Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Interaction

Ericadriver_8By Erica Driver

Come dream with me for a minute. My colleagues and I all have 3D interactive virtual workspaces, regardless of where we physically work (in a corporate office, a home office, on a mountain top, or on the road — whether in the US, Europe, or Asia). Our avatars populate our workspaces when we are online (or “in-world,” in virtual world parlance) (see Figure 1). Some of us have fairly traditional-looking offices, like this one. Others are really “out-there” — underwater, out in space, in tree houses or ice caves. Some of our virtual workspaces look more like factories, workshops, sanctuaries, or galleries. We can easily customize our virtual workspaces to reflect who we are — much the way we customize our real-world, physical workplaces with plants, pictures, books, awards, and toys.

Figure 1: My Second Life avatar (Erica Burns) hard at work in a virtual office

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Let’s take it a little further:

  • I develop relationships with colleagues I wouldn’t have otherwise. In the virtual world, prior to company meetings, and in a fun and cheery virtual common area during breaks, we have the “water cooler conversations” that are all but lost when a workforce is distributed. We chatter before meetings start and after they end and we play chess, Settlers of Catan, or virtual ping pong on lunch breaks. People stop by the common areas to see what’s going on. I get to know people I wouldn’t otherwise, because we are never in the same physical place at the same time. I get to know sales people I haven’t met before, and the team that routes client inquiry calls to analysts gets to know me.
  • We have blended real world / virtual world meetings. For all-hands company meetings, employees who work in the company’s offices around the world meet in physical conference rooms there, and the rest of us join via a big conference room in the virtual world. Video streams of all the meeting rooms where employees are gathered are displayed on each others’ walls, as well as on the walls in the virtual conference room. The activity going on in the virtual meeting room is projected onto the walls in the conference rooms in the offices, right next to the streaming video from the other meeting rooms. Despite the geographic distance between us, we all feel like we are together in the same space. (See this January 25, 2008 blog post about a blended real life / Second Life meeting I attended.)
  • It’s easy for colleagues to find each other and hold ad hoc meetings. Let’s say my colleague wants to ask me a quick question. He scans list to see if my presence information is set to “available” or perhaps views a map of the virtual organization, where he see a pulsing green light over my virtual office. He knocks on my virtual door. I hear an auditory signal and perhaps see a visual indicator on the displays and devices I have set up in my profile. I look up and on my computer screen I see an image (perhaps a snapshot) of the avatar at my door, along with that person’s name. I signal “come on in” — I’ve been meaning to talk to him, too — and I ask him to come take a look at what I’m working on (see Figure 2). [Thanks to the good folks at Second Life New England for allowing me to take these snapshots in their virtual space.]

Figure 2: A colleague stops by the virtual office and checks out what I’m working on

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  • We can create, share, and interact with today’s — and tomorrow’s — business tools and content. Perhaps what I want to show the colleague who stopped by is a draft of the material for an upcoming presentation we will be doing together. I click a button and there in my virtual office a large screen display appears, showing the latest iteration of our PowerPoint slides. We both can adjust our views of the space to make the slides take up as much or as little of the screen real estate as we want. As we are discussing the slides via VoIP, either of us can use our mouse to advance the slides, and either of us can modify the content. Tomorrow, we will interact with tools that business has not yet dreamed of, like 3D mindmaps and concept maps, database and sensor-driven models of entire real-life enterprises, and entirely virtual organizations that transcend the need for conventional real estate entirely.
  • I can set my profile to “do not disturb” if I want to. Much the way we do with enterprise instant messaging tools today, in the virtual world I can set my presence info to “do not disturb” if I’m deep in thought or in a meeting. The unified communications services integrated with the virtual world will automatically communicate that I am on the phone (e.g., display my avatar talking on the phone and show my presence info next to my name on a list as “on the phone”). If I am in a meeting, according to my calendar, my presence will display as “busy” (perhaps with a soft red glow over my virtual workspace on the map, or a “busy” sign next to my name in the alphabetical list) — and anyone who happens to walk by or tries to enter my virtual office will find the door closed and information on it about what I’m doing and when I’ll be done.
  • I have a computer monitor on my real-world desk dedicated to my virtual world. I use this monitor when I am engaged in my virtual world — participating in team or company-wide meetings, listening to vendor briefings, answering a client’s questions, listening to a lecture, taking training sessions, and doing research. When I am working on a report using Microsoft Office, entering information in our CRM system, or going through my email I may use a different monitor. When I am not actively using my virtual world monitor, perhaps it displays my “in the office” presence visually, like in Figure 1 above. Or — imagine this — via wearable displays with full stereo optics and head movement sensors on them, perhaps paired perhaps with kinetic controls on feet and  fingers.

