#12. My Second Life: The office

An email from a new Second Life friend last night about setting up an office has caused me to reflect on our internal business experiences in the last few weeks. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, we have an office building on the IBM land and it is only accessible by IBM internals. As a reader pointed out in a comment to my last SL entry, this does not mean that the dealings that take place there are confidential, and he is absolutely right.

Conversations

Consider chat, for example. Anything you type in the chat entry window can be seen by any avatar within 20 meters of you. If you’ve been in SL, you’ve no doubt overheard any number of nonsensical conversations on some of the public newbie hubs. Better than chat for privacy is IM. You can have a discussion with one friend or with an entire group via IM. In the latter case, anyone in the group will see the conversation, no matter where they are in SL. You cannot do impromptu conversations with three of more people without their all being in a group.

So imagine that I have set up an office building and want to allow multiple conversations among teams of people and I don’t want cross-chatter. That is, unless I’m specifically there and participating, I don’t want to overhear what is being said. How should I do that?

First of all, being in SL means that you are extending the interactions among people by having a sense of their virtual presence. It really is more than traditional instant messaging, but is certainly less than a face-to-face meeting. However, there are people with whom I’ve worked intermittently for years and, in the last month, have talked to more in SL about business topics than I did all of last year.

This was not because we suddenly had some new project to do together: the added sense of presence encouraged us to have conversations that we otherwise might not have gone to the trouble of having. What this means is that when you have a group business conversation, move all the avatars together so they are in one place. In my case, it would be my SL office building.

If I had a big plot of land I could put in a building that was 20 m or more from the property boundaries, restrict access to the property only to my team members, and then space virtual conference rooms 20 m from each other. If people gathered in these areas, only they could hear what each said, assuming no one was in the intervening space. Remember that you can build vertically too, so if you had a building with 10m wall heights, then you could have these conference rooms on the 1st floor, 4th floor, 7th floor, and so on. This is not perfect but is simple and might work if you have the space.

An alternative is to put the conference rooms wherever you would like and have an SL group defined for each room. One or more owners could dynamically add or subtract people from the group membership list as needed for conversations. This would work, but has its problems. The owners of the group would always hear the conversations. At least one person has to be the owner and he or she would have to be available to administer group membership. Therefore there is some management of resources needed here. This is doable, but sounds rather awkward. Nevetheless, I think we’re heading in this direction.

Groups cost L$100 to establish and are supposed to have at least two people in them at all times. (I believe it used to be three.) After a while, Linden deletes groups that don’t meet the minimum membership requirement, so make sure you don’t let these lapse unintentionally.

If you do establish such conference rooms and you do start using SL for meetings, consider adding these rooms to your usual real life (RL) conference room scheduling listings and procedures.

Security

Everything that is typed in the SL clients in chat or IM travels back to the SL servers and then out again. This is a potential security problem, so remember that you are not behind your organization’s firewall. The same goes for text or graphics that may be visible in your work area. Think carefully about having any confidential or sensitive conversations in SL. How bad would you feel if you had a chat about a human resources issue and then realized other people overheard you? Set policy now and stick to it. You are still allowed to pick up that RL phone and call someone.

Designing your space

What sort of space should you give people in your internal office area? The goal here is interaction, so making it easy for people to hide away and sequester themselves rather defeats the purpose. Rather than build cubicle areas, I opted for a more open newsroom approach for my extended team. They can easily see each other and, I hope, strike up conversations about work or anything else. This is an experiment, so things may change. I suspect that over time people will care just as much about the personal space allotted to them and the location of that space as they do about RL offices.

I started by creating a dozen desks and letting each person choose the desk they wanted. Our building has some particularly nice views of the water and a lighthouse, so there really is a choice of what you see when you look out the window. Those desks are all taken, as are about half of the additional eight I put in. Claiming executive privilege, I have an office on the top floor with meeting spaces.

IBM SL Open Source and Standards office

As we continue to design this building for our work space, I’ve been engaging actively with team members who are present and have time available when I do. Some people seem to just not care, while others are really getting into the process.

Since SL allows so much creativity in construction, I could have opted for some kind of funky “office in a tree house” design. Instead I went with something attractive but reminiscent of a RL office building. That said, we don’t have stairs or elevators, we just teleport from area to area. As our collective scripting and design skills improve as well as our comfort of working within SL, I think we will take advantage of more of the “magical” things we can do in SL. I would be very disappointed if this were not the case a year from now.

We don’t require team members to have paid subscriptions to SL. At least one of them does and has established a home on some bought land. In this way, people can get there own personal spaces away from the office. I’m absolutely fine if they make the office the primary place they hang out, and I do want them there for part of the work day, but what they do at other times and elsewhere in SL is their own business.

Behavior

The usual business conduct guidelines apply when people are in SL doing business. For example, no form of harassment is tolerated. You may decide to be as explicit about employee business behavior in SL as you are about behavior in RL. It’s worth considering.

Slide shows

A couple of people have asked me about showing presentations in SL. You can’t do this directly, but you can fake it via a QuickTime movie or images from screenshots. The latter is much simpler to do.

The basic model of a wall mounted presentation works this way: there is one large rectangular prim that is the surface on which each “slide” is shown. In its contents are individual images for each slide, added in order and given a name that indicates the presentation title and slide number. There are two other prims that are used as “back” and “forward” buttons and these send messages to a script in the central slide prim. It then changes the texture on the front of the viewer to be the slide before or after the slide that is currently being shown.

A fancier version of this would also have buttons that jump to the beginning or end of the presentation or else automatically advance the slides after a fixed amount of time.

This works well but it is labor intensive to create and upload all the slide images. Each image will cost you L$10 to upload. Another possible way to do this is to concatenate all the slides images and then have the prim shift the single image on the presentation surface. Not only would it be tricky to concatenate these (though you might be able to automate it with something like ImageMagick), I’m not sure that SL would preserve the resolution of the image. Fuzzy slides would be worse than no slides, in my opinion.

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