As part of an internal CSC research project I've started working on this year, I found myself revisiting Second Life in the last few days. I'm actually less interested in the social and virtual alter ego aspects of these public 3D virtual worlds - or "metaverses" - and more in their application for business collaboration and elearning. In this interview, Ian Hughes from IBM, explains how they add to the collaboration experience:
"the added presence of the avatar and proximity to others helps add to the flow of a meeting. e.g. people gather a few minutes before the meeting, as in real life. Then they form into the meeting, e.g. they all sit down whilst the meeting leader stands and runs the meeting. When the meeting finishes people tend to not just leave instantly but drift away over a few minutes. During those few minutes they interact in social groups (which again are very visual as you tend to go over and stand near the people you are talking too. This is analogous to a real world meeting where conversations happen on the way out. Standard phone meetings or even video conferences tend to end in a more instant and dead way."
Generally speaking I think its important that if we use virtual worlds for business collaboration and elearning, then our virtual entity (expressed an Avatar) needs to be an extension of our workplace identity rather than alternative identity - unfortunately Second Life forces you to adopt an alternative identity (I'm known as Chieftech Kidd). However, the OpenSim project is developing an open source "functioning virtual worlds server platform capable of supporting multiple clients and servers in a heterogeneous grid structure." I can see great potential in the OpenSim project to allow organisations to create their own inexpensive and controllable intraverses and extraverses(I thought I could be the first to coin this term, but alas a few people are already using it!) that are integrated as part of their information workplace. There is an interesting connection with CSC's existing research into the concept of Digital Trust, as this is probably one weakness in the existing metaverse systems - the inability to register and access different metaverses based on a single, transferable avatar. BTW I just found that Susan Kish has posted an excellent guest post on the LunchoverIP blog that explores some of these issues is more detail - I particularly like the Virtual Geography diagram that describes:
"MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft), and Metaverses (Virtual Worlds that are primarily social vs. game oriented, such as Second Life), to MMOLEs (focused on learning and training environments), to Intraverses (putting up a virtual world inside the corporate firewall), to Paraverses (often also called Mirror Worlds, such as Google Earth)."
The other aspect of extending real life into the metaverse is extending real objects into the metaverse. I read about this SAP experiment in Second Life last year:
"I particularly liked the demo of a project SAP is working on with a large property manager in Switzerland, to build models in Second Life that are tied via sensors to real buildings. The prototype is only a small model building, a doll-house, so to speak, but this is definitely the future of property management: open a door in the real building, a door opens in the SL analogue.
This prototype is also very on trend with one of the big ideas we have about where Web 2.0 is going, towards Web 2.0 applications that are fed directly by sensors, so that "participation" no longer just means typing on a keyboard, but the accidental information we create 'merely in living as and where we live.'"
There are also a couple of video examples from Daden Limited of using the libsecondlife software library (that is based on reverse engineering of the Second Life protocol and resulted in the Copybot incident) to demonstrate how actions outside of the metaverse can result in changes in the virtual environment:
I think the potiential for embedding application into meteverses that connect back into the cloud (and subsequently the real environment) is just as exciting as the presence and proximity benefits described above. I'm looking forward to seeing the first composite metaverse application builder!