Author’s note: Project Wonderland has now “forked, ” and the original team led by Nicole Yankelovich has branched off to work on Open Wonderland.
Businesses are moving beyond marketing in virtual worlds and are exploring other applications of virtual worlds (see a recent BusinessWeek article & slideshow). Enabling collaboration among remote workers is one such application (see our past posts and paper on this topic). A variety of virtual world options or platforms have been available for supporting remote work and these include Second Life, Qwaq, Forterra, and Tixeo. Last week I had the rare opportunity to see an emerging virtual world called Wonderland, the product of an open source project, Project Wonderland, sponsored by Sun Microsystems. During a conference call with our colleague Nicole Yankelovich, Principal Investigator of the Collaborative Environments Project at Sun Microsystems, Becky Jestice and I were lucky enough to get a tour of Wonderland. Nicole graciously spent over an hour to show us some of the impressive features of Wonderland. The tour was so impressive that I want to devote a post to some key aspects of Wonderland:
- Virtual meeting participants can use voice to communicate with one another;
- If necessary, participants can connect to a Wonderland meeting via telephone;
- Private conversations between participants are possible in a virtual meeting;
- Participants can share applications; and
- Anyone can try out Wonderland (see instructions below).
Nicole sent us a link to download the Wonderland software beforehand and make sure that we are able to connect to Sun’s virtual world server. Since Wonderland supports stereophonic audio communication, Nicole asked us to keep our microphone headsets ready. With a headset, participants get realtime immersive stereo audio with distance attenuation. This means the voices of others present in Wonderland will become louder as you approach them and weaker as you walk away from them.
I was able to connect to Wonderland using Windows without any major issues. Nicole was present in the in-world (as they call Wonderland) to receive me. I was unable to talk to Nicole initially because of my audio settings and relied on the chat box at the bottom of my Wonderland window to communicate and resolve my audio issues. Becky, who has a Mac, had some trouble connecting to the server; however, an email from a Nicole’s colleague at Sun resolved the connection issues for Becky. At the time of connecting to Wonderland, Nicole, Becky, and I were in different parts of the world: Becky was in Germany, I was in Vestal, New York, and Nicole connected from her home near Boston.
When we started talking, I noticed that the fidelity of Becky’s voice was different from that of Nicole’s voice. I asked her why and learned that she was using the telephone. Wonderland has a neat feature that allows you to connect via softphone, which is built into the Wonderland software and connects to your microphone headset, or via a real world phone! If you are unable to connect through your computer to a meeting that is going on in Wonderland, you can connect via telephone. This option does not offer stereophonic audio but you can at least have a voice conversation with other participants. Moreover, your audio is spatialized. In other words, if your avatar is also present, your sound appears to be coming from your avatar and is subjected to the same distance attenuation feature as the sound provided via softphone. There were times when I was unable to keep up with Becky and Nicole as they headed off to another area. As I become more distant from Becky and Nicole, I could hear their voices trail off.
Perhaps the most impressive audio feature in Wonderland is that you can switch between softphone and a real phone on the fly. This is really useful if you are having a meeting in Wonderland and need to leave your computer (for example, you may be heading home). You can continue to participate in the meeting via your cell phone. When you connect to a Wonderland meeting via a phone and your avatar is not present in the meeting (you are called an out-worlder in such an instance), Wonderland shows a colored orb representing you. An in-world meeting participant can take this orb and walk around in Wonderland without breaking the connection with you. This is a neat feature if someone wants a private conversation with you. This participant can simply take the orb representing you and walk with it to a corner where nobody can hear your conversation. Moreover, if this participant wants, s/he can hand over your orb (and, hence, the telephone call) to another in-world participant. I believe that this ability of Wonderland to let you create a mash-up between a virtual world and the real world is very important for expanding the usefulness of virtual worlds for business collaboration (see Becky’s post on this issue). You can read more about the ability to connect to a Wonderland meeting via phone at Wonderblog.
Wonderland also enables participants to share a web browser, an OpenOffice document, and tools such as the calculator. Apparently, you can also share Windows or other desktops using Virtual Network Computing. Nicole opened up an OpenOffice presentation document and added a sentence to it. She then asked me to take control of the document so that I could edit it. I thought this was another great feature of Wonderland. While Wonderland does not allow all participants to edit the document at the same time, it places the document on a wall in a 3D space shared by participants and emulates a real world meeting in which people in a room are looking at and working on a document being projected on a wall. The sense of working with others that I obtained from this experience was stronger than what I have experienced during collaboration with my colleagues via Google Docs while talking to them on Skype.
Trying out Wonderland
Wonderland is catching on in the educational domain. Nicole talked to us about the recent launching of the Education Grid, an array of Sun Wonderland virtual world servers hosted by universities that include Essex University (UK), University of Oregon, and St. Paul College. These servers will be provided free of charge to the general public and to members of the Immersive Education Initiative. Members of this initiative will be able to conduct classes and meetings within Wonderland virtual worlds that they create on the Education Grid.
To try out Wonderland, visit Virtual Northstar at St. Paul College. Click on the Virtual North Star Webstart button to download the Wonderland client. Be patient, it will take a while to download. When prompted for username and password, type in your name for username and leave the password field blank. Then click on Login. You will soon be in Wonderland. Rather than trying out Wonderland alone, find someone to go into Wonderland with you so that you can try out the audio features.
Benefits of Wonderland to virtual teams
There are at least three benefits of Wonderland that stand out.
- The communication options allow virtual team members to connect with whomever they need, whenever they need. It’s inclusive of people who have no computer access where previously those colleagues could only be contacted in a phone call or conference call. I have worked with teams whose members did not have access to computing facilities and interaction with them occurred via phone only. Wonderland also allows people to connect at any time, including when they are away from their computer.
- Conversation is more natural – you can listen to someone in high quality audio and a person’s voice attenuates with distance between you and that person. Additionally, you are able to conduct a private side conversations if you wish.
- It takes you one step closer to a real meeting by letting you share documents and see them on a wall in a virtual 3D space.
Where is Wonderland going?
Wonderland is impressive for the number and flexibility of features it offers – we describe only some of them here. You can check out the features in the current release (0.4). Upcoming releases will include new features such as enabling avatar posing and improved application sharing (see the roadmap). Project Wonderland’s vision is to create the best possible environment for collaboration in a variety of domains, including business, education, commerce, and entertainment. Because of its open source nature, which allows users to tweak it to suit their purpose, I am confident that Wonderland will find tremendous application in the future.
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