What defines virtual?
A question that we often hear is ‘why would anyone want to interact in a virtual world versus the real one?’ I used to go through a lengthy explanation about virtual worlds being one of many collaboration tools and suited for some use cases better than other tools. Then one day I just ran out of gas.Now I just ask them ‘how do you define virtual?’ Is having an avatar-to-avatar conversation virtual, but an IM session is not? How about videoconferencing? Do you watch television? This may be one of the reasons why ‘virtual worlds’, as an industry term, can be a misnomer. It implies a ‘where’, when what they actually achieve is more of a ‘how’.Before everyone jumps me and says ‘Such and such a virtual community is a unique world’, I completely agree….but it’s the setting for human-to-human interactions that makes it valuable, not a replica of the Eiffel tower or ancient Rome (although, admittedly, those things are pretty cool). It is a HOW we are going to meet (avatar to avatar, serendipitously or pre-arranged, with or without voice and video), and not so much of a where. You don’t generally say ‘Meet me at the H.323 MCU’ or ‘Meet me at the WebEx’, because those are not destinations in and of themselves. One of the reasons prior virtual world attempts failed was because there were not enough people there……it’s the people that create the value.The ability for common, shared, synchronous spaces that are independent of physical geography is certainly not new, but it is more accessible as a 3D room or club than it was as a discussion forum or chatroom. The shared experience of networked virtual environments, where you can have a technical discussion in an amphitheater with thirty of your closest friends (as we did last week), is unparalleled. Having said that, when you begin to go down the rabbit-hole using the term ‘virtual worlds’, it takes you to some oubliettes like virtual economies, which (in my opinion) are an unnecessary affectation. Hey, Skype allows me to video-conference my children tonight from Amsterdam, however they don’t use their own ‘Skype-bucks’. They just denominate in your currency of choice.This is also true because geographies come with a fair bit of baggage, like laws and governance, that collaboration services don’t have to worry about. When you have baggage like governmental oversight of the virtual economy or trials over virtual property rights, you start to scare off the big game, which is widespread adoption by consumers and businesses alike. We’re not even scratching the surface of reasonable adoption yet, and the prior attempts at virtual worlds have failed for lesser reasons than these.On September 13th, Coventry University will be launching it’s Serious Games Institute, and we’re going to be discussing Serious Applications of Virtual Worlds. It is a pretty easy conversation actually, as you look around at how much business communication is already electronically mediated, or heading that way, to realize that the virtual and real have been one and the same for a while now.Speaking of ‘heading that way’, one interesting link to drill down on is the work being done by the AMI consortium (of which Cisco is a Community of Interest member). They are composed of a number of research organizations around the world who are focused on augmenting multiparty interactions (thus the acronym) like live meetings. If you can capture live meetings and mine them for metadata and content, didn’t you just essentially ‘rip’ the meeting? There are researchers looking at dominant talkers, attention focus, real-time transcription (and possibly even translation), automatic video editing of the proceedings, and then serving all that up via a web-services interface (mix). All you need to do then is replay the meetings that are appropriate to your task-at-hand (burn).This is just another piece of the great digitization era that we live in.