Remote work and distance learning are on the rise, but remote workers and students often feel isolated and disconnected from their colleagues. There are quite a few communication tools out there that remote teams can leverage to help address this issue. For example, there's video conferencing, phone conferencing, text-based messaging platforms like Slack, email, and what we provide here at VirBELA: 3D virtual worlds. In this post, after going over what a 3D virtual world is, we'll highlight some of the advantages that they provide over other tools like video conferencing.
Here are the bullet points that we'll dive into further below:
- sense of space: virtual worlds promote a sense of togetherness, presence, and shared space (video chat looks fragmented and visually reinforces the distance between participants)
- scale: virtual worlds support large, flexible gatherings and events (video chat gets progressively more difficult and qualitatively worse as it scales up)
- always-on collaboration: virtual worlds are persistent, always-on spaces that provide the closest approximation to a shared physical workplace, supporting both scheduled meetings and more informal, spontaneous collaboration (video chat supports scheduled meetings but isn't conducive to other kinds of interactions).
- No faces, no backgrounds: With virtual worlds, remote employees aren't obligated to prep their room or personal appearance (with video chat - pressure is on for people to look tidy).
We see virtual worlds as a powerful complement to other communication tools, and not necessarily a replacement. That said, virtual worlds have unique advantages over tools like video chat, strengths that help remote teams collaborate and build community online in a powerful, different way.
Virtual Worlds - What Are They?
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3D Virtual Worlds are collaborative environments in which users interact as avatars, digital representations of themselves, in a simulated digital world. It's the sort of concept that can be tough to convey if you haven't seen or been in one yourself, so while this screenshot will be helpful, we also encourage you to download our free Open Campus and walk around the space to get a sense of what it's like to be in a 3D virtual world. To get a good sense of what it's like to interact with others in a virtual world, you can also book a tour with us and we'll meet you in there to give you a guided look at our virtual world.
At VirBELA, we provide a range of 3D virtual worlds designed to help remote teams communicate and collaborate online. These range from Team Rooms, private suites of offices for smaller teams all the way up to Private Campuses, fully white-labeled virtual campuses that can support hundreds of simultaneous users.
Why Virtual Worlds Instead of Video Conferencing?
We get questions like this a lot from people who are interested in virtual worlds but aren't sure why they would use them instead of video conferencing tools:
"We already use video chat, why would I use this?"
"Aren't the graphics just a gimmick?"
When we compare virtual worlds like VirBELA to video conferencing tools, here are some of the advantages that we think set virtual worlds apart.
Space Matters, Even If It's Virtual Space
Virtual worlds provide a sense of shared space and togetherness since users see each other interacting in the same environment. This is in direct contrast to video chat, which actually visually reinforces the fact that people are distant from each other, given the different backgrounds you see in everyone's video feed. So what? Research suggests that the integrated nature of virtual worlds, as opposed to the fragmented visual environment of video chat, is conducive to collaboration and immersion in collaborative tasks (see this paper if curious).
The sense of shared space actually provides advantages that people use all of the time in physical environments. Think of some of the spatial cues that are second nature to us in the "real world": when someone walks to the front of a room, we generally know to pay attention to them. When you want to talk to a colleague privately, you know to grab them and walk away from the larger group to find your own space. The layout of tables in a space can lend itself to different kinds of collaboration (small group, lecture style, etc). These spatial cues that we use all the time when in person with others are difficult if not impossible to achieve using video conferencing, but are easy and natural in virtual worlds.
Need to break into small groups quickly and naturally? Do what you would do in physical space and walk to another area. We specifically designed our virtual worlds to make it easy for large groups to quickly break into small groups and vice versa. Just as in the real world, the voice chat can be "spatialized" so you only hear who you're close to. Want to be able to have a presenter walk to the front of the room, or a panel of speakers at center stage in a way that visually reinforces the nature of your event? Check out the auditorium in one of our virtual worlds:
Have you ever tried to have a video conference with more than 10 people? The experience, if it works, usually leaves something to be desired. Your screen gets cluttered with floating chat heads, some of which get sporadically bigger or smaller based on microphone levels. If participants are trying to look at something together, like a presentation or document, then the video chat heads usually block your view and you may end up closing them so you can see what you need. You might as well be on a phone call at that point. This highlights the point that being able to see someone's face isn't always a critical part of online communication. More on this later. Doing things like breaking into small groups, if possible at all, are done using crude and unnatural user interfaces.
Virtual worlds, in contrast, are fantastic for large-scale interactions. Look at the above screenshot from one of our auditoriums. You can comfortable have hundreds of people in a space like this, and the bandwidth requirements are far lower than what you'd see in a 15 person video call. Instead of being just a name on a list, users are still represented by an avatar and have that sense of togetherness with their colleagues. They can talk, raise their hands, walk to the front of the room, use private or public text channels, and more. Earlier this year, one of our customers, eXp Realty, set a record for number of users in a VirBELA world at once: 916. You can learn more about this here.
For large, distributed companies that want to enable both small-team and large-scale interactions, virtual worlds provide flexibility that video chat doesn't. Check out a screenshot from the 916 avatar interaction below. We know it's a little cramped in there - we're already working at building spaces that can comfortably fit way more simultaneous users.
Always On Collaboration
With video conferencing, there are generally set times where teammates come together for scheduled meetings. Come meeting time, people turn the tool on and have the meeting. Then, it's over. Fair enough - but in physical work environments there are many other kinds of collaboration that happen that help teams build relationships and work together. These are the more spontaneous, informal interactions that take place outside of scheduled meeting times: the chats at the water-cooler, the bumping into a colleague in the hallway, etc.
Video chat isn't particularly good at supporting these more informal interactions. Virtual worlds, on the other hand, are conducive to them. People headed to different meetings often bump into each other, and after meetings people often mill about in common areas. It's easy to "bump into" colleagues in a way that simply doesn't happen on video chat. Sometimes people hang out in offices so that people walking around can see that they are available and quickly pop in to say hi or ask a question.
In other words, a virtual world is a persistent, multi-purpose digital space. For remote teams that don't have a dedicated, common physical workplace, this is the closest digital approximation - and you don't need to worry about broken pipes or light bulbs in this one!
A video chat service doesn't really provide a persistent, always-on shared space in which an organization can interact.
No Faces, No Backgrounds
We recognize that for certain kinds of interaction, being able to see facial expressions is crucial - and for meetings like that we don't recommend VirBELA or any other virtual world. That said, we aren't convinced that being able to see someone's face is essential for a wide range of online collaboration, and we actually think that NOT having video feeds provides some advantages worth noting.
I know that I, for one, don't like the idea of waking up earlier than I need to just to make sure I look half-decent for a video call. It's just not a sensible use of my time. Also, people's home work environments are subject to the many things that can happen in homes: children that could stumble into view of the camera, states of messiness that someone may not have time to clear up and could be embarrassing to share with colleagues, etc. Some people have the luxury of having dedicated home offices that are always in a state of tidiness and relative privacy, but others don't. For these people, preparing for a video call can actually be a burden that isn't actually worth the benefits achieved with a video feed.
In virtual worlds, you're represented by your avatar, and the space you're in is the virtual 3D world shared by others in your organization. No need to get your hair ready or frantically tidy up your room. Remote work isn't just about being able to work in your pajamas - but virtual worlds provide a degree of flexibility that employees appreciate.
We hope this blog post gave some insight about why organizations might choose virtual worlds over video chat for different kinds of online collaboration and community building. Beyond believing this stuff ourselves (we are a remotely distributed team and we use our own product), we've heard similar things from our customers. Check out some use cases here.