Generalized shared worlds

Recently I was trying to describe why I find Google Docs to be such an interesting tool for collaboration. It’s not just Google Docs itself, but also the very idea of collaborating in real time with other people. There is something about this process, compared with many other computer experiences, that feels as thought it is more about people, and less about computers.

In my description, I used the following metaphor: Essentially, I said, Google Docs is a shared virtual world. You and your collaborators wander around in this world together, and if any one of you makes changes to the world, everyone sees the change immediately.

Usually when we think of “shared virtual worlds” we think of the 3D computer graphics of games like “Counter-Strike” and “World of Warcraft”. In these shared 3D game worlds, objects have a kind of shared permanence: If I pick an apple up off the table and put it on a chair, everybody sees the apple change its location. And if they are watching my avatar, they can also see me pick up and move the apple.

Similarly, in Google Docs, the fact that everyone can see my cursor moving in real time means that my cursor is effectively my avatar in the shared world. If I cut and paste and do other editing operations to modify text and style, I am changing the state of our shared world. In essence, I am moving the apple.

I like this analogy because it underscores the fact that the concept of a “shared world” is not inherently about 3D graphics, nor any literal representation of reality. The metaphor of “interactively sharing a common world” is clearly a very general and re-mappable concept for human minds.

If we can apply that concept to something as non-physical as text, then perhaps we can apply it to all sorts of other interesting interactively shared “worlds” that nobody has yet thought of.

2 thoughts on “Generalized shared worlds”

  1. Your analogy comes very close to a testable hypothesis answering: Does having a visible avatar (cursor) improve virtual collaboration?
    I’m not sure how one measures collaboration. Perhaps speed to complete tasks. Do you think it’s obvious how much such an avatar helps?

  2. Funny you should say that. Recently, for research purposes, I implemented a homegrown approximation of Google Docs. I tried it out with a colleague after having implemented synchronous editing, but before I had put in simultaneous cursors.

    The result was almost laughably dysfunctional. Neither of us had any idea of the location of the other’s cursor. It was very difficult to have a discussion while working together on the doc, since we both ended up using most of our verbal bandwidth just to tell each other what/where we were each editing.

    The experience convinced me that, at least in this kind of shared “virtual world”, the cursor/avatar is essential.

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