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Qwaq Brings Virtual Worlds To Business Collaboration

I had a chance to talk with the CEO of Qwaq the other day. Qwaq makes virtual worlds software optimized for corporate meetings. If you've spent time in Second Life, you know the power of avatars and 3-D spaces to enhance conversations and collaboration. It's hard to explain to people who've never tried virtual worlds, but it's real. Qwaq is an attempt to tailor virtual worlds for business collaboration, adding features that businesses need and taking away features that are harmful.

I had a chance to talk with the CEO of Qwaq the other day. Qwaq makes virtual worlds software optimized for corporate meetings. If you've spent time in Second Life, you know the power of avatars and 3-D spaces to enhance conversations and collaboration. It's hard to explain to people who've never tried virtual worlds, but it's real. Qwaq is an attempt to tailor virtual worlds for business collaboration, adding features that businesses need and taking away features that are harmful.

Example of a forum built with Qwaq
Intel built this auditorium in Qwaq to show the ability to share presentations and 3-D objects.
Image Gallery

The power of virtual worlds is that they trick your brain into thinking you're actually sharing a physical space with other people, participating in a shared activity. As a result, conversations and collaboration are richer. People who'd remain silent in a conference call, WebEx, or chat room will speak up in a meeting in a virtual world.

"Nothing is better for us than people who've been in Second Life," said Greg Nuyens, CEO of Qwaq, in a phone interview. "They know the value of the immersive situation and they come in with a list of questions about features and functionality which they want us to address -- and we're able to do it." On the other hand, conversations with people who aren't familiar with virtual worlds get hung up on the discussion of whether the platform has any practical purpose at all.

If you're skeptical that virtual worlds have any place in business, well, I'm not going to be able to convince you here. Nothing can convince you other than trying virtual worlds out for yourself.

However, if you *have* spent a lot of time in a virtual world -- especially if that virtual world is Second Life -- you've seen that, for all the strengths that Second Life has, it has many shortcomings as a business platform. Qwaq is an attempt to address those shortcomings. Using Qwaq, you can bring in documents, such as PowerPoint presentations, videos, Microsoft Word documents, spreadsheets, and more, and you can discuss the documents and collaborate on changing them. You can do the same with 3-D objects created with just about any popular 3-D design and drawing software. You can create freehand diagrams on a shared whiteboard, and discuss those diagrams.

All of those things are really hard to do in Second Life.

Additionally, Qwaq has security features that are lacking in Second Life. You can encrypt your data sessions in both directions. You can tie Qwaq in to your corporate directory using LDAP or the Portable Authentication Model (PAM) to connect to Active Directory, and use your own directory for authentication and provisioning. And you can lock your little virtual meeting area down, and keep people from griefing you.

Qwaq allows corporate users to control their data and forums, whereas Second Life does not.

So how does Qwaq work?

Like Second Life, Qwaq runs on the company's own servers, and you access the service over the Internet using clients that run on Windows or the Mac. Enterprises also can license the software and run it inside the firewall.

Unlike Second Life, which uses a real-estate metaphor, with individual locations being represented in-world as islands and continents, Qwaq uses the metaphor of rooms: Conference rooms, libraries, meeting rooms, and auditoriums. By default, the rooms are disconnected from each other -- their own separate universes, with no travel between them -- but the owners of the rooms can set up gateways for travel between them. The gateways appear, naturally enough, like doorways inside Qwaq. Each room can hold about 40 people, although you can lump rooms together by embedding a miniature 3-D image of one room inside another. Still, the 40-person limit makes Qwaq suitable for conferences and collaboration, not huge Internet events.

The general principles of the client will be familiar to users of Second Life, but it's much simpler and easier to use. You move in two dimensions using your arrow keys, or you can tab from one preset, default location to another. You also can move by selecting the name of someone nearby you from a drop-down menu, and then selecting whether you want to face them, stand beside them, stand in front of them, and so forth. You can move, size, and modify objects in-world simply by dragging corners and edges (if you have permission to do so).

External documents, such as PowerPoint presentations or Word documents, are presented on virtual display in Qwaq. Click on the title bar of the display and the display takes over most of your Qwaq window, for easy viewing. Qwaq servers run their own version of OpenOffice.org, which means the service displays Microsoft Office documents and other formats, including PDFs.

The service supports Collada, an open source XML format for 3-D objects supported by Google SketchUp, and OBJ, an older standard for 3-D modeling, so objects created by any program that supports those standards can be imported into Qwaq. For example, office furniture vendor Steelcase provides a CD-ROM of its furniture, designed for use in design and architectural software but also importable into Qwaq.

Qwaq is designed to provide places where teams can discuss and collaborate on documents. In that respect, it's as much a competitor to Microsoft SharePoint or wiki software as it is to a virtual world. Documents save their states between sessions, so people can work on projects in Qwaq rooms and have the room be a reflection of the current state of the project.

You can create forums using Qwaq's own customizable templates for rooms and campuses, or start from scratch and build your own room.

Communication is either by text chat or using VoIP. As with Second Life, the voice is 3-D -- the voices of people speaking to the left of your avatar seem to be coming from your left, the voices of those on your right seem to be coming from the right, and so forth. Qwaq is also working on adding regular phone support, so people who can't log into sessions can just dial in using a landline or their cell phone and at least participate in the audio for the meeting.

I did find the client unstable -- it crashed twice during a half-hour demo. This may have been my configuration, however -- I only tried running it on one computer, and I'm running some weird software that might conflict.

Another potential problem with Qwaq: The pricing. It's $60 per user per month, with volume discounts available. This will discourage organizations from saying, "Let's give it a try and see if we like it." I'd love to see them offer a free version with reduced capabilities, just to encourage people to try it out.

Another potential liability: To use Qwaq, you have to be on a relatively recent computer, with a high-speed Internet connection (DSL speeds or better). If you want to use voice, you have to have a headset and be configured for voice. Indeed, my conversation with Nuyens, the Qwaq CEO, was done over the phone, because the company's PR person was not at a computer that was configured for Qwaq.

Qwaq is based on the Croquet virtual worlds engine, which Qwaq invented. The company released the protocols to open source a year and a half ago. Open-sourcing the software gives Qwaq several advantages: It allows people to learn to use it before coming to Qwaq, thus reducing the amount of training they have to give employees and customers. It also allows potential customers to test the security of the protocols. And it gives potential customers a sense that they're not locked in to a proprietary vendor and technology, Nuyens said.

I learned a few more things during my demo, but they're better shown, rather than described. Click through to the image gallery to take a look. Here's the link again, if you missed it the first time: "Image Gallery: Qwaq Brings Virtual Worlds To Business"

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