The ARCH


The Architecture of Virtual Education

Here is a video of the presentation I gave last weekend at the VWBPE convention , posted by tree.tv, in both a streaming format and high-def download, available here:

http://www.treet.tv/shows/bpe/bpe2009_varchitecture_27mar09/ Other presentations captured by Tree.tv can be seen here: http://treet.tv/shows/bpe2009

Here is a brief outline of what I covered:

  • Comparisons of virtual and real architecture
    • Main ideas
      • Virtual architecture is less rigid, and far more flexible than physical architecture
      • Second Life is a ‘user-generated’ environment, and places that are built exclusively by professional content creators that do not engage the end-users in the creation process are often the most dull and lifeless places in all of SL – no matter how perfectly built or well designed they might be.
      • Virtual campus spaces should engage as many individuals – faculty, students, community members – as possible – not just one person who goes off to build everything… that’s just as bad or worse than hiring a content developer to build everything for you.
      • Architecture should be driven by the end-use, in an ongoing and constantly evolving design process that doesn’t have an arbitrary ‘end’.  Virtual architecture doesn’t have to shape us…we can and should keep shaping it.
      • People building virtual education spaces are building the foundation for their school’s future virtual endeavors, and have an opportunity to re-think what education means in a virtual environment – not just importing the way we do things in real life.
  • Best practices in developing virtual architecture – framework for approaching projects, borrowing and re-mixing some elements from the AIA’s Handbook for Professional Practice
    • Predesign
      • Gathering resources, use-cases, program development, construction schedule, context analysis, project budget, architectural style, replica vs. virtual, precedent studies
    • Schematic Design
      • Blocking diagrams, wayfinding, feedback, etc.
    • Construction
      • groups, permissions, building teams, etc.
  • Case Study: ‘Re-Inventing the Virtual Classroom’ with the University of Alabama
    • Wikitecture overview
      • Process
      • methodology
    • Description of the process
    • Brief and analysis of the end result
    • Concluding thoughts
      • Can students, faculty and community members design their own physical-world spaces in the future?  Can physical architecture be as dynamic and participatory as virtual architecture?

Many thanks for Gianna Borgnine for moderating, and to everyone who helped organize this conference.  Also, thanks to La Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo (FUNGLODE) for sponsoring this presentation.



ARCHviews: Kirsten Kiser, Editor-in-Chief of arcspace.com

Welcome to ARCHviews, a new podcast format where I take to the streets of the metaverse and talk with architects and designers exploring architecture of all forms – real or virtual.  Today I talk to Kirsten Kiser, editor-in-chief of arcspace.com about her experience bringing her online publication into the metaverse.  She celebrates her second year of virtual exploration this week, and has a lot of great insight to share.  If the embedded video doesn’t show up, you can find it HERE.  Enjoy!



The Future is Here: Full-Scale Architectural Model from Revit Imported into a Virtual World

For more information, visit the ARCH Network.

It happened exactly 1 year, to the day I first contacted Jani Pirkola former project manager of the Realxtend team. I heard rumors late in 2007 that they had goals to accelerate the development of the ‘opensim‘ platform, and one of their priorities was 3D model imports. The conversation continued until a few weeks ago, when I received an e-mail from Jules Vos, founder of Visibuild, a company he founded aimed at leveraging and improving the capabilities of Realxtend, specifically targeting his efforts at architecture and the built environment.

He asked for an exported file from one of my Revit models, and the next day he sent me a log-in and password to the Visibuild sim where the model was hosted.  Needless to say, after all these years of waiting, I was skeptical, yet hopeful. I logged in, and there I was – standing on the front porch of our client’s soon-to-be new home we had designed!  It was exactly as I had left it during my last Save As!  This was a dream come true, that had been 10 years in the making.  I was absolutely blown away.  My Revit model was virtual!  Here it is shortly after import:

Before long I had the model populated with tables, chairs, sofa, stove, a Jenn-Air appliances, Kohler fixtures and more – all imported from Google’s 3D Warehouse, most of which are exact or near-perfect matches to the ones specified.  Google’s 3d warehouse is very extensive, and carries one of the largest collection of free 3d models available.  Thanks to Peter Quirk for the Sketchup import tutorial!



I left parts of the design out of the imported mesh that we were still designing, and was able to enjoy the best of both worlds by building those pieces with primitive objects using the in-world building tools.  This way, I could make immediate use of the model as a collaboration tool with our clients by testing, for example, ceiling options in the living room, and trying out an alternate arrangement of the porch and entry area.  There is no limitation to the size of primitive objects here (the limit is 10 meters in Second Life), so it becomes much easier to model without always having to bandage the model to work around size limitations.

The client’s first reaction after seeing a teaser was “I want more!” so I think we can safely say the value of a virtual model was immediately evident.

