Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Qwaq and the Suits: Should Linden Lab Worry?

CIA HQ take 2
Location: Qwaq Web Site

I feel a long way from Buddy's live music and Olivia's Art Garden. I'm in the dreaded Land of the Suits, a culture I fled for academia decades back. But these suits are not the ones I knew; they are using virtual worlds: They are the Suits from Gibson's fiction.

Though Qwaq's solution for project management has been around for some time, it offers a few features that may pose problems for Second Life.

Isolation from SL Weirdos (like me): In SL IBM and apparently other corporations are using a "behind the firewall" solution, running their own part of the Metaverse walled off from the rest of us. This has the important benefit of keeping data and conversations private in those regions, so competitors, griefers, and nosy journalists cannot snoop. Yet employees can leave the "walled garden" to explore a wider world.

Qwaq takes it one step further. I'm reminded of a few lines from Neuromancer, when Case finally regains the ability to jack into the Matrix again:

Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.

We may see such a constellation of unreachable systems in the distance soon, as we grubby "ordinary" folks bumble about in virtual worlds that are locked out from corporate and government invented realities. Read the April 2008 article on IBM's work in Virtual World News for more detail, but essentially its boils down to how "the private sections will be blocked off from regular Second Life users, though IBM employees will be able to transition between locations without exiting Second Life."

Qwaq, unlike the IBM solution, offers no connections to other virtual worlds. It's a meeting space, perhaps a virtual operations center or factory, floating alone and untethered in cyberspace. Why should Linden Lab worry?

Document Sharing: After spending some at Qwaq's site, I found that inside one may: "Share common document formats such as Adobe® PDF and Microsoft® Office, as well as traditional and Web-based enterprise applications."

In a recent SL Education Roundtable, we discussed what features would make for a "killer app" inside (or in an alternative to) SL. My claim was that document sharing would be key to using SL for "immersive" learning that seems as natural as passing a physical document from one hand to another. It is a game-changer. To cite another cyberpunk classic, Stephenson's Snow Crash, such document-share does not "break the metaphor" of a place we want to seem as natural as possible.

"Business Friendly" Avatars: To quote from CIO's review of Qwaq, "This vendor takes virtual-world meetings beyond cartoonish avatars sitting at a table." Ouch. That's a barb aimed right as SL. The very creativity that many SLers embrace is incredibly put-offish to the senior people in business and academia. And they hold the purse-strings. Unless you are a scientist from M.I.T., these buttoned-down folks are not so likely to fund your project if your avatar is a gorilla or robot or tragic vampire.

And as cool as the Web-based MetaPlace is, it is deliberately cartoonish, showing another divergent direction for virtual worlds. Thus Qwaq fills a niche that some companies want. Nowhere I'd work...but somebody's gotta do it.

I stumbled upon "ROI in Virtual Worlds - Anatomy of an Avatar" by Caleb Booker. I think I'll have my students read this in the fall. I highly recommend it for understanding the business challenges that "dressing up" poses for different virtual worlds.

An Easy-to-Use Client: Here SL could be in trouble. Qwaq also promises an intuitive interface that can be set up in minutes, not hours. That would prove to be a clear advantage. My students, not slouches with technology, struggle every semester with the SL client.

Conclusion: Wait and See

Are the benefits of Qwaq--more-than-a-firewall security, document sharing, "serious" avatars, and an intuitive interface--enough? SL offers the latter with the IBM approach (I have heard of dress codes at company meetings), and document-sharing is, we were promised, a feature Linden Lab will implement.

I began my blog thinking that Qwaq would lay IBM's efforts low. Now I'm not so sure.

For the stodgiest firms, association with a culture like SL's might not appear prudent. Better to have carefully vetted avatars in a space completely walled off, so they can share work and meet cybernetically instead of traveling long distances. That makes a lot of sense in a time of Hobbesian conditions on airlines and in the larger economy. At the same time, these firms miss the creative synergy (and potential customers) of the larger SL economy. For IBM, that lies--splendor and squalor alike--right outside the firewall.


Big Blue: put a Suit into a gorilla suit, and he'd fit right in.

1 comment:

Scott Merrick said...

Wonderful wonderful treatise on Qwak! Thanks! This is precisely the sort of commentary that has placed In a Strange Land in the running for April's Blog-o-the-Month at the Blogger's Hut on ISTE Island. Feel free to encourage your readers to go vote (read the information card first!) and see your three worthy challengers and how the vote is going at any time--or sit back and see how the visitors to the Blogger's Hut vote. Either way, congratulations! There's a graphic in the sidebar that you may feel free to grab!