Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Virtual Office Gains Ground

Virtual reality is making its move from gaming and social sites into the business world.
Project Wonderland, developed by Sun Labs, already allows businesses to improve distance collaboration by building online replicas of their offices or classrooms where colleagues may use 3D representations of themselves to attend meetings, give presentations, and interact.
Project Wonderland is an open-source toolkit for building virtual worlds. The toolkit comes with a prebuilt office environment, but developers who want to design their own world can download instructions on how to do so.

An Early Adopter
One user is Green Phosphor, which sells virtual worlds to enterprises. The company, uses the platform for its business data-mapping application, giving 3D illustrations of data graphs inside virtual worlds.
The idea is to help the user visualize the data by creating the feeling of standing in the middle of a spreadsheet. Green Phosphor tried building prototypes of its application on different platforms such as Second Life, Open Croquet, and Open Simulator, but chose to stay with Project Wonderland because of its networking model and Java base.
"Since the platform is Java-based, we've been able to add some elements to Wonderland that would have been more difficult to build using other platforms," says Ben Lindquist, CEO of Green Phosphor.
"Another aspect that differentiates Wonderland from the competition is its audio features," says Lindquist.
At a recent open house-event at Sun Labs' Menlo Park, CA facility, the research team behind the project placed particular emphasis on sound features, showing how people unable to attend a meeting in the virtual world could call in just as they would to a real-life phone conference.
The people in the virtual world were then able to talk to the caller as a group, privately, or even carry the caller, who is represented in the virtual world by a phone icon, from room to room and passing the caller between different people. When someone gave a presentation in the virtual world, the sound was amplified as the person stepped in front of the microphone.
Members of the virtual audience were also able to chat quietly with the person sitting next to them or step outside the room into a "cone of silence" for private conversations.
To relax, users could step into the virtual music room and chose from different albums, or to into the informal chat areas. "We wanted to add the opportunity for people to interact informally before and after meetings so that people working remotely don't miss out on the social aspects," says Nicole Yankelovich, Project Wonderland project leader.

System Requirements
Project Wonderland requires the use of fairly modern PCs with good graphics cards. The application will work with a dial-up modem, but a slow connection will affect the quality of the voice features.
Live applications such as Mozilla's Firefox browser or's productivity suite can run in Project Wonderland. There is also a framework for building multi-user applications.
The program is presently able to accommodate about 25 users at a time. In the next release, scheduled sometime this fall, the goal is to be able to accommodate at least ten times as many.
Lindquist, who has been using the Wonderland platform for a few months hopes for better documentation in the next release.
"The platform needs to be solidified and better documented, but as an open source architecture, I think it has the potential to be really great," he says.

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