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Virtual Offices and Events – The 360 Degree Impact on Production, Cost and Environment

A Brief Summary of a White Paper from Indusgeeks :

2007 was the year of the Virtual World specifically Second Life. Although 3D Virtual Worlds have been around for a while the tipping point was reached in early 2007 with the media frenzy and consequent public interest in them. In the ensuing period we have seen big name corporates like Coca Cola, Dell, Armani, Nike etc. jump onto the Second Life and Virtual World bandwagon for marketing and publicity purposes. However, Virtual Worlds acting as virtual office and event spaces for corporates and organizations are less well documented and understood. This article deals with the impact on the carbon footprint, energy savings and cost savings of using Virtual Worlds to conduct real life business.

Virtual World Figures : Virtual Worlds both 2D and 3D today have an estimated registered population of around 550 million users. A Gartner report quotes that the number will about 80% of all active internet users by 2011. Keeping this exponential growth trend in mind it would be a good idea to leverage this medium as a productivity enhancement and cost reduction tool while minimizing the environmental impact.

Virtual Offices : Remote working and telecommuting are already a phenomenon. In an increasing connected world the actual physical location of an employee becomes less and less relevant. However, with the increasing shift towards telecommuting there is a loss in the collaborative and social aspect of a physical office environment. Virtual Office spaces would merge the ease of telecommuting with the benefits of a physical office environment. The impact for an organization in terms of reducing overheads, increasing productivity of the remote work force and the reduction in carbon emission owing to smaller physical office spaces and the associated benefits as well lesser commuting to work.   Sun Microsystem is a good example of a company using Virtual Worlds ( Sun’s own MPK20) to create Virtual Offices.

Virtual Events :   Virtual events are a no brainer in some cases.  E.g. 200 new recruits of an international consulting firm from around the world need to go to New York to attend an orientation event and get a ‘feel’ of the Head Office.  This entails air travel, road travel getting to and fro to the airports, hotel expenses and hosting expenses for the event. If this can be reduced or eliminated by holding a virtual event reproducing the Head Office to the last detail and letting the recruits socialize and network through a virtual event the environmental and cost benefits are clearly demonstrated. Companies promoting such events like Unisfair have encouraging data on user engagement and lead generation.

Carbon Offsets/Credits for using VWs :   Although figures are still fuzzy owing to lack of instituinalised research , back of the envelope calculations using both known server farm + client computer figures reveal than an average avatar consumes between 75 kWh to 500 kWh of energy per year  (if left on 24/7) depending on the system used to create the virtual environment. At the lower end this is equal to driving a full size sedan for about 100 miles!  As the efficiency of the servers hosting these virtual worlds improve and renewable energy sources are used to run the server farms governments in the future can consider allowing carbon credits or subsidies to be given to organizations using virtual offices etc. As such these measures will subsidize the implementation costs of Virtual Offices across the world and spur their increasing adoption.

Future Trends:

1.       To increase the energy and network efficiency of these VWs as more and more people come online new and innovative methods will be devised. One such method is an on-demand virtual world.  The biggest cost by in terms of carbon emissions, bandwidth usage and money is that of keeping the virtual space online or persistent ; even when nobody is using it.  This forms the very basis of a Virtual ‘World’. It exists whether somebody inhabits it or not. However, unlike the physical world a virtual world can and should be made on demand. The technology to seamlessly switch on a virtual space when a visitor arrives once developed will substantially increase the benefits of going virtual.

2.       Better tools for collaboration and immersion will create different ways of training and interaction.

3.       Enterprise Virtual Worlds will emerge . Already IBM is working closely with Second Life to create a corporate friendly virtual world based on the Second Life engine for a more secure and better tooled virtual environment.

4.       Better interface and input tools with your computer and avatar will be invented. Logitech and Mitch Kapor ( ex-chairman of Linden Lab) are independently creating infra red cameras which will be plugged into the normal webcam and scan the facial as well as body movements of the user. This will enable real time  simulation ‘expressions’ and movements between the user and his avatar. Also headsets by companies like Emotiv which ‘read’ thoughts and move the character could immensely increase the productivity of a virtual space by virtually making the user indistinguishable from the avatar.

Problems :

1.       Most of the virtual worlds created today have been built for the purpose of entertainment or social networking. Tools for collaboration and training are not adequate in today’s virtual worlds.  There are some custom platforms like Forterra , Unisfair , Inexpo etc. which are focused towards simulation and training , however collaboration tools are woefully inadequate. This poses a problem for early adopters of virtual offices.

2.       Connecting to virtual spaces requires a modern computer/laptop and decent bandwidth. Not everybody has access to such infrastructure. Wide adoption of them would result in substantial investments in hardware and bandwidth.

3.       Security concerns of working in a virtual environment are similar to those of telecommuting. Better security and monitoring methods will need to be developed to keep checks on the virtual workforce.

Conclusion:

Virtual offices will increasingly become popular and ubiquitous as the tools for enabling collaboration and communication in these environments improve.  This will result in reduced travel and more real time interaction across the organization. The impact will be 360 as a new way of ‘working’ emerges. More time to spend with families , bigger salaries ( owing to the reduction of costs) , new ways of intra-organizational communications and a significantly reduced carbon footprint. This is not just the next step in the evolution of the Internet but of the corporation and society in general.