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.’

Casting Shadows

These past few months have brought about a rather exciting surge of announcements and renewed energy around the OpenSIM project, the open source virtual world platform. Though it is still alpha level code, the future potential is obvious, especially for those of us anxiously awaiting the ability to import 3D models created, textured and rendered in external applications like 3D studio, Blender, etc. This ability brings with it the promise of several game-changing opportunities, not the least of which is establishing a dynamic link between Building Information Models (BIM) and virtual environments.

Some of the most visible and promising new features cooperating with OpenSIM are coming from a Finnish group called realxtend. The actual look and feel of OpenSIM is very similar to the Second Life environment, but the realxtend client/server combo includes several enticing new items. For one thing, the File menu now contains an ‘Import 3D model’ option – and it works!  Also, under the prim-editing menu, you’ll find the ‘cast shadows’ option. Yeah, seriously… ‘cast shadows’… can you imagine?

What’s more, even a technical newbie such as myself can download their server code, and open your very own sim running on your own home computer. Better still, you can invite others into your sim to see what you’ve been up to. If you want to go beyond basic exploration, you can host the environment on a more powerful server for less lag and a smoother experience. Visitors to your personal sim can even teleport to and from the Second Life grid, and to other OpenSIM grids as well.

Within just a few hours, I had my own little world running on my computer. Shortly thereafter, I had imported my first 3D models created in 3DStudio. I suddenly had that same sense of urgency and excitement I experienced when I first started working in Second Life. My imagination ran wild!

You might think this experience would lead me away form Second Life itself, but I actually feel quite the opposite. I’ve never felt so confident and comfortable with the time and energy I’ve spent learning and promoting Second Life. It isn’t just OpenSIM either, but none of the new emerging platforms I’ve tried so far show anywhere near the same promise, in my humble opinion, as the combination of Second Life and OpenSIM.

Speaking purely in terms of professional/business applications, or as a platform for architectural practice and collaboration, I’m not convinced that Linden Lab shares the same vectors of interest as the more ‘platformist’ professionals who often think of it as a tool instead of a place, nor should they. The community, and the economy are vital, yet incredibly fragile components of Second Life – a combination that doesn’t lend itself well to liberal new-feature testing. Just like Philip Rosedale emphasized at SLCC last year, Linden Lab can only operate like a ‘lab’ for so long before they have to pull back a bit on experimentation and turn more attention to the ongoing challenges of performance and stability.

But when you combine the vital core elements of community and commerce with the features possible in OpenSIM-based grids, it seems a win-win combination. Despite the never-ending flow of criticism and complaints, I think Linden Lab is doing an outstanding job with Second Life, and I think they’ll be very hard to catch. But I’m excited and glad that the more specialized interests can now have their freedom, their privacy, their security, and any new feature they have the wherewithal to invent. I think Giff Constable said it best, “if something needs to be fixed, you can roll up your sleeves and fix it rather than crossing your fingers and waiting for someone else.”

Cory Ondrejka suggested in a great post today that “Attempts to strongly separate “play” and “work” virtual worlds will stunt the growth of both. Communities that play together work together better. And vice versa.” I think that statement reinforces the notion that the combined effort of SL and specialized OpenSIM places is a healthy mix. I might “work” in my Crescendo Design OpenSIM island, meeting with clients and bask in the greatness of prims that can ‘cast shadows,’ but it will surely get lonely in there. I’d be constantly checking my mini-map for green dots, and missing out on all the great stuff Second Life has to offer as a place, and not just a tool. When its time for a break, I can teleport back to SL, and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The combination of features I think are requisite for a virtual world explosion in professional practice are a tricky, yet inseparable kit of parts. For this reason, I don’t have a lot of faith in the other platforms aimed at surpassing Second Life. Just importing 3D models, or better graphics alone are nothing without a rich and diverse community.