The beauty of virtual world technology like this: distributed workers get new capabilities (like building relationships with, and randomly sharing ideas with, remote colleagues because you happen to be in the same place at the same time — thereby potentially driving up creativity and innovation). And all information workers get improved ways of doing things they can do today (like talking, instant messaging, and interacting with shared presentation materials over the Web), thereby driving up their productivity.

My prediction: forward-thinking organizations will put virtual environments like this in place during the next few years. Their employees will develop relationships that strengthen their feeling of belonging to a larger organization and sharing an important mission. Employees’ loyalty to the company will increase, and this will lead to easier employee recruiting and longer retention. Distributed workforces will begin to share ideas and learnings in ways that just weren’t possible without this technology. For example, they will meet in the virtual world to build, share, and collaborate on 3D prototypes of physical or theoretical objects. In organizations that are re-orienting themselves toward pervasive innovation, the use of virtual worlds will lead to a long-term competitive advantage. (For a great book on pervasive innovation leading to long-term competitive advantage, read Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management.)

[Credit: Thanks for support with this blog post to my friend Charles O’Connell -- IT professional and Second Life estate manager, architecture review board member, builder, scripter, vendor, and enthusiast.]

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Comments

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Erica, this vision of a virtual work world is great. I also really like a world of work that uses telepresence from Cisco or some other very high quality video conferencing capability. Do you see a way to use these two technologies together? Most companies I talk with see it as an either or situation: either Second Life or telepresence, but not blended. Any alternative view on how they can be combined?

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Connie, I get a similar question a lot from our clients -- when is telepresence more appropriate than a virtual world, and vice versa, when you are trying to achieve immersive, "feel like you're really there," real-time communication among people who are in different physical locations? The use cases and cost basis are so different. Telepresence, which costs half a million dollars a room, can only be used be a limited number of people because it is so expensive and it is dependent on participants being in a specific physical location. Virtual worlds, which cost next to nothing to meet in (in comparison), can be used by anyone who has a computer with powerful enough video card and processing power, and enough Internet bandwidth. I have not heard of anyone yet trying to bring these two together -- to bring together life-sized video (telepresence) with avatars. Perhaps they butt heads because of the difference in use case. Telepresence creates a feeling of immersion through intense realism. Virtual worlds create a feeling of immersion regardless of how realistic the environment and avatars are. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Excellent post and one that reflects my thoughts and work. Take a look at some of the machinima I have at my site's homepage (http://www.VRWorkplace.com). A term I've used to describe the idea: "global hallway." Think of the traditional working environment. Work gets done, not in 3 hour long meetings, but in spontaneous meetings in the hallway or a quick stop in someone's office. Virtual environments allow the global hallway connection to be made despite geography. It's these interactions that matter most. I tried to capture this concept in my machinima -- a workplace film with the "punch line" being that the avatars, seemingly together, are actually working a long distance apart.As for telepresence, the value is a bit lost on me. Certainly the effect is different than virtual worlds, but do any "front-line" workers ever get to use telepresence or is it just a tool for high level executives who derive little benefit. The feeling of "togetherness" is what matters when you work on a team from day to day. At half a million dollars I'm not sure those who could really benefit from "togetherness" will ever have a chance to achieve it.Eventually, the virtual worlds interface and graphical precision will improve to such a significant extent that the ideas behind virtual worlds and telepresence will essentially converge. Consider an interface that allows you to see through the eyes of your avatar. Consider graphics that are so realistic that the world around you will feel so real that you will not be able to perceive a substantial difference between what is real and what is virtual. Consider further "avatars" that look just like you.Telepresence as a concept is interesting, but a temporary measure as virtual worlds improve to an extent that the telepresence concept is available to everyone from wherever they wish to access it.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

