Working in a virtual world

It was at this point that Miramar was dusted off and put back to work. The Intel team also wanted to explore ways of bringing their work to market.

This led them to a company called Qwaq, which specialises in virtual worlds for enterprise collaboration. An agreement was signed in 2007 and what was once Miramar now appears as an optional extension for the Qwaq platform, though currently only in beta and alpha form.

Virtual workspace

To demonstrate exactly how Miramar and Qwaq fit together, Pickering gave PC Plus magazine a live demo of the combined platform.

Superficially, the Qwaq collaboration application looks like a rather dated 3D game interface. Imagine something slightly below the graphical fidelity of a game such as Counter- Strike circa 2001, and you'll get the idea. Each user is represented by a configurable 3D avatar and can navigate the environment much as you would in a first-person action game courtesy of mouse and keyboard commands.

Users define the layout of any given virtual workspace, so there are no hard and fast rules. However, there's typically a central room with a spawn point, in front of which is usually a virtual shelf that houses various introductory worksheets informing new arrivals of the purpose and content of the workspace. The rooms are often decorated and populated much as a real workspace might be, with furniture, plants and various paraphernalia relating to life at work and home.

Additional topic or theme-specific 'break-out' rooms – as well as areas for more casual communication – are also common. The real interactivity begins with all-encompassing spatial audio. Using headsets or built-in laptop microphones, users can approach each other and communicate much as they would in the physical world. Webcams are also supported if video communication is desired.

Information transfer

All of which is hardly rocket science, but here's where the clever stuff starts. Around the circumference of the room are interactive whiteboards. These whiteboards support a wide range of applications that can be dragged and dropped directly from users' desktops. Everyone in the virtual space can then view, manipulate and edit them.

Office documents, PDFs, web pages and videos can all be dropped into the environment for everybody to see and share. The whiteboards also support freehand scribbling or drawing. Below each one is a tray that serves as a document store.

For relatively simple groups of documents, the whiteboard and tray mechanism works fine. However, for more complicated projects involving many documents with complex relationships and hierarchies, something a little more sophisticated is required. That something is Miramar.

It's represented in the environment by an object known as a pedestal. This is essentially a recognisable projection of the 3D Miramar 'space' on a smaller scale that serves as a portal or doorway to the full Miramar interface. Users simply walk through the pedestal to Miramar.

"Overall, it's a persistent, dedicated space that maintains context and allows users to come and go as they please, pick things up where they left off and work both together and as individuals," explains Pickering. All of which sounds extremely useful. But is the virtual world metaphor actually anything more than a fancy gimmick? Can real-time rendered pot plants and bitmapped wallpaper really help teams of skilled professionals increase their productivity?

Actually, yes. One way to understand the benefits of a detailed environment is to imagine a virtual world composed of largely uniform or featureless spaces. In that scenario, remembering the location of projects or individual documents becomes extremely difficult when the complexity increases.

However, in a more detailed virtual environment, objects can be located metaphorically. "I left the latest edit of the research budget on the whiteboard near the research break-out room," a user might think. This method is analogous to memory association techniques, which can be extremely effective for learning everything from arbitrary lists to people's names.

What's more, the Qwaq platform is being used today by some of the largest and best-known companies in the world, including BP and Intel itself. Of course, this kind of virtual space isn't limited to work groups. A wide variety of activities take place in the virtual environment, including seminars, training and even presentations to clients.

First published in PC Plus Issue 274