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.