The ARCH


Opening of Real Life +Second Life Museum Exhibition at The Tech: Keynote by Philip Rosedale
May 29, 2008, 2:13 pm
Filed under: second life, the tech | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Earlier this year, The Tech Museum of Innovation invited Second Life residents to collaborate around the design of exhibits for their real life museum in San Jose for an upcoming exhibition, ‘Art, Film & Music’.

They had already built a replica of their physical building, and set up an exhibition hall where participants from around the world were given space to develop virtual simulations of their ideas for exhibits, and initiate collaborative efforts with others.

The Tech’s virtual exhibit collaboration hall was a veritable creative incubator of ideas, with a tireless staff hosting a steady stream of workshops and events to help designers build the skills necessary to describe their ideas in Second Life.

Given the extraordinary potential for collaboration in Second Life, I didnt’ want to miss out, and developed a variation of the ‘Wikisonic’ concept to submit, since it seems to walk a fine line between Art and Music. I rezzed the concept inside the hall, and put out a Help Wanted sign for anyone who wanted to join the team (and solicited YOUR help here!). Annie Obscure (Annie Ogden in real-life) found my call for help and jumped in almost immediately with a flurry of brilliant ideas for executing the idea in real-life. Together we worked together to develop the concept into a proposal that ended up being chosen for construction at the real-life museum! I also need to thank John Street (Dirty McLean in Second Life), who found a way to realize the crazy collaborative music idea last year – when almost a dozen other scripters told me it couldn’t be done!

Ahead of the exhibit opening, I built a new Wikisonic installation (teleport link), and created a new machinima here:

So, I’m off to San Jose next week to attend the Art, Film & Music exhibition! The Tech is also hosting a Summit on Digital Democracy in Exhibit Design on June 4, 2008, the day of the opening. The event will take place at The Tech in San Jose, and will also be streamed live to The Tech Virtual Museum in Second Life. Keynote speakers will be Philip Rosedale, Linden Lab founder and Chairman, and Peter Friess, Ph.D., President of The Tech.

Summit Invitation

Agenda

1:00 – opening remarks from Peter Friess, President of The Tech Museum of Innovation

1:15 – Keynote by Philip Rosedale, Linden Labs Chairman and former CEO

1:45 – Q&A with Philip Rosedale 2:00 – visit exhibit and talk to people in second life

3:00 -breakout sessions on: -creative commons and open source (Rob Stephenson, moderator) -future of museum collaboration (Peter Friess, moderator) -community exhibit development (Nina Simon, moderator) -building real versions of virtual exhibits (Rich Turner, moderator) -marketing impact for museums of working with second life (Lisa Croel, moderator) -experience of volunteer curators (Second Life, facilitated by ?, moderator)

4:30-concluding remarks

All images in this post taken from The Tech Virtual website unless otherwise noted.



The ARCH Listed as Number 14 of 25 Most Popular Architecture-Related Blogs
May 27, 2008, 2:48 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Eikongraphia recently published MoPo 2008 , listing The Arch as number 14 on the list!

We’re in good company too!

1. BLDGBLOG
2. City of Sound
3. Archidose
4. Pruned
5. Interactive Architecture
6. Architecture.mnp
7. Subtopia
8. Life Without Buildings
9. Tropolism
10. Mirage Studio 7
11. Strange Harvest
12. Architechnophilia
13. The Where Blog
14. The Arch
15. Super Colossal
16. Sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy
17. Brand Avenue
18. Architecture Chicago Plus
19. Hugh Pearman
20. Varnelis
21. Lebbeus Woods
22. Part IV
23. Eye Candy
24. Architectural Videos
25. Kosmograd



Tutorial: How to Replicate a Real Life Building in Second Life [updated]

For more information, visit the ARCH Network.

One of the most frequently requested services I receive as a freelance builder and consultant in Second Life is to replicate real-life buildings. While I’ve written a lot (here, and here) about the potential for a new (non-replica) language of purely virtual architecture, based on the inherent characteristics of the virtual environment, I strongly believe there is a potent value in the replication of physical architecture as a point of reference, a springboard for further development, or simply a kind of iconic 3D logo for organizations entering virtual worlds.

