Thoughts after a meeting in Second Life

I spent the first three hours of Wednesday in a meeting in an internal instance of Second Life, and, while it was an interesting experiment, I have to say that I just don’t get it. I’ll try to ignore the technology teething pains (people’s systems crashing, audio feedback, and the like), and I’ll try to ignore the fact that the meeting was scheduled at a “globally-friendly” time of 0500 Pacific (so my crankiness knob was turned up to 11 before I even sat down), and compare the meeting to a traditional teleconference.

What was better?

  • When the audio worked, it was high-quality, full-duplex, stereo audio, not the usual mono 300-3000 Hz with half the people using half-duplex speakerphones. Voices sounded more natural, and stereo audio provided spatialization, so, unlike a conference call, the voices in my head came from different spots.

  • SL’s “text chat” provided a natural back-channel that was easy to see and use.

What was worse?

  • For most of the meeting, we were watching people present slide decks. That meant figuring out how to position myself so that I could see the slides in a sufficiently large size to read them — but that meant that I couldn’t see anything else but the slides without having to maneuver my avatar (or at least the camera), which was just too much trouble.

  • Just like in reality, if someone spoke without coming to the podium, you couldn’t hear them — there didn’t appear to be any secondary microphone that could be used.

  • Every time the slide changed, it took a long time to come into focus.

  • Because everyone had a different audio setup, the levels were very uneven and many speakers had 60-Hertz hum problems (though, to be fair, this is not that uncommon on a conference call)

  • Some of the defaults don’t scale to a large group — for example, if you don’t do something to avoid it, everyone near you hears you typing (through a synthesized typing noise). That might be OK for a small group, but fails badly with 75 people in the area.

Maybe it was this meeting?

  • This particular meeting probably didn’t gain from being in Second Life. There wasn’t any time for interaction during the heart of the meeting, so there was no real reason to hold it synchronously, much less in Second Life.

  • Powerpoint presentations don’t show off Second Life to its best advantage. I am taking it on faith that there is an advantage somewhere.

  • If you are going to have a “presentation-based” meeting, it’s critical that the presenters have tested their connection and audio with an audience before the meeting. It’s not necessary to go through the presentation in any detail, but it is important to know that the audio is working properly.

  • Headsets are mandatory. People not using them should be shot. Or at the very least, their mikes should be forcibly muted.

I’ve been wrong before

The very first time I saw Mosaic, I thought it was cool but that its bandwidth requirements would keep it from catching on — but that was in the very early days, when people were using graphics strictly for decoration (remember all the pretty colored bullets?), and I was restricted to a 14.4KB modem. Once I saw a properly hyperlinked document and a properly clickable image, I saw the value of using that bandwidth, and I knew that Gopher’s days were numbered.

And when I first read about podcasts, I thought they were a silly idea — who would want to use a medium that you had to listen to in real-time and didn’t easily support skipping around? Especially to hear someone droning on about whatever topic hit him over morning coffee? But eventually, I found some worthwhile podcasts and now I spend much of my driving and exercising time listening to them. I do wish there was a way to listen faster, though!

So I might well be wrong about Second Life (and its relatives). I got into some Twitter and Facebook discussions during the meeting, and some people who disagreed with me made some good points. If you’re interested, here’s the Facebook discussion (I think you have to log in to Facebook to see it); it’s much harder to capture a Twitter discussion, but this Twitter search comes close.

Will I try it again?

I probably don’t have a choice.

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7 Responses to Thoughts after a meeting in Second Life

  1. Paula says:

    BUT…how many IMs did you send to others at the meeting and what did you learn from those discussions? Did you try flying overhead to see what else you could find while you were attending the meeting? You should try rollerskating or something to move around. The reall joy of being in those meetings is that you can act on what you are thinking (which you wouuld never be able to do in a classroom) and explore beyond the limitations of someone else’s idea of what you shoul hear or be told…the richness of the experience is up to you!

