Tired of doing lunch? Don’t want to wake up for a power breakfast? A small company called World Benders has a program for you. Called Meeting Space, the program creates a virtual conference center in which you can interact with your online colleagues. The idea behind Meeting Space is to make it easier and more efficient to meet with people, especially those who are, as my mother would say, geographically unsuitable. If you’re spending more time or money getting to a meeting than it’s worth, holding the meeting in the virtual conference center of Meeting Space can save time and money (and since time is money, I suppose that means it saves both money and money, always a popular feature).
Meeting Space has a number of other advantages over physical meetings. Since everything takes place on your Mac, it’s trivial to record the complete minutes of the meeting, or to transfer information from the meeting record to other applications (I hate transcribing). Unlike physical meetings, you can be in more than one place at once, and if the meeting gets slow, you can do something more productive than doodling on a pad (like switching out to your word processor). Finally, if you’ve ever been in a meeting with someone you don’t know, it can be awkward to find out who they are and what they do, whereas in Meeting Space you can just click on that person’s icon to display personal information, including phone number, job title, duties, and so on.
I should note up front that Meeting Space is text and graphics-based – it doesn’t attempt to do video or sound since few people have the necessary equipment and few networks can handle the traffic. However, you can appear as any one of a large set of icons (or make your own) and in fact you can clone yourself to appear in multiple places at the same time, and each clone can have a different icon to indicate its role or mood (I recommend a Clint Eastwood icon for the Monday morning hours before the first cup of coffee to properly warn your coworkers).
Meeting Space provides tools for structuring meetings and keeping them moving, including agendas, automatic recorders, and presentation screens. Planned for future releases are tokens for speaking, moderator gavels, white boards, voting, and various privacy enhancements like digital signatures, encrypted network connections, and digital envelopes. You can create presentations in any application that can print or export data through copy & paste to the Scrapbook, and if you’ve ever had a bunch of people crowding around a small screen, you can see that a virtual presentation could work a lot better than a physical one.
Should you wish to modify your virtual conference center, it’s easy to do – you could recreate your physical offices or create your ideal offices. Either way, you don’t have to worry about physical rooms being free or being large enough – Meeting Space can handle up to about 50 simultaneous connections, although that’s somewhat dependent on the server hardware and the network load (a IIci can easily support about 20 people). World Benders is working with one company to create an online tech support center, and they’re also working with a number of educational sites on things like language-learning centers, negotiation-skills centers, virtual classrooms for the gifted, and so on.
Meeting Space requires a 68020 or better Macintosh along with System 7 and at least 1 MB of RAM and 1 MB of disk space (for either the client or the server). Meeting Space works over AppleTalk networks such as standard LocalTalk and modems connected via ARA, and over TCP/IP networks like the Internet with MacTCP and an appropriate connection (via a network or SLIP or PPP). The client software may be freely distributed, but the server software is a bit steep at $1,750 for a five-user license ($350 per user on a scale that drops the per-user cost to $200 for twenty users). World Benders offers discounts for site licenses, educational uses, and resellers. In general, they’re aiming at the business market that can compare the cost of Meeting Space to a plane ticket, or even a dozen time-wasting trips across town, and quickly recoup the cost. In an especially clever move, the server allows more than the specified number of users to connect, but if you’re over the limit (and this applies to everyone who connects after the limit is reached), it lets you connect for only 10 minutes, enough time to get on, find someone, talk briefly, and get off. If someone else disconnects while you’re on borrowed time, so to speak, you become a full user with no time limit. The client software is currently only available for the Macintosh, but World Benders plans to create Windows and Unix clients later this year.
If you’ve been on the Internet for a while, you’ll realize that what I’ve described is essentially a MUD, or Multi-User Dimension. I walked up to the booth at Macworld, and since I had never heard of Meeting Space or World Benders before, I asked Jon Callas, World Benders’ Director, what Meeting Space was. Luckily he recognized my TidBITS card and instead of trying to describe the program in generalities, simply said, "It’s a business MUD." That describes it perfectly, a MUD with a slick Macintosh interface devoted to making it easier to do business over long distances. MUDs have developed a bad reputation because of users becoming addicted to them, but I’m sure any business or organization would be thrilled to have its employees devote the same kind of time and attention to what goes on in Meeting Space as the less-productive MUDs on the Internet.
Of course, with anything like this, the best way to check it out is to try it. World Benders doesn’t yet have a high-speed link to the Internet, but would like to create a public Meeting Space on the Internet. If anyone would like to volunteer a Macintosh with an Ethernet link to the Internet as a public Meeting Space server, the World Benders folk have said they will donate a server and are interested in working the volunteer to create a useful and interesting Meeting Space that will serve as a demo of Meeting Space, a pleasant meeting place for Macintosh Internet users, and as a feedback mechanism for World Benders so they can find out what users think of Meeting Space. To reiterate, they want to help set up and run the demo area, not to just donate a server and go away. So, if you’re interested in helping demo Meeting Space and providing a virtual meeting place for Macintosh Internet users, send World Benders email so they can pick someone. I will announce the site name when it comes up, and by that time World Benders should have posted the necessary client software to the nets. Extremely interesting!
World Benders — 603/881-5432 (voice & fax)