The Project\u2002::\u2002Deploy 3-D meeting software to enable Merck Research Laboratories\u2019 global network of scientists to share new technology and research virtually.\n \nThe Business Case\u2002::\u2002Every year, the $27 billion drug maker holds a three-day symposium for 500 of its researchers and vendors. Modeled on the traditional poster session, during which scientists exhibit their research results on 4-foot-by-5-foot boards, the event was ideal for knowledge sharing and collaboration. But it was costly to produce, typically topping six figures. And productivity took a hit as hundreds of scientists abandoned their research to go.\n \n In early 2009, Clark Golestani, vice president of IT for Merck Research Laboratories, began to investigate alternatives to the physical meetings. The solution that held the most promise was ProtonMedia\u2019s three-dimensional virtual meeting software ProtoSphere, which costs $75 per user per month, with discounts based on volume.\n \n First Steps\u2002::\u2002Although virtual conferences are \u201cthe wave of the future,\u201d according to Golestani, the technology was unproven. He applied the methodology IT uses to evaluate emerging technology, which will be familiar to students of the scientific method: establish a hypothesis\u2014in this case, a business challenge and the predicted impact of the new tool\u2014and conduct an experiment to test that hypothesis.\n \n Merck and ProtonMedia spend 12 weeks building a virtual environment for a scaled-down symposium. The design incorporated two large virtual conference halls where posters could be presented to 50 people. Attendees, through avatars, could approach and listen to a presenter speak while reviewing his or her research. In an effort to replicate the networking opportunities of the real-world event, the virtual meeting place contained areas where attendees could gather, chat without interrupting presenters, or engage in private discussions.\n \n Merck held its first three-hour virtual poster session in July 2009, with 54 scientists\u2014eight of whom presented research on 20 posters. The attendees communicated using voice-over-IP and text chat. After the event, 83 percent of users said access to the virtual posters\u2019 information was the same as or better than in the physical world. More than half said the virtual symposium overall was more valuable than the in-person version\u2014and not just because they never had to set foot in an airport. