by Michael Shapiro | August 11, 2011

Recently, I wrote here about the evolution of meeting online and pondered whether we were now past the point where we need to think of our virtual gatherings in physical-world terms. The question was prompted by INXPO's new VX platform, which looks more like a media dashboard and less like a representation of a physical trade show. INXPO's Dennis Shiao, who responded with a blog post of his own, believes emphatically that yes, we have moved past that -- and that INXPO's customers have made that clear. With respect to whether we still need real-world visual accoutrements at virtual events, Shiao humorously summed things up: "When I need furniture, I'll head to IKEA."
Notwithstanding my own dread of the very real-world IKEA parking lot, not to mention the labyrinthian terror that exists inside, I pretty much agree with Dennis: If I'm attending a trade show as a virtual attendee, I'm really happier to navigate to the keynote, for instance, directly via a link to the live stream, than I am "walking" through a virtual convention center to a virtual auditorium.
Still, I think it's interesting to ponder the different uses we may have for different kinds of online platforms, and why streaming a keynote address can be a hugely different experience than doing a team training session online. For the most part in our industry, I think there's been little differentiation when talking about "virtual meetings," a term that can include everything from a WebEx call to a virtual trade show to an immersive 3D environment with avatars.
In terms of that last category, I received a note last week from a company called ProtonMedia about their product, ProtoSphere, a 3D virtual environment that's generally deployed on an enterprise level for use within a corporation. Many of ProtoSphere's clients are in the life sciences and medical education fields. For the most part, Proton CEO Ron Burns told me, use of ProtoSphere isn't built so much around singular events or meetings. It's a tool that's used on a regular basis in an organization to share content and to hold virtual discussions -- to create an ongoing network. It's more of a virtual workplace. But there is some overlap with what companies like INXPO, Unisfair, and ON24 are doing. So I put the question to Ron Burns: Why do we need the whole 3D environment, with the rooms and the furniture and the avatars?
The longer answer is no doubt worthy of a full article, but essentially it comes down to how we learn. "There’s no question that learning in 3D has a lot of value," Burns said, and referred to a book by that name: Learning in 3D, by Karl Kapp and Tony O'Driscoll. "The way our minds work is very visual, and it's three-dimensional," Burns added. "We compartmentalize our thinking in spaces." The ProtoSphere environment was built from the ground up as an e-learning tool, he explained. Plus, the environment is a natural fit for the life sciences industry, where scientists may be sharing a 3D molecule model as part of research and development projects, and can do so in the midst of a conference.

So a selling point of such 3D environments is rooted in perceptual psychology, the way our brains process information as we learn, while I was considering the sociological expectations of attendees. Where do these two perspectives meet? Will our evolving comfort in online interaction begin to change the way we use our brains, making such "virtual workplaces" less crucial to learning? Or will learning suffer if we remove the immersive visual cues? Or will these trends just serve to further differentiate the uses for these types of technology, meaning there is progressively less overlap between what you would plan to do in a 3D environment (like ProtoSphere) versus what you'd organize for a virtual event platform (like INXPO)?
Because ProtoSphere, and applications like it, are really more a part of a company's unified communications system and deployed across the enterprise, I'd have to guess that planners who use these platforms are doing so because the infrastructure is already in place at their companies. I'd be very interested to hear from you if you are using such 3D platforms, though, and what your thoughts are on their immersive quality. You can comment here or e-mail me directly.