Last night I delivered a presentation on getting real work done in virtual worlds at a meeting of the Serious Second Life Group in Boulder, which meets at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado. The purpose of the meeting: discuss the viability of virtual worlds for entrepreneurial activities and getting work done. How’s this for blended: I sat in a classroom on the university campus along with about 15 other people (academics, students, and business people). Those of us who had laptops, and many others who were not with us in the room at Boulder, had avatars logged into the virtual representation of the meeting in Second Life. A few laptops projected their screens onto large displays on the classroom wall (see Figure 1). We had a video camera set up in the classroom, which was streaming into the Second Life virtual meeting room (see Figure 2 — in the still snapshot on the virtual wall, taken from the video stream, that’s me on the left wearing a black sweater with a white stripe on the sleeve). My PowerPoint slides were also uploaded into Second Life, where they were projected onto another virtual wall. We had a microphone and speakers set up in the classroom and some participants with laptops wore their own headsets and mikes.
Figure 1: Second Life meeting projected onto displays in real-world meeting room
Overall, a blended physical / virtual world meeting has lots of promise. As technology evolves, we’ve seen tools to help people involved in virtual meetings (meetings for which not all participants are in the same physical location) become more engaged (and therefore effective). It started out with just a telephone. Then we started back-channeling with some or all participants via instant messaging while talking on the phone. Then we added application sharing, desktop sharing, and Web conferencing, so we can all view the same material. Add video on top of this, and you get a pretty interactive meeting. (I blogged about this in early December after using Microsoft RoundTable for a meeting.) Now, a 3D virtual world experience takes interactivity and immersion to a new level. While the technology is still clunky, it has enormous potential.
· Participants get control over their experience. People could choose whether or not to view the streaming video from the classroom and whether or not to use voice. They could text chat if they wanted to, or just sit and listen. They could choose where to sit, stand, or hover, and could control their "camera" view — zooming in on whatever they wanted to see most.
· Wait — who’s who? The people who use Second Life and the avatars that represent those people do not share the same names and do not look alike. While this is not necessarily a dire deal breaker for business usage (I wrote about this in a blog post in December, 2007) it raises some challenges. Until Second Life users ("residents") get used to each other’s avatar’s names and appearance, there can be a lot of confusion about who’s who. Throughout the meeting last night I tried to match up the people in the classroom with me with the avatars in Second Life, to no avail. At the end of the meeting, introductions included things you wouldn’t expect, like "That was me with the dragon on my shoulder." I could get used to — even enjoy — peoples’ avatars looking unusual. But for real work to get done, virtual world participants must be able to display their real life names above their avatars. And meeting hosts must be able to exclude from meeting locations any avatar that doesn’t have a real-life name displayed.
· Communication was tough and back channeling was rampant. We had voice conversations — sometimes more than one at a time — going on in the classroom. But people listening via Second Life voice over IP could only hear speakers who had mikes or were sitting near the in-room microphone. People had to remember to mute their mikes when they weren’t speaking. And we got some screechy audio feedback and some pretty bad delays. People were chatting via group text chat and private instant message. With so many conversations going on, lots of communication was lost.
· The biggest technical problem: Second Life voice functionality. I have never been able to get Second Life voice working right, regardless of which microphone I’m using or what physical location I’m in (and therefore what network bandwidth I have). I thought maybe it was the fault of my laptop, which wasn’t designed for this purpose. But last night we had problems with voice throughout the entire meeting. Sometimes we were plagued with horrible static. Other times the speaker’s voice would cut in and out. It can’t be blamed on network bandwidth on the university’s end — the classroom had 10mpbs wireless connectivity.
· Spatialized voice is great — but takes some getting used to. In Second Life you hear the voices of avatars closest to you the loudest. If an avatar is standing to your right you hear their voice in your right speaker. If your avatar is standing too far away from the speaker’s avatar you can’t hear them at all. This is why during voice presentations in Second Life you will see avatars crowded around the speaker — it’s the only way to hear. This crowding raises an important etiquette issue — the "physics" in Second Life allow you to bump into other people and literally shove them. Last night I found myself text chatting "sorry" more than once.
Figure 2: Streaming video from the physical meeting in the Second Life virtual meeting room