During a replication project I recently completed, I documented my process step by step, in order to create a tutorial. I had planned to integrate this with screenshots, a wiki and, of course, machinima – Torley Linden style, but I haven’t been able to find the time to do it right. In the meantime, I thought this text-only version might have value to anyone attempting this process. Please keep in mind that there are many, many, many ways to do this. What I’m describing here is simply the process I’ve gotten used to. I’m sure there are better, more efficient ways of doing this, so I plan on adding what I’ve started to the SLfoundations.org wiki Chip Poutine set up last year as soon as they are back online (apparently they’re moving their datacenters atm), so you’ll be able to post your ideas, experiences and improvements to this process. Perhaps someone else will take up the screenshots/machinima elements to make this tutorial more effective?

I will also include a spoonful of shameless self-promotion… If you would rather hire someone else to replicate a building for you, or need any virtual design/build services (and you have a reasonable budget for professional service), please don’t hesitate to ask for help!

Step 1: Importing the Plans

You’ll want to start with, whenever possible, a simple plan graphic with enough detail to build from, without being too cluttered with construction information. If you have the CAD files and know how to use AutoCAD or some similar software, you can turn off most of the dimensional and label layers so you’re left with only the information you need. Everyone has a different method, but I typically use the Export as EPS (make sure the whole drawing is zoom-extents on your screen when you export. Then open the EPS file in Photoshop at about 500 dpi or more. Duplicate the background layer, then add a ‘Stroke’ modifier to the new layer. Make it 1 pixel wide and black. Make a new blank layer, fill it solid with a white paint bucket and merge the stroke layer down so the stroke is rasterized. You should then have a fairly workable plan graphic. You can experiment with import dpi – if its a huge plan, you might need it to be bigger than 500 for the right amount of detail to show up. You also might need more than 1 pixel wide stroke for the lines to show up properly.

This may sound strange, but sometimes you can even use the Fire Escape Route Plan diagrams found in many public building corridors. They’re often very accurate, and simplified to include only the elements you really need to recreate the building.

Open the file in Photoshop (all descriptive terms will assume Photoshop CS3 since it’s all i know! Feel free to augment this tutorial for other applications!)

Make the ‘canvas size’ ( Edit > Canvas Size ) of the image square. Be sure the ‘Relative’ option is un-checked so it doesn’t stretch the image. For example, if it’s currently 10 x 25, change the canvas size to 25×25. This will add blank space on the sides, and retain the proportions of the image.

Optional step: Use a ‘magic wand’ tool to select the outer blank space of the plan. Then, invert your selection (Select > Inverse ) so only the plan is selected. Then, press ‘Q’ or Enter Quick Mask mode. Save the file as Targa (tga) at 32 bits/pixel with Compress unchecked.

In Second Life, import the plan. (File > Upload Image). It will cost you a wopping 10 Lindens.

Rez a Huge Prim. Depending on the size of the building, I recommend either a 100x100x.01 or a 20x20x.01 (If you don’t have Huge Prims aka Megaprims, you can buy them at SLExchange or OnRez or any number of in-world stores).

In your edit window (Tools > Select Tool > Edit) , check ‘Select Texture’. Click the top face of your Huge Prim. Back in the edit window, click the little square image just above the word ‘Texture’ and browse to find the image you uploaded.

Rez a regular cube prim. If you want to build your replica at 1.5 times real life scale (highly recommended for proper avatar navigation, etc… just trust me on this, do NOT build it exactly to scale or your build will be just about useless… if anything, you’ll want to build it bigger – some even recommend 2x real life scale, but I usually go with 1.5x)

Change that cube prim’s dimensions to 1.5×1.5 (or 2×2 if you want to replicate it at 2x RL scale). Find an exterior or entry door on your plan. Move the 1.5×1.5 prim near that door.

