Immersive Internet technology is no video game

A Kirksville, Mo.-based non-profit organization providing drug abuse counseling services is taking a Second Life-esque approach to continuing to treat clients once they leave residential treatment centres.

For the past two months, Preferred Family Healthcare Inc. has been running its own virtual islands on a private server where young adults who have spent some time in residential care can continue to receive counseling remotely using only a provided laptop and Internet connection.

Dick Dillon, the organization’s senior vice-president of planning and development, said the drop out rate for young clients due to practical reasons is quite high once they leave residential care. “When they leave and go home, they depend on parents who are sometimes unreliable or financially incapable of getting them back for follow-up visits,” said Dillon. Moreover, the organization operates mostly throughout Missouri where, although population centres hold 20,000 to 40,000 people, “you go five or 10 miles in any direction and it’s farmland.”

It’s an example of immersive Internet – emerging technologies with a social culture and roots in video games and virtual worlds – that has found a use in the business world. In fact, immersive Internet technologies in business “gelled last year” as its various use cases became a discussion topic in the industry, said Erica Driver, principal with Little Compton, R.I.-based research and consulting firm ThinkBalm. While still in the early adopter phase, Driver anticipates immersive Internet technologies will move into mainstream within just four years given the capabilities it allows users. “That’s fast and it probably sounds aggressive, but if you think about the Web and when it first came on the scene … it’s something along that scale,” she said.

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ThinkBalm recently published a research report entitled ThinkBalm Immersive Internet Business Value Study, Q2 2009, based on a survey of 66 early adopters and 15 in-depth interviews.

Driver said that at this point, immersive Internet technologies in the business sphere are considered “highly experimental” with many adopters proceeding with a pilot while not exactly expecting a return on investment. In fact, two-thirds of interviewees were still at pre-production stage.

But it’s not so much about the technology as it is about the myriad use cases the technology presents to businesses, said Driver. Last year had adopters choosing to apply immersive Internet technologies primarily to learning and training, followed by meetings. Those uses, said Driver, are the least costly and easiest to tackle given one obvious reasons for implementing: shrinking travel budgets. More complex uses that require custom building, like remote system and facility management, while offering a greater potential for transformation, were found to be the least-piloted among respondents.

The research also identified challenges to adoption of immersive internet technologies in business, with inadequate user hardware ranking the highest. “With your laptop at work, you probably don’t have a great graphics card in it, or you probably don’t have a microphone or headset,” explained Driver. Corporate restrictions are another roadblock as the IT department must make concessions by opening up firewall ports or needing resources to support the new technology. User interest was also found to be a challenge that, according to Driver, is contingent upon personality, not age. “A lot of people when they think of immersive Internet technologies think of video games, dating services,” she said, but once the business uses are made clear, curious-minded people can’t help but be interested.

The biggest issue facing Preferred Family Healthcare is technological, according to Dillon, where client access depends on the poor broadband reach across rural United States. To address security and privacy issues, precautions have been taken to minimize the risk of a breach, said Dillon. And, in terms of user interest, young adults undergoing treatment are familiar with video games “so they are comfortable with the concept of having an avatar and moving that person around a three-dimensional space.” But just as Driver found in her research, Dillon said older adults haven’t had difficulty navigating through a virtual world either. In fact, counseling in cyberspace has not diminished the effectiveness of individual or group treatment activities, said Dillon, with clients remaining as open as in face-to-face counselling, if not more so.

For enterprises contemplating applying immersive Internet technologies in a business context, Driver suggests first trying the low-hanging fruit to build user experience, and understanding with basic things like improving training and meetings. The initiative should be owned by whichever group owns the business problem that needs solving, said Driver, like the knowledge management department if the use case is training. However, the IT organization’s roadmap must support the initiative, so that IT can ensure a planned purchase of PCs will have graphics cards powerful enough to support the initiative.

Driver said that a mere six per cent of deployments are currently enterprise-wide, but she expects isolated use cases to spread virally much like instant messaging and video conferencing did.

As for Preferred Family Healthcare, virtual counseling remains at the proof-of-concept stage for now. But with three years of funding, Dillon hopes to demonstrate that treatment can be made accessible to those facing hurdles like geographical remoteness, or fear of discrimination should they be seen leaving a physical treatment centre. “There are so many people we think this could be applicable for,” Dillon said.

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