Background

There is much debate on the professional listservs over how working with clients online is the same or different from live face-to-face encounters. Many cite the lack of visual and aural cues as being a detriment to the assessment and therapeutic process. As a step towards overcoming the missing aural component, it has been suggested that the use of Internet Phone technology be explored. This technology provides voice transmission through special voice compression software. Professional (corporate) versions of conferencing software can be quite expensive and are certainly out of practical reach of the general public to be viable. However, many vendors offer Internet conferencing software free of charge which provide many useful conferencing tools. While they permit multiple simultaneous users to hold textual chats and markup electronic white boards, they are limited to voice communication between only two people at a time. This may be sufficient for individual client contacts but certainly unsuitable for group work.

There is a software product which provides both the visual and auditory components missing from previous methods. Created by OnLive! Technologies, Inc., the package named Traveler provides access to a three dimensional, virtual reality world. Users select an iconic representation of themselves, called an avatar, from a list containing people, animals, objects, or fantasy characters. Users may customize these avatars with color. To further augment the visual aspect of this medium, the avatars are able to display facial expressions depicting a neutral expression, happiness, sadness, anger, or surprise. These expressions can be changed at any time during the online conference. The graphic below is the Onlive! Traveler window which depicts an avatar I easily customized to closely resemble myself.


Example of an avatar as it floats in virtual reality space

The auditory component is provided with stereo effects that allow the user to know which direction a sound is coming from. For example, a person on a user's right will be heard from the right speaker. In a crowded space, it can sound like a party with many conversations going on at once. The closer one is to the person speaking, the louder they will sound. Unlike the other Internet voice chat software, there is no apparent limit to the number of simultaneous speakers.

These features make the OnLive! Traveler software attractive for doing group work and opens avenues for distance learning for training a new breed of practitioners.

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