RealTime IT News

Collaboration Moves Into 3D

Online, 3D virtual environments aren't just for play anymore: They could push corporate training into the 22nd Century -- and even help save lives in U.S. military excursions.

That's the thinking behind a futuristic product codenamed "Babel Bridge," an upcoming piece of software built on Forterra System's On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE) and IBM's (NYSE: IBM) UC2 unified communication platform.

The Web-based software provides real-time communication and views, as well as collaboration using multiple data types.

Unlike most VoIP and Web conferencing-based unified communication (UC) systems, OLIVE's 3D virtual environment can help workgroups reduce collaboration barriers that often hamper communication -- such as disparate communication systems and language hurdles, according to Forterra.

For instance, in a 3D meeting environment, users can post many panels of information in parallel. This can allows a higher bandwidth level of information-sharing or problem-solving, compared to a typical Web conference call, where only one document is usually shown at a time.

The promise for the corporate sector is improved training and corporate development programs, Forterra said.

"We are already working with many leading Fortune 500 companies to prototype new ways to train, hold meetings, and conduct problem solving sessions that require analyzing many documents and types of information," Chris Badger, Forterra's vice president of marketing, told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.

"With energy prices going up, enterprises will need new means for their employees to hold group meetings or training exercises without getting in a car or going on an airplane," Badger said. "We are already doing deployments around call center, sales, and customer service training."

Forterra and IBM are working on plugins linking the system to IBM's Lotus Sametime real-time communications platform, as well as integration with Lotus Notes' calendar.

That could provide easy access, scheduling and launching of meetings in the virtual world, Badger said. Forterra also will embed several IBM UC technologies, including presence and location information, document, whiteboard and application sharing.

"That will enable faster, more effective communication and collaboration within the context of a situation or a meeting," Badger said.

The software is deployed behind and through firewalls, so enterprise IT departments can achieve the security needed to conduct private, invite-only as well as public discussions and document-sharing, he said.

The complete solution, which includes Forterra integrating IBM's Sametime Unified Telephony, will be available by year's end.

According to the company, OLIVE can further assist communication because the platform allows users to recreate any scene, building or terrain as a 3D environment where people can walk through, conduct exercises and communicate.

Forterra also said the platform includes built-in, spatially accurate 3D audio, which means users can talk to each other naturally with lip-synched avatars.

Not all fun, games and business meetings

Those same features may make for improved collaboration in the enterprise. But Forterra and IBM are waging that they may also save lives when it comes to usage by government groups.

For instance, the U.S. Army is currently testing the virtual world platform for bomb training for personnel bound for Iraq.

"Solders can die or get wounded virtually if they don't follow the proper procedures. These scenarios can be run over and over again until the soldiers demonstrate following the proper procedures for their own safety," Badger said.

Other pilot programs are underway with highway safety training for police, firemen and paramedics apply proper accident procedures, the company said.

"The benefits of this training are accidents cleared up more quickly so traffic can flow properly by applying the optimal procedures, and fewer deaths on scene at a real accident," Badger said.

"There are some groups we are talking to that want to do a production rollout to several million users over a three-to-four-year horizon," he added.

According to IBM, the technology helps unified communications technology reach its full potential for breaking down barriers to collaboration.

"The true value of UC2 is realized when multiple collaboration capabilities are well-integrated within a business task or process -- like bringing several organizations together to share, review, approve and take immediate actions for national security," Bruce Morse, vice president of IBM Unified Communications and Collaboration, said in a press statement.

"Managing communication and collaboration effectively within business processes can make all the difference between the success and failure of critical projects," Morse said.

The effort comes as the battle for dominance in the UC market is heating up. IBM recently announced it intends to spend $1 billion to better compete with rivals like Microsoft.