Tag Archives: virtual worlds
The idea of telework has been around since the early 1970s. Which means that there have been lively debates about the pros and cons of telework since the early 19070s.
It’s interesting to observe that while the idea of telework has evolved during the intervening years much of the argument has not.
Much of the current discussion about telework assumes a situation that is substantially similar to the situation that existed 20 years ago. For most of those years telework was about office employees working from home using a telephone and email, perhaps accompanied by occasional file-to-file transfers.
The reality is that virtual work today is not your parents’ telework. In fact, virtual work is evolving very rapidly, driven by technology improvement and social change. Today’s virtual work isn’t even the telework from the early 2000′s.
It’s substantially different in at least five important ways:
1. Finally, the office really is anywhere -
We’ve been claiming that telework technology supports the “anywhere office” for as long as I can remember. The good news is that the claim is finally pretty much true. In today’s world it is possible for most workers to get almost exactly the same information and communication in any environment that they would get in the office – as long as that environment has broadband support.
Part of this evolution is simply about the broad availability of faster connections and capabilities like high quality desktop video but part of it is much more fundamental.
The more dramatic change comes from the move to Cloud and SaaS services. Not too many years ago it was possible to communicate with the office by voice and email and perhaps even to see the participants in a meeting; however, critical information and important applications were not available outside the office. Much of the information that a worker required was available only on local servers at the office and key applications could be run only from the local area network at the home office.
Cloud-based data sharing services (think dropbox) now make much of that data available anywhere and many key applications run as services in the cloud.
As a result we can finally really say that “the office is anywhere” ( www.theanywhereoffice.com )
2. An increasing percentage of business effort is inherently virtual – Over the last few years there has been a quiet revolution in the use of social networking in business environments. Today it is very common for enterprise workers to communicate through various blogs, message systems, forums, wikis … and even email .
As a result, a large percentage of business communication today is by means of one virtual system or another. The trend is so strong that one of the hot areas for startups in Silicon Valley today are search systems that “search the stream” of ongoing virtual interaction. Although many of these companies are targeting search of personal networks there are also many that are intended to search the stream of business-oriented social networks.
All of this leads to an increasingly common and almost comical situation: people commute for an hour each way so they can sit in adjacent cubes and communicate largely by email and other virtual mechanisms. If most of their interaction is inherently virtual why does anyone care where they do it?
3. It isn’t (necessarily) about working from home anymore – When the concept of telework was introduced it was synonymous with telecommuting – the idea of someone skipping the commute and working from home. It is still very common for articles about telework to identify it simply as working from home.
The availability of high-quality mobile networks has given rise to the mobile worker and great deal of work has been done to support this specific segment. Today many workers drive to a satellite work facility that is close to their home. In this case they are working in an office but may be located a long way from their “home office.” This segment is growing very rapidly (www.thesatelliteinc.com).
In many cases today’s virtual worker may very well be a member of a Global Virtual Team (http://goo.gl/MIBKv). Virtual teams that are formed with members in countries spread all over the world are the norm in enterprises today. In the case of GVTs most of the team members are working virtually. Even when they are sitting in their assigned offices they are still virtual from the viewpoint of most of the other team members. Much of the work being done on virtual work technology is aimed at supporting GVTs
Telecommuting is still a very important segment of virtual work. Many people have a specific need to conduct their work from home; for example, working moms who need to be close to their children. But while telecommuting is still an important segment is by no means the whole universe. Today virtual work can occur nearly anywhere.
4. Yesterday was all about changing the venue of knowledge workers; today is often about actually delivering the product -
In years gone by telework was all about changing the physical location of office workers. These employees, predominately knowledge workers, would do whatever they did before but from a different location.
The telework segment of virtual work is still focused on knowledge workers, albeit much more effectively than it has been in the past.
Today’s virtual work includes many forms of activity in which some business function is performed virtually; in many cases including actually producing or delivering the product. For example, in telemedicine applications a doctor may deliver her services through a virtual presence. In another case an instructor might deliver his product – training – through a virtual environment while a salesperson delivers a virtual product demo. In yet another case a military commander may take a virtual “walk” through a virtual battlefield to complete a mission planning task.
Today virtual work means a lot more than simply switching offices.
5. We can see the leading edge of dramatic technological change -
Beyond these “evolutionary” changes we are now seeing the leading edge of revolutionary change that will redefine the nature of work forever.
