I shared perhaps the smartest bit of advice I've ever seen about Second Life in a post written three years ago, a time when companies were just beginning to weigh the possibilities of the virtual world. According to a Booz Allen Hamilton associate interviewed in an article I cited, companies should ask, "What can we do better in Second Life than the other ways we're already doing them?"
That's exactly what hospitals, medical schools and health foundations around the United States appear to be doing. As The Wall Street Journal reports, they are building virtual clinics and running training drills in Second Life. Such drills have generally featured decidedly low-tech dioramas of a buildings with folks clustered around them or perhaps staged re-enactments of disasters with actors playing patients. In contrast, says Laura Greci, a professor at the medical school at the University of California-San Diego, drills in Second Life offer a much more immersive experience for participants, can be conducted with minimal disruptions to normal business routines and typically cost less than drills with hired actors.
According to the Journal article, it costs $1,000 to buy virtual land in Second Life from the game's creator, Linden Lab, and about $300 a month to maintain control of it. Facilities with programming resources can build their own scenarios or they can purchase them from folks like Ramesh Ramloll, a computer scientist at Idaho State University who rents out generic hospitals and disaster scenes he has created in Second Life for $185 a day. He will also build custom facilities, using blueprints and photos, for prices ranging from $10,000 to $150,000.
As Ramloll notes, facilities gain valuable insights when, for instance, a particular hallway always gets clogged with virtual gurneys, signaling administrators they might want to rewrite the evacuation plan to reduce the bottleneck.
For many of the same reasons, Second Life is being used to train medical and nursing students in clinical skills. Medical schools traditionally have run such exercises using computerized mannequins, which can be programmed to exhibit certain symptoms. Because the mannequins are so costly, about $65,000 each, large numbers of students must share them. In Second Life, however, it's easier for students to get in more practice interviewing virtual patients, filling in medical charts and making diagnoses.
The article does mention a few downsides. The University of Texas-Tyler has encountered issues with student-owned hardware not powerful enough to support Second Life, unreliable Internet connections in rural areas and some students struggling to master simple avatar movement. (I mentioned similar problems in a 2007 post about job recruitment in Second Life. One c ompany I interviewed, TMP Worldwide, offered training sessions for recruiters and job candidates to bring them up to speed on maneuvering their avatars.)
Still, as I wrote in October, Second Life appears to be making a corporate comeback after some early adopter missteps. Advertising campaigns, an early focus, proved less than successful. But companies are finding more answers to the "what can we do better?" question with training, meetings and conferencing, prototyping, simulation and product design. Second Life fits nicely into a broader trend of companies incorporating games into their employee training programs.