True to its name, the Virtual Collaboration Laboratory exists in a virtual world. It boasts a computer lab on the fourth floor of Young Hall and a presence in Purdue’s Envision Center, to be sure. But most of the research and work with the lab will be conducted somewhere in between, connecting people across campus and around the world.
“Virtual collaboration involves everything from Skype to videoconferencing to virtual worlds,” said Scott Homan, director of the laboratory and associate professor of organizational leadership and supervision (OLS). “The way OLS is involved is that, as part of the College of Technology, we can bring in part of that linkage — the application of technology to improve human systems.” Three others are working with Homan in the lab: Michael Beyerlein, professor of organizational leadership and supervision, and OLS Ph.D. students Amy Warneka and Breck Terheide. Even before there was a physical computer lab with a locking door, there was work being done with virtual worlds, such as Second Life, to create training and education exercises. For example, they have created a virtual crime scene in Second Life for police cadets to train in. The scene can be populated with clues, K-9 units, and criminals to make it as realistic as possible. Additionally, they have set up a virtual classroom where students can participate in a classroom lecture and presentation. This proved especially useful last year when one OLS student was diagnosed with H1N1 influenza and was required to self-quarantine. “He was able to participate in our class via Second Life and not miss any work,” Homan said. “It was the only class he was able to attend.” The lab recently partnered with SpotOn3D, a new company that aims to create a new virtual world that focuses on security and intellectual property rights. Homan and the rest of the team will provide the computer abilities and programmers to help create the new virtual world. The ultimate goal is to create a virtual world where education, commerce, and collaboration can take place without the need for physical proximity. In the process the lab researchers can study and observe how participants interact, identify barriers, and work to make improvements. “The benefit is that in a virtual world, we can reset it easier, we can create it cheaper, and it is easier to control variables,” Homan said. “Proving that this technology actually works in changing behavior and increasing learning is the beginning.”