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Unreal Meetings

Second Life’s virtual conference rooms might be more useful if they didn’t resemble their real-world counterparts.

MIT researcher Drew Harry flies his avatar into a house in Linden Labs’ online environment, Second Life. The avatar passes couches, a fireplace, and a dining-room table complete with red-velvet tablecloth and candles. “Second Life is relentlessly literal,” Harry says, pointing out one familiar domestic object after another.

Virtual meeting space: Rather than designing a meeting space that resembles one of those found in the physical world, MIT researcher Drew Harry intends this space to track the flow of ideas in a conversation, and to give significance to where people place the avatars that represent them.

Harry designs virtual spaces that don’t look like the familiar world–his virtual meeting room looks more like a football field than like a conference room. He says his goal is to stop mimicking the physical world and start creating a new kind of space. “It’s not clear to me yet that [virtual worlds] are actually useful,” Harry says. They will be useful, in his view, if they can take advantage of not being physical.

The long oval table common to a boardroom lets small groups of people see and hear one another while sitting comfortably. Since a virtual space doesn’t need to accomplish the same goals as a real space, Harry decided to ditch the table. Instead, his virtual meeting room arranges people based on their allegiance. Where an avatar stands signifies whether a person agrees or disagrees with the position being discussed. The meeting room’s other visual features are designed to track the complexities of shifting alliances and opinions throughout a conversation.

Nick Yee, a Stanford graduate who recently completed his PhD research on social interaction in virtual environments, says that Harry’s design is on the right track. Sometimes companies try to have meetings in Second Life, Yee laughs, and they have the same problems they do in real life: for example, people have trouble seeing PowerPoint presentations. “By enforcing physical embodiments and physical rules,” Yee says, “we bind ourselves to the physical symbols and metaphors of the physical world.”

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Harry is still refining the mechanics of his space and designing spaces that can be used for different types of meetings. If he has his way, gatherings in the virtual world will feel very different than gatherings in the physical one, and they will work more smoothly.

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