by Erica Driver.

Yesterday a small group of Forrester analysts and research associates held a team meeting in Second Life to try to figure out whether meeting this way is a viable alternative to the usual teleconference.  Teleconferences are terrible. While we’re talking and listening, there’s not much to look at but our computer screens (which are constantly blinking at us with new emails and IMs and reminders of all the tasks we haven’t completed yet) so inevitably we end up multi-tasking. And in teams that have been around for a while people know each others’ voices but not so for new teams. So when people on the call forget to introduce themselves before they say something, the first few words are lost while listeners try to figure out who’s talking, and then the next few words lost while you try to recreate the first few words.

While we had some fun yesterday trying on free T-shirts, teleporting to otherworldly locations, and taking some carnival rides, the sentiment of most of the participants was that Second Life isn’t really ready for prime time team meetings. If it was tough for us it will be tough for other information workers. Here’s why:

  • We were plagued with performance problems. One of the islands we visited was a large technology company’s innovation area. We were booted out, one after the other. Some of us got a message saying the simulation we were visiting had closed down. Second Life hung. We had to restart — which can take five to ten minutes. Sometimes we experienced lags while trying to make our avatars walk or fly or teleport. Some of this was probably due to problems with the Second Life grid or specific simulations we were visiting. But it’s a fact: for the optimal experience in Second Life you need lots of processing power and a high-powered video card. The standard issue Dell Latitude D620 we use at Forrester doesn’t really cut it.
  • The learning curve is high. Walking, flying, teleporting, searching for and traveling to locations, text chatting at the same time we were trying to move around — all this was new for most of us. We met on a free conference room island called Place To Meet, which is hosted by Crowne Plaza Hotels. To get there, some of us clicked on a Second Life URL in the Outlook meeting and went directly to the meeting room. Others searched for "Place To Meet" within Second Life and landed in the main reception area of the Crowne Plaza Hotels island. It took a while for people to find each other and the group to convene. We practiced teleporting by visiting well-known islands and while we got better at it after the third or fourth try, it was pretty frustrating overall, for many of us.
  • Privacy — what’as that? If your organization or one of the participants in your in-world meeting doesn’t have a private space in Second Life, your meeting — including VoIP conversations and text chats — is wide out in the open. Any avatar that happens to be walking or flying by can overhear what you are saying or read what you are typing. For our meeting yesterday, we never got any indication from Crowne Plaza Hotels whether the meeting room we had reserved would be closed down to the public during the time reserved it. We got the feeling that anybody could have wandered in off the grid. It’s kind of like trying to talk business while standing in a crowded subway train. It just doesn’t work.
  • Without microphones and headset, the experience is disjointed. Most of us involved in this meeting didn’t have microphones and headsets. We were dialed into an 800 number on the phone. So our avatars weren’t connected with our voice conversations and the whole thing was kind of disjointed. After a while we put our phones on mute and tried to communicate using text chat, but that didn’t work out too well either  — we were too busy trying to figure out how to move our avatars to type text into the chat window.

But you know what? I’m going to keep on trying. I’ve talked with enough other people who have been able to use virtual worlds to replicate the experience of working physically alongside others, to allow people to work with and share digital 3D models of physical or theoretical objects, and to make remote training and counseling more realistic by incorporating non-verbal communication into same-time, different-place interactions. I believe in my gut that give it 3 years and the 3D Internet will be just as important to business and work as the Web is today.

And I’m going on more than faith. Tech companies like Cisco, IBM, Intel, and others are spending millions on virtual world technology. I have had two meetings with outside parties in Second Life within the past couple months and have another internal meeting scheduled there for next week. I can’t make it to IBM’s Lotusphere conference in person this January because I have a conflict, but I’ll join the Second Life version of the event from my hotel room in Canada. Stay tuned for more research from Forrester on this area — including an upcoming report called "Getting Real Work Done In Virtual Worlds," co-authored with Paul Jackson.