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Friday, December 15, 2006

Is this the Way to Run a Meeting?

I have spent some time in the last month getting up to speed in the Second Life (SL) virtual world. I worked with similar things, notably Blaxxun, back in the 90s. Always have been interested in highly visual interfaces, so this is a great example that I awaited with anticipation. It also has received much interest from the business world.

I received an invitation from IBM to attend a tour of their new virtual islands today. This was the first time I attended a formal meeting in SL. There were about 50 or so avatar participants and maybe 10 IBM speakers, tour guides and helpers there. Not all of the participants (including me) were highly skilled at controlling their character, so there was lots of bumping, colliding and fidgeting before getting people in their seats. The interface does not lend itself to precise control. Some seated avatars were so large and strangely adorned that I wanted to yell 'down in front'! But it did not actually matter since there was little to see down in front.

Like most SL presentations this consists of words typed in a chat box and supporting visuals. The visuals, though, require some adeptness with zooming in to a screen, also something more of an advanced technique. As a result the visuals were mostly just repetitions of the chat text. While the presentation goes on, you can IM other people in the crowd to create a back conversation, but that too can become confusing, and if you type in the wrong box, your acid comment becomes part of the public presentation!

Once the short presentation was over, we were invited to group teleport to a number of venues that IBM and their clients had developed. Teleporting groups is also something that the interface does not do well, so with each teleport some folks were left behind. You could also fly there, if you knew the way.

One of the venues I was most interested in was the Circuit City store. Last night I had watched as the IBM architects spent some last minute time fixing it up, and that process, done by avatars in virtual space, was fascinating to watch. That worked well, at least in my perception, because there were only a few folks, and they were very focused on a task.

The building of the Circuit City store (In SL search for 'IBM 10') and all of the store venues along a virtual street in SL are very well done. Much effort has been expended to get these looking architecturally good. Inside the store, however, things are different. I have interacted with some real-world store designs, and the CC world is strange indeed, very large aisles and too small products. Once you get more than a few shoppers things become chaotic. Its another case of precision control of your avatar, and a relatively small space, that makes it hard to do anything like they envision. Also, what they are trying to do is create a old style 'a pick and choose store' in a virtual space. People are now used to click- picking things from a screen to do online shopping, they don't need the illusion of aisles. Most stores in SL use click able pictures on the wall to sell their goods.

Once outside of the store you can fly and explore at will, you don't need the precision required in a narrow space. Leaving, I felt that breath of relief when you get out of a too-enclosed space.

What was amazing is the amount of effort that IBM has put into this effort. Dozens of staff and those that I talked to were very enthusiastic about the idea. The SL space also allowed an openness that I had not seen before. On the steps of the virtual Almaden Virtual labs (the real one is in San Jose) I got into some great conversations about virtual space, navigation and data interaction. Made some great connections. That would have been hard to set up otherwise.

I chatted with a colleague about this and his reaction was that IBM is investing in this not for the now, but in the belief that this will become something in the not too distant future. A very good point. Sure the SL interface is klunky and imprecise, but that problem will be solved, perhaps by some other vendor.

So congratulations to IBM to get this work started for us. There is lots to do. Its worth exploring on a not too crowded day. We need to understand how real companies can sell real things in a virtual world. And along the way, just how to have a simple meeting there.

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