Amidst great fanfare in January at CES 2009, Lenovo unveiled the Lenovo eLounge virtual environment. Powered by Nortel’s web.alive platform, eLounge allowed users to enter a 3D virtual world to learn about Lenovo Thinkpad notebook computers (with an option to purchase), interact with other visitors and “meet” with representatives from Lenovo and Nortel.
Nic Sauriol is the Venture Lead for web.alive (also referred to as Project Chainsaw). Nic co-founded the project a few years ago with Arn Hyndman, the chief architect. I sat down (virtually) with Nic to get his thoughts on web.alive, eLounge, enterprise virtual worlds and more. Here’s the interview.
If you met someone on the street, how would you describe (or explain) the web.alive platform to him/her?
Nic: web.alive is a collaboration platform designed to integrate into an existing website much like flash. When a web site has web.alive and people visit that site, they can experience a rich and immersive environment and interact with other users – including the website’s employees/staff who are also on that site . They can interact in an immersive and fluid way thanks to real world positional audio. Fundamentally, web.alive is about bringing live, immersive and interactive communications to connect people in real-time via the web.
It’s designed to be a very engaging and entertaining experience – great for social networking efforts. A social experience of the web where a group of friends could meet up on Facebook or LinkedIn and then go visit a few stores like the Lenovo eLounge, watch some shows in Hulu and then comment on the news at Yahoo is what web.alive is about in this context.
web.alive also offers tremendous potential as a tool to facilitate collaborative learning. Gone are the days of an instructor broadcasting content in one direction – today’s learning requirements call for more collaborative work between instructors and students. web.alive provides engaging and collaborative environments to make this mode of learning a reality.
In the enterprise, web.alive offers a new world of opportunities to change in a positive way how people communicate. Moving away from calendar based meetings and formal phone calls, to a much more dynamic means of interaction. A place where employees from all over the world can go, bump into each other, exchange ideas, grab a meeting room to discuss and collaborate etc. Simply embedding the web.alive client into existing intranet web sites, integrating into a UC [unified communications] solution (visit Nortel if you don’t already have one) and suddenly your employees are collaborating as though they were collocated.
Nortel and Lenovo received quite a bit of buzz regarding Lenovo’s eLounge and its use of Nortel’s web.alive platform – what do you view as the successes of the launch – and, what were some of the challenges that you had to address?
Nic: The beta launch at CES of the Lenovo eLounge was a tremendous success from our perspective. We saw a great opportunity to help Lenovo take their customer service to an entirely new level. Significantly more users than we had expected visited the beta launch (articles and blogs like yours were a significant factor) and most importantly we saw the kinds of metrics we could have only hoped for. I personally assisted a number of customers who toured the eLounge to browse Lenovo’s laptops. What is most important is that these – for the most part – were purchases that otherwise may not have happened, at least not on a traditional retail web site. In addition, we have seen excellent retention rates. Even when users don’t make purchases, they spend a lot of time surrounded by Lenovo’s brand – over time this will also help conversions.
Obviously there are customers that go to the Lenovo web site that intend to make a purchase, and various tools facilitate that. While we are excited to help in that regard, what we always hoped would happen was that users would visit the site that did not have a specific intention of making a purchase, and would otherwise have bought from a retail store (likely helping a competitor to Lenovo) and instead they make the purchase from the eLounge as a result of an unplanned/informal conversation with a sales person or some other person like myself who just happens to be there.
In terms of challenges, there have been many. While the majority of users have had a smooth experience, some users encountered a variety of different bugs which we are fixing as they arrive (users send us e-mails at email@example.com with their bugs). Most users were able to get in and navigate without any specific help, but here have been some that required assistance, so we are working to make interaction even more intuitive and fluid. One really notable challenge was that Lenovo sales staff had to adjust their mode of operation. Call centers wait for a customer to call to initiate a dialogue, unlike the real world where we can reach out to shoppers.