Even a quick proof-of-concept study of imported buildings that surrounded a project site in Manhattan was fruitful.  When almost any model format can be imported, it feels like the whole world has opened up – and the possibilities are truly without limit.

The combined 3-part effect of being able to import contextual structures shared by others and import professionally built CAD or BIM-derived models and model bits and pieces using the familiar in-world building tools is a pretty astonishing new opportunity.  Of course there are still kinks to be ironed out, and some parts of the work-flow that would benefit from further optimization, but that’s where Visibuild’s value becomes most apparent.  They have the capability of streamlining that process for you, and serving as a one-stop service and hosting environment  for architects, urban planners, realtors, city governments and anyone else with a vested interest interest in architecture and the built environment.

 

Another key feature of this environment is the dynamic shade and shadows.  You need a decent graphics card to experience it, but its nice to know that the feature is available when you’re ready for it.  One common complaint for architects exploring the use of Second Life in professional practice was the plasticness of the builds, and the inability to convey the way light and shadow will effect the architecture.  The code for dynamic shadows has been available for some time now, but has yet to be implemented in any of the newest viewer releases. This is surely a key fundamental to an architect’s concern in design development, and experiencing a building without light and shade doesn’t as accurately reflect the experience you will get in real life.

Since most modern architectural software automatically generates 3D models anyway, the gap between your model and a virtual environment is no longer treacherous or time consuming – but relatively simple (or cost effective if you’d rather have someone else import it for you).  If you already model in SketchUp, for example – you’re only a few clicks away from enjoying the benefits of experiencing the model virtually and inviting others to experience it with you in realtime.  The bottom line is, most architects utilize 3D models at some point in the design development process anyway.  With Visibuild, you’re just one ‘save as’ away from leveraging the value of that model, and enjoying all of the many benefits a virtual environment affords.

These are some of the qualities of this environment I find most powerful:

  • The capacity to import 3D Models from just about any industry standard 3D package
  • Its accessible – there is very little mystery around how this works, and it isn’t terribly complicated or expensive.
  • It is built on an open source platform, and with a little experimentation you can roll up your sleeves and tinker with it.  You still have the option of hiring others to get everything set up for you.  The choice is yours.
  • User-generated content.  I can’t modify the imported mesh in-world, but I can leave off parts of the build that aren’t finalized and use the simple in-world building tools to test ideas on the fly.
  • Multi-user.  I can create an account for each of my clients and project stakeholders (builders, subs, etc.)  We can all occupy the building at the same time, from our own computers, wherever we happen to be in the world.  I can also customize their accounts ahead of time – so their avatars look good, and they appear right at the front door.
  • Realtime.  Unlike an prescriptive illustration or animation, you get to choose how, when and where your avatar moves.  This is much closer to the way people actually experience architecture.
  • Collaborative.  Multiple users can work together on a single group of objects to explore ideas – this capability is at the heart of what Studio Wikitecture is exploring.
  • Shade and Shadows, and the ability to cycle through any day/night setting and customize the sky to whatever settings you like
  • The incorporation of avatars.  I think this provides an enhanced sense of immersion and a feeling of actually being in the space.

This is truly a defining moment in the story of virtual worlds and architecture!

I’ll be working with Jules and the Visibuild team in the months ahead to help out with some exciting new projects, so if you’re interested in being an early adopter and want to be a part of the private beta, you can find contact information on the Visibuild website here: http://visibuild3d.com


COMMISSION #3: Opening and free workshop today! 1 December 2008

6.30-7.30pm GMT (10.30-11.30am SL Time), Monday 1 December 2008: join the workshop in reflexive architecture

8pm GMT (12 noon SL Time), Monday 1 December 2008: attend the launch

SLurl: teleport to 2ND LIVE (83, 171, 22)

The Project:
In physical reality, the architectural shell is a relatively static and motionless artifact. The occupant plays a passive role, observing but rarely impacting its composition. Winston Churchill’s statement, ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us,’ illustrates this point well. In a virtual environment, the architecture is capable of transcending the limitations of static buildings, and can become as fluid and dynamic as the communities of people it hopes to serve. The topic of this installation, ‘Reflexive Architecture’ is just one vector suggesting the emergence of a new language of virtual architecture, free from the habit of pure physical replication. In this way, we can shape our virtual buildings, and afterwards we keep shaping them.