Select that plan texture on the huge prim again and use change the ‘Repeats per Face’ numbers until the door width matches your 1.5×1.5 prim. Most entry doors in real life are about 1 meter wide – give or take a little. So, by making the door in that texture the same size as your 1.5×1.5 meter prim, the rest of your building will end up at about 1.5x real life scale.

If you’re lucky enough to have elevation drawings or section drawings, import those the same way and place them in their proper locations relative to the plan. The same goes for second and third floors, etc.

To import second and third floors, it often helps to go back to your first floor graphic and add the new plans as additional layers to that drawing. Delete the outer blank spaces of the new plans, and align them with the first floor. This way, you can copy your original Huge Prim straight up (z-axis only), add the new texture and it will be already set with the exact same proportions, in the exact X,Y coordinates, and Repeats per Face settings, etc.

If you don’t have elevation drawings, you can take an exterior photograph and use a polygon lasso to copy a typical ‘bay’ of the exterior. Then paste it into a new file and edit>transform>distort it until it is orthogonal (horizontally and vertically straight). Then, paste and copy that bay to make several identical bays to create the whole elevation. Try to match the proportions of this flat elevation with what it looks like on the photograph. When you’re done, edit the Canvas Size so the image is square. Import the image into SL. Map it to Huge Prim – most likely a 20x20x.01 will be most useful, but for very small builds, a regular 10×10 might be big enough.

Line up the elevation image with the floor plan. Again, use the ‘Repeats per Face’ fields to get it to match the scale. However, try not to distort it too much – you want it to look as close as possible to the proportions of the actual building.

At this point, you should be in good shape to start building. The first thing I do is look for elements of the building that are repetitive. For example, most buildings will be built on a ‘bay’ module. Typically I like to build one of these bays, from the ground to the top floor – including all windows and materials.

To make prim-efficient windows, you might consider using the .tga or Targa file format – using the masking/alpha layers in Photoshop in order to create a single texture including the frame, mullions, and some glass reflectivity. This might be excessive, but sometimes I try to find an image of what the scenery looks like opposite the building I’m replicating. I then put that image over the window texture and fade it back to reduced opacity. Then, I use a ‘feathered’ selection oval to grab just a tiny bit of that background image in my targa file. If you select too much, or too close to the window frame, you can always do a non-feathered selection around the frame just to clean it up and get it out of the alpha selection. With some trial and error, you should be able to create a window that looks clear, but has a slight (and accurate) reflection.

Back to the repetitive bay element… I then ‘link’ this bay when its finished (ctrl-L), making sure to select an outer edge as the parent prim (the one that glows yellow once the link is established – last prim selected). Then, I check the ‘Copy Selection’ box, and click the outer face of the bay to create the next bay (if none of the edges work well for Copy Selection, you can always make an invisible flat prim and use that as the copy selection face, then delete it after – but you’ll have to be careful, because this can sometimes leave a little sliver between the two).

At this point, replication of real life buildings becomes quite improvizational. You’ll need to make decisions that are specific to your project as to how it would be best replicated. Sometimes there will be parts of the building that won’t necessarily have value in the replication that you can decide to leave off or simplify. I also don’t recommend building every single interior wall as it is in real-life, unless the building is to be used for orientation or training. It is generally (although not always) unreasonable to expect a virtual replica of a building will function the same way the real-life building does.

After completing the exterior, and interior, the finishing touches of landscaping and entourage can really make a huge difference. Adding such things as sidewalks, streets, park benches, streetlamps, etc. add a nice finishing touch.

There is a lot more to it, but I hope this tutorial will help you get started!

Please feel free to contact me anytime at 608-219-9318, or jbrouchoud@gmail.com

Thanks!

