A World of Promise
“The 2D media most of us use all have limitations. While a videoconference allows us to see each other, I certainly can't take you anywhere. But, in a virtual world, we can meet at an 'in-world' location and go together to explore other locations, meet other people, and have experiences not otherwise possible.”
Dean's Research Professorship
Professor of Information Systems
“Beam me up, Scotty” is no longer a science-fiction experience limited to “Star Trek", according to Anne Massey, Dean's Research Professor of Information Systems. Massey, who studies immersive media—specifically virtual worlds and serious games—describes similar experiences available in virtual worlds that are otherwise not possible, which can ultimately be used to enhance business performance and student learning. Virtual worlds, such as Second Life and Quaq, are real-time, multi-user 3D environments where participants can interact with others, 3D objects, and other content. Participants are represented 'in-world' by an animated character, called an avatar, and typically move from location-to-location by teleporting.
An ideal setting for learning
According to Massey, these highly interactive and immersive worlds can lead to levels of engagement not possible with other media. Engagement is essential for collaboration and learning, regardless of whether the context is a business enterprise or an academic setting. “The 2D media most of us use all have limitations. While a videoconference allows us to see each other, I certainly can't take you anywhere. But, in a virtual world, we can meet at an 'in-world' location and go together to explore other locations, meet other people, and have experiences not otherwise possible.” For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Second Life Island allows participants to experience tsunami and glacier conditions.
Virtual worlds may also be effective for learning due to the pervasiveness of the practice evident in them. Massey says, “Participants continually ask others whether they know them or not, how to do things. Learning experiences can also involve demonstration, rehearsal, and performance review. Errors in judgment or behavior can quickly be addressed through practice and feedback."
Measuring how real and effective
With a global economy, the rising cost of travel and tight budgets, there is growing interest in moving from the use of virtual worlds for entertainment and socializing to use as platforms for collaboration, learning, and innovation. For example, companies are exploring the possible use of virtual worlds to train employees and foster collaboration in areas such as research and development.
But until now no one has had a way to measure just how “real” those worlds feel, or how they actually influence business or educational performance. This is the work Massey, along with her research colleague Mitzi Montoya (NC State University) and two Kelley doctoral students are currently engaged in. Massey explains, “This is important, because if users feel they are 'present' in the virtual world, they will collaborate better with others—and the more effective the virtual world will be as a setting for collaboration and learning. An increased sense of virtual presence leads to better comprehension and retention of information."
Massey and her colleagues have developed a measurement scale called Perceived Virtual Presence (PVP) that captures relationships between the individual, the environment, others, and the tasks they are working on. “Now that we have developed the PVP metric, we can use it to explore what PVP levels are most conducive to training, collaboration or other applications.” Effectively, the PVP scale can be used to design virtual worlds that have varying degrees of reality necessary for different enterprise or academic needs.
Using their PVP metric, Massey and the research team are studying how people collaborate and perform in virtual worlds. She has developed a research compound in Second Life where study participants work together to solve interactive 3D puzzles. “We are very interested in understanding how multi-sensory channels influence the sense of virtual presence and ultimately performance.” She is also exploring the use of eye-tracking software to understand what participants are focusing their attention on while in a virtual world.
Applications for business
Understanding how to harness the power of virtual worlds isn't just a research interest for Massey, though. She teaches students how to think about applications for virtual worlds.
"Innovation over the Services Lifecycle,” a distance course Massey recently co-taught with Montoya, required Kelley MSIS students and NC State graduate students to collaborate using a variety of web-based technologies, including Second Life. Teams of students were charged with developing virtual world service innovations for two sponsoring companies, Target and a leading financial services firm.
"The issue is task-technology fit,” Massey explained. “It isn't the solution for everything. It may be too early for Target to reach its customers in a virtual world, but it isn't too early to use a virtual world for internal training of customer service employees. In fact, this was one of the winning team proposals."
Kelley alumnus Jiten Menda, MSIS'08 credits Massey for the impact of her teaching. He says, “Taking Professor Massey's service innovation course not only educated me in Second Life, which was the topic of choice for my interview presentation at IBM, but also instilled in me the idea of corporate service innovation from a new perspective. Her passion and enthusiasm as a teacher allows her to seamlessly convey concepts that inspire a new way of thinking—which has helped me fit into an organization that deems service innovation its core driver for sustained success.” Menda adds, “Professor Massey is the kind of teacher that earns the Kelley School of Business its reputation as a top-ranked institution."
Leveraging the power of games
Massey is also studying the “psychological attractiveness” of serious games—games developed for other than pure entertainment purposes. Massey, along with two IU research colleagues recently received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to explore game play as a means to influence physical activity and healthy behaviors in college freshmen. According to Massey, there is growing interest in games with numerous games being built for health care applications. “We have to respond to changing learning preferences. Games may offer a new way to reach people today, particularly the so-called 'millennials'."
The study involves a specific type of game—an alternate reality game (ARG) called The Skeleton Chase. ARGs are a relatively new game genre involving an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, with multiple media (e.g., email, text/voice messages, web sites and video) to tell a story. In an ARG like The Skeleton Chase, players interact directly with characters (played by actors), and solve plot-based puzzles and challenges in order to move the narrative forward. According to Massey, “Since part of our goal is to influence physical activity, we wanted to create a game that would require movement. Our game uses the IU campus as its 'game board'. Scenes are staged at various locations so students have to move around the campus in order to collect clues and solve the mystery."
Play the game and reap the benefits
Over the course of the eight weeks of game play, students wear wireless-enabled accelerometers to capture their physical movement. Each week, teams try to solve game play activities and achieve physical activity goals. A web-based leader board is updated each week to let teams know how they are doing.
While students are playing The Skeleton Chase, Massey and her research colleagues believe that they will become more active and learn about healthy behaviors. “These are the positive side effects of game play” says Massey. “But, for players themselves, they are really focused on trying to figure out the narrative mystery.” Massey notes that most indicators of physical activity and health decline in the transition from high school to college—making it important to find ways to help students adopt healthy behaviors. “Even if the end result is that their health stays the same rather than declining, that would be a positive outcome."
Developing a key metric
Getting students engaged is the tricky part, and Massey's area of expertise. Her goal is to develop a metric to assess the psychological attractiveness of the game play experience—what players like about a game that causes them to be engaged. The metric will be used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of design elements embedded in The Skeleton Chase ARG, and explore whether the game's attractiveness is dependent on how well it matches a player's demographic and/or psychographic characteristics.
“Our team believes that understanding both the effectiveness and attractiveness of game play is essential to further development of health intervention strategies and game design theory. We are learning a lot already with the 60 or so students currently playing the game."
Based on their current work, Massey and her colleagues have also been in discussions with companies such as Humana, interested in leveraging game interventions. Massey says, “As businesses and government seek to reduce health care costs, games like ARGs, Wii Fit, video or mobile games offer great potential."
It's easy to get enthusiastic hearing Massey discuss immersive media and the potential it holds for business and education. Even in its early stages, she acknowledges the promise, and adds, “Everyone is still trying to figure out how to harness this potential."