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Researchers Aim to Measure ‘Collaborative Virtual Presence,” Relationship to Performance

The project focuses on the use of virtual worlds to support business processes, such as product development, involving team members often spread over corporate campuses, multiple time zones or even different continents.

A virtual world may be described as a computer-simulated 3D space where users, through digital representations known as avatars, can meet and interact with others and with content of the world, such as documents. While often used for social or gaming purposes, virtual worlds, like Sun’s Wonderland, Linden Lab’s Second Life, and others, are being tailored for business-oriented use with a growing number of companies, public sector organizations, and academic institutions in various stages of exploration and investment.

The quality of a virtual world is often described by the degree to which a user feels a sense of “virtual presence” or being “in” the world, said Mitzi Montoya, Zelnak Professor of Marketing Innovation at NC State University’s College of Management.

“Developers consider presence to be a desirable characteristic and there is a belief that it is related to performance. However, there is limited evidence to support these views,” she said.

Montoya and Massey, along with Michael Devetsikiotis, professor of electrical and computer engineering in NC State’s College of Engineering, and Jeanne Johnston, assistant professor of kinesiology in IU’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, will conduct a series of experiments to develop a scale to specifically measure ‘Collaborative Virtual Presence’ (CVP) and assess its relationship to performance. As part of scale validation efforts, supplementary physiological data will be collected by Johnston.

Devetsikiotis said that from a bottom-line perspective, developers of virtual worlds as well as the businesses that deploy them need a better understanding of how design characteristics, like presence, influence performance.

“This project is a step in that direction,” he said.

In terms of real business impact, many unanswered questions remain, including whether virtual worlds improve performance or the experiences of remote collaborators,” said Anne P. Massey, Dean’s Research Professor at IU’s Kelley School of Business.

For business, creating or investing dollars on worlds that increase presence is premature without evidence that presence and collaborative performance are related, Massey added. “Being able to measure and understand the role of virtual presence in collaborative processes is an important foundational step to assessing real business impact,” she said.

“In the real world, people can have physiological reactions, such as increased heart rate, to events,” Massey said. “It seems reasonable to expect that similar events in a virtual world may produce similar responses, particularly if one feels a greater sense of presence.”