Ok, I admit it. When I first joined Linden Lab to head up Enterprise Marketing three months ago, I wasn’t 100% convinced that working in virtual worlds really works. I mean, intellectually, immersive environments make perfect sense. We’ve all heard the key messages and I’ve been hard at work writing them. Meeting in Second Life allows global and mobile teams to collaborate in ways that aren’t possible other ways—improves efficiency, creativity, communication, and keeps travel costs in check. But, seriously—does working in the virtual world work?
My first official meeting in Second Life was an important and jarring experience for me—waking me up to how powerful the medium really is. The meeting took place in the Isabel conference room, here at the Battery Lab. The physical conference room—Isabel—has a virtual counterpart that is an exact replica—Virtual Isabel. A camera in Isabel captures what’s happening in the room and displays it in the virtual space. Simultaneously, the participants in Virtual Isabel are projected on the wall of physical Isabel. The result is a seamless experience—two conference spaces, one real and one virtual, merge into one. At first, it was a bit strange, but then I became absorbed into the discussion and the lines between the physical and virtual spaces blended. Then, in Virtual Isabel, I saw someone floating outside the window with a box on his head. What was my first reaction? I looked outside the physical window of the conference room to see if there was really someone floating outside. My colleagues caught me—in a completely confused state about what’s real and what’s virtual–and we all burst out laughing. I learned something very important that day. The virtual medium is extremely powerful and the ‘sense of presence’ is real—and that’s the magic ingredient that makes a meeting truly productive.
To that point, I believe that the only good alternative to virtual meetings is a face-to-face meeting. It would be a hard to argue the teleconference calls or WebEx can create as immersive an experience. I mean, how many wasted hours have we all spent staring at a Polycom or ‘multi-tasking’ (i.e. barely tuning into the meeting) during a WebEx presentation? Don’t remind me.
Video conferencing is increasingly being used as an immersive meeting technology, but there are some psychological aspects that limit its potential. Caleb Booker recently blogged on this very topic. He posits two very interesting theories. First, usually when you’re in a video conference, the camera is zoomed in on the speaker and—unconsciously—we pull back because we feel we’re in a conversation with a ‘close talker.” (Anyone remember that Seinfeld episode? A classic.) He makes the case for virtual worlds and says, “The entire virtual world phenomena works because it accomplishes one simple thing: the perception of space. This is one of the most underestimated and wildly powerful tools of the past decade. Without even needing 3D glasses, a virtual space moves another person’s “presence” to a comfortable distance while still creating a sense that you are somehow physically together.”
His second point is even more compelling. As you know, there are three types of learners—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (or experience-based). The virtual world is a perfect mix that accommodates all three. He says, “Visual folk can look around the room to ’place‘ the voice they’re hearing or the text they’re reading (critical for them if they want to remember anything that happened!). Auditory people can just sit back and chat, occasionally glancing at the typed text. As for the kinesthetic people, well, they’re in absolute heaven.”
In fact, there really isn’t any other collaboration platform that can successfully do all three for distributed teams—except for a physical meeting. And, with travel budgets completely decimated these days, the luxury of a physical meeting is no longer a viable option for day-to-day interactions.
These days, I’m spending at least 2-3 hours a day in Second Life, meeting with my colleagues distributed all over the world—collaborating, brainstorming, learning, and decorating my new office space in LindenWorld. Using Second Life as an enterprise solution is helping us get our enterprise solutions to market smarter, cheaper, and faster than we might otherwise.
Ok, I’m the Marketing gal who drinks my own Kool-Aid—true. But, I’m also a believer, and if you’re not already—you will be, too. Just try it and you’ll know what I’m talking about.