Immersive virtual environments - such as Second Life and some enterprise-friendly alternatives - have traditionally required users to download special software and learn a difficult user interface.
But several companies are working to change that, offering business-friendly virtual meeting platforms that work right in a Web browser, no software download required, with prices starting at around $50 a month.
Immersive virtual meeting environments allow participants to use avatars to walk around a virtual environment, and are useful tools for collaborating on and prototyping 3D designs, such as new products, buildings, or factories.
Companies are also finding them useful training environments, since meeting managers can create virtual replicas of hospitals, assembly lines, or sales rooms and have employees practice skills without endangering themselves or equipment. Finally, virtual environments are also beginning to be used as alternatives to Web conferences, since they create a sense of "being there" and allow more interaction between meeting participants.
Immersive virtual meetings fall somewhere in between simple, voice-only conference calls and elaborate video-based telepresence conferences, says Marc Beattie, managing partner at Wainhouse Research, a market research firm that specializes on communication, conferencing and collaboration technologies.
An immersive virtual meeting creates the same sense of "being there" as a telepresence setup, but doesn't require all of the expensive equipment typically associated with telepresence. "I see virtual events as replacing in-person events," Beattie says.
These virtual environments aren't just Second Life in a browser. Customers get their own, private virtual spaces - no unauthorized visitors, no unauthorized content. Users can't create their own stuff in these environments as they can with Second Life and similar virtual world platforms, and avatar choices and clothing options are severely constrained.
For business use, this is a good thing. It means that visitors can't put virtual graffiti on company walls, or wear inappropriate clothing to events.
Here are some of the players:
Global cosmetics giant Avon Products had a problem. The teenage girls who were the primary salesforce for its "mark" brand of youth-oriented cosmetic products had a hard time sitting through Web conferences composed mostly of PowerPoint presentations. But the need for online meetings was unavoidable - the girls were located all over the country, and needed to participate in training and attend sales meetings.
"When you're sitting in a Web conference, it's easy to be distracted, check your email, watch TV," says Natalie Wood, assistant director for the Center of Consumer Research at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University, which was asked by Avon to help solve this problem.
The Center for Consumer Research had experience working in various environments that were more engaging than watching slides on the Web while on a conference call. The most popular of these was Second Life, but this platform wasn't appropriate for Avon, chiefly because of its steep learning curve and technical requirements.
The platform the Center for Consumer Research decided on, 3DXplorer from Altadyn, is a Java-based online meeting space where companies can fully customize the virtual environment and hold meetings similar to the ones they would have in Second Life.
"It's Web-enabled," Wood says. "You don't need a fancy computer, and you don't have many firewall problems. And you do not need to be highly competent to use 3DXplorer. Second Life definitely has a steep learning curve."
The Center for Consumer Research has already begun holding virtual meetings for Avon's young sales agents in the 3DXplorer environment, and the feedback has been positive.
"One of the things we're finding is that the girls no longer feel anonymous," she says. "Girls are commenting to each other, 'It's wonderful to finally meet you!' - even though they're not actually meeting, they're meeting the avatar."
They also felt that the meetings were more serious and legitimate, she adds.
Avon's virtual meeting space in 3DXplorer is modeled after its headquarters in New York City, and visitors can actually see the New York skyline when they look out of the virtual windows.
"It gives them the feeling that they're really in the 'mark' offices in New York," Wood says.
Another company using 3DXplorer is Central PA Experts, an online platform that helps professionals share their expertise. Members use the tool to conduct seminars or events.
"It's not cumbersome," says Jason Verdelli, founder of Central PA Experts. "It's good for on-the-fly webinars." Central PA Experts has conducted more than 250 seminars on the 3DXplorer platform, he says, with typical attendance of five to 10 people.
For example, one expert uses the platform to hold sales training seminars. Another is a real estate agent who uses the platform to showcase properties.
The 3DXplorer space can be embedded into any Webpage, says Altadyn CEO Darius Lahoutifard. In addition, some customers have directly connected their corporate directories to the avatar database.
This startup focuses on making virtual meetings as easy as possible. Getting started takes just a few minutes, and to get a meeting going you just pick a meeting venue and send out your invitations. VenueGen has the largest selection of pre-built environments of any browser-based immersive meeting platform, and the simplest user interface.
However, companies can't upload their own content and design their own environments.
"We have had teams in and out of VenueGen for conducting project work and team meetings for over a year," says Caroline Avey, director of Innovative Learning Solutions at Affiliated Computer Services, a Xerox company. "We have also conducted learning events in VenueGen as part of a month-long distance training for employee on-boarding for a client."