The focus of this study is to utilize reflexive elements in the creation of a new Gallery of Reflexive Architecture. In keeping with the spirit of a user-generated environment, residents of the Second Life community are encouraged to create and exhibit their own applications of this concept. To encourage this process, a core set of ‘reflexive scripts’ have been open sourced that can be modified to create a wide variety of reflexive elements. Residents are encouraged to share their contributions to the gallery by contacting Keystone Bouchard. The scripts can be found here: http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddqzdng9_32dwrgxj


The Theory:
There is a polarizing tension emerging between virtual architecture primarily focused on replicating elements of physical reality, in contrast with architecture that explores purely virtual concepts not possible in any other medium. In an environment where avatars are free to create anything they can imagine, the vast majority of the architectural fabric created is still largely driven by very literal parallels to the physical world. This happens for good reason, as we have learned to visually organize the world around us, real or virtual, based on familiar cues and patterns. A roof may not need to protect us from the elements in virtual space, but it organizes a space. Even though you can fly, a ramp is still a strong wayfinding mechanism.

While we import these visual cues from physical reality with good cause, I think we also need to consider the native, inherent characteristics of this environment and build a new language of virtual architecture based on those characteristics. New architectural technologies such as steel, glass, elevators, and electricity have traditionally challenged architects and designers to explore new and unprecedented forms of architectural creation. The same will be true of virtual environments. What can we do in virtual space that could never have been done before?


In examining the differences between real and virtual environments, it becomes clear that physical architecture is relatively static and unchanging, whereas virtual architecture has the capacity to become far more dynamic; behaving more like a liquid than a static and passive artifact. I believe this seemingly simple distinction could serve as a core ingredient and driving force behind a new language of virtual architecture. In this way, the idea of reflexive architecture is not a new language of virtual design, but my hope is only to establish a simple diagram that I hope will inspire further progress and exploration of dynamic new forms of virtual architecture.

More about this concept can be found in these previous posts:

http://archsl.wordpress.com/2008/10/28/machinima-manifesto-we-shape-our-virtual-buildings/

http://archsl.wordpress.com/2007/07/18/we-shape-our-virtual-buildings-and-afterwards-we-keep-shaping-them/

http://archsl.wordpress.com/2007/08/15/gallery-of-reflexive-architecture/



Metanomics: Liquid Artifacts: Architecture in Virtual Worlds
November 13, 2008, 8:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

I’m honored to have been invited to the Metanomics stage this coming Monday, November 17th at noon (12:00) SL-time (PDT) to talk about architecture in virtual worlds.

To learn more, visit the Metanomics event page here: http://metanomics.net/Event111708



Machinima Manifesto: *WE* Shape our Virtual Buildings

In this podcast, I review some of the reasons I remain so optimistic about the future of virtual worlds, and describe the fundamental characteristics I believe make user-generated 3D worlds a game changing new standard every organization should be exploring – with or without a budget.

I also touch on another point I intend to write more about, which is the failing premise of expensive, polished, static and exclusive content creation handed down by professional developers as the only means for organizations to build a presence in Second Life.  If you want strictly developer-controlled content, buy an X-Box.  I think we need to focus more on enabling the community of people we hope will actually use these places in a more participatory, dynamic and ongoing design development process.  It’s about being less fearful of change, and more about creating architecture that is dynamic and reflexive, in a sense, to the community or organization’s ever-evolving needs.  It’s a tremendous opportunity we have yet to fully explore.

I’ll admit to the hypocrisy of that challenge, given that I’m a content developer myself, and frequently take on assignments to do the same.  For the most part, we haven’t seen a clear alternative (yet).  But I think there are emerging opportunities on the horizon, and I think we need to move away from this familiar tune:

  1. build it once (pay a developer big bucks – build something way too big, on way too much land)
  2. hope like hell that it works and people visit (calculating success using archaic ROI models)
  3. stand idly by as it stagnates (because the money’s gone…)
  4. shut it down or let it sit vacant, then blame the platform (or even the community) for that failure

This is a mentality we’re naturally dragging into virtual worlds from physical reality, where we have no choice but to be shaped by our buildings, simply because they’re too expensive to modify.  In sum, I think developer-centric practices ignore the fundamental paradigm-shift that user generated virtual worlds afford, and could stand to be re-considered, again and again until we finally do scratch the surface.

Allow me to digress further still, but I think the single, most significant difference between Second Life and other emerging platforms really isn’t all the stuff we hear about daily – I don’t think it will be things like ‘Nautilus‘ or Immersive Workspaces, imho, for lots of  reasons, though I do certainly respect those efforts.  It isn’t even just the idea of ‘user generated content’ – it goes deeper than that.  I think the killer app for Second Life and OpenSIM is lying in wait beneath that deceptively simply little ‘Modify’ button we so often take for granted.

You won’t find a button that works quite like this one in any other immersive, virtual world platform, and it is a significant point of differentiation that needs more attention.  This button is what keeps me from working in any of the competing platforms, and is certainly where the lion’s share of my future involvement with virtual worlds lies.

