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Avaya Ventures into a Virtual Reality

On February 10th, Avaya launched a new on-demand, cloud-based option of its immersive web collaboration platform Avaya web.alive. The platform is available both as a premises-based solution and a SaaS offering, the latter being the focus of the new announcement, along with some new features and capabilities.

This new solution presents a virtual reality, which, in some ways, resembles the virtual event platforms (such as those offered by ON24, InXpo and Unisfair) but uses avatars and game-like tools and experiences, more similar to Second Life. I’ve heard some define the “traditional” (only in the context of this fast-evolving space) virtual platforms as virtual events and the likes of Second Life – as virtual environments. The monikers don’t matter much, but there are some differences, which we intend to tackle in more detail in a forthcoming study.

It’s great that Avaya is offering a free web-based demo. Anyone can try the environment at  http://avayalive.com/tryit. It will be beneficial for end users to experience this unique, advanced technology first-hand before considering a full-fledged deployment or even a serious pilot. As an analyst, I was privileged to have several sessions with the Avaya team, but I am hearing that there is almost always someone in there who can help random visitors find their way through the different tools and functionalities.

For me, who’s never (NEVER) played any computer games or experienced 3D, doesn’t like Sci-Fi (didn’t even fully appreciate Avatar or The Matrix),… (the list goes on, but you get the idea) … this was both a thrilling and somewhat distracting experience. I did not take the time to test the environment before the pre-launch and ventured into it with a male avatar. Of course, I heard little from the presentation in the first few minutes because I was busy changing my gender and choosing my facial features and clothes to wear.

The next challenge was finding my way around the environment and learning how to control my avatar using the mouse and keypad. Eventually, I found myself standing all by myself in front of the speaker with my head spinning in different directions trying to find the best viewpoint. Somehow, using a 3-rd person view, with my avatar still proudly standing in front of the whole crowd, I managed to get my eyesight so low that I was staring upwards into people’s … well, lower backs. Toward the end of the event, though, I was boldly strolling around the environment, magically walking through people and furniture. And shouting. Until I realized it was not a good idea, because others could hear me without me noticing they were there.

I’ll end the story here and just briefly summarize what I liked and what I would wish to see improved going forward.

The things I liked:

  • Such virtual environments are fun! It makes you giddy to design your persona (without the help of cosmetic surgery) and watch yourself from a third person point of view (there must be a split-personality tendency in all of us).
  • You do get the impression that you are “meeting” with people in a quasi-realistic social environment, unlike the sensation one gets using more “traditional” conferencing tools.
  • I liked seeing the pictures of the people I was close by or talking to, in addition to their oversexed avatars.
  • I really liked the presentation and collaboration capabilities. I was able to easily share my desktop and saw demonstrations of video feeds and slide presentations.
  • I like the fact that there are private rooms and people can have meetings behind closed doors. Only authenticated users have access to these rooms, but they can authenticate others. Once you are inside the room and the door is closed, no one else can hear the conversation OR see into the room.
  • Also, a group engaged in a more private conversation in the public area can use a whisper mode, which is not audible to those at a greater distance but does not degrade the quality of the conversation for the main parties.
  • Regardless of my “mishaps” facetiously recounted above, the environment is fairly intuitive and does not take a whole lot of learning to be able to navigate through it.
  • I have to give credit to the Avaya people, too – they offered help and were prepared to patiently address all kinds of questions.
  • From a business point of view, this solution has tremendous advantages as a web-based, on-demand platform. It is easy to deploy and use, even for small businesses, and is quite cost-effective at $49/month for a single account holder and up to 8 people attending at any given time.
  • The platform also offers analytics tools that can help businesses assess the value they are receiving from enhanced collaboration.

What I would want to see improved:

  • These visual environments can be very distracting. I heard people saying the virtual experience helped them avoid multi-tasking. In fact, I noticed I was more focused on what was taking place on the screen, but was it really the RIGHT thing on the screen I was watching/doing? I found myself checking people out (some were wearing funky outfits), rather than watching the slides. Maybe there should be a way for the speaker or person managing the event to help/force attendees to focus on the presentation screens whenever appropriate? I would not propose a dress code – that would be taking it too far J
  • There need to be some additional privacy options. I discussed the private rooms in the section above, but I believe there should be a way to “encapsulate” people who wish to have a more private conversation in the public area. I imagine, visually it could be something like the Avaya Flare spotlight. In a real-life environment, such as in a typical conference facility, people always complain there aren’t enough meeting rooms and end up looking for these two-armchairs-and-a-table isolated areas in the hotel corridors to have a private chat. At a cocktail party, people use facial expressions and body language to keep unwanted parties out of their private conversation. But the virtual environment needs different tools. I am told that users can see who’s within listening area by watching the number next to an ear icon at the bottom of the screen. But people tend to get distracted or too engaged in a conversation to pay attention. So they need to be able to take precautions.
  • Changing your voice, gesturing and other functions are only a right-click away. But I would want to see them in a menu bar – similar to a browser or Microsoft Office experience. It’s all about familiar, user-friendly interfaces, right?
  • There needs to be an option to mute everybody (for both the organizers and the attendees), except the speaker. It is distracting when people are chatting around you. Is it like real life? Yes, but we always try to improve real life, don’t we?
  • You have to hit Escape to be able to use some of the Options and to do other things on your desktop. It becomes bothersome, if you still want to do some multi-tasking.
  • If you have a slow DSL or cable connection, the audio can get garbled. (I had the rare luck to have my Internet service switched to a new provider right in the middle of the launch!)
  • Training, training, training!! Yes, it is intuitive; yes, younger generations will figure it out quickly and enjoy it. But for effective business use across different generations and types of users, organizations adopting this tool will need to strongly encourage employees to attend demos and brief training sessions. I have been told that Avaya does offer training. I think customers should not underestimate the value of a proper introduction to the new tool and ensure employees become familiar with key features and functionalities to avoid disappointment and misuse.

Go ahead and try it and let me know what you think. But don’t forget to mute yourself (press M on your keyboard) as you enter the environment or else someone can overhear your business conversations, kids shouting or dogs barking.

Are there other similar platforms you like better? Why?

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