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By the end of 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a “second life”, but not necessarily in Second Life, according to Gartner, Inc. 

Second Life – or similar platforms – are an exciting topic for SAP.  A platform such as Second Life eliminates geographical distances and overcomes physical barriers. One of its biggest strengths is that it enables new ways of human interactions over the internet. To evaluate the potential of “second life” scenarios, SAP Public Sector created a prototype that allows Second Life users to register their real-world business at a virtual town hall within Second Life. The goals of this project, the implementation of these goals, as well as lessons learned along the way will be described in this blog.

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New ways of human interactions

Many people will agree that the internet made our lives much easier. It’s not only the huge amount of information we have suddenly access to, it’s the time we save with all the actions we can now do from our home computer. Buying books, doing bank transactions or filling out our tax report, we’re happy that these procedures that used to make us leave the job early, drive into downtown and spend minutes and sometimes even hours waiting in line, can now be done comfortably at home at any time we please.

Are we doing everything via the internet now? Most of us probably don’t. This is because while it is pretty straight forward to buy a book or transfer some money over the internet, filling out the tax report or registering a business over the internet can become kind of tricky. All these bureaucratic phrases, they are hard to understand, and the help section often doesn’t provide an answer as well. Here we need help from a real person, someone who understands us and speaks our language. We could now phone someone at the town hall, but communicating the problem is often hard, when the person on the other side can’t see the document and all the data that I’ve already filled in. So most of the time, we end up driving to the town hall again, to receive the needed help in person.Virtual Worlds can provide a solution to this problem. They can create a place where people can virtually meet, exchange information and provide help on the fly.

The goals of the project

Zhensheng Pan, an intern of SAP Public Sector, designed and created a prototype to support a business-registration process within Second Life. The goals of the project were:

  1. To design and create a place in a 3D environment that allows the user to easily fill out a complex business registration form.
  2. To provide an easy way for the user to get help by an experienced town hall servant.
  3. To provide an easy way for the town hall servant to localize the problem, and help the user.

What we did

Zhensheng created a so called “INFO CUBE”. The cube is a 3-dimensional object that is separated into different areas, each representing a different section of the registration form. The user could select the different areas in any particular order. He then received vocal and written instructions to fill out the currently selected section of the form. Once a section was completed, the area of the box moved further to the background, leaving only those areas to the user that still needed to be completed.

If the user could fill out the complete form without problems, he could then submit it to the system.  However, at any time during the process of filling out the different sections of the form, the user could also ask for the help of a town hall servant. He would then be told to memorize a four-digit code, and walk to the office of the servant, which is nearby the INFO CUBE.

With the four-digit code, the servant  is able to open the INFO CUBE containing the business-registration-form of the user within his virtual office, giving him the possibility to fill out missing parts, discuss certain information with the user and ensure the correct input of all necessary information.

In this way the INFO CUBE combines the benefits of a self-service form, as we know it from the internet, and the help of a human being, as we know it from the real world. With the help of the INFO CUBE the user can even fill out complex forms from home or work, knowing that the help of a real person can be provided when needed. The INFO CUBE can also provide a relief to the town hall servants, since it encourages people to fill out the forms from their home. Since the INFO CUBE is a self-service, and only provides help if needed by the user, the CUBE not only reduces the amount of people waiting in line in the real world town hall, it also reduces the work-load of the servants.

Lessons learned along the way

During the project Zhensheng faced some challenges that had to be solved. Here we want to share with you some of the lessons we have learned.

Lesson 1: Secure communications

Within Second Life people communicate either via chat or via VoIP. Since Second Life doesn’t know forms as they exist in HTML, to communicate with the INFO CUBE we use the normal chat. That means the box would send chat messages to the user, asking him to type in required information in response.

Example:

Box: Please type in the name of your business:
User: Restaurant Mustermann

The problem here was that the chat in Second Life can be overheard by anybody, who is close to the user. This is also true for the audio instruction the user receives while filling out the form. This can be very annoying for the surrounding people, but it’s also a very insecure way of transferring data to a system. In the prototype the user had therefore the option to select a private channel for the chat communication between him and the box. The vocal instructions could not be privatized in this manner, however.

Lesson 2: Second Life doesn’t know 2D objects

Another issue has been the creation of the forms themselves. Since in Second Life everything is 3D, there is no way of scripting a 2D form-object, like there is for example in HTML. Instead, an image of the form is used as a texture for a 3D object. This texture is like a wallpaper that surrounds the object. Unfortunately these texture-images are only allowed to have a maximum resolution of 1024 x 1024 Pixels. So when the user zooms in very closely into the form, it appears grainy. In general you can solve this problem by creating a number of smaller 3D objects that are placed next to each other. In this prototype this would have lead to heavily more programming workload though, since the form was supposed to be filled with the user’s business-registration data.

Lesson 3: How to lead the user to his/her destination?

When a person enters a building in Second Life for the first time, the situation is very similar to the real world. At the beginning, the user only knows what he/she is looking for (and even that is not for sure), but has no idea how his/her destination looks like, and how to get there. While on a website everything is right in front of the user, and you only need to place a banner prominently to raise the user’s attention, in a 3D environment it’s not that easy to navigate the user to where he wants to go. You can place signs, but you don’t know in what direction the user is looking to. So it might happen that he/she overseas your instructions. If the destination is on a different floor, the user has to remember the way he has to go, which is another source of error. Fortunately in virtual worlds you have the opportunity to teleport a user, which looks pretty much the same as we know it from the old Star Trek movies.

In the prototype the user is given a note card when he/she enters the building containing clear instructions about the different functional areas of the virtual town hall. It also mentions a 3D model that has been placed in the entrance area. The model provides teleport shortcuts to all areas, so the user can quickly move from one place to another.

Lesson 4: Walking can be pretty time consuming

Even though you could use teleports to move the users from one place to another, there are users who don’t like this way of transportation. For them it is very helpful, if functional areas that belong together are also located close to each other. Many users are spoiled by the internet, and the ways it provides to quickly get what they want. If a user now has to take a “journey”, even if it takes only a minute of his/her time to get to the next functional area, this can be very frustrating for him/her.

What’s coming up…

I hope this blog gave you a little insight on some of the exciting possibilities that virtual worlds provide us. In my next blog I’ll write about what other virtual worlds are out there. I’ll especially focus on Qwaq Forums, which are based on Croquet. Qwaq provides a new approach to virtual worlds by focusing on the provision of rooms to its users, where they can meet, work together and collaborate. Here Qwaq offers much functionality that we don’t know of Second Life, like the seamless integration of Office documents, or the browsing of the internet within the virtual world.

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  1. Lee Chisholm
    I’m an SAP consultant in Canada working in the public sector.  I’m also extremely interested in Metaverse tech and I’m more than enthused to see SAP working on projects such as this. This is the type of work that will propel us into Web 3.0.

    Is there a wiki, blog, or any other site where the progress of this work can be monitored?  I’m very interested in seeing where this goes and possibly even contributing at some point if you ever decide to take this into the public realm.

    Cheers,
    Lee

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