I hope to follow up on this meandering post and podcast with more fine-tuned thoughts, but wanted to put this out there as food for thought.  If you want to talk more about what I think this all means, how I think it can be done, or why you think I’ve got it all wrong, lets chat it up.  Leave a comment, send me an email (jbrouchoud at gmail) or meet me in-world (Keystone Bouchard).

Here is a summary of the podcast:

  • In real life, as Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us” but does that remain true in a virtual environment where the community of people who actually use the buildings are able to modify them at will?
  • Second Life is the single, largest collective expression of creativity in a single location the world has ever seen – a cultural renaissance (three times the size of Boston?  five times the size of San Francisco? four times the size of Seoul?)
  • Realtime object creation, modification and sharing as a game changer – bigger than we can imagine now
  • Prototype just about anything you can imagine
  • Share those ideas with others, and see what the community thinks about it.
  • Barriers to cross disciplinary sharing and innovation eroding
  • Social component= glue transforming the creativity component from a solo experience into collaborative
  • Inverting the traditional top-down hierarchy of design development – engaging (empowering?) community – employees, or your customers, students, etc.
  • Collaborating in virtual space around 2D documents is overrated
  • 3D-Wiki technology, build the tools that will help take collaborative innovation to the next level
  • VW as arena where Wikinomics and Wisdom of the Crowds principles play out into 3D
  • Replicate physical buildings only if they have iconic value, or if you’re building it for training and orientation.  Different norms and expectations
  • Still need to build on familiar patterns and visual cues – not just floating in space unreferenced (read: ‘On Physical Replication…‘)
  • Virtual environments are more like a liquid than a solid artifact (See ‘We Shape our Virtual Buildings…’
  • Heavy up-front investment with no community input or subsequent updating leads to failure – don’t blame the platform or the community!
  • Lessons and opportunities from web 2.0 being lost in translation from 2D into 3D
  • VW feels more like architecture – habit of thinking it’s permanent, inflexible, expensive
  • Don’t drag that limitation into virtual worlds.  In Second Life, we can shape our virtual buildings and afterwards, we can keep shaping them.
  • We’re only dimly aware we are of the potential virtual worlds hold both now and into the future.
  • We’re just getting started…


Event Video Posted: Urbanism, Architecture, Planning: How Second Life Can Help Build the Urban Landscape of the Physical World and Vice Versa

I was absolutely blown away by the projects presented on this panel, and am relieved there seems to be consensus that we need to have more discussions like this soon.  Just when I think I’ve got my finger on the pulse of professional architecture and design work converging into virtual worlds, I’m introduced to several amazing projects I was only dimly aware of!

Luckily, I can cover all of these great projects with one link which contains an embedded video of our panel discussion, where each of the panelists gives a brief presentation about their work.

http://www.world2worlds.com/index.php/blogmenu/34-blog-entries/79-kim-smith-rissa-maidstone

Here is a summary from moderator Rissa Maidstone (Kim Smith in real life) from World2Worlds, without whom this event would not have happened:

“Reflecting upon the presentations and discussions given by the prestigious panel below, a few things occurred to me:

  1. Conceptual designs are being tested in Second Life and have resulted in significant cost savings to the engineers, architects and planners.
  2. The Second Life developer community is employing the same management tools that those of us who’ve worked in the engineering/architectural industry do for planning, scheduling, budget, resource management and manpower allocation.
  3. Community involvement programs and planning meetings are being or have been developed for specific physical world projects using the Second Life platform.
  4. There are ongoing technical issues that need to be dealt with through Linden Lab or third party application development.

Panelists included:



Exodus to the Virtual Workplace, Part 3

Assuming I have established a viable case for the 3D virtual workplace in post 1 and 2, what about the actual planning, design and virtual architecture required to support it? What are the new characteristics of this environment that deserve consideration when developing a virtual workplace? There is a lot to cover here, but I’ll do my best to include the main areas I think deserve the most attention.

First of all, the entire concept of user-generated content adds a unique twist to the virtual workplace. The ability for employees to build and customize their own spaces presents a whole new opportunity not possible (to this extent) in the physical workplace. The visual metaphors workers can evoke with 3D content can be quite illuminating. Erica Driver posted some excellent insight about this in a post back in February that I didn’t see until just last night – well worth a read. Every individual and team can customize their spaces to reflect their interests and status. Ultimately, there is no limit to the amount of creativity people will exhibit when given the opportunity and the tools to create anything they can think of. What they choose to do with those tools can convey a lot about who they are, and what is important to them – valuable currency in any kind of team-based collaboration.

