23 July 2007

Mauritius: Mauritians pioneer emergency preparedness training in second life

Port Louis — Play2Train is a virtual training space in Second Life. According to the Associated Press, researchers at Idaho State University are working on this virtual reality computer world they hope will help first responders, first receivers and other health care professionals prepare for disasters.

Dr Ramesh Ramloll, Dr Jaishree Beedasy-Ramloll and the Play2Train team at Idaho State University in the US, have created a small town as part of the Play2Train project (www.play2train.org) that includes a residential area, conference center, police station and a hospital. Participants can set up "avatars", or characters, who can participate in training exercises.

According to Dr Ramloll, Play2Train could eventually replace physical dioramas, commonly used by emergency services personnel when they train for disasters, in a way that holds the interest of participants longer than the current training approaches. He adds that their goal is to allow trainees, instructors, observers and evaluators to meet in a virtual space to take part in table-top exercises, follow courses, watch streaming educational videos together and get exposed to novel emergency response equipment. This approach of proving training to anyone with a web-enabled computer is rapidly gaining ground. The Play2Train project is one of the first projects in Second Life (www.secondlife.com) to receive significant federal funding. The team has been exploring Second Life since 2004. Second Life (SL) is an Internet-based 3D virtual world, which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 and early 2007.

Developed by Linden Research, Inc (commonly referred to as Linden Lab), a downloadable client program enables its users, called Residents, to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in online individual and group activities, create and trade items (virtual property) and services from one another. More than 7,900,000 accounts have been registered to date with some 40,000 logged in concurrently from across the globe (Source:Wikipediahttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Second_Life, or http://secondlife.com/). Nevertheless, like any Internet activity, people have to be savvy and critical about the new media, to a degree that they are aware of the dangers of the Internet and are able to take wise decisions.

The virtual training space Play2Train was recently demonstrated at a congressional meeting in Washington DC and attracted substantial interest from participants and the media. The team has also presented at other venues where it has been very well received, such as the Public Health Preparedness Summit in Washington DC, the ISCA International Conference on Computers and their Applications in Seattle and the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) conference in Nashville. The next presentation is scheduled for August 2007 in Atlanta at the Public Health Information Network (PHIN) conference.

The Play2Train effort now includes collaborators such as the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) and several departments at US Universities e.g. the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center for Advanced Distance Learning Education(CADE). One of the most evident advantages of virtual worlds such as Second Life is that it also an effective networking and collaboration tool. As pointed out by Dr Ramloll, "Second Life is definitely a very cool networking tool, in fact, we actually met many of our collaborators in this virtual world via our avatars."

The Play2Train research team suggests that the degree of realism can play an important role in the level of engagement of the trainees in the exercises. Play2Train allows those setting up training scenarios to add simulated weather conditions such as snowfall, rain and lightning. They think all these little details can add to the level of engagement that an environment can provide. In addition, the ability of participants to wear virtual uniforms to remind them of their specific job functions, the ability to interact with virtual emergency devices also boost significantly the range of possible training scenarios in such environments.

Virtual tabletop exercises held in Play2Train include Healthcare Facility "Sidewalk Triage" for an Avian Flu Pandemic, Alternative Care Facility Mobile Quarantine and Town Hall Meeting. Other events held in Play2Train are the Institute of Rural Health: Telehealth conference (Oct 2006), Distance Learning Conference (April 2007) and Course Design meetings (monthly, quarterly). People from countries, including the US, UK, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mauritius, have participated in events on Play2Train.

Coming from a background in virtual reality research and having developed virtual reality therapeutic environments for Medstar Research Institute in Washington DC and Glasgow University, Dr Ramesh Ramloll understood early the potential of the massive multiplayer environment, Second Life, for educational purposes. His influential evangelizing of the use of Second Life as an educational medium in the US through his various outreach efforts has not remained unnoticed by Linden Lab. He is now occasionally consulted by Linden Lab designers for advice on how to improve the SecondLife platform and user experience.

Only a year or two ago, most people were rolling their eyes whenever the use of virtual environments like Second Life for serious applications were proposed. The Second Life environment is now host to nearly a hundred distinct US university efforts, including several from Ivy League Institutions exploring this new medium for distance learning applications of the future.

Ramesh comments: "It is shortsighted to view environments like Second Life as a game, or simply as training spaces or social networking spaces even if those are obviously the immediate applications that come to mind. I believe that the future of the web as we know it will be a mash-up of the traditional 2D interface to the web and 3D virtual worlds, like Second Life. We have to keep in mind that Second Life is a rapidly developing platform, what we now see are really pointers to future developments. In any case, Linden Lab is soon going to see a lot of competition from other companies, which are now investing massively in similar ventures."

Regarding serious applications, a large number of businesses ranging from world-renowned apparel or shoe companies to car manufacturers are now exploring this platform for advertising purposes and to connect with potential customers. US, French and Spanish political candidates, for example, are using the Second Life environment to get in touch with potential voters who spend a lot of their time in this virtual space. Some countries, such as Sweden, have even set up virtual embassies that anyone can visit and learn about the country. Virtual environments provide a much more even playing field that what is available in the real world.

Philip Rosedale the CEO of Linden Labs dreams of a virtual world where an old lady in India will be on the same level playing field as her counterpart in San Francisco. This is turning out to be true. In fact, Maldives has already set up an embassy in Second Life. Therefore Dr Ramloll thinks there is no reason why Mauritius should not have a virtual Mauritian Embassy too, or why anyone from Mauritius cannot build a successful presence in this virtual world.

In fact, in a virtual world, it makes little sense for avatars to be tied to real-world geography. The very notion of nationality soon fizzles out. When this happens, things get really interesting and the impact on the economy and the laws of the land become tangible. This is not necessarily a re-hash web dynamics as we already know... this is different and the future will tell how different.

Ramesh is looking forward to get in touch with Mauritians who want to explore or set up businesses in this virtual world. Areas that seem promising include virtual environments for architects to showcase their prototypical living spaces, students and professionals from the fashion sector to present and sell their products to a worldwide audience or the education sector where teaching institutions can set up virtual campuses, have virtual student exchange programs and students and artists can show their creativity and talents.

The sky is really the limit and this is one of the rare level playing fields where budding Mauritian entrepreneurs and students can compete with their foreign counterparts.

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