Although some of us will remember the early days of virtual worlds, William Gibson (the author who coined the term 'cyberspace') and outrageously expensive stereo headsets, most people's experience of virtual worlds will come from the media exposure that Second Life gained in 2007/08. At this time Second Life, one of the largest and most established virtual worlds, produced by US company Linden Labs, was hailed as everything from the future of business to the precursor of Web 3.0.
When studying the impact of Second Life, as with all technologies, Gartner's Hype Curve (a graphical representation of the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies) holds true. After 2008, Second Life's presence in the media diminished – this is when some of the most interesting things started to happen.
Second Life now boasts 20m registered users, but is only one of the virtual worlds in existence. Virtual worlds research company KZero lists the total number of users registered across all virtual worlds as just over a billion. This includes users across all ages in over 100 worlds who use it for a range of purposes from chat to entertainment and education.
Second Life is just one of several virtual worlds - an online community tool that allows users in interact and share experiences in a common environment.
The value of virtual worlds lies in their use of an interactive and engaging platform to bring people together to communicate, learn from or share an experience.
Virtual worlds were recently used as part of a training simulation run by the UK's National Health Service (NHS) in conjunction with Imperial College.
A project was already in place using a full scale replica of a dependency ward to familiarise and train nursing staff. A new type of infuser was due to be deployed to the ward, but no sample was available ahead of that deployment to train the staff. By using a virtual version of the device constructed in the virtual world, the Trust was able to ensure that its nurses were already familiar with the device, its use, interface and layout by the time that the real devices arrived on the ward.
This is an approach that is currently being followed by Southampton University, which is using virtual worlds as a training tool for midwives.
The use of virtual worlds in training is not a new concept, and the collaborative, social environment that they create provides an alternative to physical meetings in a way that is not possible through standard online learning solutions.
Virtual worlds are being used extensively to teach trauma teams how to deal competently with disaster-type events and to manage the team's response, equipment deployment and casualty triage in the most efficient manner. The use of virtual worlds in this kind of teaching allows the emulation of full scale disasters, which normally involves actors, real world locations and great cost, to be cost-effectively run and re-run to develop the optimal response. The virtual world training scenarios can also be easily modified to allow for different disasters, types of patients or other factors.
Virtual worlds offer an anonymous level communications playing field that has allowed a wide range of patients and users with disabilities to form and maintain social and peer support groups.
One example of this is 'Wheelies', a virtual disability themed nightclub within Second Life run by Simon Stevens. Simon describes himself on his website: "I am a leading independent disability issues consultant, trainer and activist ... I also have cerebral palsy, which affects my speech, mobility, hand control and balance".
Wheelies opened in 2006 and is about to celebrate its fourth birthday. Popular with disabled and non-disabled visitors alike, this club has thrived because of the open, friendly and understanding environment that Simon has created.
The virtual world allows for this environment to work for both disabled and non-disabled visitors as the experience of using the world removes many of the issues that would normally be encountered, for example while voice chat can be used, typed chat is also available to all users.
This is the key to understanding the nature and potential of virtual worlds: it is all about the experience.
The anonymising effect of many types of online communication makes them a safe venue for patients to seek information on a variety of issues. Information is provided in virtual worlds on a wide range of topics from sexual health to substance abuse, mental health to diet and fitness.
Virtual worlds are not only being used for healthcare education and support. An article published by the New Scientist in September 2010 (issue 2778) discusses 'Avatar Therapy'. This is new and growing approach in the use of virtual worlds in psychotherapy. It uses Second Life to provide a dynamic environment that can be tailored to suite each individual case. As the New Scientist article states: "Psychotherapy in a virtual world has its advantages – particularly if the real world is what you can't cope with".
In all these examples, virtual worlds are tools for creating new interactions, new experiences and providing the opportunity for communities to develop around common interests.
Opportunities including health education, patient support, training, conferences and meetings all exist in the virtual environment and many are already taking place.