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Virtual worlds invade the average business meeting

April 8, 2008 | Chris Payatagool

TechRepublic.jpgBy Bill Detwiler

While video conferencing and telepresence seem to be the up-and-coming collaboration technologies, IBM is keeping its options open and exploring alternatives.

During his VoiceCon Orlando 2008 keynote, Rhodin demonstrated a 3D virtual meeting room complete with conference phone, presentation screen, and faux leather chairs. (Okay, the chairs might have been real "virtual" leather.) Meeting attendees appeared in the room as avatars-think Second Life without the purple hair and wacky clothes. Partnering with Forterra Systems, a developer of virtual environments, IBM plans to integrate Forterra's On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE) 3D platform with Lotus Sametime.

"We are committed to meeting the requirements of both public and private sector organizations for an easy-to-use, trusted, secure collaboration platform, and we are confident that this announcement allows us to take the lead in meeting the demands of a new market trend," said Dave Rolston, CEO of Forterra Systems, in a March 20 press release.

Forterra Systems and IBM demonstrate 3D meeting room within Lotus Sametime

Credit: Bill Detwiler/

I admit the demonstration was eye-catching, but I'm unconvinced businesses are ready to accept a meeting room that looks and feels like a "computer game". I put this question to Robert Gehorsam, Forterra Systems President, during an interview after Rhodin's keynote. Gehorsam cited the success of virtual 3D environments in training and collaboration among intelligence agencies as evidence many organizations recognize that virtual worlds can be used for more than social networking or gaming.

Despite, Gehorsam's enthusiasm, I'm still not convinced a virtual 3D environment and human avatars will ever be more effective than video conferencing or telepresence for the average office meeting. As an avid computer gamer, I understand the allure of online virtual worlds. But, I also like seeing the faces of the people I'm meeting with. Even photo-realistic avatars can't accurately replicate the fully emotional range of the human face.

Virtual 3D environments are excellent training tools for situations that would be too costly, too dangerous, or impossible to regularly reproduce-battlefield operations, tactical response scenarios, flight simulations, emergency response exercises, and so forth. But, the average office meeting seems better served by face-to-face interaction-even if it's through a video conferencing system.

I applaud IBM and Forterra for pushing the boundaries of collaboration and exploring new uses for virtual environments, but I'm skeptical that people will prefer holding business meetings through an avatar. What do you think?

[via TechRepublic]

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