A firefighter turns his hose towards the sparse collection of tall pine trees surrounding the building and aims its stream of water into the flames that are exploding outwards from the branches and foliage.
Protected by a heavy, flame-retardant vest and a helmet with a transparent face shield, he is doing his best to deter a total disaster.
But the conflagration is spreading – inexorably moving from one tree to the next and soon the entire landscape is ignited in an orange glow. The crackling sound is menacing and the fire’s determination to consume the building, unstoppable.
This would be one heck of an expensive and dangerous training exercise if it were happening in real life.
But it isn’t. It’s an experiment in Second Life, the virtual world designed and hosted by San Francisco-based Linden Lab Inc. And the point of this flaming simulation isn’t to train a firefighter, but to give an average person an idea of what it might be like.
“You can don the firefighter gear that our Ministry of Natural Resources has and take on a fire in a simulation,” says Glen Padassery, acting director of the youth and new professionals’ secretariat at Ontario’s Ministry of Government Services. “That idea is you are a career tourist – you have a day-in-the-life type of interaction.”
Ontario’s Public Service is hoping to find new young professionals to replace its ageing workforce. As the average age of a Second Life user is 32, the virtual world is an ideal environment to attempt recruitment.
The award-winning simulation set up by the government may be a virtual island, but it isn’t alone.
Many organizations are turning to virtual worlds as a useful recruitment vehicle and honing techniques for measuring the success of such projects.
Analysts say it’s one more step towards virtual worlds becoming more mainstream and less dominated by a population of computer nerds.
“As youth move more towards the online space, we wanted to make sure we had a presence that would be fulfilling and meaningful to them,” Padassery says.
The government worked with New York-based virtual world design firm The SL Agency to launch a pilot in April. The team selected five of the 18 careers that Ontario was looking to draw attention to: firefighter, medical technician, civil engineer, economist, and traffic analyst.
“They wanted an experiential marketing package that would really show what it’s like to work as a fireman, or in a health clinic,” says Leigh Rowan, vice-president with The SL Agency. “Second Life is perfect for that.”
Aside from the forest fire simulation, users can take water samples from a virtual pond and analyze its contents. A healthcare simulation allows your avatar to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on a dummy, or watch a bank of television screens to monitor live traffic flow across the province – the real video feed supplied from real highway cameras.
“From Second Life, you can actually send HTTP requests,” Rowan explains. “So we bring in snapshots as thumbnails into Second Life. When you click on that, it launches into an actual video from that camera.”
Linden Lab’s virtual world comes complete with an object builder and scripting language. Every user has the ability to create objects on land they rent, or public land, and assign the objects a behaviour. The SL Agency built the island with the in-world tools, and used Photoshop to design some of the textures, Rowan says.
So Padassery had his virtual island. But in the world of online marketing, the saying “if you build it, they will come” just doesn’t cut it.
“It’s just another communications channel,” says Steve Prentice, vice-president of Stamford, Conn.-based analyst firm Gartner Inc. “Do you go in there and find people that you want to talk to? Do you find interesting things to do? That’s they key of a virtual world’s survival.”
Prentice says when Second Life first broke on to the scene in 2003, companies were getting brands into the virtual world because it was the cool thing to do. Projects were more experimental and there weren’t many metrics to measure success. But today, marketing efforts in the virtual world are being held up to real-world scrutiny.
Second Life was the chosen virtual world to boost interest in careers in the Ontario Public Service because of its user-base, Padassery says. With about 13 million people registered and 500,000 users logging in at least once a month, the world has built up some critical mass. It also tends to garner some media attention.
The project brought 9,000 visitors over the 12-week pilot period, he adds. The average age of visitors was 30, and 70 per cent had a post-secondary degree. Not only were people from Ontario visiting, but people from around the world.
“We had one IT engineer from Germany visit, he was moving to Canada and looking for information on where to find IT careers,” Padassery says. “You couldn’t get that type of geographic reach if you were doing career fairs here in Ontario.”
The island now receives between 800 and 1,000 visitors a week on average, and the visitors stick around for about 20 minutes. “That’s a long time to have someone as a captured audience.”
Each visitor is asked to fill out a survey rating their experience and volunteer some demographic information on an anonymous basis. The number of island visitors that eventually go to the Web portal to explore available careers is also tracked.
“If you spent thousands of dollars on a Web site, are people going to come to it naturally?” Rowan asks rhetorically. “No, you’re going to have to get the word out.”
With a $20,000 price tag to get the island built, Padassery thinks it was a bargain. His office gets to retain control of the island after the pilot project ends.
“To place an ad in the Globe and Mail or [a similar media outlet] probably runs around the same price,” he says. The benefit of the island is comparable to a global career fair.
The cost and ability to target a unique demographic may be why many organizations are turning to virtual worlds to help find new recruits and as a training tool. It’s a trend that really goes all the way back to the use of flight simulators to train pilots, according to Gartner’s Prentice.
“We’ve moved simulations out of the realm of the physical, deterministic environment,” he says. “You know that an aircraft, if you put X degrees on the rudder, is going to do Y. But when you’re dealing with other people, it’s not going to be like that.”
Military and emergency services groups have been one of the heavier users of virtual worlds. The ability to put a person in a disaster zone and train them on what that experience might be like without any danger involved is attractive. It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s as close as it gets.
The U.S. Department of Defence has conducted some training of troops who must do street patrols in urban areas, Prentice says.
“You’re on a street patrol and walking along and you see a dog in the gutter, and as you walk by it blows up,” he says. “It sensitizes you to the fact that someone might think to put a bomb in a dead dog.”
Companies specializing in recruitment have also caught on to the trend. Manpower Inc., a global temporary staffing provider, has an island in Second Life. Denizens of the virtual world go there looking for virtual jobs and real-world jobs alike.
For the Ontario Public Service, the project is considered a success. It won an award for innovation at the Toronto conference Showcase Ontario, an event that brings together many different groups in the Ontario public sector, and features a range of technology demonstrations.
That award will help Padassery convince his higher-ups that spending time in a virtual world is more than just playing games.
“We’d like to expand the number of career stream offerings that people can learn about,” he says. The government is also looking at using employee collaboration and considering a partnership with the federal government to promote public service careers.
Meanwhile the job simulation island is still open for visitors. And don’t worry about the fires – they won’t singe your avatar’s virtual clothing, flame retardant or not.