I hear the same question too, but rarely from in-world. It may be a mistaken assumption that live video would add much to the quality of the collaboration.In the broadcast media I have often questioned whether a headshot of a newscaster really adds to the information value of a newscast, or whether it would be better served by video footage, maps and graphs.Live video is a picture of reality, but a virtual world can be an interactive, information-enhanced model of reality. I would not want to give up being able to right click on people for their profile information or to send them a private message in exchange for being able to see the catsup on their tie.It is worth noting that while voice has been available in Second Life for some time now as an integrated feature, and before that through services such as Skype, it does not seem to be heavily used. Most avatars seem to opt for text chat based interaction. I suspect in part because it offers a comfortable layer of abstraction for many sorts of interactions, preserving a comfortable sense of personal space. I usually only resort to voice when involved in some sort of complex technical issue or a real time activity requiring hands-free such as teaching someone to fly an aircraft or sail a sailboat.I do believe that a convergence of telepresence and virtual worlds is inevitable though. Live voice and video should be available on demand as needed. However, I would not characterize them as features to wait for, delaying an entry into the space. Much higher on my feature list would be things like integration with real world chat and email, in-world web browsing (HTML on a "prim"), and a framework to run real world applications in the virtual world such as Sun is exploring using X-windows in their Wonderland/MPK20 experimentation.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Dave, I like that term "global hallway." I hope that our comfort with and expectations of virtual worlds will progress to the point where we no longer limit our analogies and vision to what we have experienced in the physical world. But given where we are it's a great description of the wonderful dichotomy that virtual worlds create: feeling like you are as close to someone as sharing a narrow hallway, while in reality you may be sitting thousands of miles apart. Also thanks for the contribution re: future convergence of telepresence and virtual worlds.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Charles, you know I hadn't thought of that: a video stream is just a picture of reality, while a virtual world is truly interactive. You're right. In a telepresence session, I can't reach over and take the papers off the desk of the people in the miles-away telepresence room, even though it feels like I should be able to. But in a virtual world I *can* take those papers off the other person's virtual desk, even though we are sitting miles apart. Good stuff...

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Please stop the madness! The infatuation with Second Life and virtual worlds is a bit sad.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Hi Greg, it's not infatuation -- it's the future. The emergence of the 3D Internet (which we are thinking of as "Web3D") and virtual worlds is as significant for work as the emergence of Web 1.0 was, and as big if not bigger than Web 2.0. You can expect more, not less, research on this topic from Forrester during the coming year.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Erica, thanks for pushing my thoughts on this topic (I am a virtual world skeptic as you may already know). In thinking about how virtual worlds can enable serendipitous interactions there is one major stumbling block that I can't get over, namely the focus shift that will need to take place to facilitate such interactions.To explain what I mean here is an example: Today when I sit at my desk cleaning out my email inbox I can hear people around me, I can see people walking down the hall out of the corner of my eye, and when I get thirsty I walk down the hall to get some water, all the while still working on or thinking about cleaning out my inbox. All of these things, as you point out, facilitate serendipitous interaction.To achieve the same in a virtual world I would need to shift at least some of my attention away from what I was doing to walk or fly off to find other avatars (to join the global hallway as Dave called it). While this seems minor, it requires what I fear is a fatal extra step, namely thinking about interacting, and working to facilitate that interaction. Who I find on the other end may be random and serendipitous, but the interaction itself is now a conscious decision on my part, and likely on the part of the person or people I'm now interacting with. There is no reason for me to get up and walk around in a virtual world other than to interact (I can't get a glass of water, or something from the printer).I think that this sort of explicit interaction model would work in some cases and for some people, but I fear that most workers would not be interested in yet another step in their daily routine, and as a result this use of virtual worlds will not scale (granted, I work in an office, so you are probably a better judge than I of home workers). In addition, when we strip away the fact that this is a 3D world, in essence is this not just the same benefit as any presence system, where people can indicate if they are interested or available to talk? What in this case is the value of the 3D component?I would love to talk with you further around these issues, and again, thanks for pushing my thinking in this space. I have to say it makes the I&KM blog a heck of a lot more fun!

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Oliver,I can't resist interjecting, even though your comment was directed to Erica. I think that you, and perhaps inadvertently, Greg before you, do raise a valid point with regard to virtual worlds, and in fact any emerging technological phenomenon. That point is that not everyone will embrace them. Some will be uncomfortable with the medium. Some may be unable to use the medium due to some physical limitation, e.g. there is not much support for the vision impaired in most virtual worlds *yet*. Some will be unable to participate due to economic reasons, lacking the high end graphics and high speed network connections. Such have never been reasons to hold back progress and innovation. We can move forward to equity rather than fall back to it.It still surprises me to realize that I have able bodied, middle class, suburban friends who don't have cell phones, or email, or internet access. I also know of co-workers who opt out of corporate instant messaging, shared repositories, and barely participate in email. It is up to them to find ways to be effective in an environment that is moving forward in spite of them.Similarly with virtual worlds, not everyone will opt in. This is ok because virtual worlds (and IM and email and shared repositories) are not complete replacements for walking around, but they are alternatives that many or most will exploit for some increased effectiveness.Think of a corporate cafeteria. Some employees will go there every day and use it as an opportunity to network and socialize. Some will go there and eat alone or in a small private group. Some will take their lunches back to their offices and not network or socialize at all. Each opts in to the degree that they are comfortable and they feel it brings value to them. We would not take it too seriously though if the fellow eating his lunch alone in his office started insisting that the idea of a cafeteria was crazy and had no value.You did ask two questions that I think may have related answers. You asked what would your reason be to get up and explore in a virtual world (can't get a drink of water there) and what is the value of the 3D component of a virtual world. From my experience, the reasons for being out and about in the virtual world are usually either to see 3D models people have made or to attend some sort of gathering or event in the 3D space like a lecture, conference, concert, exhibit opening, etc. In the first case, those 3D creations are very often what leads to a new aquaintance for me. From the things people make, you learn about their values, interests, talents, perspectives. In many cases viewing a build has caused me to contact the builder resulting in zero bad experiences and several long running high-value associations. Similarly with the events, like minds are often brought together, conversations start, contact information is exchanged, and further contact is greatly facilitated both synchronously and asynchronously, either through ongoing messaging or "come see my stuff", or "you'll like this cool thing I found".I can tell from your thoughtful comments that you are open to discussion, but no amount of discussion is a substitute for exploration and experimentation.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

