DigitalSpace Commons

Back to the Future of the Corporate Portal:
Virtual World Communities Powering the B2B X-Economy
What is a virtual world and how does it fit into the Corporate Portal?
By Bruce Damer
Corporate Portal Today

Over the course of a century, new technologies have forever changed the interfaces between companies and their customers. We have journeyed from the first Sears-Robuck catalogue through the telephone, through direct mail and now find ourselves at Web-based portals. If a corporate or customer portal is about the representation of a company to itself and its clientele the current generation of portal environments depict companies as abstractions: interfaces made up of web browsers populated by windows, images and text.

Customer-personalized Ecommerce portal of new economy bookseller
In the brick-and-mortar world, companies represent themselves using the physical 3D interface of an office, retail outlet, tradeshow or other immersive and social venues. In these circumstances, companies present their most vital interfaces to partners or customers: their people.

We all have some sense of what has been lost when we place abstract interfaces between ourselves and other people. The window-and-icon controls that the web presents to the world were developed in the early 1970s for the creation and sharing of documents. These same interfaces are now being applied to person-to-person and group communications and may not be the best or ultimate interfaces to represent people or companies.

The Portal can be a Whole New World

What if there was a way to build a true space in Cyberspace, fill it with what really shows your company or products to the world, and staff it with people ready to interact with customers 24 hours a day? Well, coming out of five years of research, development and live experimentation, virtual worlds representing a coming three-dimensional inhabited Cyberspace are emerging into the marketplace. In the following presentation we will review some of our projects to bring these worlds to life in real end-user settings. At the conclusion of this document you will find web addresses for further information and steps on how to visit these spaces online.

Virtual World constructed for brick-and-mortar bookseller Borders. This store was modelled after the downtown Seattle location by Titan's Guild Productions and is shown running inside the Active Worlds Internet client.

The basic Elements of a Virtual World

Virtual worlds are made up of two parts: a virtual environment and live people within that environment represented as 3D characters called "avatars". Everything that makes up a world streams over the Internet at dialup speeds and the resulting 3D scenes can be explored on ordinary consumer PCs. For our example, we will use a project we undertook to construct a virtual bookstore for Borders Books and Music in the USA. Borders is famous for the ambience, facilities, service and selection at its hundreds of physical bookstores. Despite the recent incursion of all-online book selling services such as Amazon, Borders continues to construct brick-and-mortar stores. We wanted to show Borders how similar ambience and customer service could be brought to an online shopping experience. This virtual store was used in a book  tour and to support live author readings. By clicking on books displayed, visitors to the store could access the web-based Borders ordering system. The following two images show the environs of a store and a customer service person represented as an avatar.

The environment:
in this case the interior of a virtual
Borders store
Avatars: in this case a customer service agent at the checkout desk of the virtual Borders store who is standing by books on special offer.
A Case Study:
European Health Insurance Company Virtual Headquarters

We will next present a case study in the conception and construction of a "virtual headquarters" help desk and insurance sales environment for a European health insurance company. This project has recently entered live internal client test and is being prepared for deployment to the insured customer base.

Project History

In September 1998 DigitalSpace was approached by a European health insurance company to develop a facility on the Internet using Activeworlds, a virtual worlds technology. This company operates an international service providing high quality health insurance to people worldwide with only small percentage of the company’s customers actually based in Europe.

This company was one of the Internet's early adopters in Europe and are well aware of the benefits of the Internet. However, as an international company, they were also aware that international communication with their customers was still mostly limited to costly telephone calls and the use of email and postal mail.

Company staff in front of the elevator shaft in the main foyer
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Project Goals

Due to the international nature of the company’s activities and the need for strong communication links with the customer that this type of insurance demands, they felt that the development of a Virtual Worlds facility should be in the form of a Virtual Headquarters. Rather than seeing this just as a marketing tool, the company wanted the facility to allow visitors to experience the next best thing to visiting their physical offices in Europe.
The goals of the VHQ project were as follows:
The Solution

The choice of Activeworlds as a suitable platform was based on its availability on the Internet using a low bandwidth connection, its suitability to run on a typical home PC and its ability to provide a rich user-defined 3-d environment at a relatively low cost.  Above all, Activeworlds offered an exciting next step approach to Internet technology, providing 3d spaces that could be shared by users in real-time.

View of the central elevator shaft on the first floor
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From the outset the VHQ was seen as less of a computer based project and more of an architectural and customer relations exercise. The company employed DigitalSpace to develop the facility because of their experience in integrating state of the art 3D solutions, database engineering and architectural design skills into one package.

The Design

The architectural brief was to develop an innovative virtual 3-d building identifiable as a prestigious architectural icon. Two architects were employed to design the facility and it was decided to mimic real-life building metaphors to a large extent, as experience shows that users generally prefer virtual environments to be familiar.  The company's existing offices were not used as a model for the VHQ as the existing structure was considered to be inappropriate for modelling in a virtual environment. It was also seen as an opportunity to develop a prestigious design that, in the real world, would be prohibitively expensive to build.

Examples of sketches developed during the design process

Prior to working on the 3D modelling, design sketches were developed and presented to the client for discussion and approval.  The next stage was the creation of working drawings that could be interpreted and turned into 3D models by an international team of 3D modellers and assembled "in-world". The project, from inception to completion, took about three months.

The Use of Bots

A major part of the brief was for the development of bots (programmed agents) that do various tasks from greeting visitors to delivering lectures on relevant medical issues and product updates.

