Paul Lamere recently mentioned a project at Sun Labs called "MPK20: Sun's Virtual Workplace".
Paul describes it as "Second Life for work" and that is what it looks like, complete with avatars and a third person view, but adding handy virtual conferencing features like the ability to share documents and use whiteboards.
This reminds me of a crazy idea I was bouncing around a while back with some colleagues who were kind enough to listen to my ramblings about what the next generation of virtual conferencing and chat rooms might look like.
The thought is to try to simulate the view you would have from physically sitting around a table and then enhancing it with a level of document sharing and focused attention that would not be possible in the physical world. The participants would be engaged in conversation, smoothly be able to look at documents, zoom on parts of a presentation, and investigate relevant threads, all while still hearing and participating in the conversation.
I apologize for such an absurdly geeky reference, but I have to admit much of my motivation here comes from a virtual chat room scene from the anime series Ghost in the Shell. The example in this clip shows a virtual chat room where multiple participants are able to see each other, data and documents can be shared, additional information can be accessed and brought into view, and a transcript is maintained within the field of view.
Clearly, a full virtual reality like this is unachievable at the moment, but I wonder how far we might be able to get toward that goal. I think it is an attractive vision, a large step beyond the collaboration possible currently in IM or virtual conferencing.
Update: John Battelle points to HP's HALO. Cool, but telepresence with high resolution video feeds is very expensive and likely to remain so. I wonder how far someone could get with avatars in a virtual conference/chat environment, something that is usable with a minimum of special equipment.
Update: A few months later, Bob Cringely talks about HP's HALO and calls telepresence "The Next Killer App".