It ain’t gonna work

And when I say something isn’t going to work, I’m usually correct, a gift I inherited from my mother. Which is why I make a point to never tell her what I’m doing, that gets me a much higher success rate.

Linden Research consistently plugs Second Life as “Web 3.0”, as a collaborative environment for corporate use. It ain’t gonna work. Not because the platform is unstable (though it very much is) but for simple, fundamental reasons rooted deeply in how human interaction works.

But to explain it better, let’s do a history lesson.

The very first patents in video telephony have been granted back in 1955, fairly soon after television was introduced. They were popular in fiction since much earlier, at least the 30s, and were a mainstay of science fiction gadgetry ever since the idea science fiction was first televised.

The costs were largely prohibitive, because of the requirement for higher bandwidth, but if they were really ‘The wave of the future’, costs would have been driven down rather quickly. I remember seeing first practical video telephones that could be used over ordinary phone lines on an exibition well before the 90s rolled in. Entire towns were given video phone services and then the services were quietly discontinued.

For the very simple reason that you can’t spend the whole day made up for the off chance someone might call you for a videophone conversation. You don’t really need that kind of fidelity for business communication — in fact, you’d best have less, so it doesn’t distract you from other work you have to do. There are certain applications where much higher fidelity is desired and needed — for communicating on a highly personal level, between members of a family, between very close friends and lovers.

And that niche is filled nicely these days by Skype and it’s ilk.

Early science fiction imagined all books as audio books, self-contained players which would read text aloud to the user. The technology made that feasible at least as early as the introduction of the cassete players.

And yet, audio books failed to drive the printed ones out. You can read much, much faster than you can hear a story, you can use the much higher bandwidth of your visual senses to get coded and preprocessed information, and learning to read is a small price to pay to have that faster access. Audio books have a niche of their own now. They’re very popular among the people who need their visual senses while driving, but still want the story.

Second Life and other virtual world systems provide for the communication on a deeply personal level, allow you the opportunity to send a high bandwidth visual image that is under your direct conscious control and express what you actually want to express instead of you might be expressing otherwise in a direct face to face meeting.

But for a business meeting, this is extraneous. Even assembling people in one physical world room actually results in lots of time wasted getting there, lots of time wasted while they’re waiting for the speaker to get their message through low-bandwidth voice. Instead of doing useful work, they’re trying not to fall asleep. What would serve a business meeting far, far better is a combination of IRC, a presentation system and a networked whiteboard. Because that allows people to actually devote resources to other tasks while a meeting is in progress, actually gives them a moment to think and look things up in relation to what the speaker is saying.

I remember lots and lots of experiments with 3D web back in the dotcom boom. They’re the reason VRML even exists. They all failed not because hardware couldn’t cope, but because for processing large amounts of rich content, 3D doesn’t offer any advantages and taxes the brain much more. For getting a lot of information, fast, nothing beats well-typographed text with a few pictures. A virtual world is just as useless for what web is good for as a videophone does not really offer substantial improvements over a normal phone in day to day business communication. You don’t want to see the face of the pizza delivery receptionist, and they certainly don’t need to see yours! A virtual world allows two people on the opposite edges of the world to be as close as nothing else can ever get them. Business people don’t need to or want to be that close.

It’s as if Linden Research is trying to sell warm fuzzy shawls to corporate executives saying they help keep the office relationships warm. And while the logic is sound, and it does look like a good idea for a while, it doesn’t really work. Eventually corporate executives notice that with AC on the shawls are a nuisance and don’t offer any real benefits. So first they find excuses to take the shawl off and then stop replacing them when they wear out.