For example, it is likely that work in the future will occur in 3D virtual environments in which participants are represented as avatars (www.flipsideworkspace.com). In the near future these will be photorealistic personalized avatars that will be animated by real-time software so that they will appear to be real 3D people with natural facial expressions (www.image-metrics.com). These systems will provide an environment in which participants from throughout the world can interact in ways that are very close to reality, including almost all of the benefits associated with face-to-face interactions. Once this happens the entire concept of office design, and ultimately even basic city planning, will change fundamentally.
In another glimpse of the future, we are beginning to see robots everywhere. We should expect that in the future robots will play an increasingly large role in many aspects of virtual work. There are already examples of robots acting as virtual receptionists ( http://goo.gl/8msvF) and robots providing remote presence at meetings (. Robots are becoming increasingly common in telemedicine (http://goo.gl/DDRZB and http://goo.gl/itUWw), education (http://goo.gl/3gs77), and physical therapy (http://goo.gl/Bbbz9).
These are the systems that our children will write about when they write articles in 2032 about how dramatic the changes have been since way back in 2012!
Several years ago I was CEO of a company that created 3D virtual worlds for a variety of professional and entertainment applications.
The most interesting application was designed to make virtual work much more like a real-world experience. Similar applications have been run in Second Life and in other environments.
There are a variety of benefits to holding meetings in a 3D virtual space. In general these spaces feel more “real” and more “natural” than other virtual environments. Most importantly, the experience is spatially correct; that is, participants see everyone in the same room, sitting around the same table, just as they would in a physical meeting. The sound is also spatially correct, with voices coming from their natural location within the virtual room.
Perhaps most importantly, natural motions such as “gaze” are correct in virtual worlds. There is an odd and unnatural feeling associated with many web conferencing systems. Almost every participant will often feel that the speaker is addressing them when, in fact, the speaker is speaking to someone else thousands of miles away. This anomaly occurs because the speaker is looking at the camera.
It is also more natural to see presentations within a virtual world. There can be many separate screens and they appear at their “natural” locations in a meeting room. Moreover, it is easy to add axillary information to a virtual meeting; for example, popups that post background information regarding a speaker or 3D virtual objects that are being discussed in the meeting.
So, if virtual meetings are so great why haven’t they taken over the world?
Part of that answer is buried in technical detail. In some cases the software requires an onerous download and will not run in a browser. In other cases the minimum hardware requirements for the software to execute exceed what is normally available.
But beyond these technical problems there were more important fundamental issues, most of them revolving around the avatars that represent the participants in the meeting. In environments like Second Life the avatars were perceived as being too cartoonish. Even in environments that had personalized avatars – where a participant’s avatar looks like the participant – the avatars are still “flat” and don’t convey any sense of meaning or emotion.
This is the fundamental flaw in 3D virtual meetings.
Well designed virtual spaces can convey a great deal of the experience of a face-to-face meetings but they are still missing the most important element. Scientists tell us that somewhere between 60% to 80% of meaning is communicated through facial expressions and body langauge. The avatars in virtual meetings lack any sense of real-world expressions and so they fail to convey this critical element of meaning.
That is about to change.
On June 1, 2012 Forbes ran an article discussing the announcement of some new technology introduced by Sony Online and Image Metrics: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johngaudiosi/2012/06/01/e3-2012-why-sony-online-entertainments-soemote-could-be-the-future-of-gaming/
This article discusses a powerful new capability called SOEmote that Sony will soon be introducing in its EverQuest online gaming environment. SOEmote will allow a player’ s natural facial expressions to appear in real-time on an avatar that appears in the game (as shown in a video included in the above article).
This feature is based on the Live Driver from Image Metrics (www.image-metrics.com). [ Disclosure: I'm the Chairman of Image Metrics.] To use the Live Driver a participant looks and speaks into a normal webcam. The participant’s facial expressions are mapped in real-time to a target avatar so that avatar now shows the natural expressions – and much of the body language – of the participant.
This technology is being introduced in entertainment applications but it is reasonable to believe that in the not too distant future this same technology – whether developed by Image Metrics or others – will power personalized avatars in virtual meetings.
Once this type of capability is perfected it will then be possible to hold virtual meetings that are very, very similar to real world, face-to-face meetings. This will be a watershed point in the evolution of virtual work.
Once this capability is generally available we will very quickly being to lose any sense of physical place in the working environment and the need for physical interaction will rapidly diminish.
That time is certainly still in the future, but it may not be too far out there!