Synchronous presence is also an obvious benefit to working virtually, but what about asynchronous presence? In a previous virtual workplace project I worked on, we employed a kind of ‘totem’ system whereby each employee had their own totem to rez wherever they wanted to suggest their interest or presence. The idea was that, if each project in a company had several employees working on it, they could each rez a totem nearby, so anyone could assess at a glance who was involved with which project . In workplaces that are more self-organizing, this can be an informal yet highly effective way for employees to suggest their interest in joining a particular team or working on a specific project. Taking it a step further, the totem can be programmed to communicate with a back-end database storing additional information pertinent to that employee’s status – such as on or offline, a list of projects they’re currently working on, their daily schedule, and more.

Virtual interaction also brings a lot of new opportunity for improved methods of communication and collaboration that are native to virtual environments and not easily achieved in physical reality. Obviously a personal favorite of mine is Wikitecture, which I think could also be a very useful tool in virtual workplace development, but there are quite a few new tools being developed, such as MIT’s virtual conference rooms that have the potential to make virtual meetings even more effective than real life ones. I think it will be interesting to see what Peter Quirk comes up with in this area as well. His most recent post (found here ) has some interesting thoughts on the topic, especially observing the immediate realities of Second Life interface, and what can be done to improve it for virtual work. The 3D cameras Mitch Kapor recently demonstrated will certainly improve the capacity to more naturally communicate in a virtual world. We have only scratched the surface of what a 3D interface can do to enhance collaboration, conferencing and communication.

In terms of actual deployment, it isn’t enough to simply buy an island and let employees build whatever and wherever they please, imho. It might be a useful temporary exercise in helping employees experiment and explore, and perhaps strong communication between employees might result in a coherent and useful workplace infrastructure, but chances are, it will result in a hodge-podge of stuff without any coherent order (see our first experiments with Wikitecture illustrates the outcome). This might be OK if it is always the same group working together on the same projects consistently, but it can quickly become challenging or impossible for new employees to understand and navigate, and does nothing to communicate the company’s core values, goals or vision. It becomes an exclusive function of individual expression, with no sense of direction.

On the other hand, a highly structured and polished workplace isn’t necessarily the right approach either. Without some degree of flexibility or room for employee expression, the place will remain sterile and lifeless. It is best to find a balance between the two extremes. There are lots of ways to approach this, but one of my favorites is what I think of as ‘bone and muscle’ approach. With this concept, you establish a coherent structure or backbone that organizes teams, departments or shared group workspace elements of the workplace, then encourage the individuals and teams to customize their spaces with their own content and design. In this way, the organization is able to establish a common visual language and wayfinding strategy for the shared infrastructure, yet employees are able to enjoy the freedom and expression of their own interests and abilities. It is not unlike a city infrastructure – starting with roads, sidewalks, public plazas and land parcels (the backbone), with independent architectural creations (the muscle) completing the urban fabric. I employed that technique on this project, and used a similar strategy for Architecture Islands infrastucture, for the arcspace build and, to some extend on Clear Ink Island. In each case, I learned something different about the various ingredients that need to compliment the architecture in order for community and productivity to thrive so it doesn’t whither on the vine, but that will be the topic of another post.

The jury is still out on this debate, but there is certainly a question of whether an organization should simply replicate its physical architecture exactly as it is in real life, and use it as their virtual workplace. My personal feeling is that fresh virtual context brings new opportunities and deserves fresh ways of rethinking the architecture. Having said that, I still think there is distinct value in replicating a building, but only if it is a signature piece that has some value or is easily recognizable and reinforces the organizations identity or history. In this way, the building serves as a kind of logo for the organization. However, I don’t think it is appropriate to replicate the entire building exactly as it is built in real life, unless it is to be used as a tool for training and orientation. Not only will it feel strange to the avatar scale, but it will also feel too enclosed and uncomfortable. Perhaps the replicated architecture can serve as a kind of backbone structure upon and around which a more free-form level of customized environment can emerge. However, in the end, it is impractical to expect that a building will function the same way it does in real-life when replicated in Second Life.

In cases where no signature (or singular) building exists, perhaps the virtual architecture can achieve that identity in ways the real-life architecture could not accomplish. In a project I recently worked on, the company CEO suggested that one of the primary goals of the project was to give the employees the sense that they are still all working together under one roof. Early in the company’s history, all of their employees worked together in the same space and shared a sense that they were all working together in the same space. As they grew, and opened other offices around the world, they lost the sense that they were all working together. In this case, the goal for the virtual workplace was to serve as a functional and visual metaphor that the employees could still, in a sense, come together and work in the same shared virtual space. In this way, the virtual architecture can serve as a powerful visual metaphor, helping to solve a core challenge the company is facing in a way that physical architecture could never achieve.