For example, on the top floor of the VHQ is an auditorium where a lecture bot gives a lecture on a medical subject of interest. The lecture is continuous and restarts itself every ten minutes. Currently running is a lecture on heart disease that was prepared by one of the doctors employed by the company. The lecture is delivered by the bot in a timed sequence while at the same time a large screen at the front of the auditorium displays synchronised slides.

A useful bot function, specifically aimed at international clients, is the ability for users to tell the lecture bot to deliver its lecture in a language of their choice.  Although this does not effect the slide presentation, the actual text of the lecture can be delivered to each person that is present in a different language.

The Lecture Bot delivering a lecture on the Prevention of Heart Disease
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Customer Communications One of the main reasons that the company employed Virtual Worlds technology as an adjunct to its current Internet web site was in order to encourage more tangible, informative and real-time communication between staff and customers. For example a Service Officer would be able to conduct an interview in a specially designated virtual meeting room while at the same time display a PowerPoint type presentation on a screen or on an associated web page.

Another requirement was for a customer who enters the facility to be able to call a Service Officer for some help, at any time of day or night. A facility involving linking mobile phone text message function with specific objects in the building would enable a customer to click an object with a mouse, which would immediately alert the relevant department at the company via mobile telephone. As the company operates a 24/7 emergency department this would ensure the customer does not have to wait more than a few minutes in order to get attention.

The company doctor's avatar pictured during the staff trial in February 2000.
Project Status

Since the VHQ was completed there has been considerable testing of the facility from within the company, culminating in a staff trial in February, 2000. This was designed to elicit views relating to the efficacy of the VHQ prior to launch to customers.

A customer trial based on a selected customer pool of twenty was planned for April 2000.

Showcase of other Project Worlds

DigitalSpace has constructed a number of innovative virtual spaces for corporate and educational clients worldwide. The following gallery will highlight some of our recent projects.

Datafusion World

Datafusion World was an ambitious project combining compelling 3D Visualization of data with a live discussion and problem resolution employing "video avatars" representing employees at distant locations. Datafusion World was designed as a concept project to show a futuristic application of Datafusion Inc's 2D Knowledge Map™ technology. Datafusion World was actively used to attract investors and provide a positive view of the company and its products.

The storyline behind Datafusion World is that of a virtual meeting rapidly convened to discuss unintentional and potentially damaging waste disposal from a hotel into the Mississippi river. Two representatives of the company that owns the hotel are meeting with their lawyer and with a representative of a hazardous waste disposal company to quickly decide on a course of action.

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Voice and video on "Avatars" representing remotely separated employees creates realism in a virtual conference room. Paul is opening the discussion with comments about a problem with a hotel improperly disposing of its waste paint and solvents. Also present here are representatives of the firm which owns the hotel (Joseph on the left), the representative from the disposal company (Allan second from the right) and the corporate lawyer (Rosie on the far right).

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Allan draws the group up into the "data dome" above the virtual conference room and then uses the 3D cursor (the triangle in the upper left) to direct attention around the knowledge map. This knowledge map is a series of nested graphs that show the relationships and flows both inside the corporation and to the outside environment.

Rosie calls up "metadata" from within a node in the knowledge map to illustrate the fines imposed by governmental authorities due to the improper waste disposal. Subsequently a solution is presented by Allan, the waste disposal company representative, a solution deemed to cover the liability of the hotel operator.

A Tradeshow in Cyberspace

In 1998 and 1999 DigitalSpace produced and hosted several "Cybertradeshows" utilizing its 3D world content, technology and design and hosting team and involving corporate and educational partners. Ten thousand attendees visited these events and provided us first hand experience of running a true conference and tradeshow online. Each event featured exhibiting organizations, live webcasts, speakers in specially constructed virtual breakout session rooms, an art show, and industry awards. The spaces we constructed were reminiscent of a convention center providing familiar metaphors guiding attendees as they visited the events.

The following images capture scenes from cybertradeshows and document the birth of what could become a widespread phenomenon online. It is expected that these type of events will not only be used to present to the public but will also be employed on company intranets to enhance employee understanding of goals and objectives and serve to launch new products or initiatives.

Conference center showing avatar attendees prior to the event opening on November 21, 1998

Booths from Boeing, Howard Community College and the United Nations featuring live breakout discussions on various topics from the "virtual corporation" to "ending world hunger"

Meet3D: virtual meeting rooms for the corporate
and educational setting

One step down from a full cybertradeshow is a simple meeting space. DigitalSpace has constructed a number of these, some of which are used for regular meetings in company and educational domains.

Virtual Meeting room designed as a prototype for presentation to the Monsanto Genomics team. On the main screen is a map of Genomics team locations. On the right wall is an image of a director of one such team.

Meeting room hosting a speaker track presentation by researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz and Cornell University. Documents on the walls link to webpages containing further content. The video monitor in the far corner starts a realplayer video stream. The speaker object will stream audio. Speakers command bots to construct and reconfigure their breakout sessions.

Online Resources

Please find full documentation about any of the worlds at the following web addresses:

Full report on construction of European health insurance company virtual headquarters

Datafusion World

The Cybertradeshow

Meeting Spaces

Virtual Borders Bookstores

We would be happy to "meet" you within any of the above virtual worlds online. Contact us at our Webmaster for a tour.

About the Authors

Stuart Gold is Architectural Director of DigitalSpace Commons. Bruce Damer is President and CEO of DigitalSpace.