But back at home someone is freezing without a warm, fuzzy shawl…

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6 thoughts on “It ain’t gonna work

  1. ding ding! Finally someone sees it as well!!! I can think of plenty other reasons along side of this, but you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  2. Whenever the meme “SL for business” comes up, I cringe. My RL company is the market leader of a small and highly technological niche. Our means of communication is primarily email and telephone, but also frequent travels. Some of our support staff is using instant messaging, but that is frowned upon (because the understanding si not there). Every now and then, a “webinar” or “webex” (live product demonstartion via the web) requires our participation, and usually it is a complete drama. We can’t use the VoIP features of those webxes as none of our exec’s PC’s is equipped with sound or microphone, and the telephone dial-in mostly fails. Using chat during these events, or even cooperate on a shared whiteboard is not to think of.

    If I imagine our execs or our sales people doing conferences or presentations in a virtual world, I can’t stop laughing. And I can’t really see the benefit of it either.

  3. Ten years ago, possibly more because the years pass so quickly but I’ll say 10, we purchased webcams at work for web conferencing, it never happened, never got off the ground.

    I’ve been on Microsoft Exchange courses where they tell us all about how useful instant messaging is and how it should be incorporated, but we won’t roll it out because people have phones and email already and that’s enough.

    Networked whiteboard is a damn good suggestion, indeed it’s the simple act of drawing on a damn whiteboard that holds back the usefulness of collaborative meetings, let alone how much of a pain in the arse it is to setup a simple powerpoint presentation. You need to get the basics right before you go rushing around telling people how useful a product is for meetings.

  4. Pingback: Metaversally Speaking.. » It ain’t gonna work.. until we change.

  5. I think the idea of business meetings as impersonal things where all you really need is to hear the voice of the speaker and see the PowerPoint and the shared whiteboard overlooks alot of potential. I have been on lots of in-person meetings and lots of “phone and shared screen” meetings, and the calls (while far cheaper to set up) don’t work nearly as well as the in-person ones.

    We are gregarious creatures with 3D minds, and tons of our brain wiring is devoted to interpreting a 3D space, and interacting with other people in that space. The “Skype and shared whiteboard” model of a meeting completely fails to use any of that brain wiring. If the meeting is solely to allow one person to present some information to a passive group of others, that might be okay (although even there I’d claim that people are more likely to get bored and inattentive in the situation where neither the speaker nor the other listeners are 3D-present), but for meetings that are about discussion, or debate, or coordination, or interaction, a space that makes good use of our 3D multiperson brains is going to have a huge advantage.

    Note that I said “makes good use”; it’s not clear to me that the business spaces that we currently have in Second Life and other 3D VWs are in that class yet. But they’re getting there. And I think once they’re there and we’re all used to it, we’ll be saying “remember when we tried to have meetings over the phone? Sheesh!”…

  6. No, you’re wrong — and obnoxiously smug about being wrong, too.

    SL is *already being used for business* all over the place. I marvel at your ignorance at this. There are tons of RL businesses in SL using SL for business. They range from everything to design companies to lawyers to manpower firms to cell phone companies to banks, and yes, there are still real-life authentic bank sims in SL, and no, they didn’t leave SL as one widely-advertised bank did. See, that’s just the thing. A handful of businesses like American Apparel or Reuters leave, who never got how to use the platform effectively, and there’s this silly idea that the entire sector and all RL business itself fled, as well.

    No, avatarization is not required for every business use. But there are some effective business uses, and your comparison to the expensive and distracting videophone and its retirement isn’t apt, as people are already very close to avatarization when they have an email handle and a Yahoo Messenger or Facebook picture.

    What’s silly about all this is that geeks constantly bang on this idea of “whiteboarding” as if every, single human interaction and every business use has to be just like a group of wild coders scratching on a whiteboard together. It isn’t. Most people don’t need to collectively, intensively sit and all draw at once on a whiteboard like an obsessive opensource tribal unit. They can accept that it will move with one person at a time — or they don’t even use it. They push PPT, but only out of habit. Most business meetings are about tone of voice, facial expression and having a medium that is non-copiable, like email. That’s why f2f meetings will never go away. But 3-D collaborative worlds will increasingly work better and provide value. You can’t stop them. And they won’t need geeks to interface or manage them, that’s possibly why you’re resisting them so furiously.

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