ORLANDO, Fla. — Air Force officials anticipate a world in which every recruit receives an avatar upon joining the service.
These avatars would follow airmen through their entire careers, earning promotions and educational credits and even moving with them to new offices and bases.
This would take place in simulated worlds that mirror the service’s actual facilities.
“Everyone who comes into the Air Force will be given an avatar, and that avatar travels with them, grows with them, changes appearance with them,” said Larry Clemons, of the Air Education and Training Command. “It will provide them a history of where they’ve been and a notion of where they’re going.”
It’s part of the Air Force’s MyBase program, a plan to modernize the service’s education and marketing initiatives. The effort dates back to early 2008, when Air Education and Training Command released a paper outlining next-generation learning environments complete with virtual worlds, online classes and aggressive outreach strategies involving webcam chats with potential recruits and online contract forms.
The initiative is still in its test stages, and officials later will decide whether to carry it out in full.
The Air Force has already launched the marketing campaign component of MyBase. At this year’s Defense GameTech Users’ Conference, Clemons took audience members on a tour of the service’s publicly available cyberhub, a mock base where it hopes to attract new recruits.
The base exists in Second Life, a virtual world that is inhabited by millions of avatars controlled by the program’s users. It was created in 2003 by a company called Linden Lab. The Air Force now owns 12 regions of Second Life land — which is sold on a real estate market for real-life dollars.
At the Air Force’s Second Life base, users can interact with bots that are pre-programmed with responses or with other visitors to the base. A voice application allows users to chat just like they’re on the phone.
“We in the Air Force couldn’t get used to the word social,” Clemons said, referring to social networking, in which Internet users interact through online portals. “So we’re calling it professional networking.”
During the demonstration, Clemons walked his avatar through the base. Audience members watched as he bumped into other visitors while he moved from one building to another.
He walked into a disco-themed dance club where users can listen to and download recordings of the Air Force Band. He entered a chapel that connects users to the chaplain’s website. And he clicked on an aircraft, which led to a page detailing its history.
This is just one part of the overall MyBase initiative. There is also a virtual world that operates behind the Air Force’s firewall.
The goal is to have all airmen equipped with avatars in the next few years, Clemons said. Currently, the service is testing these simulations and will report the results in a study. Clemons believes virtual worlds will be a way of life, and not just a fad.
Parts of the Air Force’s virtual worlds will be open to the public, such as the mock base. Internet users already can log into Second Life and tour the facility. Other parts will be kept behind the firewall, available only to service members and specific visitors.
Airmen will be able to log into the system from a government computer or by using an authentication system on a person computer, and they can access materials meant to help them with career development. They will be able to take classes, review materials, perform pre-deployment exercises and tour the facilities of their next assignment.
Developers are working to build exact replicas of several Air Force bases. The simulations will include details like the locations of offices and doors.
“Airmen will be able to experience the workplace — right down to the building or desk or computer — where they’re being assigned,” Clemons said. “They’ll actually be able to sit down at a desk and go through the motions of the job.”
Allowing service members to acclimate themselves to their work environments before they start the job cuts down training demands, he said. They’ll also be able to meet with their bosses ahead of time and fill out processing paperwork online.
“That stuff can take a full day,” Clemons said. But under this system, “on day one, you can go to your desk and be productive.
“You should be able to go to headquarters, sign in, register a vehicle, take the new arrival training requirements, see your workplace and talk to your boss about your job,” he continued. “You might even meet with coworkers.”
MyBase developers will have to incorporate content-management systems into the platform to keep track of service members’ test scores, the classes they’ve completed and the materials they’ve been exposed to. They will also have to integrate the system with existing educational and personnel data.
“If this is truly effective, it will become a way of life,” Clemons said. “It will be the way the Air Force does business.”
Other services have also started experimenting with virtual worlds. The Army announced in 2008 it had purchased two Second Life islands — one a recruiting center and the other an area that allows visitors to handle simulated weapons and experience Army life.
The service also has invested in virtual-reality training tools that allow soldiers to strap on headsets and other gear that simulate the sights, sounds and even smells of the battlefield. An Army news release on the program, which is in its pilot stages, said troops are already using the gear to experience what life is like in Afghanistan before they arrive in the country.
The Navy has recreated some of its facilities in Second Life, which it also uses as a marketing tool. In addition, the service has developed virtual replicas of many of its warships.
Scott Casey, a senior software engineer for Alion Science and Technology, said his company recreated an entire littoral combat ship within a virtual world, and the program is now being acquired by the Navy. It will be used as a trainer for engineers.
“With this technology, you could train an entire crew in the environment in just about every job,” Casey said.
Air Force educators are convinced that this new way of doing business will pay off and might even be crucial to the service’s survival. The 2008 proposal for MyBase noted that only 27 percent of America’s youth qualify for the Air Force and this ratio is expected to decline.
“To recruit from this small pool of candidates,” the proposal said, “the Air Force must be able to understand the millennial generation and provide a training and education infrastructure that leverages their life long exposure and aptitude with technology.”
The proposal also suggested that the Air Force’s virtual worlds could incorporate haptic technologies. These use pressure and other means to simulate the sense of touch.