Posted by: Peter Quirk | October 24, 2008

A reflection on in-world collaboration

The project I’ve been working on was inspired by a chance on-line conversation with a colleague many months ago. I have posted numerous articles about virtual worlds on our corporate social network ever since it went live ( and before that on a couple of other platforms). One article about virtual workplaces resulted in Paul, a home-based worker, suggesting to me me that we build a virtual workplace for him and his team.

When Paul worked in the office he derived a lot of value from overhearing the conversations of the other members of his small team as they responded to customer questions about the application they support. He not only learned on the job, but was able to contribute his knowledge to others when heard them struggling with a customer situation. At some point, the team was relocated to home offices and he lost that tight-knit connection to the other team members. He knew from a brief encounter with  the Second Life™ world that he could recreate that sense of working clsoely with others in a virtual world.

I hacked the living room scene in the starter island of realXtend to include three desks, three office chairs and three PCs to create a warm, homely office environment. When I was happy with it, I invited Paul to see it.

Initial home office concept

Initial home office concept

That was a small disaster and a learning moment. Firstly, the space was too small. Secondly, the combination of a newbie and a island with nothing locked down resulted in stuff being moved everytime he touched something.

At the same time I was developing some other islands for possible use as collaborative meeting places for distributed teams. These had to be as unlike our existing meeting places as possible if they were to add any value. I wanted to create places where people would collaborate on the development of presentations, or brainstorm about things, or simply hang out and get to know each other.

When EMC announced its second Innovation Conference, I decided to develop the workplace idea for Paul and a meeting place idea for distributed engineering teams. Paul became heavily invested in the workplace project and helped to define its key characteristics:

  • it had to be a corporate-looking place where he and his team members see and hear other.
  • it had to be something that his management would recognize as an EMC workplace and would see that serious work was taking place here.

I photographed some interior and exterior walls in the building I work in and quickly put together a representation of a building and showed it to Paul. He liked it a lot and added another requirement:

  • the place must include a “library” where his in-world customers could browse reference materials about the application and learn how to use it.

I made the building larger and added a series of wall panels on which were suspended frames for PowerPoint slides. The building is two stories high from the outside, but inside it appears to be a single storey with a high ceiling. (Note the Trompe L’Oeil of the windows in the scenes below.) The entrance is very large and easy to navigate for newbies. There are no doors to manipulate. Paul has add the training content he wanted and scripted the slides to launch browser sessions linked to deeper content. Over time we’ve added a small lounge area for informal conversations. In another corner I’m assembling racks of equipment on a raised floor to demonstrate some system management ideas which are not yet scripted.

During this period of development the virtual workplace submission made it to the finals of the competition, for which we had to prepare a poster in a science fair format. We hurried our design along to the point where we could so some photo shoots. We collaborated on the design of the poster by email (since it was a Word document) and continued to fight bugs in the realXtend platform (as described in my previous post.)

One week ago, Paul and I finally met in real life. We did a demo of the workplace for his manager. I’m pleased to say that Paul’s manager “gets it” and can already see additional applications for the platform as a training vehicle for new users. Paul tells me that another manager in his group also “got it” as soon as he saw the virtual workplace on Paul’s desktop wallpaper. That manager is a gamer.

This experience of collaborating in-world, with the help of traditional email and occasional IM, convinced me of the validity of virtual worlds for collaborative design. It doesn’t matter that we were designing a virtual building. We might as well have been designing a real building or a BPM model in pictures.

Below are a couple of pictures of the interior and exterior of the virtual support center. We haven’t invested any time in landscaping at this point since the environment is subject to a lot of change, and will be for a long while. Right now we consider this a proof-of-concept that enables discussions with management. Virtual worlds have to be seen to be understood. This tiny demo running inside the firewall is a kind of teaching tool for management and for potential users of the system.

A view from outside the building

A view from outside the building

A view inside the building. Note the trompe l'oeil of the interior windows versus the exterior view.

A view inside the building

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