Technology Talk: How Real Are Virtual Meetings?

Virtual meetings gained credence and urgency when 9/11 devastated the meetings industry. Today's reduced corporate budgets, high gas prices, and the joy of flying—with reduced schedules, steerage-like conditions, and a big carbon footprint—have returned virtual meetings to the spotlight.

Virtual meetings include everything from Web conferencing to Webcasts, Webinars, videoconferencing—even teleconferences. More recently they've also come to include meetings in "virtual worlds" like Second Life.

Yet there's little agreement as to how "real" virtual meetings are in terms of how often they occur or how often they replace face-to-face meetings.

Get a (Second) Life

Only 7 percent of small to medium-sized companies surveyed by Jupiter Research said they have adopted online meeting or collaboration software. Larger companies are exploring opportunities, but it's just starting to take off.

"In 2007, the global Web conferencing market reached $998.2 million, growing at 26 percent over the previous year," says Roopam Jain, principal analyst at business research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, who predicts the market will reach $2.5 billion in 2011.

Not surprisingly, leading adopters are high-tech companies like IBM, but others like Unilever, PR firm Text 100, and BT (formerly British Telecommunications) are evaluating meetings in virtual worlds. This April, a Congressional Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet hearing was opened to Second Life avatars (your on-screen 3D graphic; I'm a minotaur myself).

But in the much-hyped Second Life, where meetings services providers have built virtual storefronts, the numbers aren't huge. Stephen Prentice, an analyst at information technology research and advisory firm Gartner, says that while Second Life claims about 12 million "residents," that refers to those who've downloaded the software; only about 850,000 visit in a 30-day period.

"Virtual worlds like Second Life, There.com, and more business-focused offerings are on the brink of becoming valuable work tools. But it's still early, pioneering days," wrote Forrester Research analysts Erica Driver and Paul Jackson in the report "Getting Real Work Done In Virtual Worlds." "You've practically got to be a gamer to use most of these tools—setup can be arduous, navigating in a 3-D environment takes practice, and processing and bandwidth requirements remain high."

A hurdle for delegates to Second Life meetings is the need to develop new habits, like keying in to keep your avatar "awake." There's also an undeniable geek factor.

"When I first had my avatar, I had a Mohawk, lots of muscles, and was very tall—everything I'm not," Jonathan Reichental, director of IT innovation at PricewaterhouseCoopers, told Computer-world in a recent piece called "Avatar Dress Codes and Other New Rules." But his avatar's appearance distracted other online meeting goers, so he says, "I bought a suit and shoes and got a haircut."

IBM has virtual-world guidelines: "Use your good judgment," "Protect your—and IBM's—good name," and, not unlike dress and behavior guidelines for real-world meetings, "Your avatar's appearance should be reasonable and fitting for the activities in which you engage (especially if conducting IBM business)."

In addition to such concerns about brand and reputation management, there are issues of verifiable identity and access management (are you who you say you are?), confidentiality, and productivity. Many bosses are concerned workers will spend more time "playing" in the virtual world than in the working world.

With such challenges and limited numbers of visitors, over the past year many companies shut down their virtual operations or let their sites turn into ghost towns, according to Gartner's Prentice. But others are refocusing and learning to use sites like Second Life for collaboration.

So will the inevitable growth of virtual meetings pose a real threat to "real" meetings—and real meeting planners? If anything, getting virtual with colleagues you've never met may create the need to meet in the flesh—if only to see what they look like without a purple Mohawk or angel's wings.

EXTRA BYTES:

Encourage your delegates to capture the hilarity of an actual meeting with their cell phones or digital cameras—then print and show off their shots right there, with Polaroid's new pocket-sized, battery-powered PoGo Printer. $149; www.thenewinstant.com

Originally published Aug. 1, 2008

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