Jon Brouchoud / Keystone Bouchard

[update:  you might also consider importing your full-scale architecture models into realxtend, as demonstrated here: https://archsl.wordpress.com/2009/03/02/the-future-is-here-full-scale-architectural-model-from-revit-imported-into-a-virtual-world/ ]



Second Life’s Enterprise Boom

Here are a few tremors from this week’s roundup from the virtual frontier:

BusinessWeek – “Moving beyond Second Life marketing, many companies are infiltrating virtual worlds for employee meetings, mixers, and recruiting.” http://businessweek.com/technology/content/may2008/tc2008052_842516.htm

“To save money in these tough times, universities, conference planners and global firms have started holding gatherings for far-flung employees and students in the online world known as Second Life” http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-fi-secondlife10-2008may10,0,2472150.story

“…all those who dismissed Second Life out of hand on the basis of those earlier reports slowly realize their rationale has eroded out from under them.” http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2008/05/backlash-revers.html

“Today I set a new virtual work record, spending six hours straight in Second Life doing what could be described as work.” http://peterquirk.wordpress.com/2008/05/09/an-experience-of-working-in-second-life/

The employee-centered virtual workplace: “I have started to imagine a workspace where I position near me the offices or desks of people I interact with (or would like to interact with) most frequently.” http://peterquirk.wordpress.com/2008/05/04/the-employee-centered-virtual-workplace/

National Center for Telecommunications Technologies has recently purchased a Second Life Island and are in the process of partitioning and building out… “We believe virtual world use will continue to grow – especially as the price of fuel continues to rise and travel costs grow.” http://ictcenter.blogspot.com/2008/05/virtual-worlds-in-workplace.html

Other good reading I have yet to link (via NWN): Forbes article “How to Spark Remote Learning” and “Virtual Innovation

In a post on Cisco’s blog this week, Dannette Veale comments on the BusinessWeek article by pointing out that, “Cisco Sales Associate Program (CSAP) at Cisco is using Second Life as a meeting place for their globally dispersed team. The CSAP folks get together in this virtual environment regularly to ensure synergy with their program and to talk about the latest in technology such as WAAS and virtualization. The team is also leveraging the virtual environment for team building activities like global team photo days. This leads to a sense of belonging to something greater than ones self, to a sense of being part of something.” http://blogs.cisco.com/virtualworlds/2008/05/working_virtually.html

Yet, with all of this excitement and positive energy building, I was alarmed and a bit saddened by Christian Renaud’s well-reasoned prediction that Second Life will fade into the sunset in the next 24-36 months. Read more here: http://www.christianrenaud.com/weblog/2008/05/the-future-will.html

We’ll see about that.



Smart Buildings – Strategies for Saving Costs & Generating Revenue: Streaming Live into Second Life from the Serious Games Institute
May 11, 2008, 8:58 pm
Filed under: rl architecture | Tags: ,

“Integrating Physical and Virtual Worlds to Add Real Value to Buildings”

Serious Games Institute Technology Workshop – Smart Buildings – Strategies for Saving Costs & Generating Revenue

This coming Wednesday , May 14th at 4:30am SL-time, an event taking place in the real world at the Serious Games Institute (SGI) in Coventry, UK will be streamed live into Second Life. Please ensure that you can view video in Second Life prior to the event by having the latest version of Quicktime installed on your computer. IM Pall Ariantho if you need help or more details, or visit the Second Life community events listing HERE.

This workshop aims to introduce partners and participants to a new concept in smart building technologies. Traditionally, smart building technologies have focused on cost reductions and environmental sustainability. The workshop will explore the latest developments for integrating physical and virtual environments to improve the cost effectiveness of next generation building management technologies but in addition, it will also explore new opportunities to use buildings to generate income or add value to buildings through visitor relationship management and richer experiences.

Agenda  (note: these are  British Summer times, which is 8 hours ahead of SL-time (PDT):

12:30 – 12:45    Welcome

David Wortley, Director, SGI

12:45 – 13:00    Outline of the Day
Sara de Freitas, Research SGI

Interactive Sessions with Q&A

14:00 – 14:30    Integrating physical and virtual worlds for cost effective
building management & control.

Oliver Goh, Business Development Manager, Implenia

14:30 – 15:00    The Eden Project – sustainable Development and Visitor
Education

Howard Jones (Eden Project) & Jane Lewis (Cisco)

15:00 – 15:30    Using Technology to create added value to buildings

Roger Saunt, Sales Manager, Venue Solutions Ltd



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 hodgepodge 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.