Virtual Worlds Knowledge

Virtual Worlds Knowledge

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4727-5.ch013
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Virtual worlds represent emerging phenomena that continue to proliferate through military, government, corporate, and non-profit organizations as well as tens of millions of households. In addition to supporting immersive entertainment and online social interaction, virtual worlds are home to myriad serious applications that are changing the way people think about and work in organizations. Understanding how knowledge flows influence and are influenced by these phenomena is important for harnessing the power of dynamic knowledge principles for competitive advantage in our current, technology-driven, and socially connected world. As discussed in Chapter 11, these phenomena have both technical (esp. involving information technology) and non-technical (esp. involving people and organizations) aspects, which come together, through the process, for productive and goal-oriented action. Indeed, the process is where the socio and the technical parts come together: how people in organizations employ technologies to perform goal-oriented activities. Because the process provides an action-focused interface between fast-moving technologies and comparatively slow-moving people and organizations, it governs the proliferation and change of emerging phenomena. As such, technologically enabled, organizational, knowledge, and work processes in particular are key to leveraging emerging phenomena for competitive advantage. In this chapter, the authors employ familiar principles for understanding and analysis of virtual worlds as emerging knowledge phenomena.
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Virtual Environment

Virtual environment as a term has expanded markedly over the years as progressively greater computational speed and power have enabled the development of exponentially advanced, immersive and engaging interfaces and experiences. Indeed, some virtual worlds today enable users to sense social presence, co-presence, psychological engrossment and affective experience reminiscent of direct, physical and face-to-face (F2F) interaction on multiple levels (Short, 1976; Witmer, 1998).

Not all virtual environments possess these characteristics, however. Indeed, it is useful to make an operational contrast between virtual worlds and virtual environments. When using the term virtual world, we refer to the kinds of immersive, psychologically engrossing, computer-mediated environments that participants experience with affect characteristic of F2F interactions in the real world. Alternatively, when using the term virtual environment, we refer to any technology enabled application. Clearly virtual world is a subset of virtual environment, as are emailing, texting, social networking, microblogging, and the kinds of other social media applications discussed in the next chapter. Further, virtual environments are enabled and supported by Cyberspace infrastructure; they are used increasingly via cloud computing; and many would say that one is inside Cyberspace whenever using a virtual environment. Hence we see how many of the knowledge phenomena emerging currently are interrelated tightly.

This tight interrelation helps to illustrate the breadth of virtual environments as viewed through the infrastructural lens from above, and such lens focuses principally upon technological phenomena. Because the virtual environment exists solely within IT systems and artifacts, its enabling technological infrastructure changes quickly and frequently. Scientists discover continually new materials, architectures, algorithms and mechanics that enable faster, more powerful and more engaging computational and interface effects. Engineers then follow quickly to apply the underlying knowledge to design, test and field innovative devices and systems that put such effects into practice. In this respect, despite the considerable current attention being drawn to virtual environments, not much is new. Virtual environments represent another metaphorical step forward along a long path of technological advance. We’ve understood this for several decades. From a purely infrastructural perspective, even as an emerging knowledge phenomenon, virtual environments are neither new nor particularly interesting.

Alternatively, the people and organizations using virtual environments within a socio-technical context change comparatively slowly. Virtual environments may exist solely within IT systems and artifacts, but the phenomenon is important and emerging because people are able to accomplish knowledge and work processes in ways never possible before, in addition to wholly novel process capabilities that are possible only within virtual environments. The enabling technology may change very rapidly, but it’s not until such technology is put to novel and productive uses that the emerging knowledge phenomenon virtual environment appears to be new or interesting. Moreover, because the virtual world represents a relatively extreme manifestation of virtual environment—one being put to exceptionally novel and productive uses today—we examine it more closely in this chapter.

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