Bumper Crop

The Fantastic World of Virtual Reality
By Marin Feldman, L'05

For the world’s tallest brick minaret, the Qutab Minar appears considerably shorter than its 238 feet. It looks about ten inches tall on my laptop screen, and only an inch or two taller than the man in the grey suit who stands beneath the tower in Delhi, India. As I move toward him, I accidentally press a button and my online representation — my avatar — starts karate chopping the air and jumping in place. The grey suited avatar laughs and waves, and Dave Elchoness, L’96, the real man behind the computer generated one, starts typing.

“Nice dancing skills,” he writes to me, from his home in Colorado. “And nice to virtually meet you.”

Dave Elchoness’ online alter ego looks nothing like the real Elchoness.

But the same thing cannot be said for the 3D Qutab Minar complex in which our avatars stand. The building soaring above us appears to have the grainy texture of bricks. The sky is a naturally occurring shade of blue. I can see how it is easy to become immersed in this online world. It looks real, but it isn’t. Elchoness built it.

Elchoness is the CEO of GoWeb3D, a company he founded in 2007 that creates 3D virtual worlds such as Qutab Minar.

In these graphically rich online environments, which can be constructed to look as fantastical as enchanted forests or as mundane as office conference rooms, individuals from across the globe can interact through their avatars using voice or text chat to learn, socialize or do business. Users or “residents” of Second Life, the most popular and largest virtual environment, can build 3D structures and even travel the virtual globe. While some businesses, schools and even religious organizations currently have a presence in Second Life or in other virtual worlds, the majority of people log in to these alternate realities for entertainment purposes.

Elchoness is out to change that. Just as the Internet moved beyond its early use as a chat room platform, Elchoness believes that virtual worlds technology will become more than just a diversion.

Elchoness predicts that 3D virtual worlds will subsume and replace many of today’s 2D Internet communication systems, including e-mail, Skype, instant messaging and webcams.

“Virtual reality will be the future. The environments will be more vivid, robust, and interactive and likely jump off the laptop into a hardware that is more organic and useful. Virtual reality will be the predominant communications technology. There is no question.”

In lectures to organizations including the American Bar Association and the National Human Resources Association and in publications such as BusinessWeek and HR Magazine, Elchoness emphasizes the power of virtual worlds to connect global workforces, revolutionize the way we learn and transform how we do business. He points out that companies such as IBM, Nortel, Cisco, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems already use private virtual environments to train and conduct meetings among thousands of remote employees. The technology is also being used by schools in the U.S. and India to teach about disdistant lands or cultures through virtual immersion. For example, in the Qutab Minar virtual world, students can click on the buildings and surrounding landscape to take a video tour of the minaret or listen to audio reports on ancient Indian history and geography.

This holistic, rather than subject-based, approach to learning saves time and, Elchoness says, better reflects how we process information in real life outside the classroom.

Elchoness believes virtual worlds, like the Internet before them, will soon become standard in companies and classrooms, and judging by GoWeb3D’s relative success, he just might be right.

Since its launch two years ago, the company has designed over 50 tailor-made private virtual settings for a diverse list of clients that includes a dairy conglomerate, a building operations and knowledge management team of a Fortune 500 company and a global media network. The fabricated environments range from consumer spaces aimed at branding or marketing products to the customers behind the avatars, to information and polling environments where media outlets can gather and distribute information to virtual world residents.

“GoWeb3D is now in a number of sectors, including consumer/e-commerce, enterprise and education,” he says.

“Companies are figuring out how they can take the technology and apply it in appropriate ways. Many fewer people are looking at me like I have two heads.”

Though now a well-respected expert in the field, Dave Elchoness is an unlikely authority on virtual worlds. After graduating Rutgers University with a degree in finance in 1993, he attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School where he was editor in chief of the Journal of International Economic Law. During his 1L year in 1994, Penn began transitioning from paper mailboxes to e-mail addresses. Elchoness was unimpressed.

“I remember saying to someone, ‘who would ever check e-mail?’ I wasn’t sure why anybody would want it. I wasn’t an early technology adopter.”

Following his 1996 graduation from the Law School, Elchoness worked for two law firms and then landed at Qwest Communications in 2003. Despite working as a director in charge of global IT outsourcing and software vendor relations for the telecommunications giant, he still did not yet appreciate how technology might be used to address some of the problems associated with having a workforce located in the U.S and India.

“We tried lots of things (to unite the disparate employees including global travel.) But in business there are always tight travel budgets and not everyone can meet their colleagues in person. The lack of serendipitous interactions ultimately resulted in reduced productivity and increased misunderstandings.”

Soon after Elchoness left Qwest in 2007, he logged onto Second Life and had an epiphany. Technology, it seems, had finally revealed its worth.

“I started conversations with avatars, and I was talking with a gentleman who I found out was sitting at his desk in Alberta. Together we were watching a woman construct something in Second Life, and she was at her desk in Shanghai. I felt like I was talking to real people, in real life. The personality of the avatar comes through, even though the person might physically be 10,000 miles away. I was blown away because this technology could have been useful at Qwest.”

Elchoness conferred with neuroscience experts at the University of Colorado, who explained that the perceived “realness” of avatar communication stems from a psychological phenomenon called “co-presence,” in which the mind connects virtual relationships with those we have in reality and mimics the psychological and emotional feelings of real life interactions. Co-presence can occur in individuals when reading books or watching movies, but is magnified when communicating with avatars in vivid 3D spaces.

Elchoness began to lecture and write widely about the power of virtual worlds to overcome some of the challenges associated with remote working.

His experience talking with companies and educators led him to launch GoWeb3D. The company builds environments in a variety of virtual worlds platforms, including public platforms, such as Second Life, and secure platforms for private use. Most recently, GoWeb3D has begun developing products that permit the user to see virtual worlds on mobile phone screens.

It is tempting to imagine the ways in which virtual technology might impact our future, and Elchoness offers no shortage of theories. Since virtual worlds unite people from across the globe in a single, virtual space, he envisions a world where geopolitical boundaries lose much of their significance and are difficult to enforce. He believes that the technology will fundamentally alter our legal system, as new law governing virtual space will emerge. And in about 20 years time, virtual worlds will move from our computer screens and mobile devices to screens embedded in our contact lenses. We will see directly into virtual reality, and in a sense, become a part of it.

But until then, Elchoness will try to make believers of the skeptics.

“It strikes people as science fiction,” he says. “But it will revolutionize how people interact globally.”

Marin Feldman covers law, pop culture or both for publications including Gawker, Above the Law, True/Slant and Technolawyer.