In physical reality, the expressiveness of architectural form is necessarily limited by forces such as resale value, and regional context, not to mention laws of gravity and protecting inhabitants from the elements. For the most part, a virtual workplace is free from such limiting factors, allowing for a far more referential expression of a company’s organizational structure, core values and vision. Where virtual workplaces lack, they more than compensate for in opportunities and advantages not possible in real life.

For these reasons and more, the time is absolutely right for any company, large or small, to start exploring the potential of a 3D virtual workplace.



Exodus to the Virtual Workplace, Part 2

Lets start with a brief thought trial before I get too far. Take a look at this familiar list of just some of the businesses who have have some level of presence in Second Life: Accenture, AccuWeather, ABN AMRO, Aegon, Ajax Football Club, Alcatel Lucent, AMD, Armani, Autodesk, Ben & Jerry’s, Boots UK, BMW, BNP Paribas, Calvin Klein, Cecile: Ginza, Circuit City, Cisco Systems, Citroen Brasil, Coca-Cola, Coldwell Banker, Comcast, Congrex, Crowne Plaza, Dell Computer, Domino’s Pizza, Europ Assistance, Fox Atomic, Fujitsu Siemens, HermanMiller, H&R Block, Gax Technologies, Head Resourcing, IBM, ING, Intel, iVillage, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kelly Services, Keytrade Bank, Kraft Foods, Lacoste, Level 3, Major League Baseball, Mazda Motor Europe, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft Visual Studio Island, MovieTickets, NBA, Nissan, One Manchester, Orange, PA Consulting, Packaging & Converting Essentials, Peugeot, Philips Design, Perfect Card, Pontiac Main Island, Randstad Holding, Reebok, Reuters, Samsung, SAP Network, Saxo, Sears, Semper International, Sony|BMG, Sony Ericsson, Sprint, STA Travel, Starwood Hotels, Sun Microsystems, Sundance Channel, Suruga Bank, TAM: Airline Brazil, Telecom Italia, Telstra Big Pond, TELUS, Thompson NetG, TMP Worldwide, Toyota, UGS, Unitrin Direct Auto Insurance, Vivox, Vodafone, Warner Brothers, Wipro Technologies, Wirecard Bank AG, Xerox. (SLurls to most of these places can be found on the SL Business Communicators wiki )

I won’t even hazard a guess as to the combined total number of employees working for these companies, but I’m sure its astronomical. To be fair, what we might call ‘presence’ is, for the most part, a combined total of thousands of square miles of vacant ghost-sims left in the wake of last year’s hasty marketing boom. But, just for the sake of argument, lets imagine that technology continues to advance exponentially, and that 5 years from now, virtual worlds will make telecommuting feasible for just 1 percent of the employees these companies represent who don’t already telecommute. What kind of an impact would that transition have on the physical architecture that traditionally supports the workplace? What if it were 5 or 10 percent? What about 10 years from now? Lead-times on planning, designing and building physical architecture can easily exceed 5 years, so I don’t think I’m being unreasonable to think that far ahead. Would we stand to gain anything from a workplace exodus on that scale?

I think so.

Stepping back into the present and more immediate future, here is a summary of just a few forces I think will drive development of the virtual workplace, described in greater detail later in this post. There are many more factors involved, but these are the ones I think are most closely tied with the advantages of a 3D virtual workplace versus telecommuting in general:

  • Remote worker isolation
  • Rising cost and rigidity of physical space
  • Commute time and cost
  • Environmental benefits
  • Decreasing necessity of physical presence

As far as the specific characteristics of virtual worlds that lend themselves to workplace environments, I won’t reinvent the wheel, but will instead quote directly from Peter Quirk’s excellent post on the same topic (read the full post here ):

  • by making meetings more engaging than is possible through 2-D web conferencing solutions
  • by creating a sense of a workplace separate from the employee’s home environment, helping to focus the employee on the tasks at hand
  • by creating places for real-time collaboration with other employees
  • by creating a workplace that can be seen from afar, reducing the likelihood that the remote employees will be “out of sight, out of mind”
  • by creating places for remote workers and their office-bound colleagues to hang out with each other over lunch, after work, or after long meetings

Starting with remote worker isolation, it has long been known that one of the most common challenges for telecommuters, and their in-house peers is the perception of isolation. Often, remote employees can feel distant or left out of the daily pulse of the physical office. Opportunities for chance encounters and informal socialization are lacking, which can have a negative impact on the teleworker’s ability to feel connected to the rest of the team. Virtual workplaces can readily enhance the sense of presence, and bring remote employees together. As collaborative technologies continue to emerge in virtual worlds, teams will be able to effectively work together in a shared space, even though they may be located in distant geographic locations. In my opinion, collaboration technologies in virtual worlds are still the weakest link in the movement toward the virtual workplace, but there are good reasons to believe that these challenges will be overcome in the months ahead. Until that time comes, the ability to do real work beyond immersive collaboration, communication and 3D simulation is just out of reach. I’m definitely not suggesting to wait on collaborative technology; that would be a mistake, imho – more on that later.

