ShareFEST – ‘Collaborating in 3-D: Merck’s Virtual Meeting Space for Scientific Collaboration’

Ron Burns of ProtonMedia presenting at the ShareFEST ConferenceThe first case study I attended at ShareFEST was a fascinating presentation by Ron Burns, founder of ProtonMedia, featuring a demo of their virtual collaboration product ProtoSphere, including scientific poster session functionality that was developed specifically for Merck.  Ron said that with ProtoSphere the goal was to "create an application that converged 9 or 10 different applications to live on top of the Microsoft stack, including the integration of SharePoint."

Ron walked through a live demo of the product, which is a 3-D virtual conference area in which meeting attendees are represented by avatars, and includes live conversation functionality via VOIP, text message functionality (including private messaging), even a range of non-verbal expressions (from boredom to hilarity) for avatars to employ.  Some of the spaces in the virtual environment demonstrated ranged from hallways, to a scientific poster session which featured individual "cones of silence" (private VOIP areas) around each of the presentations in a large room, to a data visualization room and, of course, a conference room:

Virtual conference room in ProtoSphere

Ron mentioned that there had been some concerns regarding the reaction to the virtual environment within Merck, particularly generational concerns, but the survey responses to the initial deployment were overwhelmingly positive. Perhaps most surprisingly, 59% of respondents indicated a preference for the virtual conference environment over an in-person symposium.  One of the reasons given for this preference was that in the virtual environment, feelings of intimidation regarding approaching others don't exist (or exist to nowhere near the same extent) as they do in person.

Continuing the live demo, Ron demonstrated the integration of SharePoint within the product via the SharePoint Media Carousel functionality, which allows the presentation of documents in the virtual environment to mirror exactly their document structure from within SharePoint.  For a peek at the SharePoint Media Carousel functionality available in ProtoSphere, take a look at this video:


Ron also demonstrated that user profiles, including a given user's participation in social media constructs such as wikis and blogs is also associated with the avatars.  ProtoSphere will be integrating with the "expertise" functionality available in SharePoint 2010, allowing users to search based on expertise, and invite colleagues to join them for a quick virtual meeting based on their expertise.  As we saw in the demo, such invitations take the form of a popup on the screen of the user being invited to meet.

For the final segement of the seesion, Ron handed the reins over to Sam Batterman of Microsoft's Life Sciences team.  Sam talked about the fact that since ProtonMedia had already brought the social aspects of the virtual meeting space to the table, Microsoft worked with them on the "materializing of objects off of a database … to fuse together the best practices of data visualization."  Sam also provided a virtual walking tour of a data visualization room within ProtoSphere which included the interactive mapping of various data relevant to the life sciences industry.

Additional videos demonstrating ProtoSphere functionality are available at the ProtonMedia site.

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