Avaya to push virtual conferencing via cloud

Seriously ill children living in an Ottawa residence during their cancer treatments can escape their condition for a little while by playing in an imaginary virtual computer world. Meanwhile struggling students at a Wisconsin university are getting lessons in learning from a virtual professor.

What they have in common is a platform from Avaya Inc. called web.alive, which was one of the technologies it picked up from the assets of Nortel Networks a year ago.

Since then it has been quietly marketing the platform, which allows the creation of virtual offices for meetings, with people represented by avatars.

However, on Thursday, in announcing version 2.5, Avaya signalled it will be more aggressive in pushing the platform. In addition to making a number of enhancements, the company said it will start offering a US$49 a month software as a service version for eight participants that can be paid for by credit card for quick use by corporations. It’s also been available as a $600 a port hosted version for a year for up to 150 people, and organizations can also buy it as an on-premise application.

The low-cost version isn’t available yet in Canada, but a company official said that it’s coming.

Web.alive is similar to VenueGen, Second Life, Open Wonderland (formerly Sun Wonderland), Open Simulator and others which can be used to create virtual worlds and are touted to be as good, and less expensive, than a telepresence or videoconferencing system.

Web.alive is a browser plug-in that according to an Avaya Canada official is about 20 megabits in size. In use, he said, it uses no more bandwidth than a voice over IP call.

But industry analyst say virtual environments haven’t caught on big with organizations. Avaya hopes the latest version of web.alive, plus the SAS pricing, will boost business interest.

“We feel web.alive is a new way of collaborating and a mechanism that will allow businesses to interact with each other and customers in ways they haven’t been able to in the past,” Mohamad Ali, Avaya’s senior vice-president of corporate development and stratgegy, said in an interview.

For example, Avaya set up an online demonstration Thursday where a group of reporters, software developers and customers from across North America  — represented by their avatars — gathered in the atrium of a virtual building to hear presentations from company executives. The executives could put up slides on screens above them, as one would at a live meeting. After the session people (that is, their avatars) “walked” to one of several adjoining rooms for more detailed conversations, or stay in the atrium and collar execs one-on-one for interviews.

Among the guests was Nuket Nowlan, who in 2009 as a Nortel staff lead the team that created Tipontia, a virtual adventure island to entertain the residents of Ronald McDonald House in Ottawa, a residence for youngsters receiving cancer treatment in the city. Most are so ill they can’t go outside to play, while others are far from home and families.

“Our mission is accomplished when I see them laughing when they are using it,” Nowlan said in an interview.

Carol Houston, executive director of the facility, who “stood” beside her, said the application “has given our children the most incredible opportunity to just be a normal kid and take them out of their illness for a little bit of time.”

John Arechavala Car, director of information technology at Carroll University of Wisconsin, said the institution uses the platform in trials to help improve the learning of struggling students, to connect to international students and for student counselling.

“It’s been a real positive experience,” he said.

However, the demonstration also revealed one of the weaknesses of this – and any – online collaboration: The audio. During the main presentation Avaya executives could be heard clearly. But while version 2.5 has what Avaya calls a new 3D audio engine that is supposed to help participants better understand who is speaking, Network World Canada sometimes had trouble hearing Nowlan because of echoes or dropped words. At one point people drifted into the room we were in and began talking, which also impaired the conversation.

Industry analysts believe virtual collaboration applications have a place in the enterprise, but there will need to be some user education.

“We view this [web.alive] as a very interesting way of adding more interactivity to communications,” said Ira Weinstein, a senior analyst at Wainhouse Research, which specializes in collaboration technologies.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox of communication.” Among the possible scenarios for use are presentations where social “schmoozing” afterwards is an important element.

On the other hand, he admits that web.alive’s ability to let two people have a whispered conversation while still listening the main speaker is a double-edged sword: What if the presenter overhears?

Still, one advantage web.alive has over other virtual applications is that Avaya is behind it, said Weinstein.

“I think the potential’s there,” agreed Zeus Kerravala, senior vice-president of research at the Yankee Group. A virtual presentation can be choreographed so a presenter can get an idea of who’s paying attention, he said – for example, how many follow him into a side room. The speaker can then try to get more attention.

“The biggest challenge for Avaya is its going to have to educate customers on how to utilize the environment and how it will add value,” he said.

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