Saturday, July 24, 2010

Open Wonderland, a promising free collaboration environment

Recently listening to my favorite podcast, FLOSS Weekly, about open source software, learned about a project called Open Wonderland, originally developed by Sun but discontinued after the Oracle buyout.   This project was too compelling for the community to let it die, so a foundation was started to carry the work forward.

Disclaimer: Everything I know at the moment about Open Wonderland came from that podcast. I have not yet read that much about it or tried the software. This posting only expresses why I'm so excited about the possibilities presented by Open Wonderland.

Open Wonderland is a server and fat client designed for running within an organization, to provide a collaboration environment, including application screen sharing, CD-quality VOIP, and most significantly a 3D virtual reality environment.

That last bit may require some imagination to consider.  Think about how important instant messaging has been for so many people, but how much better it is to be "in person". Now imagine an instant messaging system where you navigate a 3D environment where you can walk around and talk to other people who are logged in. If they are your co-workers, and they could be for example, carrying on conversations while showing their screens and drawing diagrams. You can walk up to these "avatars" of your co-workers and talk to them, as if you were in the same building.

For private meetings, "cones of silence" can be created whereby only the avatars inside can hear what's happening.

I hope that Open Wonderland could provide a low cost alternative to services such as WebEx and GoToMeeting, though the feature set isn't a direct mapping.  I'll know more about that after I get a chance to try it.

The CD quality audio is another important feature for me; so many conference calls are plagued by bad quality audio, and it's often difficult to hear participants clearly. High quality audio can help with pronunciation subtleties, especially when accents are involved.

This kind of tool is the future of collaboration, and solves all kinds of problems, such as the high cost of air travel, the traffic jams associated with crowded cities, and the challenges of businesses with distributed workforces. Already today, screen sharing collaboration tools provide an alternative to business travel for presentations and training, and better collaboration tools hopefully strengthen that trend.

Maybe one day even the most crowded cities will see their traffic problems abate as people move away from the traffic and pollution to disperse into smaller population clusters.

I don't know the environmental implications of such a migration, but it seems likely given the tremendous negatives of traffic and pollution in cities like Bengaluru (previously named Bangalore), for example. The booming business and the increasing affordability of small cars enables everyone to fill the roads beyond capacity.  Since that city has such a strong IT industry, I would expect the people there to be some of the first who are both motivated and enabled by telepresence technologies to work more from home, or move to smaller surrounding cities from which they can work remotely.