Interview – David Rolston, Forterra CEO

Forterra Inc is a private virtual world provider with a focus on health care, education and homeland security / disaster preparedness. One of their press releases a few weeks back caught my eye – Forterra has been awarded a Commercialization Pilot Program (CPP) by the US Army for medical training simulations of combat scenarios. So I thought I’d have a chat with Forterra’s CEO David Rolston (via email) about Forterra’s take on virtual worlds.

Lowell:: Can you describe a little of Forterra’s history and whether virtual worlds have always been its focus?

David:: Forterra has been around for a decade already. Initially the company was
known as There.com, and made one of the first social interaction websites (which still exists as There.com). About two and a half years ago There.com made an important change. Our board decided there were promising opportunities in other areas. We spun off a company called Makena Technologies that was licensed to work in the entertainment area, applying the software to creating social worlds for MTV, Coca-Cola and other consumer environments. At the same time we redirected the mainline company to work on enterprise applications and other professional usage, and renamed it Forterra Systems.

Lowell:: For those who haven’t heard of OLIVE, can you give a little of its development history?

David:: As a starting point for the new company, Forterra took the existing software which was built to execute 24 hours a day, seven days a week with millions of users. The software was used very heavily in large-scale, multi-player environments, but it was there for a specific task, namely running There.com. So our first job was to extract a reusable platform from that which would allow a customer to quickly build an enterprise oriented virtual world. That platform is now Forterra’s flagship product OLIVE (On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment). Applications developed using OLIVE allow users to sit at their PCs with a network connection, log on, and appear in an interactive, virtual environment represented as a fully animated avatar. We have the best 3D audio in the industry and have been told by our customers it sounds just like being in a real meeting. Through a choice of simple keyboard, mouse or game controller interface, users are able to navigate through realistic environments, access and deploy equipment, drive/fly vehicles, don personal protective equipment, and communicate with one another. As a scenario is executed, the results are captured by a built in session replay system that support debrief, so users can learn from the simulation exercise.

OLIVE’s distributed client-server architecture enables simulations to easily scale from single user applications to large scale simulated environments supporting many thousands of concurrent users. Working with the OLIVE platform, customers can create realistic virtual world content and plug-in functionality to meet a wide range of simulation needs. An API layer enables customers to reuse existing content, integrate with third party applications, and leverage third party tools. The open
nature of the OLIVE platform allows customers to create powerful multi-resolution and multi-fidelity federated simulation environments.

Lowell:: Is the user interface similar to other virtual world platforms like Second Life?

David:: There are some similarities between the OLIVE user interface and that of Second Life in large part because some of the features and navigation are similar. We find Second Life users are comfortable navigating and communicating in OLIVE within about 10 minutes because of these
similarities.

Lowell:: There are also some graphical similarities to Second Life – does OLIVE have any code that’s similar?

David:: No there is no code that is common or similar between OLIVE to Second Life. The graphical level of OLIVE is more realistic and business oriented then Second Life in large part because the majority of our 3D content has been professionally developed.

Lowell:: You’ve recently announced that you’ve been awarded a Commercialization Pilot by the US Army for medical training simulations of combat scenarios – can you explain a little more about that?

David:: The initial Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards that were granted to Forterra by the US Army have been very successful. We have successfully demonstrated our technology through a phase I and II award, and as a result have been awarded a Commercialization Pilot Program. This program funds the development of features so the software can be used in Army production usage and in the commercial markets. Using the OLIVE platform we developed an application with realistic virtual emergency departments, operating rooms, reception areas, and even entire health-care facilities have been built to support a wide range of training applications, including first responder and trauma training. In the U.S. military, the contemporary operating environment requires combat medics to use their skills in team-based medical combat scenarios for effectively treating trauma patients on the battlefield.

Lowell:: Do you have plans for OLIVE to ever be interoperable with other platforms?

David:: Absolutely. The first level of interoperability we have achieved already is for 3D content to be imported or exported to OLIVE using standard content file formats like Collada. We have several partners who are able to migrate their Second Life content and import it into OLIVE. The next levels of interoperability will include how avatars and even the client software will be interoperable between virtual world platforms, but these two are more in the future.

Lowell:: What sort of technology do people need to use OLIVE?

David:: Today we have a PC only client that runs on either XP or Vista. Our customers are enterprises which have overwhelmingly adopted PCs as their main compute platform for users. However Forterra is working on support for lower end PCs since a typical deployment must run on laptops or desktops that are 1 to 3 years old. We also have excellent support working behind or through firewalls so enterprise IT groups can control who gets access to the virtual world.

Lowell:: What do you see as the key benefits of virtual world-based training?

David:: There are many benefits. First geographically distributed learners can meet virtually for either individual or team training and practice their skills many times before applying them in the real world. For certain types of jobs such as being a soldier or oil rig worker our software saves lives because of the hazards of their jobs. For other jobs such as a sales person the skills and confidence they gain practicing before applying their craft on real customers makes them more effective. Second, OLIVE includes 3D record and replay so teams can conduct after action reviews to pinpoint where learners should improve their performance. Lastly, with the physics and simulations built into OLIVE we can enable interaction with objects that supports a wide range of support and manufacturing type of training around a product or process.

Lowell:: What does OLIVE cost? Is it a scenario-specific cost or can people purchase the software and create their own scenarios?

David:: We offer a Software Development Kit that allows customers or partners to develop their own scenarios. Forterra offers three types of developer programs that include a developer license to OLIVE, documentation, support, and different levels of training and developer services. We
offer a Basic and Enterprise production license to OLIVE that allows small groups to deploy inexpensively with the ability to scale up to 1000s of concurrent users. We offer the option to license industry specific pre-packaged content packs such as a medical and meeting pack as well as plug-ins to standard business systems or integrations. These content packs and plug-ins help customers get into production more quickly and less expensively but with the ability to develop on top of those offerings to meet specific needs.

Lowell:: What plans for future developments does Forterra have?

David:: There are several exciting development areas we are working on. First we have rolled out a virtual collaboration application that shares MS Powerpoint, streaming video, and SCORM elearning content to distributed audiences. Later this summer we will expand the collaboration suite to include any MS Office document type, white boards, and meeting management. We are also wrapping up a new terrain standard we pioneered called Paged Terrain Format that allows importing any legacy terrain database. Later this year we will support extensions of our API for AI middleware vendors so we can provide voice recognition and responses with NPCs. This supports high volume individual training scenarios.

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