I’m paraphrasing Qwaq’s tagline: “Virtual Spaces for Real Work” based on a great workshop I attended Monday at SRI. I’d almost said “no, thank you” to Eilif Trondsen’s offer of a guest slot at their latest meeting of the Virtual-Worlds Consortium for Innovation and Learning given my dim view of the readiness of Second Life for real work. Twelve hours of interaction later, I’m back to being excited about virtual worlds in real world enterprises. Key to this transformation were the representatives from (links are focused on their virtual world activities): Cisco, Forterra, IBM, Intel, SRI, Stanford, Sun, Visual Purple, and Qwaq.

My short summary of top picks for particular goals (standard disclaimer for this blog – how the technology is actually intertwined with organizational practice is what determines the overall effectiveness – the summaries below highlight particular strengths and histories of the specific environments – they are each flexible/customizable and can be used in a much broader set of uses than described below):
  • Qwaq Forums for doing collaborative work
  • OLIVE (Forterra) for training
  • Wonderland (Sun/Open Source toolkit for creating virtual worlds) is up and coming – and free
  • Second Life (Linden Labs) for fun (e.g., the Flying Tako Sailboat provides the best sailing simulation I know – and you can participate in real-time regattas)
Longer thoughts (based on this workshop -- many other topics and tools were discussed, but there are the ones I feel I can do justice):

Virtual worlds may provide opportunities for people to engage in ways they cannot in the real world. Virtual teams may be able collaborate on projects in more natural ways in a virtual environment. Serendipitous interactions may provide social- and innovation-focused interaction that might otherwise not occur. See Christian Renaud’s blogs (here and here) for some excellent discussion (and feel free to add other suggestions by posting comments – focus on enterprise uses please).

Second Life provides the ultimate freedom for virtual world interaction, self-design of your environment, and a true economy. However, while it can be effective in the enterprise (see for example IBM’s use of Second Life for rehearsal), there is a relatively high learning curve for moving around, many companies have security concerns given it runs outside of their own firewall, and IT stability is a common complaint (see discussion here of Linden Lab’s actions for improvements in these areas).

Wonderland is all about opportunity. It is an open source toolkit for creating virtual worlds on your own servers. This may be especially valuable in educational environments where control and cost are high priorities. Please see the new media consortium’s discussion the values of an open source model for virtual worlds.

Visual Purple
: Their lunch time presentation of a custom training tool stopped conversations (virtual world stories with interactive coaching).

OLIVE was built as a training platform. Forterra supports healthcare, emergency services and the like. It has a feature set that makes it very powerful in this mode. It is amazing to think of the value of being able to “replay” an emergency response situation that has been played out in the virtual world – while being able to look at this replay from each of the participants’ perspectives, or from a bird’s-eye-view. While IBM’s great expertise in Second Life allows them to do immersive training and rehearsal using machinima (movies done within the virtual world), with OLIVE this is native. You can also have the world designed to automatically keep track of specific actions (e.g., number of times a patient’s blood-pressure was checked), or bookmark the proceedings for easier debriefing. Evidence-based training?!

A Qwaq Forum is a slimmed down (vis a vis Second Life), customizable collaborative space. They are focusing on the collaboration, rather than creating lifelike avatars and true in-world physics. It’s ok with me if I look like a gingerbread man, if my team can get work done.

Built on the open source Croquet platform, you can drag and drop your browser and/or files from your desktop into the Forum space and co-edit with your team members. Their representatives talk about easily creating a space “on the fly” while at the same time supporting persistence (your work will be there – either as you left it, or as your colleague edited it). I came away believing that I could get work done in their space -- meetings and collaborative activities made sense here. They also provide drop-down menu support for navigation and interaction with the space. This is to support users less focused on using the avatar as a mechanism of interaction. Qwaq supports audio and enough “presence” to know if your colleagues are looking at the same document you are, how active they are, and the like. Their use of a Polycom VOIP
"speaker phone"

– worked great in this conference room. Prof. Renate Fruchter (Stanford) mentioned some of her research in Qwaq settings and peoples’ ability to see “traces” of others’ work. (See earlier presentation of some of Prof. Fruchter’s work.) I’m especially interested in how this kind of a collaborative space can help teams form situational awareness (more here and here) in virtual settings.

I welcome discussion of the use of virtual worlds for serious work. I thank the participants of this workshop for expanding my horizons.