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Digital Office Space!

Do you find yourself wishing that some of the members of your team -- especially those that work from home, a remote location or a satellite office -- could be more tied into the workplace? The wait may be almost over thanks to a pair of 3D virtual workplaces hitting the market soon.

Inspired by Linden Labs' intricate 3D civilization Second Life, server and software heavyweight Sun and upstart Qwaq have designed peer-to-peer environments specially for collaboration within companies. Like most enterprise platforms, the primary task is providing security for the critical and confidential information being exchanged within. Visitors can be limited to employees or members of certain teams. Passwords, permissions and authentication keep tight controls on who can view or edit documents and designs within the workplace.

Team members access the workplace via an avatar that they build. The avatar then enters the virtual office, chosen from several templates or imported from a 3D modeling software. The workplace includes standard office fare like conference rooms, whiteboards, and areas for presentations and demonstrations of new product designs. Other team members will be found inside, represented by avatars as well -- often identifiable by a name above their head or by their familiar face. The team can conduct work much like they would in the office, attending meetings, speaking with coworkers in the hall, sharing documents, even giving presentations on designs for other members of the team. Best of all, the workplace is open all the time and you don't even have to pay a night security guard.

Here are a few of the key benefits of these virtual offices:

  • A Presence â€" Sure it's just an avatar, but it's certainly preferable to a just an enigmatic name attached to a face that far-off coworkers may rarely or never see. Your avatar can visit the virtual workplace at any time, so work can be shared over distant time zones and meetings can take place spontaneously, without having to pull together things like conference calls or product demonstrations.
  • Easy File Sharing â€" You can walk over to an area of the office and view Word documents, PDFs, Excel files, designs and presentations that you or your teammates have left in the virtual space. By a simple drag-and-drop from your desktop, you can post files for others to view or edit. Conveniently, if you need to take a break from working on a shared document in the virtual office, you can resume from the very spot you left off.
  • Wiki-like Collaboration â€" You can edit documents along with your coworkers, drop in designs made with familiar design software, or view work in the virtual space, and easily see what changes have been made since your last visit. You can have your avatar present a design and even see which teammates are interested in your presentation by which avatars gather in the area.
  • More Dynamic Meetings â€" Boasting high-quality voice-over-IP and instant messaging, these virtual worlds can make a simulated boardroom seem as good, or even better, than the real thing. (Not that it's all that difficult.) And with one keystroke, you can chime in on a conversation via VoIP or IM and just as easily leave it. These conversations can be an informal chat by the water cooler or a planned meeting. You can even see when people are gathering around a conference room getting ready to hold a meeting.
  • Sun's product MPK20 is basically in beta, being tested by the company's own employees. Qwaq Forums was revealed to the world in March, but is still in the evaluation phase for use on Windows and Linux operating systems. So don't say a tearful goodbye to the all-too-real cube farm just yet, but do get ready to say hello to your suddenly closer far-flung colleagues, or at least their avatars.