Air Force Eyes New Learning Systems in ‘Second Life’

WASHINGTON — In a pas­ture out­side Day­ton, Ohio, Wilbur and Orville Wright cre­at­ed the first prac­ti­cal air­plane and taught them­selves to fly it.
They called the place Huff­man Prairie and flew the 1905 Wright Fly­er III into his­to­ry on that rough patch of land.

MyBase islands in Second Life
A sec­tion of MyBase islands in Sec­ond Life. Cre­at­ed and main­tained by the Air Force.
Cour­tesy of Pam Brovi­ak
Click to enlarge

More than 100 years lat­er, Air Force pio­neers are cre­at­ing a lega­cy in anoth­er place called Huff­man Prairie, this one in a vir­tu­al world called “Sec­ond Life.” “What real­ly drew us out to [the vir­tu­al world] was this won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­act and con­nect with peo­ple on a glob­al scale and with high lev­els of cre­ativ­i­ty,” Andrew Strick­er of the Air Force’s Air Uni­ver­si­ty at Maxwell Air Force Base’s Gunter Annex in Mont­gomery, Ala., told Amer­i­can Forces Press Service. 

“We thought Sec­ond Life was per­fect for doing inno­va­tion work in the Depart­ment of Defense,” said Strick­er, whose team is part of Air University’s inno­va­tions and inte­gra­tion division. 

The online world — one of many now oper­at­ing in cyber­space — was launched by San Fran­cis­co-based Lin­den Lab in 2003. Sec­ond Life has 20 mil­lion reg­is­tered user accounts from all over the world and is pop­u­lat­ed by avatars, or dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions that users cre­ate for themselves. 

Sec­ond Life res­i­dents explore the world, meet oth­er res­i­dents, social­ize, par­tic­i­pate in indi­vid­ual and group activ­i­ties, and cre­ate and trade vir­tu­al prop­er­ty and ser­vices. All sorts of orga­ni­za­tions, insti­tu­tions and com­pa­nies have estab­lished islands or activ­i­ties in Sec­ond Life, includ­ing col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, libraries, gov­ern­ment agen­cies, embassies, sci­en­tif­ic research groups, reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions, and nation­al defense min­istries and depart­ments, includ­ing the U.S. Defense Depart­ment and all of the ser­vices. Strick­er and his team help to design, devel­op and imple­ment new learn­ing tech­nolo­gies and stan­dards into Air Force and pro­fes­sion­al mil­i­tary edu­ca­tion programs. 

The Air Force is explor­ing sev­er­al vir­tu­al worlds for its work in edu­ca­tion and has sev­er­al pro­to­type vir­tu­al learn­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Sec­ond Life. These include MyBase — a vir­tu­al Air Force base for recruit­ing, train­ing, edu­ca­tion and oper­a­tions — and dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Huff­man Prairie called Huff­man Prairie Chi, Huff­man Prairie Omega, and oth­ers. With MyBase, Air Force Maj. Gen. Erwin F. Les­sel want­ed an immer­sive expe­ri­ence that peo­ple could use to see what being in the Air Force is like, Strick­er said. 

At the time, Les­sel — who retired in 2010 — was direc­tor of plans, pro­grams, require­ments and assess­ments for the Air Force. One of his respon­si­bil­i­ties was devel­op­ing and imple­ment­ing future learn­ing concepts. 

“We cre­at­ed all these dif­fer­ent roles that peo­ple can learn about as they trav­el through MyBase in Sec­ond Life — what it’s like to be a chap­lain in the Air Force, what it’s like to be part of a med­ical team, to be in basic mil­i­tary train­ing, to be a pilot.” 

Dur­ing a recent inter­view, Strick­er joined Patrick “Mike” McCrock­lin, chief of the inno­va­tions and inte­gra­tions divi­sion in Air University’s edu­ca­tion logis­tics and com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­torate, and Eve­lyn Mil­ton, an infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy pro­gram ana­lyst in the same division. 

From MyBase, Mil­ton said, avatars can “tele­port or fly over to anoth­er region next to it and see a repli­ca­tion of a Navy area. The Naval Under­sea War­fare Cen­ter out of Rhode Island is to the west of us in Sec­ond Life.” 

To the north of MyBase are two Army sec­tions, she said, one called One­Source, a vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty that lets geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­persed sol­diers, fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends stay in touch. 

“Each region we have out there is ded­i­cat­ed to some par­tic­u­lar area of learn­ing,” McCrock­lin said. “Huff­man Prairie Gam­ma, for instance, is ded­i­cat­ed to edu­ca­tion­al infor­mat­ics. MyBase Zeta is our gam­ing range.” 

At MyBase Zeta, the Air Force built a train­ing game called “Oper­a­tion Relief Work­er Res­cue Chal­lenge” to teach Air Force Acad­e­my cadets about lead­er­ship. “We got togeth­er with the Air Force Acad­e­my and the Cen­ter for Cre­ative Lead­er­ship,” Strick­er said, “and built a game where play­ers had to go into the vir­tu­al world and res­cue hostages who had been tak­en captive.” 

Dur­ing the chal­lenge, the play­ers oper­ate in a spe­cif­ic sce­nario under a dead­line and have to share infor­ma­tion and work togeth­er. On the gam­ing range, avatars also freely inter­act with ter­rain, build­ings, devices and equip­ment. The range has sys­tems that can iden­ti­fy, track and score team mem­bers and fol­low voice and text com­mu­ni­ca­tion among them. 

There are brief­ing rooms, video record­ings of game activ­i­ty, tar­get dam­age and scor­ing, sim­u­lat­ed weath­er, day or night con­di­tions, assign­ment of equip­ment and tools to each team mem­ber, and goal-ori­ent­ed task action, tim­ing and feed­back con­trols for use by game referees. 