  2. Cool. This is the kind of point-by-point conversation I want to get into, particularly when I open up my “Twitter/SL Salon” discussion/meetup area on my sim. The reason is I want to hear the specifics, not just a general whine. I’m not interested in (because I can’t be of any help to) a generalized “I don’t get it, it sucks,” summary. However, if people can itemize the pain points then we can see what we can do. I realize also that there are people at meetings or conferences who get angry and frustrated because of ego — they encounter a problem, don’t know why it’s happening, get annoyed they can’t fix it easily and don’t want to ask for help or (more likely) have no idea what to ask! I’m hoping I can help people figure out what to ask and then have better prep-info for the future users.

    When I went to the 3-day educational conference in SL a few weeks ago I saw lots of small instances of frustrating #fail. Nearly all of them were simply user ignorance (not stupidity, ignorance) about the limitations. Yes, I’m coming from a “this is really fun AND useful, and I want you to enjoy it too” POV, but I’m not blind to the problems and I realize it’s not really suited for everything. It should only be an OPTION when relevant, not the standard.

    So I want to go over each point of your post and answer, which will take a bit of time. Just wanted to say “Hey, I saw this. I’ll get back to you.” Cheers!

  3. David says:

    @Paula,

    Those are fair questions. I sent one IM in-world during the meeting and participated in the text back-channel (mostly helping other Mac users figure out the keyboard mappings). I also Tweeted some observations and participated in the discussion that they engendered, both on Twitter and on Facebook. And I probably did some standard Sametime IM’ing, too.

    And yes, I could have gone out and explored other parts of the sim, but then I’d’ve missed the meeting, which was the only reason I was in SL in the first place.

    This wasn’t my first time in a private stretch of SL — I participated in the IBM Academy virtual meeting during the fall, and I spent a little time wandering around and riding jetskis, and it was fun…for about 30 seconds. The novelty wore off quickly.

    The Academy virtual meeting had some unstructured time, where people gathered and talked — and that was interesting — but it was because I was able to talk with people, not because I was in SL. Similarly, the poster sessions at the Academy meeting were reasonable experiences, because I could talk with the poster presenter — the posters themselves were not helped by being in SL.

    As I said, I am willing to believe that there’s value to the virtual environment — but I haven’t seen it demonstrated convincingly yet. Even my experiences at the Academy virtual meeting were not as pleasant or effective as a real-world encounter would have been (but I will agree that they were a lot better they would have been if the meeting had been done by traditional teleconference).

  4. David says:

    @Caliburn,

    I look forward to your detailed response and an ensuing conversation. If I thought there wasn’t any potential value to the environment, I wouldn’t have written more than “that was a waste of time”. :-)

    Sign me “skeptical”.

  5. Sorry, wrote this Friday and forgot to post it. Hope you had a good weekend. Anyway, here are your comments and my responses.

    What was better?

    When the audio worked, it was high-quality, full-duplex, stereo audio, not the usual mono 300-3000 Hz with half the people using half-duplex speakerphones. Voices sounded more natural, and stereo audio provided spatialization, so, unlike a conference call, the voices in my head came from different spots. SL’s “text chat” provided a natural back-channel that was easy to see and use.

    — Yes, I like this also, the ability to be able to listen to audio while collaborating with others in privat chat (IM). By the way, there is a folder in your inventory called Calling Cards. When you friend someone you automatically get their card, but it can also be given to you independently (sort of a not-so-formal friendship connection). The way to do this is right-click on another avatar, get the pie chart, click More at the bottom, then click Give Card. If you copy several of these calling cards into a separate folder (I think maybe you can also just highlight with ctrl-click various ones, not sure) you can start a private group chat session with only those people. Comes in very handy.

    What was worse?

    For most of the meeting, we were watching people present slide decks. That meant figuring out how to position myself so that I could see the slides in a sufficiently large size to read them – but that meant that I couldn’t see anything else but the slides without having to maneuver my avatar (or at least the camera), which was just too much trouble.

