Much has been discussed and written about virtual environments achieving levels of immersion and interactivity that rival (and some believe exceed) face-to-face meetings. Much has also been written about increasing the retention of information shared in world.
But to many, the whys and hows surrounding this remain a mystery. Perhaps the most crucial, yet most misunderstood element driving such a high degree of engagement is the avatar.
An avatar projects individuals in the first person, allowing them to enter a common environment — a conference room, classroom, etc. — with other people and data sources. This achieves common presence, togetherness, and equality, enabling a high degree of interaction and sharing to occur.
It creates an any (person) to any (person or content) to any (time) scheme that is fundamental to highly interactive and productive encounters.
Contrast this approach to the typical Web conferencing session that we have all endured. Each individual remains in their own separate and unique setting. It could be their office, home, hotel room, airport, or local coffee shop. And they stay there by themselves.
By its very construct, Web conferencing is based on a scheme of broadcast — one person controlling and presenting to a group of dispersed individuals. Is that interaction? Is that equality of function? Or is that a one-person, hierarchical approach to collaboration?
This achieves a very interesting and counterproductive result. By limiting or preventing participants from dynamically interacting, sharing ideas, accessing content, and equally contributing to the task(s) at hand, traditional Web conferencing reinforces the sense of fragmentation and disconnection. Perhaps that is the key reason why a one (desktop) to many (participants) dynamic quickly leads to participant tune-out.
It might sound a little goofy, but your avatar is your key to equality. It provides you the freedom to engage and contribute when and how you choose.
Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that avatars are perhaps the most important human factor in virtual immersive environments. By dynamically connecting the right people to the right content at the right time, avatars enable the types of unrestricted interactions we all demand when tasked with contributing to a group initiative.
What do you think, and what’s been your experience? How essential are avatars to real online collaboration?
(This column is reprinted with permission from ProtonMedia.)