Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Going virtual in Second Life - why?

Last week marked the launch of a significant project that our team have been working on for months – our first ever event in a virtual world. I’ve been a fan of the potential of virtual worlds for a while. I was first fascinated by it in 2006 for research, then became a user in 2007, then on to immersion in 2008 with our event. Here's a snapshot of the venue (photo credit: Marcus Coghlan).

One of the aspects I love about the web is its ability to connect people no matter where they are in the world. One of the challenges with virtual communication is that not everyone experiences it in the same way, and the variation in the richness of the experience is widely skewed.

For example, if you’re in a chat/IM, you experience each other as a line of text and a user name. Especially if you have had no previous contact with each other, you can be left wondering who this person is and what they really mean. There are very few non-verbal clues.

With a teleconference, at least you have voice quality and inflection, but it’s disembodied. A videoconference is better, but like all before it, it’s two dimensional, and doesn’t work well with a large group.

In my experience too, often videoconferences include groups of people who are face-to-face in a meeting room, with one or two others brought in from the various locations. This means that all experience their meeting environment differently.

Some cannot see the other VC participants properly (e.g. if it is a large group and the lighting is not adequate in the room); plus if you are the only person remote on videoconference, you have an inferior experience to those who there majority of people are sitting. And to me, this is where virtual worlds come in.

The promise of virtual worlds (and I recognise that we are not quite there yet), is that you are all in the same environment together. It is an immersive, visual, rich environment. In the case of Second Life, you have a number of communication tools, including voice and IM.

This becomes four options as you can have one-to-one IM and voice call, as well as many-to-many voice and IM, where all can hear and see. Plus as a participant you experience each other as a physical presence through your avatar.

For our session, participants responded well. Feedback to date shows they valued the event, content and experience – we had them logging in from all over Australia and the world, including the UK and USA. Broadband and other technicalities aside, they all experienced the same environment, no matter where they were logging in from.

And it was in real-time, 3D, where each person’s avatar provided a visual and spatial indication of them as a person; and the event as an occasion, where interaction and Q&A were a natural part of proceedings. A much richer experience than if this was a webinar, videoconference, or video recording of a session.

In the case of our event, we had two speakers hosted in our conference venue:

Lindy McKeown (Decka Mah) presented on the educational aspects and uses of virtual worlds in a learning environment; while Lee Hopkins (Lee Laperriere), spoke about how business and accountants were using Second Life. I will post again with more info on their presentations, as we’re presently having our machinima of the event edited.

For myself (Helene Markova), I MC'd the event. More on this later too – I learned a lot from this experience, it was great!

For more reviews of the session, you can go to Lee Hopkins' wrap-up on the event, as well as our team members Alex Dalidakis and Mick Leyden, who have blogged their thoughts.

Also see our Flickr tag cpaaustralia-sl for photos, and watch our promo video below of our SL environment fly-through. And do visit our CPA Congress Centre in Second Life.