Sun building collaborative, virtual world for teleworkers

Project Wonderland recreates office setting for Sun telecommuters

Sun is building a virtual world for its employees that will recreate the real-life interactions of an office, giving workers the ability to move easily from one conversation to another in a collaborative online environment.

In a real office, a Sun employee might engage in technical discussion with a few fellow workers, then walk over to a water cooler or snack area and start a new conversation. Sun is recreating that same type of environment on the Web with MPK20, a virtual world similar to Second Life that uses immersive audio to allow multiple conversations at once.

"We believe for collaboration, audio is a really essential component," Nicole Yankelovich, principal investigator for Sun's collaborative environment project, said Tuesday at the Sun Labs Innovation Update. "This environment with the audio that allows multiple simultaneous conversations really allows you to have the kind of interactions where groups of people can divide and converge, conversations can flow into one another."

MPK20 is so named because Sun's Menlo Park (MPK) campus has 19 physical buildings, with the 20th being created in the virtual world. It's being developed with Sun's Project Wonderland, an open source 3D scene manager for creating collaborative virtual worlds. The open source project is in its early stages but people who would like to create their own virtual worlds based on this Sun technology can download the software at the Wonderland site.

Sun began developing the software in January and has been using MPK20 for team meetings the last month or so. The virtual world includes a roughly circular team room where employees can place applications on the wall so they can be viewed by anyone inside the virtual room. When it comes to sharing applications and collaborating on work, this is a lot easier than importing an application into a Web conferencing service such as WebEx, Yankelovich said.

"Our vision is MPK20 will become the environment where people do all their real work," she says in a video demo posted on the Project Wonderland site. "We don't want people to have to use separate tools to share applications."

MPK20 is built on top of a scalable game server infrastructure called Project Darkstar, and uses a Java 3D graphics engine and software phone technology.

With immersive stereo audio built into the system, audio gets louder when you move closer to a conversation and softer when you walk away. It's easy to distinguish the voice of a person you're having a conversation with, even when there is music or other noise in the background.

MPK20 includes a virtual conference room with a panoramic video screen on the wall, which shows real footage of remote workers. "Virtual" employees sitting in chairs watching "real" employees attending the meeting through a video conferencing system delivers an odd mix of the physical and virtual worlds. A conference speaker phone sits on the table as well, letting people on cell phones call into the meeting.

Yankelovich calls it "mixed reality."

"This allows us to have a meeting with both people in the virtual space and people in the physical space," she says in the video demo.

More than half of Sun's 35,000 employees do not work in Sun buildings. A series of interviews with telecommuters found they miss the informal social interactions people have in offices. With MPK20, they can both perform collaborative work and interact socially with colleagues before and after formal meetings.

MPK20 is a good environment for product demonstrations, and even lets people relax by flipping through each other's music collections by viewing albums floating on a virtual wall.

While Sun is already using the virtual world for meetings and application sharing, there's a ways to go before Yankelovich will be satisfied. In fact, Sun encourages people to download the Project Wonderland 3D scene manager but warns that the source code repository and binary builds are not yet very stable.

One challenge is fine-tuning the gestures and expressions of avatars, so it's obvious to others whether someone is focusing on an application, or is open to having a conversation.

"There's a lot more work to do, but it's gotten to the point where it's becoming useful," Yankelovich said.