Virtual conferencing and collaboration – where it fits

[From Avaya’s Connected blog]

Collaboration | By Michael Killian | 9 Sep 2010

Virtual Conferencing And Collaboration – Where It Fits

A few weeks back I had a chance to try out Avaya web.alive™ with a friend from Active Port and some Avaya colleagues. In short, it’s a web-based application that provides a good “3D” virtual representation of people via avatars, the meeting place/room, and displayed materials.

Does virtual collaboration have a place in the collaboration communication landscape or is it just another interesting technology and communication mode to further complicate our communication choices?

The major choices for real time collaboration include audio conferencing (with or without web conferencing), video conferencing, physical presence in the conference room and now virtual conferencing. There are differences in the capabilities and experiences that give each a place in the collaboration toolkit. The benefits of physical presence, whenever that’s possible, are generally accepted so my focus here will be on the multi-location /remote real time situations.

1) Audio/web conferencing
This technology and experience allows teams to collaborate via voice as well as view/edit materials in real time. White-boarding is typically included. Sidebar communication is provided via instant messaging or some form of chat.

In general this is fairly effective but there are potential drawbacks depending on your point of view. Among them are;
a) Attendees are less likely to be fully engaged and following like they would (should) in a physical setting. It’s very easy to disengage and multi-task. The assumption here is that we still feel it’s socially rude to be seen not paying full attention. It’s debatable as to if this is a drawback or not. See more about the changing social communication behavior at social impacts.
b) lack of physical connection to one another and the conversation – the cognitive presence. Several studies have been done on cognitive presence. Here’s one and another. In short, face-to-face has a benefit.
c) difficulty determining who is speaking
d) limited capability for sidebar “conversation” compared to physical presence and voice.
e) Some solutions are not that effective at showing who is in the conference not to mention getting attendees there on time. See meeting productivity and who joined please.

2) Video conferencing and collaboration
Over and above the audio/web experience, the video experience provides additional advantages including;
a) Visual presence which should increase attention and engagement by at least some amount. For those of us that feel social pressure not to multi-task, you’re more likely to give close to full attention. If not, this won’t have much impact
b) Added emotional connection in the communication and environment – the cognitive presence
c) Face to go with a name. Many attendees may have never physically met
d) Most solutions can be set up to show who/where is speaking

There are some areas of resistance to the use of video. Some of the key inhibitors I hear include, in no particular order;
a) Inhibits multi-tasking, which, depending on your point of view, is negative or a social expectation.
b) With the global nature of business, many attendees may be participating out of hours and not want to be seen outside their normal business environment.
c) Not wanting to be seen in general. I still hear this frequently. Despite that, this is changing. The increased popularity and use of Skype™ and other “free” and enterprise video tools, and the recent introduction of dual camera smart phones/tablets with video chat features are bound to increase the use and acceptance of video. More here.
d) The video solution is more demanding on bandwidth and client device power than the other communication modes. Some are still viewed as too complex to set up. That too is changing.

3) Virtual Collaboration
With physical presence, audio/web conferencing and video conferencing and collaboration, the bases are all covered, right? Maybe not. Virtual collaboration is somewhere in between and offers benefits. Rather than provide video of the individuals or the conference rooms, a virtual representation is provided. You don’t “see” the actual participants or the environment that they’re in. I encourage click here for a first hand look.

Where does an environment like this fit in the collaboration and communication landscape? Why would I use it?

The capabilities that I found the most interesting in Avaya web.alive™ include;
a) The representation of people as avatars and virtual meeting rooms provides a stronger cognitive presence in the collaboration than with audio alone. The feeling of presence and participation was enhanced despite it not being true video.
b) Not having to be “seen” to achieve a sense of presence better than audio. This is an asset in those off hour situations. Think of it as being pseudo-seen.
c) Less demanding on the communication device and bandwidth than the full video solution.
d) Lower capital expenditure than telepresence solutions
e) Supports discrete multi-tasking better than video yet improves engagement and focus compared to audio alone. I personally tend to multi-task. I found that using video or this virtual environment tends to significantly reduce the level of it. I found myself paying closer attention to, and being aware of the presence of the avatar of the person(s) I was conferencing with. It is surprisingly similar to true face to face behavior.
f) With virtual rooms, the meeting environment is no longer restricted to the individuals and conference rooms in the video call and caught in the range of the cameras. Multi-room events can be supported. I could move from room to room or from conversation to conversation.
g) Not restricted to pre-set meeting times. You can set up an “always on” virtual water cooler for those unplanned conversations that otherwise don’t occur across locations or for remote workers. Another variation of this is the “always on” materials or multiple sets of materials posted in the room(s) for users to come in and browse and/or add to. A bit of the Google Wave claim for offline and asynchronous collaboration.
h) The 3D audio is quite effective in conjunction with the rest of the capability. It provides the sense of being closer to or further from conversations for the cocktail party effect. Imagine attending an event remotely and still being able to mingle during breaks as if you were there? It also provides the ability for a voice sidebar conversation. Walk up to who you want to speak to and then walk together into a distant place or another room for your conversation.

The differences and added capabilities possible with a virtual conferencing and collaboration environment give it a place in my bag of communication tricks. It’s a viable communication mode choice for me. Audio/web and video certainly remain important choices. Different environments, situations and/or communication devices available to me at any given time give all three a place. Give it a try and let me know if and how it fits for you.

Michael Killian
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Michael Killian Director of VoIP Endpoint Devices & Applications Development at Avaya. He is an expert in the convergence of various modes of digital communication, Unified Communication and Collaboration. more

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