“Code three! Code three!” shouts a police officer over a radio. “There’s been an explosion at Global Financial Trust!” It’s every town’s nightmare: a mysterious explosion in the commercial center. Carnage. Chaos. Plumes of deadly black smoke. On this early morning in October, the city of Palo Alto, Calif., is preparing for the worst. “This is Stanford Medical Center standing by,” a hospital worker urgently replies. Doctors dash to the emergency room. Ambulances speed out front, their sirens blaring.
Fortunately, the scenario is not playing out in real life but on a laptop computer, which is projecting the animated scene on a screen in a small conference room in New York City. It looks like a video game, but it’s not SimHospital. The cartoon doctors and nurses making their way around the halls are being controlled by real people on PCs across the country. These people type commands to control the movements of the characters, from the speed of their strides to the expressions on their faces. Using headsets and microphones, they converse in real time. It’s all happening through just one application, for medical training, of a new software package called On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment, or OLIVE.
Developed by Forterra Systems of New York City and San Mateo, Calif., OLIVE creates virtual worlds for customers in health care, the military, and the media. MTV Networks uses OLIVE to create online worlds based on its television shows; surfers can take dips in pixelated hot tubs with bikinied beauties from the Virtual Real World or customize shiny hubcaps on a flame-red hot rod in Virtual Pimp My Car.
But most of OLIVE’s applications are available by invitation only, primarily for the purpose of training staff. The U.S. National Institutes of Health is creating a world that tests industrial workers’ skills at responding to emergency disasters—think guys in hazmat suits wandering through toxic sludge like something from Doom. Retail chains use OLIVE to run employees through mock scenarios. In one demonstration, a new cashier inside a virtual surf shop has to cool down a hotheaded customer (operated by a corporate trainer) by choosing the right mix of body language and dialogue.
“There’s a generation coming into the workforce that sees nothing unusual in a world unfolding on a computer screen,” says Steve Prentice, vice president and director of research for Gartner Research, a technology research firm based in Stamford, Conn. “Also, complex environments are becoming more critical, and the cost of staging real-world simulation training exercises is escalating.”
Investors are taking notice. Virtual Worlds Management, a tracking firm in Austin, Texas, says that technology and media firms have put more than US $1 billion into 35 virtual-world companies, chief among them Club Penguin, a children’s site that the Walt Disney Co. recently acquired for $700 million. Forterra just received seed capital for OLIVE from In-Q-Tel of Arlington, Va., the strategic investment firm of the U.S. intelligence community (fittingly enough, the amount of the capital was secret).
Of all the fantasies that have emerged from the minds of geeks, none compares to the virtual world—a jacked-in, fully immersive, mind-blowing, body-rocking, computer-generated faux reality imagined in works as varied as Videodrome, The Matrix, Star Trek, Snow Crash, and the novels of Ray Bradbury and William Gibson. The virtual world offers escape from the drab responsibilities of work and home life. It also links up, at very low cost, like-minded people otherwise divided by the barriers of distance, occupation, and country.
“It’s part of the grand quest of our species to bridge gaps and find more and more ways of connecting,” says Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked scholar-in-residence at the University of California, Berkeley, who is credited with coining the term virtual reality. “On that basis, it’s a wonderfully romantic thing to do.” There’s just one problem: no one has yet been able to deliver much more than a cartoonish world inhabited by jerkily moving polygonal pterodactyls, accessed through clunky headsets. Virtual worlds have been excruciating, for the most part.
No one knows this better than David Rolston, Forterra’s chief executive officer, who fell in love with the idea long before there was a practical way to implement it. After completing a Ph.D. in computer science and artificial intelligence and an M.S. in management systems engineering at Arizona State University in Tempe, Rolston spent years building out the early Internet. He worked on artificial intelligence for Honeywell, on software simulation for a start-up called Multigen-Paradigm (where he was chief executive), and on graphics chips for ATI (where he was vice president of engineering). He continued to nurse an interest in virtual worlds during his days at Silicon Graphics in the mid-1990s.
“We’d do demonstrations of virtual worlds, but at the end we’d say, ‘By the way, you have to buy a $500 000 computer to run this,’ ” he says. “Then it’d get really quiet.” Reason: most of the hardware capable of running a virtual world was in the hands of the military, which had invested heavily in simulation technology. So that’s where Forterra went for some of its first customers—and also for some of its talent. In August, Forterra hired Michael Macedonia, a Ph.D. in computer science who had been running the U.S. Army’s simulation, training, and instrumentation program in Orlando, Fla. He estimates that the military spends $10 billion a year on simulations. The simulations range from sprawling war games in the desert, with soldiers shooting laser beams instead of bullets, to one called Full Spectrum Warrior, in which players lead troops in realistic skirmishes.
OLIVE has its roots in There.com, a virtual-world site created by a Stanford engineer named Will Harvey and launched in 1998. In 2005, There.com spun off Forterra not to sell the virtual worlds themselves but to sell the tools with which to make them. “Rather than be a walled garden, like AOL,” says Forterra president Robert Gehorsam, “we said, ‘Let’s create a platform that works with open standards that can be used in all kinds of areas.’”
