3D Virtual Workspace for Business Communication and Collaboration

I recently received an intriguing message from Kenneth Merriman, an MBA student at Webster University at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California telling me about a capstone project report he was working on to complete his masters in IT Management. In the report, he uses Wonderland as an example of virtual world technology that is poised to solve a variety of communication and coordination problems faced by large enterprises.

Kenneth MerrimanKen has a fascinating, eclectic background. Like many others interested in virtual worlds, Ken is an avid World of Warcraft player. He tells me he has reached the highest level (80) with one of his four toons. I’m not a gamer, but this sounded impressive! Ken started his career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories working on spacecraft atomic generators. From there, he moved on to the motion picture industry where he directed a documentary on the 1976 Mars landing entitled “Mars Minus Myth (revised)” that won the Bronze Hugo Award at the 1977 Chicago Film Festival. After that, he did a stint working for the Department of Defense missile systems division as a production planner/analyst on the prototype navigational system for the stealth fighter. In the 1990s, Ken changed careers and became a graphic artist, studying Alias 3D design and animation at the Art Center, College of Design in Pasadena. This landed him a job at Mattel in the IT Infrastructure department supporting the teams of artists and designers developing toy products. Now, after completing his MBA, Ken is working on a proposal for a new business related to on-line games and virtual worlds.

In the guest blog that follows, Ken Merriman describes his capstone project.

Capstone Project

Nicole Yankelovich was very kind to invite me to contribute a blog to this Web site in order to share some of my findings on the final capstone project that I wrote for my MA‑IT Management degree at Webster University entitled 3D Virtual Workspace for Business Communication and Collaboration. The goal of the final capstone project was to determine a need that exists in a global organization with 250,000 employees and present an analysis of a business solution that would be beneficial to an organization of this scale. In my report, I used Project Wonderland an example to illustrate what I consider the next evolutionary development in corporate communication and collaboration tools: 3D virtual workspaces. I found Wonderland to be innovatively designed to bring distant people together in such a manner as to promote team involvement and personal bonding. As a former employee of Mattel, Inc., in El Segundo, California, I have experience with teams that are separated by large distances. I worked for 11 years in Mattel’s IT Infrastructure department, during which time I was involved in several global projects that required coordination of distributed IT support personnel. These collaborative efforts were successfully accomplished using a combination of voice communications, video communications, Net Meetings, e-mail, text messaging, and remote computer sharing/control. We were impressed with the benefits that these Internet tools offered. At one point, I was controlling computers in Germany and Hong Kong while still at my desk in Los Angeles.

Problems and Solutions

There were problems, however, with effectively orchestrating all these technologies. The logistics of tracking and storing data were difficult, due in part to the lack of centralization as well as the absence of consistent standards across locations. Planned meetings required advanced arrangements to assure team participation. It was not a simple task to make this happen. In addition, I noticed that there was a consistent disconnect between the team members. This appeared to be due to inadequate bonding during the team formation phase, which I attributed to team members’ limited exposure to one another. We did our best to compensate for the lack of face-to-face meetings, but these electronic meetings did not compare with the level of information exchange or personal bonding associated with in-person meetings. This led me to think that there might be a better solution.

In my research, I came across Project Wonderland being developed at Sun Microsystems. This matched perfectly with the situation and provided a possible solution that I felt would address these problems. The architecture of Wonderland appears to address the ability to rapidly connect people while also supporting casual meetings and impromptu discussions. The ability for the mind to momentarily suspend disbelief while immersed in a 3D virtual workspace can give the user a perception of presence. This dramatically enhances personal bonding and increases rapid information transference thereby improving team building as well as team coordination effectiveness. The ability of Wonderland to automatically establish audio links based on proximity of avatar relationship as well as the ability to share files and applications reveals the power that is achievable with this type of technological approach.

In the report, I also discussed the success of massively-multiplayer online games (MMOGs) such as Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (WoW). I used this as an example not only for the financial success of the product, approximately $2 billion per year, but also as an indication of how team building can be achieved in a virtual environment. If you remove the gaming aspect of the product, it becomes a coordination tool for teams of individuals brought together from global distances. There are arenas in World of Warcraft where as many as 200 players from around the world will work as teams at the same time to accomplish defined goals. 3D virtual world immersion, avatar proximity, audio communication, text messaging, and perception of presence are all established simultaneously within these massive events that occur in always-on real time. Many times, while playing WoW in Los Angeles, I will be on a team composed of people who at the same time are sitting in Australia, Japan, and New York.

I mentioned in the report that corporate management might not see that Wonderland has these powerful benefits. This could be a challenge for some to overcome. The perception of cyberslacking might be a factor on how quickly this technology is adopted. If management views 3D virtual workspace as a diversion, then management might push back, not supplying the opportunities that the technology needs to develop. Perhaps the trade-off will become clearer as the economy continues to flounder. The need to formulate teams, pull in distant resources, and develop team effectiveness through personal bonding while at the same time reducing travel costs might prove to be the tipping point for the future of virtual world technology. It is a powerful tool, and if thoughtfully introduced, could give organizations a distinct advantage over their competition.

I appreciate the information that was available through the Wonderland open source web site that contributed to my understanding of the progress of the technology. This proved to be a valuable resource for my report. I was excited to receive a grade of 100% for the report and my final course grade of an “A.”

Thank you, Nicole and the team that is working on this great application. I will be looking forward to your
future developments in the field.