We had to spend time honing that skill to get the right balance of support (i.e. not jump in someone’s face when they first arrive, but make certain that they know you are there and available to assist if you need help). The biggest challenge of all is that people want more, a lot more.
Have there been any new developments with eLounge since the time of the CES 2009 launch?
Nic: Yes, there have been a number of new developments, some deployed others coming soon. Most importantly, Lenovo has seen the positive metrics we had hoped for and have committed to coming out of beta and doing a full supported launch (coming soon!). Changes that have been deployed include a large number of bug fixes, a few new features in the client (like notification when new users arrive via a desktop balloon) with many more coming. While there have been a few minor content updates, there will be many more coming when the site launches out of beta.
Tell us about other enterprise use of web.alive?
Nic: There has been a tremendous interest in web.alive from an enterprise perspective. Whether it be as a global water cooler (e.g. as an enterprise, place web.alive on your global internal home page to enable informal/accidental collaboration and discussion between your employees) or as an alternative for internal meetings (in particular those that would require travel). We have been particularly happy with the tremendous support and pull from within Nortel and have slowly been rolling out web.alive for internal use. We have also been building a number of features to better support internal collaboration beyond just positional voice and slides etc.
Our ultimate goal is to find ways that we can make web.alive collaboration more effective than face to face. The seams ambitious, but there are a number of challenges with face to face communication, let alone current telecommunication technologies that we believe we can address. The simplest example is knowing who you are speaking to or who is talking – this is often a challenge even face to face. More exciting examples include detecting and displaying emotion – there are people who don’t communicate very effectively because they are not skilled at detecting emotion (in the extreme, people with forms of autism) – we believe that over time we can augment and provide that kind of information.
Has there been any existing or planned consumer use of web.alive?
Nic: We are actively working on models to support low-end deployments of web.alive. I have always stated as a goal that my mother in-law should be able to embed web.alive in her personal web site. While technically we support a simple embed tag (in theory she could embed the eLounge on her page), we have yet to deploy a single environment built for this purpose. Most challenging of course if establishing the right business model for this, which is something we are actively working on. We will have something this year that will support small businesses.
What are customers telling you they’d like to see in web.alive?
Nic: This is a really difficult question to answer because we have talked to so many people, whether they be casual users in the eLounge or companies that we have talked with. Common themes would include a higher degree of interaction (e.g. shaking hands, more fluid and realistic animation, taking apart laptops etc.); more audio controls like the ‘cone of silence’ for private discussions; means to invite friends and better ways of staying connected.
What’s on the feature roadmap for web.alive?
Nic: We will be working to further optimize the new user experience (from client optimizations in size and speed to usability etc.), enable small businesses, enhance collaboration and make the whole experience much more immersive and interactive. We are also looking to start rolling out our community (user and developer) in 2009 to enable more contribution and an eco-system of value co-creation.
What does the future hold for enterprise focused virtual environments?
Nic: There is no question in my mind that immersive positional audio will fundamentally transform how we communicate. I believe we will start to see the kind of connectionless (from a user perspective) communications that happen in web.alive that enable “accidental collaboration” to permeate how enterprise users interact with each other, their suppliers and their customers. Eventually, calendar based meetings will become significantly less frequent as issues are resolved on the fly. Ultimately, I am convinced that virtual environments will facilitate this way of communicating by enabling rich immersive and dynamic collaboration. Just consider how an enterprise could use web.alive to improve their brand awareness by letting their customers hold virtual events or get-togethers with their network of friends, family and associates.
The best part if that we have a number of surprises (well, if you’re a techie like me they are surprises 🙂 – features that have not been rolled out but that we have built and are playing with. I won’t expand on what they are just yet, but we will roll some of them out over the coming weeks and months, and I assure you they are exciting. These features will really help incentivize enterprises into taking the leap and jumping into this kind of technology by doing things that can only be done with the kind of architecture.