I spend a lot of time in virtual worlds, particularly in Second Life, and one thing that I find working in my virtual office is that just like in the real world, occasionally I just have to get up and go for a walk, or explore, to just relax for a moment, or to clear my mind. Ideas often come when you take a break and are not as focused on the task at hand. I also think, in relation to Oliver's comments, that this fatal extra step is somewhat similar to the arguments heard when people were considering how web 1.0 could be useful in a business environment. In that case the extra step was having to run additional software (browser) which didnt appear to have any direct benefit to the job at hand. You had to consciously load this new application, and really... what could it do to help me get that document finished? Now days, we probably couldnt do with out it. There is a perspective shift that goes with any new successful technology. You work a little differently, but the end result is that you work better, faster, smarter. It will take time for the perspective shift to ripple out to everyone.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Oliver, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Have you ever been sitting at your desk working and you finish a task (hang up the phone, click "send," enter a final edit in a doc) and you think, "I need a diversion?" You look at your email inbox to see if there's anything new there you feel like paying attention to. You check your personal email. You check your Facebook site. In these moments you're looking for a mental change of scene from the series of tasks you were just working on. This is one case when I can see someone making the effort to pop by the virtual company hangout room just to see what's going on -- especially if there is entertainment there, and other Forresterites are there too. Imagine that that is the place where you would enter ideas into a hopper, bid company-issued funny money on projects you think are going to be most successul, offer comments to refine ideas others have submitted -- all via a fun interactive 3D interface.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Charles, Todd and Erica: Maybe I was reading too far into the phrase "Serendipitous Interaction." All your comments make sense to me, but I would argue that in each case the effort put in to find other people, to interact, to explore makes the resulting interactions overt. In my mind (and again maybe this is simply a misalignment of terms) a serendipitous interaction is one that would begin in a covert manner; something that just creeps up on you.In response to a couple of the specific comments from above: 1. I strongly believe that in a business context the extra effort to participate in this sort of interaction would be way too much for the vast majority of employees (I see plenty of firms that have enough trouble getting employees to use wikis), and without massive adoption it seems to me the value is *greatly* diminished.2. When it comes to attending meetings, my guess is that most people will simply teleport to the meeting room and teleport away when finished. I spend a lot of time on conference calls and find that almost across the board people are running late. Taking the extra time on top of that to walk or fly to a meeting and to chat with people along the way seems unreasonable.3. I still fail to see how the majority of the interactions here are enhanced by an immersive virtual world. I buy the notion of 3D models, but beyond that if the goal is really just to interact with other people how are a chatroom or IM not sufficient? Entering ideas into a hopper, bidding in prediction markets, offering comments and refining ideas, etc. all of these things are done today without a 3D world around them, I'm not sure I see how they are enhanced. On the other hand I can easily see how these things are limited today as few people have the skills or technology to participate (though I will be the first to agree that the technology is bound to get easier to use and more reliable).

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

I agree that immersive 3D spaces are good for collaborative work and do foster relationship building, in fact I experience it daily with my interactions in Second Life. One area that really drives my creative juices in regards to a VW office is a fully integrated location with an existing back end.My vision is to have my 10 geographically disperse offices and teams work side by side daily as one larger office. I can then better coordinate human capitol and restructure how our line managers interact with each other and their staff. As Erica states we need that virtual computer monitor, but it goes beyond just that, its a complete revamp of how we work and manage and communicate.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Really like this post on hard at work in a virtual office.

re: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Intera

Recently, i am thinking about the feasibility of keeping a virtual assistant on the job, ifthe economy decides to slow down a bit. If you see concept of marketraise you mayhired a Virtual Assistant.i have hired virtual assistance from marketraise in January of2008. It has now been a few months since then. I want to share some thoughts I haveabout having a Virtual Personal Assistant during a slower economy.