The idea was novel, but what really mattered was the timing. By this point, Moore’s Law and other forces had brought to the commercial world the necessary hardware capabilities, in the form of broadband, inexpensive graphics cards, and easy-to-use tools to create content. With that infrastructure in hand, OLIVE is all you need to make the magic happen.
One main difference between an OLIVE world and other virtual worlds is the OLIVE world’s “purpose-driven” intent, says Gehorsam. Rather than make the kind of free-form environment found in EverQuest (the massively multiplayer online game from Sony Online Entertainment, Gehorsam’s former employer), OLIVE’s customers want worlds that impart particular skills—like dealing with irate customers or safely disposing of bombs.
OLIVE consists of a suite of applications and tools that enable customers to build worlds accessed through PCs—up to thousands of them—that are connected through a high-speed network to five servers. The brains, called the OLIVE Core, reside on those five machines: a simulation server, which handles object simulation and interaction in real time; a communications server, which routes the simulations and communication content, such as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP); an application server, which maintains such information as the user’s account information; a database server; and a cluster management server, to facilitate software updates.
The tools are designed for a layman. For example, you can quickly fill your world with prefabricated objects that can be customized simply by changing the associated parameters—an operating table can be elongated, a closet full of uniforms can be changed to women’s dresses. Changes appear on the monitor instantly. If you want to exert still more control over your world’s look and feel—say, how fast a virtual cougar runs in a safari simulation or how much smoke billows up from a forest fire—you can do it by making changes within the source code of the application program interface, using C++ programming language.
The designers worked hard to give OLIVE’s avatars—the computer-generated characters—gestures and inflections that are natural enough to fully involve users in the world. A customer who wants to enhance these details can employ third-party plug-ins and software, such as FaceGen, which transforms an ordinary digital photograph into a three-dimensional character. When the users communicate with one another through microphones and headsets, they can use VoIP. The audio is spatially accurate, adjusting in volume and location in proportion to the user’s distance from the speaker.
The ultimate goal is to create a persistent avatar—that is, one that can move seamlessly through a sea of interconnected virtual worlds. A flight attendant in a virtual airline training exercise, in other words, should be able to simply and swiftly teleport to a NASA press conference on a simulated Mars. Forterra’s chief technology officer, Jon Watte, proposes a solution: connecting existing services at the back end. ”There are a lot of technical hurdles to make first the avatars, and then their inventories, move between worlds,” Watte says.
One challenge is to copy information about avatars and hook that into the process of authenticating them. Another is to enable the system of one world to encode the geometry and textures of a scene into a format that makes sense to a system controlling another world. Watte says that one way to solve the problem is with Collaborative Design Activity, or COLLADA, an open standard for transferring digital assets in 3-D environments.
To transfer an avatar’s identity from one world to another, system designers might modify OpenID, open-source software that provides identity authentication using a single sign-in solution for a number of sites. It’s already being used by AOL and Firefox, and Watte says that with a little modification it could suit an avatar’s needs too. Rolston expects to provide the ability to surf between worlds within three to five years. Meanwhile, IBM has recently announced that it, too, is working on the problem. Its partner in the effort is none other than Linden Labs, the creator of the single most popular virtual world, Second Life.
It looks as though Forterra can handle the physics, but far more important, the company seems to have figured out the customer. Michael Gartenberg, an analyst for JupiterResearch, a technology research firm based in New York City, puts the challenge in the form of two questions: “What can I do in a simulation that I can’t do in real life, and what are the implications of that?”
The answer is simple: in a simulation you can learn to drive a car without crashing, trade securities without breaking your company’s bank, manage complaining customers without alienating them, treat patients without killing them. More and more organizations are working with simulations, and whoever figures out how to provide these parties with the right tools stands to do very well indeed.
Back in the demo room in New York City, for example, the OLIVE simulation is coming to a close, and the virtual patients are now on the operating table at the simulation of the Stanford University Medical Center onscreen. “I’m going to remove the shrapnel now,” says the real nurse in Palo Alto over her headset, as her avatar slices into the pixels of the victim’s knee. If the incision goes awry, the simulated patient may lose his leg or even his life, and that wouldn’t look good, not even on the nurse’s real-world résumé. But today she makes the right moves, and the patient survives. “Great work, team,” the trainer says over the headphones.
“You can only imagine this 40 years from now,” says Forterra’s Macedonia, with a grin. “We’re all going to be living parts of our lives ‘in-world.’ ”
About the Author
Contributing Editor David Kushner wrote this month’s winner “Make Your Own World With OLIVE” about a new software package that lets companies create their own virtual worlds. Kushner’s previous article for Spectrum was “Playing Dirty,” in our December issue. He blogs for us at http://blogs.spectrum.ieee.org/gizmos.
On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE)
Goal: To enable users to create their own proprietary virtual worlds.
Why It’s a Winner: It turns virtual worlds into business tools.
Player: Forterra Systems
Where: New York City and San Mateo, Calif.
Staff: Info not available
Budget: Info not available