Kenneth D. Merriman, MBA, MA-Information Technology Management


8 Responses to 3D Virtual Workspace for Business Communication and Collaboration

  1. Ric Moore says:

    Excellent perspectives. It is a challenge to present the technology to upper management when they seem to think that we’re just having too much fun getting an avatar to open an instance of Firefox or a white board in a cartoon looking world, when they find us giggling with glee!
    The truth be known, I see this world as a better and more efficient way to communicate, present ideas and instruction, within what could be a gentler world to participate within, with far less stress, as well as reduced expenses.
    I want to use Wonderland to teach inmates that are reading/writing challenged. They are the majority of inmates. I want them to design the world THEY are comfortable learning in. Then the content would be delivered using audio and visual modules that I want them to assist creating. Peer-to-Peer.
    The "hook" is the medium of Wonderland. Traditional European learning methods didn’t keep them in school and, if truth be known, they flat our will not return to a revisit of their former pain. That’s why they don’t attend the traditional classes in our prisons at all and then they become discounted, again, for not cooperating!
    This notion of mine is reflected in what you already noted above, in the professional world. "The ability for the mind to momentarily suspend disbelief while immersed in a 3D virtual workspace can give the user a perception of presence. This dramatically enhances personal bonding and increases rapid information transference thereby improving team building as well as team coordination effectiveness." Very well put.
    I’m not a Preacher nor "preachy" but Jesus changed the course of Western Civilization like that by using simple "Parables". Story telling without judgments or finger pointing. He just presented teachings within story lines and covertly instructed people in a manner that they could relate to, without shame nor fear. That is the methodology I’m proposing to use. My question would be if that notion might also benefit our corporate world as well? After that, who knows? World Peace and Brotherly Love? …could happen. It’s all about simple perspective taking. Ric

  2. Douglas Finnigan says:

    The more I look into Wonderland, the more impressed I am with it. The modular structure is incredibly powerful, and its integration with the desktop (eg. drag and drop) puts it far ahead of its competitors.
    But the name Wonderland bugs me. Before taking a closer look, I assumed from the name that this would be just another Second Life wannabe, a social 3D platform for fun and games, all the distractions that Ken’s managers were worried about.
    But the key thing about Wonderland is how it wraps everything up into one nice, yet extensible, package. The 2D desktop, the Internet, and 3D virtual worlds are (will be) seamlessly integrated.
    So I’d like to suggest (fruitlessly, of course) a name change: Sun Continuum.
    This gets across the idea of everything being interrelated (space-time), and with the extra third dimension of a virtual world. And once more work gets done on real-world sensing and control, the Continuum will expand even more! The name also hints at the interconnectivity of people and their workspaces.
    Not a frivolous "wonderland", but a serious contender for the 3D virtual world / desktop / real world application we’ve all been waiting for.
    (Of course, if the plan *is* to develop the frivolous 3D social platform of choice, then Wonderland is the perfect name, though somewhat limiting.)
    Just a foolish thought.

  3. arkowitz says:

    Continuum is a fantastic name! I second.

  4. Douglas, not at all a foolish thought. Your point is well taken and a name like Continuum does conjure up the right sort of connotations. We’ll certainly keep it in mind if a renaming opportunity presents itself. Thanks for the suggestion and for your kind words.

  5. Thanks for the encouragement! I feel rather sheepish at the thought of having the audacity to suggest a name change, when everyone else has done all the hard work of actually developing the system!
    But I do think perception is important, and the name Wonderland doesn’t really do justice to what can be achieved.
    And from dictionary.com – Continuum:
    "A continuous extent, succession, or whole, no part of which can be distinguished from neighboring parts except by arbitrary division."
    That sort of sums it up.
    By the way, arkowitz, I’m a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, and from June to Dec I’ll be on attachment with Sun here, to do some work on a government project using Wonderland. I took a look at your website, and am really impressed with the visualisation work you’ve done. Part of my own project will be about visualising web data in Wonderland – so I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind if I mail you now and then, just to pick your brain, so to speak. I promise not to be a pest!
    I was going off the whole topic of virtual worlds recently, since Second Life seemed to have cornered the imaginations of managers and academics here – but Wonderland is a whole other ballgame, and I can’t wait to get stuck in.

  6. arkowitz says:

    We’re currently porting over to .5 and I would love to get you using our free beta once we have that completed – also please do email me, at arkowitz at gmail.

  7. Hi Nicole
    I’ve just had a meeting at Sun Singapore, and was told that you’ll be coming over in June or July to discuss the Wonderland project. So, it’ll be great to meet up and talk about Wonderland (as well as show you some warm Scottish/Singaporean hospitality).
    I’m not sure if you’d want me to discuss such things on the blog, so if you don’t mind, I’ll drop you an email at some point before your visit.
    (And again, if I’d known you’d be coming over, I’d probably have kept my name change idea to myself!)
    Arkowitz, thanks – I’d very much like to try your beta once it’s ready, and to keep in touch via email. Cheers.

  8. Kenneth Merriman says:

    I like Ric Moore’s observation that 3D virtual workspace can give a comfortable workspace in which the participant can work. The flexibility of the technology could easily address this feature. The environment can certainly affect the success of learning and productivity. I listen to various music to either stimulate thinking, motivate creativity, or soothe stress. This could be added to the environment as well as visual clues that our mind uses subconsciously.
    Ric also expanded on the thought of involving people who can not physically attend an event. This could be anyone who has limitations on travel which can include physical, monetary, legal, or schedule. A CEO could effectively meet groups around the world only hours between meetings. A person confined to home due to an illness could participate in a seminar. The additional use of human resources that are available in the world could be drawn together to solve various problems that require various minds to evaluate. The potential is tremendous. I sense that Wonderland can open all of these possibilities and I look forward to seeing it put to great use in the future.

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