Say Hello to My Avatar: Bob Metcalfe Gives First UT Innovation Lecture Using Avaya Web Interface

Internet tycoon Bob Metcalfe, who recently moved from Boston, is giving his first lecture as professor of innovation at the University of Texas at Austin this afternoon. I don’t know exactly what he plans to say, but what’s particularly interesting is how he’s delivering the talk—to more than just the people in the room, through a virtual collaboration interface from Avaya, the New Jersey-based business communications firm. The technology is being led by an Avaya group with a strong presence in Boston.

Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet local-area networking standard, founder of 3Com, and partner at Polaris Venture Partners, moved to Austin for the faculty job earlier this month. He has been a mainstay of the Boston innovation scene for the past couple of decades. (For his part, he said he’s not leaving, he’s expanding—and he’ll still spend his summers in New England.)

The topic of his lecture will be “Enernet: Internet lessons for solving energy.” Reached by e-mail, Metcalfe says, “I will again urge that we all use the Internet to conserve energy: Transport your bits, not your atoms.”

Case in point: Metcalfe will speak not only in person to the audience in the UT auditorium, but also to remote viewers (who will see his avatar) using Avaya’s new system. The online platform, called web.alive, uses video-game graphics, immersive audio, and personalized avatars to create a 3-D virtual environment for business collaboration among remote participants. Metcalfe calls it “emersive collaboration through the Internet.” (The URL for the lecture has not been given out publicly; I’ll update this story if that changes.)

The point of web.alive is to do better than existing collaborative tools like video conferencing, which don’t let you move around in the remote environment or interact with people individually. So presumably you could ask Metcalfe’s avatar a question in an interactive way, or even greet him “in person” after his lecture (see image of the virtual auditorium below).

And web.alive is different from existing virtual worlds like Second Life, in that you can set up secure and private meeting areas. What’s more, you have an individualized audio mix through your headphones—so you can have a private conversation with someone in the back of the room, say, and not disturb the speaker (though his avatar might yell at you).

It’s still early days, but Avaya is signing up customers in industry and academia who seem eager to try it out. “Every person we’ve shown it to has wanted it,” says Mohamad Ali, senior vice president of corporate development and strategy, who heads up the web.alive effort from Avaya’s Waltham, MA, office. As a start, he says, “We want to link up other universities.”

Ali says when he’s in the office, he conducts about half of his meetings in the web.alive environment. And Avaya uses it in-house for all of its leadership training courses and new-employee programs. “Over the next year, we mostly want to get people to use it,” Ali says. “Then at some point we have to figure out how to make money with it.”

Metcalfe says he will also use the Avaya system to hold “virtual” office hours, which will be open to his UT students as well as remote visitors. The first session will be tomorrow from 2-5 pm Central Time. If you have a Windows-based PC, you can check it out (and say hello to Metcalfe’s avatar) at

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