Wednesday, 16 January 2008

The Potential for Enterprise Metaverses

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:

Its worth checking out their YouTube channel for a few more interesting examples of integrating external data into Second Life, including Google maps mashup and a Twitter fountain!

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!

6 comments:

  1. A lot of people seem to focus on the fact that SL "needs" you to have an alternative identity. Actually I think it can work - provided that you are open about it, act and present yourself sensibly (in a business context), etc... of course, there's no reason not to have fun with it too, even within a business context. At IBM we have guidelines which help us to keep our heads screwed on in this area.

    Good to see you revisiting this. As you indicate, there is a lot of potential, particularly in the area of real-to-virtual world interaction. I've been reading The Entrepreneur's Guide to SL (which I must try to blog about), and towards the end of the book there is a good interview with the former Linden CTO Corey Ondrejka which foreshadows a lot of your thinking here.

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  2. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against having fun at work! :-) However, it would be nice to be able to enter any metaverse with, say, an OpenID that also links to a portable avatar. Of course, from a purely personal perspective I think there is room for metaverses where people can also create alter egos.

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  3. Portable avatars, unified ID systems, absolutely! I think you're absolutely right about that. Do you follow the Dogear Nation podcast, for example? the guys have talked about these topics a lot in the past.

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  4. I'd want to be able to see what company a "business avatar" works for, what rank they hold, and if not their real name, an employee id of some sort that is used outside of the virtual environment. Also good would be a video chat ability in addition to standard avatars. Web cam images could be the avatars, for that matter, or just be available to viewers on demand when desired.

    Why would people show up before a meeting in a virtual world or hang around afterword and not in a video meeting? Do they just not want to be seen? Is there any data to support the claim that they do? Has this been tested for different type of video conferencing? Was the test done in a rigorous manner?

    I typically don't sit down for meetings in virtual worlds.

    I'd like to see what multi-touch gestural controllers can do for controlling avatars. For example, could you move your fingers in such a way as to control facial expressions in a somewhat fluid manner?

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  5. I'd like to go to the CSC islands but they won't let me in.

    Is there any way to let me drop by to visit during the event?

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  6. Sue I no longer work for CSC, but still have many contacts there. However, checking the FAQ http://www.csc.com/insidecsc/ds/21294/24558-frequently_asked_questions_for_csc_s_virtual_celebration it looks like its a private island for staff only.

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