    — Okay there is an answer to this problem, but a stopgap at “which was just too much trouble.” If you mean that zooming the camera around to see what you want to see is not acceptable then it’s definitely a #fail point, since this is a NECESSARY skill to master as an avatar in Second Life. If not knowing how is the actual issue, then here is the how …

    — If you press the keys Ctrl-Alt-D you will get an additional menu item on your toolbar at the top of the client screen called “Advanced.” Within this drop-down menu are additional choices for controlling your AV and the environment. One of them that is crucial (but NOT the default) is to put an X next to “Disable Camera Constraints.” Once you do this you will be able to roam your camera far and wide — even an entire sim away if your draw distance is set to maximum. The details of why things appear and disappear at distances I won’t go into, but it’s a lag-reducing function basically.

    — Anyway, once your camera is free you can sit or stand in one place and “be” everywhere in the room by zooming the camera around. Where your camera goes your audio input follows (if you have it checked so – there are two choices; sound at avatar or sound at camera). For this reason, there is no such thing as a bad seat in any venue. You have complete control over what you see and hear, but of course you have to be willing to zoom around.

    Just like in reality, if someone spoke without coming to the podium, you couldn’t hear them – there didn’t appear to be any secondary microphone that could be used.

    — Yes, the sound system in SL is directional and distance related so this will happen in larger venues. The BEST solution is for the on-stage person to agree to always repeat the question. It’s exactly the same in as in a live large studio audience. Partially it’s remediable by roaming the camera around and you can zoom in on speakers and hear what they are saying, but the best solution is repeat by the moderator. The “hand that person a microphone” would work (there are scripted mic systems) but it’s not going to happen. Handing them an object to activate broadcasting their voice to the crowd, or even having them take one from on stage, just adds one more thing to the learning curve and people are more likely to just speak out of turn anyway.

    Every time the slide changed, it took a long time to come into focus.

    — Ah well there are always rezzing problems, the bugaboo of visual media. So many things affect it they are nearly overwhelming to cope with (personal ISP speed, processor speed, video card ability, the strain on the host server (sim), the number of textures in the sim, the number of avatars, what the avatars are wearing, what scripts are running … I could go on).

    — This begs an essay on venue, so I won’t post it here. What it boils down to is the facilitator’s need to know what rules to enforce on the presentation and on the attendees and to be STRICT about it. Reduce the lag factors! However, there are other ways to help.

    — If in-world textures are being used to present the material, one is to PRE-load the textures used at the presentation in everyone’s cache. There are various ways to do this. One is to make a large grid of the textures on one single texture and hand it out to the audience and have them open it in their client while waiting for the presentation to begin. When the presenter then starts the program he/she uses the same texture on a prim or set of prims, isolating each “slide” appropriately on the prim (with texture alignment). This is easier than it sounds. Since everyone already has the entire picture set in their local PC cache the slides are all crystal clear immediately.

    — Another (perhaps easier to understand) way to do this is to put the textures on separate prims and line them up one right in front of the other on stage (vertical stack). As people are waiting for the start of the presentation the images on the prims will load into their caches (even if they can’t see them – just being in the same area as people’s cameras if they are in the line of sight causes the images to load). The presenter then just deletes each slide in the front as the talk progresses revealing the one behind (or they can be moved aside or up if reference is needed).

    — Of course, if images are not stored in-world but are being streamed in from outside SL the above is not going to work.

    — What the spectator can do is this … hold down the ALT key and left mouse-click once or twice on any out-of-focus texture in Second Life. This will give that texture priority in the rezzing queue and it will nearly always focus more quickly. Also, rezzing time is greatly affected by texture load which is in turn manipulated by draw distance. Setting your draw distance to the minimum setting (Ctrl-P / Graphics / Check the Custom box if it is not checked / Move Draw Distance slider down) will effectively make everything beyond that distance invisible to your camera. This reduces the load on your graphics card and greatly increases the rezzing time by freeing up the resources.

    Because everyone had a different audio setup, the levels were very uneven and many speakers had 60-Hertz hum problems (though, to be fair, this is not that uncommon on a conference call)

    — Yes, nothing can be done about people having cheap or defective headsets, or lousy sound cards, or bad microphone placement … etc.

