Three days with the IBM Academy in [internal] Second Life

The IBM Academy of Technology used to have an Annual General Meeting where the 300 or so members, along with guests and senior IBM executives, would spend three-plus days in intense interaction, setting our agenda for the next year and taking advantage of chance meetings. Oh, and socializing. It was a highlight of my year.

That, of course, was before the economic meltdown.

Last year’s meeting was cancelled on fairly short notice; instead, we used teleconferences and Second Life to hold the meeting; it was an uneven experience (but having the meeting cancelled did make it easier for me to enjoy a very nice tour of New York, so I wasn’t completely unhappy about the substitution).

I’ve attended a couple of meetings using the behind-the-firewall version of Second Life this year, and, as I’ve written here and here, I found the experience less than thrilling.

This year, they made the unsurprising decision not to hold a physical Academy meeting, which meant that I could expect to spend a significant part of three days in the internal Second Life environment. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but I didn’t see any alternative — especially after they got the code working with Snow Leopard, depriving me of what seemed like a great excuse not to participate.

I’m still not a big fan of the virtual environment (and am very happy that one of the nine mini-plenary sessions was held at Almaden so I could see some of my colleagues in person), but it was a far less unpleasant experience this year.

As before, I think that the very best feature of the environment is the spatial high-fidelity sound, which makes conversations, even in a group, much more realistic than a teleconference. In public areas, the sound tended to carry a bit too far — this was good when it let me eavesdrop (and choose to join) a group conversation with a very senior executive; it wasn’t as good when there were a lot of conversations in a small area, as happened during the closing social event.

The team who put the conference together did some innovative things, like setting up the poster sessions so that each poster was in a sound- (but not sight-) isolated room — you could easily have a discussion without being drowned out by conversations in the hall or at an adjacent poster, which is better than a real poster session, but you could see who was in a room as you walked by (one definite improvement this year was the integration with our LDAP directory, so everyone’s avatar was identified with their real name). And poster presenters were given better instructions, too — many came with one-sheet posters which you could actually read in the environment, rather than trying to show a series of slides which needed more screen room than was available.

I still found many aspects of the virtual space to be distracting or counter-productive — there was a lot of tedium involved in getting from place to place, and watching a slide show in-world is not an inspiring experience.

Another interesting choice was the way video messages from senior executives were played — you went to a theater, sat down, and watched as a video was played (at a low frame rate and resolution) on a screen at the front of the room. It reminded me of Apple’s first Mac commercial; I think the video would have been better served up without the trappings (and outside the virtual space, at higher quality).

One social hour went very well — the space was arranged so that I was able to position my camera overhead; I could see the names of everyone who was there, and when someone talked, the green-bar animation made it clear who it was (and the audio quality made dealing with accents much easier, too). And there was even room for a text chat on the screen, for additional comments (both public and private). It beat the hell out of a teleconference.

Using a big screen (relatively speaking — 20 inches, 1600×1200) instead of the laptop’s screen made a big difference; I didn’t have to squint to see things (and I was able to do other stuff on the laptop screen). Using a headset also helped, because then the sound was properly aligned with my vision — the first day, I used the external screen but the laptop’s speakers, and that was a problem. And having a new MacBook Pro with the fast graphics chip helped, too, though it did a number on battery life and made the machine run hot.

I still found no reason to spend any time or effort customizing my avatar, though if it had been completely generic, I might have wanted to do something to make it more recognizable at a distance, but I was fortunate enough to have been used as a test case for “realistic” avatars earlier in the year, so I was already wearing a distinctive aloha shirt. Nor did I see any reason to drink virtual drinks at the socials (though many people did — and some lucky folks were at home with real drinks available).

I’ve been using Lotus Notes for more than 15 years, and I’ve gotten fairly good at making it do what I want — but, with apologies to my Lotus friends, it’s not a tool that I really like. I expect that the same thing will be true about meeting in virtual spaces — it’s going to have to be part of my toolkit, and I’ll get better at using it, but I don’t expect to become a fan. And I look forward to the time when those who are enthusiasts stop trying to convert skeptics and settle for helping us become competent enough to get our work done.

Now, can I tell you about this wonderful Mac-only application I just started using?