Virtual Worlds For Collaboration: When You Remove Constraints, You Change The Possibilities

Ericadriver_5By Erica Driver

This weekend I listened to a great panel discussion about virtual worlds and their impact on the future of work at the MetaverseU conference at Stanford University . The panelists were Byron Reeves, Co-Director of Stanford’s Human Sciences and Technology Advanced Research center, Christian Renaud, Chief Architect of Networked Virtual Environments for the Cisco Technology Center, and Reuben Steiger, CEO of virtual worlds agency Millions of Us. The key takeway from the panel: work is changing dramatically and virtual worlds have a potentially — though not inevitably — huge role to play.

  • Virtual worlds can create more engaging interactions for distributed people. For traditional information workers, virtual worlds can deliver a far more compelling meeting experience than a teleconference, Web conference, or even video conference (as long as all participants have adequate bandwidth, video card, and PC processing power). Think about the last phone-based team meeting you were involved in where you had more than, say, 6 or 7 people dialed in from different locations — people tend to multi-task, have trouble identifying who’s speaking, and lose out on non-verbal communication. (See my Oct. 4, 2007 blog post about this: “3D Internet: From A One-Speed Banana Seat To A 24-Speed Mountain Bike — Someday.”) Christian Renaud of Cisco has been holding weekly one-on-one internal meetings in Second Life for a year now and says that virtual worlds add a level of fun to the job, which can have an influence on productivity.
  • Serious games increase peoples’ engagement with their work. Imagine the increased engagement of an immersive video game-like work experience for task workers whose jobs are “tragically boring,” to use Byron Reeves’ words  — the examples he gave were customer service in a contact center, surveillance data analysis, or any job where you are categorizing things. Where’s the business value in increasing peoples’ engagement with their work, you might wonder? The bottom line: improvements in job performance and increased retention. Let’s say that your company has 1,000 contact center reps and their average tenure is 2 years. If you could engage them for on average 3 months longer imagine the bottom line impact from the reduced costs of recruiting and training. The picture Reeves painted was of a newly hired customer service rep sitting down in front of a video game-like virtual world that is his job. Here he initially engages with fake customers (they could be based on artificial intelligence or could be avatars operated by a trainer or other trainees) as well as other customer service reps. When he reaches, say, level 12, he gets to interact with specially-selected real customers via this same environment. When he reaches level 20 he can handle a higher level of difficulty, and by level 27 he can manage a team. One caveat Byron Reeves raised is it would be a huge mistake to provide a worker with this level of engagement in a training scenario and then return them to a really boring job.
  • Virtual worlds increase serendipitous interactions among distributed people. Christian Renaud of Cisco commented that in his experience 99% of business happens outside scheduled meetings. This is how ideas are exchanged, teams are formed, and mergers and acquisitions germinate. And the way he put it: “You can’t bump into someone via video conferencing.” You could, however, run into someone, or meet someone, in a virtual world in a way that replicates what happens in corporate hallways and cafeterias all the time. (See my Feb. 4, 2008 blog post “Virtual Offices for All: Return of the Serendipitous Interaction.”)
  • But we need more natural interface devices. A mouse and keyboard are non-intuitive ways of participating in virtual worlds. Participating in virtual worlds has to become a much more natural experience. I saw a demo of an extraordinary product at MetaverseU —  a company called Seeing Machines built a head tracking and expression recognition system called faceLAB. FaceLAB provides head movement and expression tracking with no weird-looking headgear —  in fact no specialized hardware at all. The only hardware used for the demo was an Apple MacBook with built-in Web camera. By tying this technology with an avatar, a person could begin to experience a virtual world and communicate with others in it in a very natural way. You turn your head and your avatar’s head turns. You smile and your avatar smiles with you.
  • Many other technological barriers must be overcome, too. Businesses are taking a risk regardless of which virtual world technology vendor they spend a big chunk of money with because we are in such an early stage market. A vendor that looks promising today could be gone in two years. Another implication of the early stage of this market is that none of the available technology solutions provide 100% — even 80%, really — of needed functionality: secure chat, secure voice, access control, easy navigation, 3D content creation tools for non-technical users, and integration with the business software people use every day to get their jobs done. Also, even people who would be inclined to use virtual worlds for collaboration may suffer the limitations of their current technology. Their work-issued PC or laptop may not have a powerful enough video card or processor, or they may not have adequate network bandwidth.

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