Finding the “productivity” in virtual worlds

Today I had what I feel was my first authentic foray into a “virtual world.” I’ve convinced myself that these kinds of immersive, connected experiences will become very compelling in the years to come. I read enough cyberpunk and sci-fi books in high school and college to have an idea for the long term potential (though I wonder why Snow Crash gets all the credit when Nueromancer came much much earlier), and was one of the few people that would have paid to see the movies “Lawnmower Man

” or “Johnny Mnemonic” more than once. And I’ve done enough gaming in my past to be comfortable navigating around a 3D world. Despite all that, I haven’t been convinced that there really is much for me to do in a virtual world today.

Gaming is great, and I certainly have spent my share of hours glued to a computer monitor or console. But, at this stage of my life with everything from work to family getting busier and more complex, I find that I really have to ration my personal time wisely. And that’s fine, but as a result I hadn’t even bothered to login to Second Life, etc. The closest thing to a virtual world I’d experienced is helping my soon-to-be-stepdaughter log into Webkins or Club Penguin.

Yesterday, a group of us at Intel were discussing how to host more virtual meetings or events that would show people the business value of these worlds. Although I’m involved in evangelizing this research area, I have my own skepticisms about the what can be done using present technology. Most of what I hear people doing seems novel, but it seems like these things could still be done better with a combination of a teleconference or video conference plus a chat window. I asked the experts for examples of what unique capabilities virtual worlds would bring to the business world. I was struck by two that finally resonated:

1. The ability to take a large group of people and arbitrarily break them out into smaller sub-teams to discuss some topic (which happens a lot in teambuilding exercises). Trivial for a real life face-to-face meeting. Possible but tough using current conferencing tools. Trivial in a virtual world that has voice enabled.

2. Collaborating on a design for a physical object or event space. For instance, when we showcase demos at our Research@Intel Day event each year, we have a remote team, often working over the phone, trying to divide dozens of demos into a few physical zones and lay them out in a meaningful way. This would be much easier in a virtual environment where we could play around with the design and even simulate crowds or foot traffic patterns.

That meeting finally motivated me to log into a meeting in ScienceSim, a new world we just helped bring online last week for scientific collaboration and education. Experience-wise, it was mostly what I expected from seeing videos of similar worlds today. And I had some problems getting used to the interface (at one point I ended up at the bottom of a lake, and at another my avatar started uncontrollably “moonwalking” backwards). Also, since we are still bringing up voice capability, the dialog in the meeting all occurred in a chat window while the avatars mostly just stood around the common space.

The odd thing I noticed, though, was that even with this fairly low-key virtual interaction (the meat of which occurred in a very 2D chat window), the avatars did make a difference. There were these characters moving around my screen, and I knew that they weren’t just an AI game character — there was a real human somewhere behind it. That fact alone gave them a sense of physical “presence” that a chat window or audio call doesn’t have. Instead of a disembodied “voice,” it was at least partially embodied. And that was something. Enough for me to realize that when you do use voice chat plus things on the horizon like having your webcam track your facial expression and map them onto your avatar, this could actually be quite powerful. Still a long way to go, but that’s exactly why we have researchers looking into the technology underlying these experiences.

I’m sure that those out there who have more direct experience with virtual worlds (or even MMORPGs) have even more examples of how these environments could make professional interactions more productive. If so, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts.

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