time consuming to build than their physical equivalent, they are much more expensive than using virtual meeting software to bring an audience together in real time. The advent of technologies such as Saba Centra, Interwise and Adobe Connect rapidly enabled delivery of synchronous learning through the web.

More recently the development of Webex and Zoom with video, screen sharing and recording capabilities has made virtual classroom delivery a viable option for just about every business.

3D virtual worlds almost always require a client component installed on the user’s computer, which in turn creates barriers to adoption in environments where the installation of third party software is tightly controlled and subject to extensive testing, such as financial services or defense and intelligence agencies.

Accessibility compliance

Conforming with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has become a good practice and requirement for most technology-enabled workplace learning. Accessibility is a particular challenge for 3D virtual worlds as it is exceptionally difficult to meet the WCAG, especially for the blind, but also for those with auditory, cognitive and mobility limitations.

Often the best way to deliver accessible learning in a 3D world is by an accommodation whereby the learner is assisted by another person who navigates the world for them.

Licensing of IP

By far the most popular of the platforms for developing 3D virtual worlds is Second Life by Linden Lab. Second Life and all of its derivatives include a licensing clause whereby the user grants Linden Lab ‘the non-exclusive, unrestricted, unconditional, unlimited, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, and cost-free right and license to use, copy, record, distribute, reproduce, disclose, modify, display, publicly perform, transmit, publish, broadcast, translate, make derivative works of, and sell, re-sell or sublicense and otherwise exploit in any manner whatsoever all or portions of the user’s content.’ (Source: Linden Lab Content Licensing and Intellectual Property Rights (2018)).

This clause also touches the new virtual reality platform Sansar, developed by Linden Lab and as such it makes these platforms unattractive to any workplace learning where commercially sensitive, confidential or commercialised learning content is delivered and where the owner of the IP wishes to retain full control of the content.

So is there still a place for 3D virtual worlds in learning?

3D virtual worlds still exist and have their uses for learning, especially where interaction with the environment or with 3D objects in the environment is vital to the learning experience.

For example, the Fire Service College in the United Kingdom uses 3D virtual worlds to train and assess firefighters in situations where it would be dangerous, inordinately complex and costly to conduct the training in the real world. The emergency services and armed forces make extensive use of 3D simulation for training purposes and one of the leading providers in the field is XVR Simulation.

In short, any situation where the learning experience involves navigating a virtual environment (e.g., evacuation of an oil rig), handling 3D objects (e.g., fork lift truck training) or is safety critical (e.g., piloting a ship into dock) is well suited to 3D virtual worlds.

These specific examples aside, for the most part 3D virtual worlds as a platform for corporate learning seem to have gone the way of 3DTV, a short-lived novelty that never really lived up to its initial promise and has since been displaced by YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime and a plethora of content libraries we can access from our mobile phones.