Five for Talking

Travel for meetings is so last year. This management article in describes five alternatives technologies to meetings: instant messaging, virtual worlds, telepresence, Wikis, and social networking. But do these really have to be separate? Let’s take a look at what each of these offers, and what it means for 3D virtual worlds to incorporate the other alternative meeting technologies.

3D Virtual Worlds

3D virtual worlds give meeting participants a feeling of immersion. When you’re in a conference room with a speakerphone, everyone stares at the speakerphone in search of some sort of connection to the disembodied voice at the other end. By contrast, users of virtual worlds report that they feel as though they are actually present with the other participants in the meeting space.

3D worlds allows participants their own points of view. Just as in the physical world, participants might share a common viewpoint as with a slide-show or when travelling together through space, or they can go off into the corner and focus on something else. They can individually step back and get an overview, or asynchronously explore a document in-depth.

People are directly represented in the virtual world, as are the artifacts of the meeting (such as 3D models, 2D pictures, slide shows, whiteboards, and so forth). Context is provided by the relationship between objects, between people, and between people and the objects that they manipulate. 3D virtual worlds make that context apparent.

In a 3D world, everything is persistent, giving participants a sense of place. Unlike a physical conference room or a telephone call, you can build up a set of artifacts over time, from one meeting to the next.

To me, Qwaq Forums is a particular interesting virtual world because it transparently embeds legacy stuff directly in-world: working Web browsers, PowerPoint, spreadsheets, or proprietary 2D computer applications. This gives otherwise isolated documents and tools the same spatialized context as other in-world artifacts.

The article’s other meeting technologies also have their value. By incorporating the important benefits of each of these technologies, virtual worlds can be a rich meta-medium, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Instant Messaging

Most virtual world implementations already have text messaging, which allows users to combine instant multi-way text communication with the immersive qualities of virtual worlds. (1.) You might think that text chat would be irrelevant when you have voice, but I’ve seen two great uses in practice. First, there are always side conversations. These may be private pairwise comments to the main shared voice dialog, like those in Rainbows End, or public texting to the whole group as a sort of second channel from which participants drift in and out during the main voice conversation. This second footnote/comment channel echoes the second main use – as a record of the meeting. Unlike a private scribe in physical meeting, any participant can see what an in-world meeting-secretary is recording, and even add to it themselves with immediate additions.

Croquet has also long had connections out-of-world through Jabber, and I think it’s only a matter of time before this type of bridging becomes widespread. In particular, I want to make my in-world presence manifest through AIM/iChat/etc., so people can reach me in-world in a light-weight way, without necessarily firing up a client and entering. However, if during the course of our text conversation we do want deeper communication, I should be able to press a button to send a link designating where I am in-world, and have the external person click on that link in their IM to dive in-world to meet me.


Croquet and other virtual worlds have long had voice and video in-world. Unlike IChat, it is not limited to just two or three participants, and it gives the same spatialized context benefits as anything else in-world.

While it’s not at the same fidelity as the million-dollar telepresence systems from Cisco and HP, the voice and video in Forums work pretty damn well and quite easily. To my mind, this gives 80% or more of the big-bucks benefit, and adds the avatar benefit of letting users intuitively see who is doing what while allowing them their own individual viewpoints. The big-bucks telepresence systems don’t do that.

As with IM, I’d like to have at least the voice part be integrated with the external world. One should really be able to call in or out of world using the public telephone network.


The principal benefit of Wikis is that it’s easy to create and modify persistent text, and to upload and download documents. It’s actually MUCH easier to do that in Forums than in any Wiki I’ve seen. Plus, it can all be done live in real-time with many people, rather than sequentially by isolated individual Wiki users that never see each other.

I have not yet seen in-world search across content (including through in-world documents), nor e-mail notification of changes. Both of these are standard in 2D Web-based Wikis, but could be even more effective in 3D Wikis because of the additional context.

An interesting 2D-3D integration would be to access the 3D wiki "pages" and their content from out-of-world. I’d like to have Wiki Web pages generated automatically from a virtual work-world. A person with just a Web browser would then be able to access the text and documents from that space, and list the people present with IM available to them. Something like this is suggested by this video of Rivers Run Red Immersive Workspaces.) Even better, it could have a constantly updating image or even streaming-video from a position in-world, or have it follow me as I move around the space. While this external access would not have the same rich virtual world benefits as for people actually in-world, this lightweight "second- class citizen" access might actually be desirable for visitors.

Social Networking

I’m less sure about how to integrate social networking. One way is to simply have social networking pages on working Web browsers in-world, as is done in Forums. Or your in-world activity could be automatically filed with Twitter. Forums automatically records some such activities in the group text-chat, enhancing its use for meeting minutes. People are starting to use Python to bring external information into their Forums, and the same could be used to automatically or manually send info to external social sites.

But there may be ways to make the virtual world be the social network itself. Forums already allows you to create far richer multi-media personal spaces than does FaceBook and such, and allows you to invite others to your space with limited permission to change things. Frankly, I think we would have a lot of work to do to make that work really well.


I think some of the external integration is primarily important in today’s environment, in which there are several reasons why someone might not be in-world themselves. When virtual world interactors are as ubiquitous as Web browsers, some of the above integration might not be necessary. The virtual world interactor would become a super Swiss-army knife of communication. But tools on a pocketknife do not work better simply because they are on the same handle: such tools derive no benefit from context. Communication, however, is tremendously benefited by context, and so having these different tools in-world makes them individually and collectively more powerful.

1. Worlds that have in-world text boards allow text chat to have the usual 3D relationship to avatars and other artifacts. Some worlds also have separate 2D text chat systems that may or may not be persistent. It might be interesting to be able to tear off a private or group 2D text chat and "push it out" into the 3D world so that it can become just another in-world artifact.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. I think we are going to see big changes in the nature of business travel. Trips that used to be routine are going to be replaced by technologies like you describe here, and actual personal get-on-airplane travel is going to become more exceptional. Lots of people, for example, me, occasionally do an individual “carbon footprint” assessment. When I worked for Laszlo Systems, I worked mostly from my own small house– zero commute. I do most of my local travel and shopping on my bicycle. But then I would fly out to California to the Laszlo Systems mother ship 5 or 8 times each year, and my carbon footprint went through the roof (that’s some mixed metaphor, ain’t it?).

    Things are changing. This could get interesting.

  2. I think virtual meetings will have a profound impact on business travel, but not as a simple overall reduction:

    People will work from home a lot more. As we’ve already seen from the gas crisis, even a small change in behavior can have a profound non-linear beneficial effect on saturated systems like highways. While there’s a chance that this will be an enabler for more sprawl, I feel that this will allow people the flexibility to live where they want — including the ability to live in well-planned urban centers.

    More business will be conducted with people far away. This may result in even more high-carbon-footprint air travel than before.

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