One of the great mashups going on now is not just mixing content, but media. WebTV. NPR on an iPod. MTV on YouTube. TV on the Radio. Some social virtual worlds are lightweight enough that they can run within the frame of a Web browser when you visit the associated site. While we have always had documents, applications, sounds, movies, and Web browsers running within our Croquet and Qwaq virtual worlds, we’re now doing a bit more ping-pong between the Web and Qwaq Forums.
<%image(20090816-ForumPage.gif|522|437|Web page corresponding to a room in a virtual world. Click for full size.)%>
Pages like this one make it easy to get information (e.g., documents) into or out of a forum without using the 3D collaborative client. Maybe you’re not at your usual laptop or desktop computer and only have Web access. Maybe you are an executive or assistant to someone working in the forum such that you can’t suit up and be seen.
The picture above is of an automatically generated Web page for a room in a virtual world. Each forum has one if the owner has turned on the capability. As with all our work, you need to sign in as an authorized user, and all the content is protected in transit. In the case of the Web pages, it is by HTTPS, which is what your bank probably uses for online services.
The picture gets updated automatically when people are in the space, and you can dive in-world by clicking on the picture. (It is a “QRL” that launches the Forums client application and puts you into the world at that location.)
Below the picture is a form that lets you upload a copy of a document directly to the forum without entering it. The document will appear at a place in the forum designated by its users, and it will be attributed as being imported by the authenticated user that uploaded it.
In the table of Recent Activity, you can see who last saved this forum and when. You can see each of the last documents to be saved in it, and everyone whose most recent entry was to this forum. Each of these last are links to other pages: for the document, or for the user.
A Document Page is similar, with a picture of the document that you can click on to dive into the forum right at the place where the document is. You can download a copy of the document directly from the Document Page.
Each User Page shows the user’s screen name, picture, email address, the last forum they entered, and whatever “status” text they enter from within Forums. It also shows (as linked activity) the documents that they were the last person to save.
The pages have breadcrumb links back to the organization that owns a given Forum, and a page of all the organizations at this site. These let you see aggregated activity across the organization or site. More generally, there is a specific such landing page for each element in our world: users, places, and documents.
So is the forum becoming the repository? E.g. “I’m going to upload all my documents to the forum just in case I need them there.” Does the spatial arrangement of files in the forum lend itself to easily indexing lots of files? I’m envisioning a 3D file cabinet that can easily sort, search, display an array/matrix of various kinds of files. Or is the 3D space of the forum not really the best place for this? Why not? Storage considerations? Performance of the graphics with many objects?
I’d say that the Forum is the project room rather than a file cabinet. It is the place people come to do work together, or to discuss what they did, and they bring in whatever they need to at the time. Bringing in a document is incredibly fast and easy — you just drag it from your computer’s desktop or file finder right onto wherever you want it in world. So there isn’t much of a reason to preposition stuff.
Conversely, we don’t have a Content Management System (CMS), or even a general search tool — yet. So I don’t think we’re currently very well suited to being a 3D data warehouse. I don’t imagine that simply having a 3D representation of file cabinets would be terribly helpful anyway, but I do think that dynamic, shared-in-world 3D visualizations of relationships would be useful. Even before the first real version of Croquet (Hedgehog), Minnesota and Wisconsin had stretchy colored connectors to make 3D concept-maps, and magic-windows that you would stand behind or step through to see different views of the relationships. Separate from Croquet, Intel had a project called Miramar for 3D data and relationship visualization (http://wetmachine.com/i…) and we had a fruitful joint development collaboration with them. Interestingly, I think the most important piece of Miramar that we have included in the base Forums product is a technology for sharing individual live application windows from a participant’s computer’s desktop into the virtual world. (We call it Personal Share. Unlike VNC, RFB, various other X stuff and RemoteDesktop, you only share what you want to share, it’s all secure through Forum’s secure pipe, and there’s nothing to set up separately on anyone’s machine.) Anyway, the point is that I think 3D interfaces for data or content warehouses have a lot of potential, but that area is more of a science project right now.
Instead, people are doing real work today with a scenario that matches current work patterns but better, faster, cheaper and less travel. You run a project in which at least one person is usually at a different location. (Might just be working from home in the same city, or in a different building on a campus, or they the might be in a different country.) For example, just this month we engaged an outside designer for the visual composition and layout of Forum Pages. (Result seen above.) For kickoff, I met with the designer, my boss (our CEO), and our project manager in a project space. We looked interactively at the existing pages and discussed the problems. We brought in some notes we had prepared, and one of us took notes on the wall so that everyone could see what was being recorded as they were written. Others challenged and corrected them at the time. We just left the documents where they were — no need to clean up for the next meeting in the room. (No rooms available? That’s alright. Just make more.) Later, I met pairwise with some of the people. We had some more group meetings in the same place, with the designer showing his progress. The whole history of the project is there in this room.
It is like having a dedicated physical project room that people use for the project. They still have their own offices (physical or virtual) and their own computer desktops. But the shared work gets done in the project room. We never could have done that in less than a month with physical spaces and physical meetings. And we wouldn’t have been left with a room to house the artifacts.
The point of Forum Pages in this scenario is that someone can track this progress without needing the 3D Forums client application, and they can even download and upload specific documents from it. You don’t *designate* a forum as an artifact repository and upload docs there on spec — that would just be adding work and nuisance. Instead, you simply use the project room because it is useful, and the artifacts accumulate there as a side effect.
In other workplaces I had seen people try to create project sites or wikis, and I’ve never seen them work. The problem was that keeping the wiki or 2D project space up to date was always extra activity in addition to the work that people needed to get done. As a result, the content never had what you needed in it. In this project room use case, Forums effectively serves as a 3D wiki — even easier than any 2D wiki to add any multimedia content or change text, but used not directly for that purpose but because it is simply a convenient place to meet. The Forum Page for that forum then becomes an automatically generated, always up to date project page for whatever that forum is for.