Nortel creates virtual enterprise space, announces another acquisition

After a new acquisition, Nortel is developing a virtual enterprise workspace -- a la Second Life -- that is very functional in the first life.

If Nortel has its way, corporate employees will never again sit through an audio conference or collaborative meeting rolling their eyes and yawning from boredom.

That's because it's developing immersive software -- similar to Second Life -- to create a virtual enterprise space. Users will turn their desktops and notebooks into always-on virtual environments in which their avatars roam the halls, gather at water coolers and lean over for a quick whisper with a passing friend in the hallway. Oh, and work in a fully collaborative space too.

The application, web.alive, uses three-dimensional voice technology from DiamondWare, which Nortel acquired this week for $10 million. With the DiamondWare technology, users can hear CD-quality, correctly positioned speech -- when an avatar speaks, users can tell exactly where in the virtual enterprise space the voice is coming from and even where it is directed.

"One of the problems with communications tools is that they are binary -- either you are using them or not. This is fluid," said Arn Hyndman, chief architect of web.alive. "Unlike the traditional means of using even electronic collaboration software, you can see whether the other avatars are paying attention."

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The application simulates real meetings, according to Hyndman, because users can launch PowerPoint and use video in presentations, as well as share documents. The application lets users click on other avatars in the virtual enterprise space to learn their background information or role in the organization. A built-in presence function shows where employees are as well as whether they are engaged in a conversation or meeting and if it can be joined or is private. And since the application is Web-based, it can be used for meetings between companies as well as within a corporation.

Nortel's relationship with DiamondWare evolved from the initial development of web.alive, a product of Nortel's Incubation Program, which funds development of innovative products pitched in-house by employees.

"We've been working with Diamondware for some time, and they are doing the third audio piece. The relationship worked well between us, so it was a logical thing to bring them in house," Hyndman said.

DiamondWare's technology will also be used for other audio conferencing and IP telephony applications that would benefit from an always-on audio environment, said Gino Brancatelli, portfolio manager in Nortel's office of the chief technology officer.

DiamondWare's technology has been deployed in gaming environments, as well as in U.S. military tactical intercom systems and by a range of carriers. Nortel will take on these customers -- using its own Nortel Government Solutions team "to act as a conduit within the U.S. federal government space and expand those opportunities," Brancatelli said.

"As we integrate this technology into our existing portfolio of audio conferencing, we expect to leverage it through existing channels," Brancatelli added.

But since web.alive is in the very early phases of development, it is not yet clear how or by whom it will be sold.

The DiamondWare acquisition is the third announced by Nortel in two weeks, and is another move by the company to show it is becoming a software-centric player as opposed to simply a provider of networking equipment. Last week, Nortel announced the acquisition of Pingtel, an open source VoIP and unified communications (UC) software developer. Nortel's other acquisition, Novera Optics, was in the fiber-optic carrier market.

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