Avey says her company uses a number of different 3D environments, including Second Life, OpenSim, Teleplace, Protosphere, Open Wonderland and SAIC's Olive.
VenueGen is a good fit for clients who don't want to make a big investment in a private virtual world, she says. "What we like about VenueGen is that it is a robust environment for live virtual meetings at a reasonable price.''
"This platform is perfect for an e-learning environment," says Wainhouse Research's Beattie. For example, HR departments could use it for compliance training.
One thing that sets VenueGen apart from its competitors is that users can easily create avatars based on their photographs."We will map your face, in 3D, to your avatar," says VenueGen CEO David Gardner. "It is amazing - anyone who knows you will recognize you."
End users can also enter information on what types of gestures they tend to use, and there's an `expression wheel,' so that participants in a 3D conference can click on an expression and have their avatar register that expression on their face and with their body language.
The ease of use means that a small company without technology resources can quickly be up and running.
That was the case of Virtual World Team, a six-person company in Flossmoor, Ill., that provides administrative support for small businesses.
"We meet virtually at least twice a month, and if something comes up, we meet right away," says company owner Shilonda Downing. "I hate meetings, but they're a necessary evil. [With VenueGen] it just made the meeting process so much fun - I can't even tell you how much fun we have with it."
She was worried about the learning curve at first, she admitted. "But the process was so easy that our team was on-board right away."
In addition to its ease of use, VenueGen also differs from the other Web-based platforms in that it offers both in-world voice - that works with a headset - and a free call-in line for those who prefer to use the telephone instead.
Web.alive is the platform to beat, since it's backed by a large, well-known networking technology firm and offering a broad range of business-friendly features.
These include the ability to put up screens inside the 3D world and to share desktops, PowerPoint presentations, Web pages, and other content. Web.alive can be integrated with corporate directories, and can also be run completely behind a company's firewall for maximum security.
Companies can create and upload their own virtual environments, or choose from a selection of pre-built meeting and conference spaces. And even the pre-built environments can be customized, says Web.alive director Nic Sauriol.
"There are rooms that can be added and removed," he says. Customers can also make furniture appear and disappear through in-world control panels, change colors of the walls and furniture, and put ad banner advertisements on the walls.
Given Avaya's background in telecommunications, it's no wonder that Web.alive can be integrated with corporate telephone systems, with working conference phones in the virtual conference rooms allowing for both outbound and in-bound calls.
Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis., deployed Web.alive last September as an expansion of its campus, allowing students to meet with faculty advisers. The platform is also used for teaching, collaboration, meetings and guest lectures, and has saved the university thousands of dollars in travel costs, says John Arechavala, the university's director of ITS Infrastructure Services.
The platform is also used for training professors on how to use learning systems and course management systems, he says. "To get an adjunct professor up to speed takes a certain amount of training in a short period of time – and an adjunct professor could be a working professional in the community."
The virtual meeting platform provides the flexibility that's required to deliver this instruction, he says.
Assemblive is a virtual meeting environment from the French social Web applications company A World for Us.
Assemblive currently offers customers a choice of environments, but customizable environments are under development. It's based on the popular Unity 3D platform, so many users will already have the plugin installed. Navigation is simple – just point and double-click on a location to move there, or on a chair to sit down. Avatars automatically walk around obstacles.
The platform is free for single meetings, and can hold up to 100 simultaneous visitors. The pricing was attractive to UK-based social media consultant Caron Lyon, who works with theater and production companies.
"It's a free platform, and one of the reasons why I want to explore the free ones is because of the lack of funding for the arts," she says. Setting up a meeting is simple – as with VenueGen, there's a selection of meeting venues, and an option to send out invitations. "It was a very easy learning curve," she says.
This is the newest entry to the browser-based environment world, from ReactionGrid, a company best known for hosting OpenSim-based virtual worlds for companies and educational institutions. OpenSim is an open source alternative to Second Life.
Like Assemblive, Jibe is based on the Unity 3D platform. The Jibe platform is already fully customizable by companies and in-world objects can be scripted to interact with users.
Though the platform is new, there are currently more than two dozen customers using it, says ReactionGrid CEO Kyle Gomboy. One of ReactionGrid's most high-profile partners, Microsoft, has switched over to working with the Jibe platform, he added.
Korolov is a freelance business and technology writer in Massachusetts. She can be reached at email@example.com.