Immersive virtual environments - such as Second Life and some enterprise-friendly alternatives - have traditionally required users to download special software and learn a difficult user interface. But several companies are working to change that, offering business-friendly virtual meeting platforms that work right in a Web browser, no software download required, with prices starting at around $50 a month.
Immersive virtual meeting environments allow participants to use avatars to walk around a virtual environment, and are useful tools for collaborating on and prototyping 3D designs, such as new products, buildings, or factories.
3DXplorer from Altadyn, is a Java-based online meeting space where companies can fully customize the virtual environment and hold meetings similar to the ones they would have in Second Life.
"It's Web-enabled," says Natalie Wood, assistant director for the Center of Consumer Research at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University. "You don't need a fancy computer, and you don't have many firewall problems. And you do not need to be highly competent to use 3DXplorer. Second Life definitely has a steep learning curve."
This startup focuses on making virtual meetings as easy as possible. Getting started takes just a few minutes, and to get a meeting going you just pick a meeting venue and send out your invitations. VenueGen has the largest selection of pre-built environments of any browser-based immersive meeting platform, and the simplest user interface. However, companies can't upload their own content and design their own environments.
One thing that sets VenueGen apart from its competitors is that users can easily create avatars based on their photographs."We will map your face, in 3D, to your avatar," says VenueGen CEO David Gardner. "It is amazing - anyone who knows you will recognize you."
Web.alive is the platform to beat since it's backed by a large, well-known networking technology firm and offering a broad range of business-friendly features. These include the ability to put up screens inside the 3D world and to share desktops, PowerPoint presentations, Web pages, and other content. Web.alive can be integrated with corporate directories, and can also be run completely behind a company's firewall for maximum security.
Companies can create and upload their own virtual environments, or choose from a selection of pre-built meeting and conference spaces. And even the pre-built environments can be customized, says Web.alive director Nic Sauriol.
Assemblive is a virtual meeting environment from the French social Web applications company A World for Us. Assemblive currently offers customers a choice of environments, but customizable environments are under development. It's based on the popular Unity 3D platform, so many users will already have the plugin installed. Navigation is simple - just point and double-click on a location to move there, or on a chair to sit down. Avatars automatically walk around obstacles.
The platform is free for single meetings, and can hold up to 100 simultaneous visitors.
This is the newest entry to the browser-based environment world, from ReactionGrid, a company best known for hosting OpenSim-based virtual worlds for companies and educational institutions. OpenSim is an open source alternative to Second Life. Like Assemblive, Jibe is based on the Unity 3D platform. The Jibe platform is already fully customizable by companies and in-world objects can be scripted to interact with users.
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