Picture this: I'm at a conference which is taking place in a green space at the seaside. When no one speaks you can hear the gentle sound of waves reaching the shore. I am sitting on one of 100 stools perfectly aligned in a square. Next to me a cat sits down to listen to a penguin who is addressing us from the stage. She - according to her voice Penguin is female - is passionately telling the audience about the non-profit community she is involved in. Now and then she responds to questions that the audience are projecting up onto a screen.
I was not dreaming, nor was I under the influence of any hallucinogenic medication. I was in virtual reality. The conference explored the use of virtual reality in stakeholder engagement and it took place in Second Life, the most commonly known virtual reality environment on the Internet. I had heard about it only days before it was taking place, and was therefore urged to get familiar with the basics of the technology in order to be able to participate.
The first step was getting an avatar, a three-dimensional virtual alter ego, and customising its appearance a little bit, enough to avoid running into an unexpected twin. Soon my avatar was walking around in virtual reality and learning to fly (just press PageUp). There are no cars, trains or planes in Second Life; the usual mode of transport is teleportation. I teleported to the conference venue a day in advance and bumped into some of the organisers, who kindly offered to help me get acquainted with the virtual environment.
The appealing thing about conferencing in virtual reality is that you can easily go on a field trip and experience places instead of just talking about them. As part of this conference I went on two field trips. Each trip showed a small group of participants around in places where 'real life' organisations use Second Life to involve people and to interact with one another. We visited the EcoCommon, where environmental non-profit organisations have adjacent three-dimensional learning and meeting environments. The common is an intriguing blend of a zoo, garden, museum and an office building - all of which can be visited from the comfort of your desk.
Before and after the field trips the conference essentially took the shape of a real-life conference, except perhaps for the odd speaking penguin and headless participant. But an important point was made about the appearances of avatars. Where in real life people's appearances can trigger prejudice - on the basis of age, gender or ethnicity, for example - this factor is neutralised in Second Life. Even your voice can be manipulated if you choose. And while it is often better to know who you are talking to, masquerading real identities can be a valuable extension to dialogue, especially for those who would otherwise risk feeling excluded.
Most deliberative sessions in the conference used voice technology, with participants speaking into their computer microphones. However, there was no need for others to wait to make a comment, as they could type into a public chat window and a moderator would feed their comments using the voice technology into the discussion. The parallel use of two communication modes, speech and chat, has its difficulties but also leaves participants with a choice as to how they prefer to contribute to the discussion and potentially makes it easier for the moderator keep the discussion structured.
Avatars do not require food, drinks or toilet breaks, but their first life doubles do. The breaks in a Second Life conference are shorter than they would be in a real life conference, and they do not provide the usual networking opportunity. Most participants use the time to catch up with their phone or emails - and to get themselves a cup of something. This is not to say that no networking takes place. Many of us are having simultaneous one-to-one conversations through instant messaging during the course of the sessions. Also, when I wanted to know some more about another participant, a single mouse click was enough to show me his or her profile.
The announcement of the conference on Yahoo! Upcoming included driving directions for Second Life; an ironic reminder of how much we are accustomed to events requiring physical presence and the travelling involved. Participants at the conference, which took place on 16 July and was an initiative of an American organisation named PublicDecisions, were in places as far apart as Germany, Australia and Canada, though most were US based. Some were thus conferencing outside office hours, but no expensive and carbon intensive flights were required. An advantage not unique to Second Life: there are countless other widely used options for teleconferencing. They don't, however, provide the 3D environment that virtual reality does.
As everything came to a close it felt slightly unpleasant, after six hours of conferencing, to just click 'quit' and make my avatar disappear from the conference venue. The sudden emptiness you experience when tumbling back into first life felt distantly familiar to the kind that comes in when a movie's credits roll over the screen.
Have I been converted then? Is virtual reality an inevitable part of the future of stakeholder engagement?
I would hesitate how to answer that question. Virtual reality potentially offers thrilling new dimensions to stakeholder engagement and can help overcome some of its limitations. For the moment though, it lacks meaning for many people: Second Life is not yet second nature. This is partly because the technology is not perfect enough to guarantee a spotless conference, partly because there are not many people who are looking at using virtual reality in current engagement processes. The hosts of the conference, in their eagerness to persuade, quite clearly demonstrated that to most of us the added value of integrating virtual reality in our work is not immediately apparent.
It was widely acknowledged that technology barriers are an overwhelming challenge if you want greater involvement of people in Second Life. It is a demanding application to run on your computer and the average three-year old PC is likely to fall short. Even if your hardware is up to speed, you will need good keyboard skills and some basic practice to be able to move around and communicate confidently. At this stage, it looks as if these barriers will be difficult to overcome. But wasn't that the same, only 15 years ago, for the Internet?
Remco van der Stoep
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