ProtonMedia's ProtoSphere combines Microsoft Lync, VoIP, collaboration, & social media features to bring a 3D virtual world to life, enabling the enterprise to more easily interact and collaborate. One of their competitors is Avaya's (formerly Nortel's) Web Alive, which I wrote about back in 2008. Both products feature a 3D virtual world targeting the enterprise. Think Second Life virtual world meets business world.
I interviewed Ron Burns, CEO of ProtonMedia to learn more about their fascinating solution.
Tom: Talk a bit about what your solution does.
Ron: In our 3D environment you're in the room and you're moving the data around with other people. We've worked really hard on tying SharePoint data to each avatar. So we don't just think that collaboration is about documents. It's also about what individual people bring to the table. So you can right-click on any avatar and see their SharePoint profile, blog, and Wiki. You can search and teleport to an avatar's location based on the social relevant match. So we think we've come up with a pretty dynamic way to tie together SharePoint and Lync and create the social effect and collaborative effect on the enterprise side.
Tom: Obviously, Microsoft Lync just recently launched, so how long has this been on the market?
Ron: We've been shipping for a couple of years. We made the fortuitous choice of building on DirectX and SQL, but we had our own Voice over IP that we built and we had our own social networking system that we built. As we sold this to the enterprise we kept running into Microsoft OCS and SharePoint. As the founder of the business, I came to the conclusion that those two platforms are so well established at his point, they are sort of like an operating system for the enterprise that we're going to have to build on top of. So that's what we did.
Tom: Explain the concept of these meeting rooms.
Ron: If you think of a virtual world as a series of spaces connected together. Now in our Lync version, every time you move from space to space, you're literally walking into an ongoing conference call. So instead of meetings looked at as time bound events, it's visual conferencing. You're now bouncing between streams of thought. In a lot of ways it's very much the Cisco position in the market - "the human (powered) network”, which describes what we're doing, but from a technological perspective we built it all on Microsoft stuff because they actually let ISVs do that. Where Cisco is running a very closed system.
Tom: And the collaboration features? Can you zoom in on a PowerPoint on a wall? Ron: You can click on any 2D surface and you zoom in on that surface. You can drag a PowerPoint onto a surface, annotate it, put a laser pointer on it, and more.
Tom: I noticed one of the demos had a 3D modeling with DNA where you could literally walk around the 3D model of DNA. How does a user create that 3D imaging in the 3D world?
Ron: We're working very closely with Microsoft Life Sciences on 3D data visualization. We do a lot of work with pharmaceutical research firms. There is a filetype RasMol which represents molecules and atoms. What we've done is found a way to convert ingest that and convert it to 3D XML. That allows scientists to manipulate molecules.
Tom: What about other data types?
Ron: We're working very hard to ingest other data types like SAP, Oracle, Siebel, etc. so that we're data source agnostic and can visualize data tables, data sets and I think that will answer the question for a lot of people - "Why 3D?”. There is some skepticism about this market. Why would you want to be an avatar in space? You can make the clear case that the datasets we're looking at are so complicated that looking at an Excel spreadsheet does not always explain the problem well. So if you can visualize data in 3D and then stand around it, socialized it, tag it with all these social tools, and uplift your social relevance on a particular topic – your "social capital” if you will - I think you start creating a much more dynamic place to go work, rather than having a phone call or online meeting.
Tom: Do you leverage the desktop sharing of Lync into the 3D space?
Ron: Yes, there's two ways we handle that. We use the Lync application sharing and put it on a 2D surface. We've also built our own persistent data conversion that allows you to take a PowerPoint drag it onto a wall and it converts it to JPEG and leaves it there. You can add to it, annotate it, etc. We think that's an important feature because if you're going to collaborate with people, you may have a room around a product launch for example and have 10 boards in there. 5 of them may be dynamic Lync app sharing board and 5 may be persistent boards where you store data and annotate over it. Then come back to that space for weekly or bi-weekly meetings to work the problem as a team remotely. That is one thing I think is missing. This notion of "always on” persistent space that you get in and out of to collaborate and get knowledge from other people. Microsoft has done a great job to make Lync connect across platforms, but I still think it's a time bound mode. Without creating a virtual space for your virtual meetings, it's still just meetings to me. I think that's the conceptual leap we're trying to make.
Tom: With the Powerpoint conversion to JPEG, you lose the transitions, stuff sliding in and out, etc. Have your customers complained about that?
Ron: Oxymoronically as a 3D vendor, we've never been a fan of gratuitous animation. What I view as non-gratuitous animation would be our avatars gestures. So they wave, they smile, they laugh, and so the idea is you can be in a meeting and indicate your emotional state and engagement level with animation.
Ron also added that their 2D surfaces can play videos.
Tom: How does the audio experience work in this 3D environment? If you've got 10 people you're collaborating with, is there a moderator, do you pass a baton for someone to speak? Can you all speak at once?
Ron: From a technical perspective, Microsoft did two things with the audio that are unbelievable. One is the echo cancellation and one is sort of an auto-compression gain. We noticed when we did large deployments, one of the problems was getting the physical headphones set, getting the level set, - you have 1,000 people in a virtual world I guarantee you a certain percentage are not going to even know how to plug in their headphone into the right port. That was an interesting challenge. In our older version of ProtoSphere you had to press to talk. With Lync what we've done is leave the microphone wide open. So when you walk into the environment, it's on. You can mute it if you want. But it's so sensitive I can literally stand 20 feet from my laptop and because of the echo cancellation & auto-gain [via Lync technology] I can literally talk as I wander around my room. The audio is coming through into the virtual world at a relatively good even volume. We also have moderator controls where a moderator can mute everyone.
Tom: Do you increase the gain if you walk up to another avatar?
Ron: We experimented with that, and we found out people don't like that in the enterprise setting. They prefer the audio level per (meeting) space. Where you have a fighting game and someone is hiding behind a rock that makes a lot of sense. But what we have done is we've created a war room space in our new version. It has circular lines on the floor that are glowing. Until your avatar walks over that line you're not in that voice zone. So you can get into some interesting designs like e-learning or tradeshow hall activities where you see a whole bunch of people in activities and when you step into their visual space, you can hear them and then step out, lose audio, but still see what they are doing.
Here's a demo of ProtoSphere in action:
It's priced in either perpetual or renewed licenses. I wasn't given exact pricing but was told it's similar to the GoToMeeting pricepoint.
ProtoSphere's leveraging of Microsoft Lync was a smart move. Many large enterprises are using it. Further, with the cloud-based Microsoft Office365, enterprises could get Office and Microsoft Lync hosted in the cloud. Add in ProtoSphere and you can have a completely hosted unified communications solution that includes office productivity tools, collaboration, and meeting tools. Ron said they don't currently support Office365, but they're working on it.
Such a cloud UC solution brings up an interesting aside. It costs $49/month for Citrix's GoToMeeting, which offers the same desktop sharing and meeting space capabilities that Microsoft Lync offers (whether hosted or CPE). Now compare that with $9/month for Office365, which includes not only cloud-based collaboration, but the entire Office suite as well! How will Citrix GoToMeeting compete with that? I expect GoToMeeting to lower their pricing over the next year or so due to price competition from Office365, which offers much more than screen sharing & hosted meeting technology. Lastly, Gartner named ProtonMedia Cool Vendor for 2010 for Collaboration. I second that award! Very cool technology definitely worth checking out.