Strick­er said the lead­er­ship game was cho­sen as an exam­ple of inter­ac­tions and inno­va­tions among peo­ple, orga­ni­za­tions, process­es and tech­nol­o­gy in the 2009 book, “Cross­cut­ting Issues in Inter­na­tion­al Trans­for­ma­tion,” pub­lished by Nation­al Defense University. 

In 2010, the Fed­er­al Vir­tu­al Worlds Chal­lenge rec­og­nized anoth­er Air Uni­ver­si­ty project. The chal­lenge is an annu­al, open, glob­al call for the best vir­tu­al world imple­men­ta­tions on a spe­cif­ic topic. 

The Army Research Lab­o­ra­to­ry Sim­u­la­tion and Train­ing Tech­nol­o­gy Cen­ter leads the effort, and in 2010 the top­ic was train­ing, with cat­e­gories for col­lab­o­ra­tion, skill build­ing, instruc­tion and visualization. 

The $25,000 grand prize went to Strick­er, McCrock­lin and Cyn­thia Calongne of Air Uni­ver­si­ty for the Mars Expe­di­tion Strat­e­gy Chal­lenge. Work­ing with NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­to­ry, Strick­er said, “we basi­cal­ly took com­mis­sion stud­ies the White House spon­sored on human space flight options for the future of the Unit­ed States, and made a game out of it.” 

In its rec­om­men­da­tion, the com­mis­sion had to weigh tech­nol­o­gy and cost issues, com­pet­i­tive stances for the coun­try, polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions and more. “In this game, you’re pre­sent­ed with the same kind of evi­dence the com­mis­sion inter­act­ed with and you have to for­mu­late your own posi­tion and artic­u­late why you’ve tak­en it,” Strick­er said. 

“At the end of the game, you’re able to com­pare your rec­om­men­da­tion to the commission’s,” he added, “and peo­ple tell us it’s a fun thing to do to see how close you’ve come.” Vir­tu­al worlds have the poten­tial to trans­form edu­ca­tion, Strick­er said, by tak­ing stu­dents on a jour­ney that goes beyond read­ing words in a text­book. “As stu­dents must do in real life,” he said, in vir­tu­al-world learn­ing sit­u­a­tions “they have to devel­op skill sets to read the envi­ron­ment around them, col­lect data, inter­pret it, ratio­nal­ize through under­stand­ing how to weigh the evi­dence, and then syn­the­size it and take a position.” 

In Sec­ond Life and oth­er vir­tu­al worlds, Strick­er said, his team cre­ates sce­nar­ios that allow stu­dents to manip­u­late pieces of a prob­lem and see the con­se­quences of their choic­es. “You have the stu­dents build a mod­el of what they think they under­stand,” he said. “Say if you’re a mete­o­rol­o­gist in the Air Force and you’re try­ing to under­stand the effects of cer­tain geo­graph­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics on weath­er flow pat­terns. Then you can manip­u­late the mod­el and see the consequences.” 

The team has built sim­i­lar mod­els for sus­tain­ing geot­her­mal ener­gy and, with the Air Force Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, for under­stand­ing the effects of mate­ri­als and atmos­pher­ic con­di­tions on radar signals. 

It’s like a rev­o­lu­tion that’s occur­ring in what we can teach our stu­dents,” Strick­er said. “Now stu­dents who may have had a hard time learn­ing [from a book] can see a visu­al­iza­tion. Our stu­dents are telling us that this is pro­found.” Vir­tu­al worlds are inher­ent­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive, Strick­er said, for stu­dents as well as for those who teach. 

Mul­ti­ple uni­ver­si­ties and agen­cies par­tic­i­pate in every sin­gle Air Force vir­tu­al world project, he added. “We think a real­ly excit­ing future is shap­ing up [in vir­tu­al words],” Strick­er said, “where we’re break­ing down walls across the ser­vices [and] find­ing com­mon ground.” When Strick­er and McCrock­lin first dis­cov­ered Sec­ond Life, they were drawn in by inno­va­tion occur­ring among peo­ple who col­lab­o­rat­ed across dis­ci­plines involv­ing art, edu­ca­tion and com­put­er sci­ence, and across indus­try and government. 

“We’re big believ­ers in bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er who oth­er­wise would­n’t know the oth­er groups exist,” Strick­er said. Het­old a sto­ry about their ear­ly days in Sec­ond Life. One day at vir­tu­al Huff­man Prairie, where they had built a 1920s air­field, he said, their avatars were test­ing an unmanned aer­i­al vehicle. 

“We were fly­ing this thing around in front of our vir­tu­al hangars,” Strick­er said, “and an avatar we’d nev­er seen walks up and says, ‘Are you Dr. Strick­er?’ Strick­er, whose Sec­ond Life avatar is called Spin­oza, was sur­prised, but said yes. The oth­er avatar said, “Hold on, I’ll go get my dad.” 

“Hi, I’m Gen­er­al Les­sel,” the direc­tor of Air Force plans, pro­grams, require­ments and assess­ments said over his son’s Sec­ond Life voice chat. “I heard about you guys out here. I only have a few min­utes, but tell me a lit­tle about what you’re doing.” 

“For the next hour and a half, we walked him around and showed him stuff,” Strick­er said. “From that expe­ri­ence, he flew out here … and sat down with Mike’s team.” Soon after, Stick­er said, “he asked us to demon­strate what we could do with vir­tu­al worlds for the Air Force.” 

“It mat­ters a great deal that DOD is into [vir­tu­al worlds] right now,” Strick­er said, “so we under­stand and can lever­age and gain from our expe­ri­ences how to go for­ward in the future.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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