Even if you include model-imports and community, what about object permissions? For 3D collaboration to work, you need a fairly robust permissions strategy, and a lot of the new platforms currently overlook this feature completely. I think most of us completely underestimate the genius and power of the prim system and in-world building tools. In fact, by the time you carefully prepare a 3D model with enough detail to look passable up-close in a virtual environment, you end up spending a comparable amount of time on it as you would if you had built it with prims in the first place. Furthermore, once you import it – its essentially frozen, since you can’t modify any part of it without re-rendering it and re-importing it. It would be a disaster for virtual collaboration if we lost that ability.

The community is equally critical. Even if, for example, Autodesk were to introduce avatars into Revit, they couldn’t possibly deliver as diverse of a community of non-architects. If you aren’t convinced that a public, global and diverse community is important in the future of architectural practice, keep an eye on Studio Wikitecture. That’s just the beginning.

I could be wrong, but when I add it all up, I still haven’t seen another emerging platform that includes both in-world building tools (with permissions system) as well as 3D importing, alongside an incredibly robust community and economy. Even if there were a potential competitor, they are nowhere near as far along as Second Life at solving the plethora of challenges and nuances of successfully running a virtual world (which happens to be yet another area I think many of us totally misunderstand and underestimate). By the time a competitor catches up with where SL is now, SL will be that much farther ahead.

In conclusion, I’m confident that Second Life is still a very safe and smart investment of time and money. I’ll admit to knowing very little about the back-end underlying this technology, which is why this post could be all full of baloney. But from what I can tell, the combined trajectories of Second Life and OpenSIM are a winning combination, and hold the underpinnings of what I think will be the next major technological evolution in the design and creation of the real-life built-environment.

Keep an eye on Ugotrade for further reviews of OpenSIM (including this post), and be sure to check out realxtend’s site for a description of their upcoming event in Second Life where you can learn more about the current technology, and their plans for the future.

Second Life Tutorials
April 8, 2008, 12:31 pm
Filed under: second life, Torley Linden | Tags:

I never realized just how much I actually didn’t know about Second Life until I watched Torley Linden’s Second Life Tutorials. Not only are they crystal clear in direction, but Torley keeps them entertaining and upbeat as well.

If you’re totally new, start on Volume 1 – “What is a Prim?” Even if you’re an advanced user, I can guarantee you’ll learn things you didn’t know by scrolling through the list of tutorials here:

Here are just two samples…

Video of Wikitecture Presentation at Metaverse U Now Available
April 3, 2008, 5:01 pm
Filed under: jon brouchoud, metaverse u, wikitecture

If you can’t tell, I was more than a little nervous, and couldn’t quite shake my midwestern accent! =)

Many thanks to Henrik Bennetsen, Stanford University and everyone who helped make Metaverse U so successful (see more videos HERE). We did receive a lot of positive feedback and made some great connections with several individuals and companies interested in the possibility of helping us advance the project.

We haven’t reached our sponsorship goals yet, so if you’re interested in helping us develop the next phase, there’s still time! We have a wide range of goals, but we’re primarily interested in simplifying the interface and making this collaboration technology available to communities throughout the Second Life grid and beyond.

As if that’s enough RL Keystone for one day, here’s my little blurb/interview about what excites and scares me about metaverse technology:

All the Splendor of the Mayan World in Second Life
April 3, 2008, 3:44 pm
Filed under: rl architecture

I tried to snag a few teaser screenshots for this post, but I don’t think they really convey the quality of this build the way a personal visit would.  You’ll just have to go see it for yourself!  Here’s the release:
You are cordially invited to the GRAND OPENING of two new sims at Visit Mexico – Ruta Maya, Thursday April 3, 2008.  Experience Mexico in Second Life (SL) like never before.  Thrill to the exciting zip line ride through the rainforest canopy.  Soar over the beautiful Misol Ha Falls and view the ruins of Palenque by hang glider.  Marvel at the Olmec heads in La Venta Park. Explore Tulum’s beaches and ruins by horseback.  Shop for beautiful Mexican artifacts in the colorful city of Campeche.  Everywhere you look there is something new and exciting to do and see when you Visit Mexico!