I don’t think we can overestimate the expense of the physical architecture required to support a workplace environment. It is incredibly expensive to build and maintain, and very expensive to change. Virtual architecture costs are minuscule in comparison and far easier to change. It behaves more like a liquid than a static artifact, and has the advantage of being very flexible. It can shift-shape on the fly to reflect the specific needs of that moment. Furthermore, data can be integrated such that the entire workplace environment comes to life with active and dynamic data that is directly relevant to the work being done. Taking this a step further, the architecture of the workplace could even become reflexive or intelligent, insofar as it can recognize and respond to the number of people occupying a space, or even change scale to reflect traffic patterns and popularity of some spaces over others. This kind of flexibility and data integration into the architecture and virtual interface of the workplace itself might seem trivial at first, but I think a fully functioning environment imbued with relevant data and responsiveness could lead to a whole new workplace structure and methodology.

Furthermore, when you look closely at what people actually do when they work together in an office that seemingly necessitates physical presence, it becomes evident that there are several modes of collaboration that could just as easily be accommodated in virtual spaces. When people do sit down and work together in a physical space, what is it that they’re doing that cannot possibly be accommodated in a virtual workplace? Viewing PowerPoint decks? Looking at a white-board? Conference calls? Virtual worlds already accommodate these activities quite well, and are getting better at it (so too thinks Forrester if you feel like splurging for the $279 report), so it won’t be long before the majority of daily interaction can just as effectively transcend physical space for virtual space. In the near future, I believe we might finally be able to transcend PowerPoint with new modes of virtual presentation and relevant data integration within the virtual space – but we’re not quite there yet.

Obviously, nothing can replace physical presence when it comes to high level business interaction, where the nuances of body language are vital, but seriously, what percentage of workers actually engage in this kind of top level strategic management meetings on a daily basis?

Another obvious scenario leading to the rise of the virtual workforce is the cost of commuting. Not only is it becoming more expensive, it is becoming increasingly crowded and less desirable. CEO’s for Cities recently posted some thoughts on the Forbes article on the same topic. The time-starved lifestyles many of us lead invite any opportunity we can find to save precious time. Spending 30 minutes in the car driving to and from work is a major loss of valuable time. Spread out over the course of a week, a 30 minute commute (not uncommon by any means) could shave more than 6 weeks worth of workdays over the course of a year.

Think twice before criticizing virtual workers for spending time customizing an avatar if you spend 260 hours a year stuck in traffic, commuting to a redundant workplace.

It is also of vital importance to note that virtual workplaces are incredibly ‘green’ by nature (see ‘Greening the Workforce‘). The ecological footprint of a physical building, the energy it takes to create, condition and maintain it, along with employee commuting utilizes a massive amount energy. Of course, virtual world servers take a lot of energy too, but only a tiny fraction of what is required to maintain a physical building. I’ve even gone so far as to argue in previous posts that real life architectural projects should even be able to secure green accreditation by incorporating virtual spaces instead of physical spaces. What percentage of employees working in a typical metropolitan area actually depend on physical proximity to their colleagues every single day of the week anyway? Imagine the economic and environmental savings if even a fraction of those employees could conduct their work as efficiently in a virtual workplace.

[update: This chart, via CoolTown Studios is a great place to start considering the environmental burden of the daily commute: http://www.cooltownstudios.com/mt/archives/001295.html]

Finally, the design and construction of real-life architecture is not only expensive, but very time consuming. It is not uncommon for the turnaround time on a project to be several years. Second Life, in its infancy, has already demonstrated its viability as a platform for collaboration now. Imagine what the technology will look like several years from now. The virtual workplace certainly won’t be right for everyone, or every circumstance, but given the evidence and logic supporting its current and future value, I think it is naive to avoid some level of research and experimentation at this point. The pace of real-world architecture certainly doesn’t advance exponentially the way technology does. Personally, I don’t find it difficult to imagine newly minted office buildings sitting vacant long after the intended function transcends the building’s usefulness. The 2D web changed things quickly, but virtual worlds will be quicker.

Next up: Characteristics and opportunities of virtual environments worth considering when developing a virtual workplace.



Exodus to the Virtual Workplace, Part 1

Virtual Workplace

[see also part 2 and part 3]

I’m often asked if it is actually possible to make a living practicing virtual architecture in Second Life. As it turns out, I have indeed become quite a virtual Bedouin lately, and have been lucky enough to derive an equal or greater income working in Second Life than I could ever earn in real life practice. However, virtual consulting isn’t immune to the inevitable ‘feast or famine’ phenomenon real life practitioners face, and I still enjoy balancing virtual work with real-life practice.