    Some of the defaults don’t scale to a large group – for example, if you don’t do something to avoid it, everyone near you hears you typing (through a synthesized typing noise). That might be OK for a small group, but fails badly with 75 people in the area.

    — The absolute simplest way to avoid this is to simply turn down your own UI sounds. It’s the bottom slider in the media pop-up menu at the bottom right of the client screen.

    — However, this chatting away when you are supposed to be paying attention is a pet peeve of mine, and another issue that requires audience education before the presentation begins. There are some rules of conduct that should be distributed before any on-stage activity both in voice and as a text announcement. One of them is to refrain from type-chatting out loud during the presentation.

    — Another way to deal with this is to turn OFF the typing animation in the client (Ctrl-P / Text Chat / Chat Options and UNcheck Play Typing Animation When Chatting) or to simply have people type a slash “/” at the beginning of each type-chat line. This silences the typing sound. Really, people shouldn’t be typing at all unless they are asking or answering a question or otherwise participating. For personal chat they should be communicating in IM.

    Maybe it was this meeting?

    This particular meeting probably didn’t gain from being in Second Life. There wasn’t any time for interaction during the heart of the meeting, so there was no real reason to hold it synchronously, much less in Second Life.

    — No, it probably shouldn’t have. Presentations in Second Life (I think) should be an option when relevant, not a standard. Relevant would include enhancement of the presentations/meeting by having 3-D graphics models, demos, etc. to illustrate meeting topics, the ability to move the group from one illustrative venue to another during the class or whatever, and for a more personal “feel” as well as adding a little fun to a group-chat discussion (raising your voice toward a speakerphone in a dull conference room is so boring). :-)

    Powerpoint presentations don’t show off Second Life to its best advantage. I am taking it on faith that there is an advantage somewhere.

    — I’m assuming that meant watching PowerPoint presentation from within SL is annoying. Probably so. Better 2-D vehicles for that.

    If you are going to have a “presentation-based” meeting, it’s critical that the presenters have tested their connection and audio with an audience before the meeting. It’s not necessary to go through the presentation in any detail, but it is important to know that the audio is working properly.

    — Preparation, preparation, preparation. Time and again I see people (presenters and teachers) jumping into Second Life for the first time too close to the meeting or class time and thinking “this can’t be so hard; it should all just work.” Murphy’s Law is universal; even in digi-land. The same goes for their attendees. There is a “wow” factor for newbies that prevents them from concentrating on the matter at hand, not to mention the many faux pas committed because of lack of practice. My first venture into Second Life was back in Dec. 2006 to attend the Poser 7 release party. I planned ahead and got an account two weeks before the meeting so I could learn how to use the client before stumbling clueless into a large group of people thereby annoying them all while making a fool of myself. A good practice for all who plan on trying to be productive in-world is to log in early and learn the controls.

    Headsets are mandatory. People not using them should be shot. Or at the very least, their mikes should be forcibly muted.

    — Yes, this is another pet peeve and should be part of the pre-meeting orientation/education of the audience. I watched a presentation at the edu-conferences that was downright painful in its absurdity with recurring echo and the starting/stopping/starting/stopping of the presentation telling the person to turn their microphone off. If everyone was wearing headphones this would never be an issue.

  6. David says:

    Thanks, Caliburn — I took note of your tips and used them in the Second Life meeting I attended today…which, of course, I blogged about here.

  7. Mariana Strien says:

    There are many ways that to be able to hear better a conference, ex: on the preferences option you can adjust to hear sounds according to camera position, this way you can just use the camera controls, to see the slides and whatever you need to do… and if you go with the camera, not with the avatar near the person talking or the object managing the conference, you will be able to hear as you were right next to it.
    In order to improve this experience, I think it might be necessary to hand a couple of instructions on how to move and do things inside the world, as new users in second life, usually feel lost at first and until they get the idea on how the world works…

    Please let me kno if anyone has a question regarding the world, I can help :) strienma -at- ar.ibm.com

    Regards!