The wonders of Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Campeche and Tabasco, the other four states that make up Visit Mexico Second Life, were added on to Chichen Itza, which was inaugurated in 2007 and has been visited by thousands of virtual tourists.

The inclusion of these four states in Second Life, and the opening of the two Sims in which they are located (Visit Mexico 2 and Visit Mexico 3), will enable visitors to become familiar with the major attractions of southeastern Mexico, and enjoy a special tour that goes beyond the imagination.

Destination Url:

Grand Opening festivities will include:

o    2 – 4:00 p.m. SLT – SL Press and Bloggers admitted for sim preview.  Please contact Valiant Strangelove or Lester Nefarious for press access.

o    4 – 6:00 p.m. SLT – Sims open to the general public for exploration.  Dance to the Latin beats of DJ Madame Maracas.

o    6 – 7:00 p.m. SLT – Jano Runo, SL’s Latin sensation, takes the stage for a LIVE Latin music concert.

o    7 – 8:00 p.m. SLT – More LIVE music from SL phenom Dann Numbers who will sing many of his crowd favorites in Spanish.

o    8 – 9:00 p.m. SLT – The incomparable Max Kleene wraps up the night with all of your favorite requests.

As an added bonus, all virtual tourists will receive a beautifully replicated Mayan outfit and jewelry created by noted SL designer Aries Bricklin FREE of charge.

When exploring the new Ruta Maya sims, please remember to enable your in-world audio feature to experience the wondrous, immersive soundtrack custom created for the Ruta Maya Second Life project by composer Dizzy Banjo.

We are expecting a large crowd for the opening.  Please remove any unnecessary prims and/or scripted accessories prior to attending.

Visit Mexico is sponsored by the Mexico Tourism Board.  For information about Visit Mexico Ruta Maya contact Valiant Strangelove or Lester Nefarious in world.

“Visit Mexico in Second Life is a milestone of which we are proud of. It allows us to share with a greater number of people one of the most important heritages that Mexico has and at the same time, show the vast array of amenities presently offered so that visitors can enjoy it to the fullest extent.” said Eduardo Chaillo, Director of the Mexico Tourism Board’s Strategic Business Unit in the United States and Canada.

About the Mexico Tourism Board

The Mexico Tourism Board (MTB) brings together the resources of federal and state governments, municipalities and private companies to promote Mexico’s tourism attractions and destinations internationally. Created in 1999, MTB is Mexico’s tourism promotion agency, and its participants include members of both the private and public sectors. The MTB has offices throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Ruta Maya Development Team:
Lester Nefarious,  Advanced Virtual  – Developer, On-going Management
Valiant Strangelove, Advanced Virtual – Developer, On-going Management

Music and Sound Engineering:
Dizzy Banjo, Custom Soundtrack and Environmental Sound Design
Hastur Pierterson : Additional Environmental Sound Effects Consultant

Mayan Clothing and Accessories Design:
Aries Bricklin

Build Team:
Selena Gateaux – Tulum Ruins, Palenque Ruins, Chichen Itza Ruins, Welcome Area,
Kriss Lehmann – Chiapas Rainforest, Misol Ha Falls, Complete Project landscaping
Neil Robinson – Colonial City of Campeche
Fiona Branagh – Animated Horses, Stable Area
ArchTx Edo – Animated Wildlife
Mathieu Basiat – Hang gliding
Taurez Zabelin – Olmec Heads and Altars of La Venta Park
Nyna Slate – Culinary Delights
Sandusky Kayvon – Chichen Itza Ball Court and Game

Kaiser Bogomil, Zip Line and Audio Tour

Film and Video:
Kronos Kirkorian

Tripp Dean

Nardya Rousselot
Dimi Van Ludwig
SunQueen Ginsberg
Fiona Branagh
Ray Holgado
Fellon Kelt
DBDigital Epsilon
Moby Randt
Leira Vaughan
Juanita Deharo
Aries Bricklin
Snaptick Laxness
Ginah Dinova
Ferugina Luna
Roldan Noel
Bronco Graves
Keala Mimistrobell
Brent Renard