As common as this might sound to thousands of others who also work virtually, it can be a shocking, perhaps unbelievable reality to the uninitiated. It certainly took some getting used to, and tuning in to the process and methodology of virtual work has been an unusual experience, to say the least. However, it has shed light on the potential for virtual interaction with clients and colleagues in ways I would never have understood any other way. I write plenty about virtual architecture itself, but there is as much to be said about the roll of the virtual experience itself.

To start with, there is something almost magical about virtual interaction and embodiment. Once the learning curve is behind you and the interface fades from the forefront of your consciousness, the experience can become incredibly immersive and engaging. It doesn’t take long before you achieve the sense of actually existing ‘inside’ a space with other people present, though you may be thousands of miles apart. This sense of presence and enhanced communication are key characteristics of the virtual environment that lead me to believe, with increasing confidence, that virtual workplaces are absolutely right for virtual worlds.

I’ll step even farther out on that limb and suggest that, of all the growing markets in virtual worlds, I think the advent of a truly virtual workplace will have the most immediate and far reaching impact on the shape and quantity of the physical architecture that has traditionally supported it. Everyone knows that kid-worlds and entertainment are the next big thing for virtual worlds, but when it comes to the impact virtual worlds will have on physical architecture, the real world workplace is in for a major face-lift, imho. Of course, it will be the continuation of an existing trend toward remote workplaces, but I believe we can expect to see an even more dramatic transformation in the workplace architecture of the real world in the (near) future.

I definitely cannot claim to be any kind of authority on the subject of workplaces, but working virtually with clients and colleagues on a regular basis has been quite illuminating. I’ve also done my best to track advances in the virtual worlds and their affect on real-life architecture for several years now, since devoting my Master’s Thesis in Architecture to the subject. I even had the opportunity to help design and build a fairly comprehensive virtual workplace for a company using Second Life to augment (and at times replace) their real life offices while working at Clear Ink. The success of these efforts has been mixed, but I’ve certainly learned a lot, and have never been more sure of the value virtual workplaces can bring to any organization.

As is the case with just about everything I read (and write) about virtual worlds, there will be some that yawn at this proposition, knowing full well this is going to happen (or is already happening). Yet others will dismiss the idea as total lunacy. Such dichotomies are the stuff of life on the virtual frontier, I suppose – but I’ll go on with my manifesto nevertheless, in case anyone is still reading. ;-)

We can see that workplaces are already in the process of total reinvention in the wake of the telephone and 2D web, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the process. The new lexicon describing the ‘teleworker’ phenomenon brought us words like office-pooling, JIT spaces, hoteling, and hot-desking – words that have boomed and faded then boomed again. These workplace transformations continue to impact workplace design and are doing so in an alarmingly brief space of time. The transformation isn’t limited to the office either, it is also changing our homes. As more people begin working from home, many remote workers have been forced to re-think their residential space, converting dining rooms and basements into home offices, or building additions to support these new space requirements. This is nothing new. The advent of remote working is already transforming physical architecture in a big way.

As the web extends into a third dimension, I think it is safe to assume we will see a similar transformation resulting from the advent of the 3D virtual workplace that will require new kinds of spaces, and new terminology. Some of it will borrow and build on existing trends, but this time around, the added dimension will require us not only to examine the impact on the physical workplace, but to also consider the architecture of the virtual ‘places’ as well. The current generation of teleworking challenged technologists, graphic designers and web developers to examine how web-based 2D communication channels can assist remote workers, but what will happen, and who will be called upon, when the virtual workplace transforms from a 2D page into a 3D place?

Having worked on several real-life facility planning projects, I have seen firsthand the amount of time and money companies need to spend in the development of the most efficient and appropriate office environment. Teams of in-house managers, architects, interior designers and facility consultants are brought in to carefully examine existing work-flow patterns, team structures, traffic movement, impromptu social habits and more. Designing an efficient workplace requires the team to carefully consider each of these characteristics, interview key staff members, and design a new workplace that is right for the organization. A well crafted crafted workplace is designed to accommodate and reinforce the organization’s core goals and values. I think, as an architect of the virtual world, it would be wise to start borrowing from this process and employing the same comprehensive research and design methodology to the 3D virtual workplace, finding ways in which virtual architecture can also serve to reinforce a company’s values and encourage efficiency.

In the next post, I’ll examine some of the benefits and catalysts I think will contribute to the growth of the virtual workplace. I’ll follow up with some of the characteristics and opportunities of virtual environments that I think are worth considering when developing a virtual workplace.

This post’s title was inspired by Edward Castronova’s insightful book ‘Exodus to the Virtual World.’




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