Second Life's virtual conference rooms might be more useful if they didn't resemble their real-world counterparts.
MIT researcher Drew Harry flies his avatar into a house in Linden Labs' online environment, Second Life. The avatar passes couches, a fireplace, and a dining-room table complete with red-velvet tablecloth and candles. "Second Life is relentlessly literal," Harry says, pointing out one familiar domestic object after another.
Harry designs virtual spaces that don't look like the familiar world--his virtual meeting room looks more like a football field than like a conference room. He says his goal is to stop mimicking the physical world and start creating a new kind of space. "It's not clear to me yet that [virtual worlds] are actually useful," Harry says. They will be useful, in his view, if they can take advantage of not being physical.
The long oval table common to a boardroom lets small groups of people see and hear one another while sitting comfortably. Since a virtual space doesn't need to accomplish the same goals as a real space, Harry decided to ditch the table. Instead, his virtual meeting room arranges people based on their allegiance. Where an avatar stands signifies whether a person agrees or disagrees with the position being discussed. The meeting room's other visual features are designed to track the complexities of shifting alliances and opinions throughout a conversation.
Nick Yee, a Stanford graduate who recently completed his PhD research on social interaction in virtual environments, says that Harry's design is on the right track. Sometimes companies try to have meetings in Second Life, Yee laughs, and they have the same problems they do in real life: for example, people have trouble seeing PowerPoint presentations. "By enforcing physical embodiments and physical rules," Yee says, "we bind ourselves to the physical symbols and metaphors of the physical world."
Harry is still refining the mechanics of his space and designing spaces that can be used for different types of meetings. If he has his way, gatherings in the virtual world will feel very different than gatherings in the physical one, and they will work more smoothly.
Images of Harry's Virtual Meeting Room
Drew Harry's avatar, Zetetic Aubret, speaks to a group of avatars in a typical virtual setting, where the design mimics that of real life. Harry's avatar, a simple black stick figure, is intentionally different from the standard Second Life figures. Harry feels that this look reflects his belief that things in virtual worlds do not need to mimic their real-life counterparts.
Designed to look more like a football field than like a conference room, Harry's virtual meeting space places meaning on an avatar's location. People position their avatars to express how strongly they agree or disagree with the topic being discussed. Those not ready to commit to an opinion can stand in the neutral ring around the field. To keep their comments off the record, users can move their avatar to the outer ring.
A green cone above an avatar's head signifies an assigned task. Harry designed these cones to publicly display how much work each person takes on.
When an avatar takes a stance on an issue, a cylinder grows up around it, signifying how long the avatar has held the same position. If the avatar moves--representing a change of opinion--the cylinder remains, slowly diminishing. Harry designed this so that a person's previous opinions would still be apparent, representing the effect that opinion continues to have on the conversation.
A set of cylinders above an avatar's head tracks its motion during a meeting. The path is a record of one person's changing positions on an issue. The colors match those on the floor, revealing the same spectrum of agreement. Harry is now working on reimagining this feature so that the same information can be shown without several avatars' paths becoming tangled.
Harry's avatar stands in the moderator position. He plans to design additional meeting spaces that could be suited to tasks such as brainstorming, weighing a variety of possible positions, or holding discussions using parliamentary procedure. The moderator, he says, would be able to flip the meeting from one space to another as appropriate, taking advantage of the flexibility of the virtual world.
Very tall cylinders show that people have held the same opinion for a long time. Harry expects to change the design of this feature, since he has found in tests that people deliberately moved their avatars out of the cylinders to avoid feeling trapped.
When people speak, blocks rise into the sky above their avatar. Zooming in on those blocks will reveal a record of what was said. The blocks show how frequently people talk, allowing a moderator to take note if, for example, people on one side of a debate are being much more vocal than those on the other.
A discussion in this virtual space won't be the same as one in a real-life meeting space, Harry says: "We'll fail if it feels like that." He plans to begin testing his space with groups working on design projects and community councils to see how the space affects the quality of the meeting.
[via Technology Review]