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  • 8/3/2019 A Study of Virtual Environments for Enterprise Collaboration

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    A Study of Virtual Environments for Enterprise Collaboration

    Aditya Zutshi

    Geetika Sharma

    TATA Consultancy Services Innovation Labs, Delhi

    Abstract

    Globally distributed workforces in enterprises are commonplacethese days due to the increasing popularity of the off-shore busi-ness model. One of the challenges faced by these enterprises isenabling effective collaboration between geographically separatedteams while keeping operational costs to a minimum. Although anumber of tools have been developed for collaboration, online vir-tual environments (VEs) open up huge possibilities. In this paper,we present the results of a pilot study we conducted on the usabilityand acceptability of some popular virtual environments for collab-oration within an enterprise. Based on our evaluation, we analyse

    where the current class of VEs lack and prescribe some good prac-tices for their use.

    Keywords: user study, virtual environments, enterprise collabora-tion

    1 Introduction

    With offices worldwide, and customers and business partnersspread across the globe, organizations are trying to find a way ofcollaborating that is as productive as face-to-face meetings and ca-pable of supporting groups of large sizes. A large number of col-laboration tools ranging from web conferencing to integrated suitesthat can create knowledge repositories and enable document shar-ing, meeting and conversations [Weiseth et al. 2006] are availabletoday.

    Online virtual environments (VEs) are becoming increasingly pop-ular after the unprecedented success of Second Life [Second Life ].Although a large share of users log into VEs for gaming or socialis-

    ing, enterprises are looking for ways to leverage this technology forincreasing productivity and reducing costs. VEs have a potential forimproving collaboration, [Brown and Bell 2006], as they provide ashared space into which multiple users can log in from differentparts of the world and interact with each other in real-time. Whilethis interaction can be for fun, it can also be for work. The com-monly used collaboration tools such as text and VoIP chat, videosharing, document sharing and so on, can be integrated in a 3Dspace in a manner that provides for better organisation and compre-hension of different data streams. Also, since the real-world is 3D,our minds are wired to naturally interact and process information in3D spaces.

    In this paper we present the results of a study we conducted to eval-uate the usability and acceptability of VEs for collaboration in anenterprise. We analyse what features of a virtual environment are

    This work was done while Aditya Zutshi was with TCS Innovation

    Labs, Delhiemail:geetika.s@tcs.com

    important for collaboration and compare three specific virtual envi-ronments. We highlight areas of improvement in the current stateof the art VEs and suggest some good practices to follow in settingup and using VEs. This paper is organised as follows. In section 2,we give a brief background of VEs. We describe our study and itsresults in section 3 and conclude in section 4.

    2 Online Virtual Environments

    A virtual environment (VE) is a shared, persistent computer simu-lated space into which multiple users can interact with each otherin real-time [Bartle 2004]. The environment is governed by a setof rules or physics, that allow users to cause changes in it. As theuser navigates through the environment a view of the current stateof the world is presented to him. The users view started out, his-

    torically, from being textual (e.g. MUDs [The MUD Connector ]),2.5D (e.g. EverQuest [EverQuest ]) to full 3D e.g.Ultima Online[Ultima Online ], Second Life [Second Life ]). Textual environ-ments provide a text-based description of the world and the peoplein it. The text may be marked up with colours to add meaning. A2.5D world allows 2D user navigation with a fixed isometric viewthat creates an impression of 3D while a full 3D world allows theuser 3D navigation and to view the world from almost any orienta-tion. Since our study is concerned with 3D VEs, we focus on thesein the remainder of the paper.

    The current class of online 3D VEs allows multiple users to connectover a network in a shared space that is built using 3D graphicalobjects. The objects may be scripted to behave in a desired man-ner. Users in the environment are represented as avatars which arecustomisable 3D graphical models, usually with a human-like ap-pearance. The users interaction in the virtual space is through theavatar. To move around in the space, the user navigates his avatar.The users view of the space is created by setting up a camera withrespect to the avatar. This could be, for example, afirst person viewin which the camera position and orientation coincides with that ofthe avatars head or a third person view in which the camera is aboveand behind the avatars head. Avatars may be animated to performgestures and actions to make the interaction more meaningful andengaging.

    Users can communicate with each other through private or pub-lic text messages or VoIP calls. Many environments are enabledwith 3D positional audio which processes audio exchange betweenavatars according to their proximity and relative placement in thevirtual space. In other words, a user can hear only those whose

    avatars are close enough to his and their voices fade away as avatarsmove away from each other. Also, voices appear to come from theleft or right depending on the relative positions of avatars.

    Most VEs, e.g. Second Life [Second Life ], Project Wonderland[Project Wonderland ], OpenSimulator [OpenSim ], are built on theclient-server model. The server maintains all the information aboutthe world and sends regular updates to all connected clients. Theclients have a graphical rendering engine that uses the informationsent by the server to render a view of the world according to thepreferences, e.g. camera view etc., set by the user.

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    (a)

    (b)

    Table 1: (a) Second Life and (b) RealXtend Conference Rooms

    3 Our Study

    We conducted a pilot study of three VEs to determine their usabilityand acceptability for productive use in an enterprise. These wereSecond Life [Second Life ], RealXtend [RealXtend ] and Qwaq[Qwaq ].Out of these, RealXtend, table 1 (b), is open-source, washosted on our own servers and had . Second Life, table 1 (a), ishosted on the Internet by its parent company Linden Labs and isfree for anyone to use. Qwaq is a proprietary application whosetrial version, hosted by its parent company, was used for the study.The reason for choosing environments for hosted differently was totest the performance of each hosting option.

    The participants of the experiments were experienced professionalsof the IT Industry, in the age group 25 to 55, and were familiar withthe available suite of collaboration tools. Two thirds of the partici-pants were males and less than half had experience of 3D gaming.We organized activities like general discussions, meetings, presen-

    tations, document editing and the participants were asked to fill outa questionnaire at the end. Participants were asked questions intwo categories. The first consisted of questions on different fea-tures common to three VEs and the second consisted of questionson comparison of the three.

    For the experiments, we used mobile workstations by Hewlett-Packard with Intel(R) Core (TM)2 Duo CPU T7700 @ 2.40 GHz2.40 GHz processor, ATI FireGL Graphics Card, 2.00 GB RAMand Windows VistaTM Business Service Pack 1 to run the clients,with an Internet Connection of 1 MBPS.

    3.1 General Features of Virtual Environments

    User Representation: Almost all the participants (86%) were com-

    fortable with having an avatar as a representation of themselves inthe VE. The rest felt uncomfortable with the lack of similarity be-tween the avatar and the actual person it represented in terms offacial resemblance and age. Most of the participants (86%) verystrongly felt the need to have the ability to change the avatars ap-pearance. The participants who were uncomfortable being repre-sented by an avatar were among those who rated this feature ex-tremely high. The remaining participants rated it moderately im-portant.

    A little more than half of the participants didnt change their appear-ance after logging in for thefirst time. This was unexpected as most

    of the participants believed that the ability to change the appear-ance was extremely important. Most of them stated that they wereuncomfortable with the interface of the VE and therefore, didntchange their avatars appearance. This indicates the need for ade-quate training on the environment.

    Gestures: Most of the participants believe that avatar gestures areextremely important form of non-verbal communication. The inter-face for tr