ProtoSphere: Engaging global communication and collaboration via avatars

[From MedCity News, where the story includes a 2:10 minute video]

Welcome to the Matrix: Using virtual reality to develop global clinical trials

3.26.12 | Stephanie Baum

In a bid to address the reality of global clinical trials among life science companies, one business has developed software to facilitate business collaboration meetings taking place between multiple parties in different locations and continents using … wait for it: avatars.

Ron Burns, the CEO of ProtonMedia, said its ProtoSphere world logically addresses the challenge of simultaneous global communication. Burns told MedCity News: “Our companies relate to the room environment the most. People think visually and compartmentalize in a 3-D way. We store things in rooms in our head. That’s a very different idea than saying in a conference call, ‘come to this page.’”

Burns, the founder of the Landsdale, Pennsylvania-based company, has a background that includes sound design for music videos, gaming and e-learning for children. The ProtoSphere reflects elements from each of these areas and strives to engage people in an environment where they can learn.

In response to the question of why he developed avatars and how they help with the learning process, Burns said that with such an enormous amount of data that’s being transmitted in meetings, content without context is meaningless.

“People are what provide context, meaning and insight to data. That is why we represent the person as an avatar in a shared space, with data and content.”

Burns says its ProtoSphere is especially useful for life science organizations that implement a ’follow-the-sun’ approach to drug and development in which work is passed around between work sites that may be several time zones apart.

“Life sciences organizations have a strategy to move fixed costs to variable costs. Real transformation is under way as the pressure of patent cliffs hits home. They are doing this by partnering with a wide range of vendors and academic institutions across the globe. ProtoSphere provides an engaging and cost-effective way to bring the right people and data together across these organizational boundaries — and time zones — into one effective virtual workplace.”

ProtonMedia was self funded for several years; it began raising venture capital three years ago and had raised $7 million of institutional venture capital by last summer.

Although clinical trials are a big selling point of the virtual reality system, its diverse audience of life science and pharmaceutical companies are finding other applications for it. The move by some companies to develop virtual clinical trials could provide additional applications.

“We have most of the top 20, including Merck, J&J, Pfizer, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, etc. Our technology is used across the product life cycle wherever knowledge transfer, collaboration and learning are key to successful outcomes. So the use cases range from collaborative research and development, virtual clinical trials, sales training and enablement and project teaming.”

The software runs on a Microsoft cloud computing platform.

The price of research and development has prompted pharmaceutical companies to look for more cost-effective ways to outsource R&D altogether to clinical research organizations. But as CROs develop around the world, it creates novel challenges for how to overcome the time-distance conundrum.How does one hold a meeting, let alone develop compelling ways to engage a group of people who may be sitting 5,000 miles away 12 hours ahead?

“You can build a persistent virtual collaboration room, or series of rooms, that extend over time zones and distance. The artifacts of your collaboration can be left behind over time and stored in SharePoint as you work together to develop breakthroughs in your research. By humanizing these very data-intensive tasks, breakthroughs will come more rapidly,” Burns said.


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