Working in the virtual world – the challenge [updated May 1, 2008]
In an earlier post I outlined my goal of creating a virtual workplace where real work could be done. I should elaborate further so that I don’t confuse you. I have two principal goals in mind. The first is to identify how remote workers who choose to work in Second Life (or another virtual world) can interoperate with their colleagues in the conventional office environment who cannot or choose not to operate in Second Life. The second goal is how do it almost entirely with the virtual world. It is quite feasible to operate in multiple spaces today, switching from the 3D world in one window to conventional applications in other windows. In practice, you will want a dual monitor setup which enables you to see your unobstructed virtual world on one monitor while running all the other applications on the second monitor. Erica Driver of Forrester Research describes this arrangement in her post on virtual offices.
What I want to tackle (as a long-term project) is the identification of solutions for moving much of that work into the virtual (3D) space so that you don’t switch between the 3D and 2D worlds as often. The switch involves more than just an adaption to a different dimensional space – the virtual world is immersive (which derives from the fact that it involves both visual and auditory attention), and it is based on real-time synchronous communication. There’s also some level of emotional attention as evidenced by the fact that you want to turn and face the person you are talking to, and you want to convey the right body language.
The objects around you in your virtual office are an expression of your personality. Here is a picture of Erica Driver in her virtual office.
(While her projection of her office says a lot about her sense of self, there’s nothing in this office or in the Second Life interface that allows her to write on the paper or send it to anyone outside Second Life.)
The 2D world has a completely different attention model. Most of its applications were originally modeled on the metaphor of the desktop, with sub-metaphors for papers (or stacks of papers), an in-tray, an out-tray, desk calendar, file cabinet, etc. Oddly, the whole time that the desktop metaphor was being refined, we kept representing these objects with 3D icons, but every interaction with the objects was performed in 2D. The objects on the desktop are impersonal. Admittedly, there have been some attempts to create 3D interfaces for filing or search, but they have not gained much traction when everything else is 2D. Recent Mac and Windows operating systems have tried to create a slightly more convincing 3D layering effect with animation and transparent shadows, but the interface is still fundamentally 2D and impersonal.
Business task 1 – chatting with colleagues
I thought the first area of work I should tackle was chat, since the functionality is part of Second Life and most corporate enviroments. I thought initially that the principal problems would be gateways and protocol mappings, but it has turned out be more involved.
Firstly, let’s quickly review what’s available in Second Life and see what’s available for communication outside.
- Text chat in Second Life can only be used between residents of Second Life. It has an advantage over some IM systems in that you can IM people whether they are online or offline. If offline, they will be sent an email. When they login, the stored IM is presented to them.
- The SL Messenger chat device (worn as a watch) allows your avatar to chat with friends on MSN, AIM, Gtalk, Gadu-Gadu, ICQ and Yahoo! IM. It is free to purchase and available in-world by following the instructions on www.sl-messenger.com. It sends messages to your friends as if you were logged into your IM platform. This is the closest solution except that it doesn’t provide a mechanism for an ou-worlder to message you by your in-world name. While I have been able to send messages to AIM users, I have been unable to communicate with Windows Live Messenger. I haven’t trid the other gateways.
- ChatBridge from Intersections Unlimited supports IM between Second Life and AOL or Yahoo. There are several products including a customized corporate product which does not require the corporate users to have Second Life accounts. I’ll write more on this product after I’ve seen a demo.
- If you just want to send a message to a resident in Second Life without launching the Second Life client, there are lightweight clients like Second Messenger and Metabolt which enable this as well as other functions. However, both parties must have Second Life accounts and must refer to each other by their Second Life names.
- Vodafone offers the only product that effectively crosses the boundaries. The Vodafone InsideOut virtual cellphone allows anyone in Second Life to speak or TXT with anyone, either in Second Life or the real world. Calls to the real world cost $300L (just over $USD1.00) per minute or per message. Incoming calls are a function your local carrier’s tariff. (UPDATE May-01: Upon closer reading of the product description, InsideOut seems to be restricted to Second Life residents. What is unique about the service is that you associate your real-world mobile number with your avatar identity. If you are offline when sometime tries to call you, the call is deflected to your real mobile. The callerID presented on your phone is the avatar’s name and a number which cannot be mapped to the caller’s real mobile number. The goal of the service is to preserve the anonymity of avatars and hide their real-world phone numbers while extending Second Life’s voice chat to the cellular network.)
- IBM offers guidance on how to create a bot that acts as a gateway between SL and Lotus Sametime.
Those solutions above that interwork with IM platforms do so with Consumer IM (CIM) rather than with Enterprise IM. Many companies refuse to allow CIM solutions to be used because they don’t provide provide sufficient security and cannot be managed by IT. (See this and that for more background.) With customization, I believe that ChatBridge Corporate can interface to Lotus Sametime, Microsoft LCS or other EIM platforms.
Mapping of a user’s enterprise identity (typically their corporate email address) to an avatar name is seldom supported by the standard directory services. Email gateways don’t know how to map an address like firstname.lastname@example.org back to a corporate email address.
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that electronically transmitted information be discoverable. While the enterprise can log IMs received from an employee in Second Life, it cannot effectively record IMs to a customer, competitor or government official by that same employee. In theory, LInden Lab maintains the logs. You can imagine the discomfort that organizations used to central control feel when faced with this situation.
Know another solution?
If you’re using or know of another IM solution for interworking with SL from the enterprise, please add a comment.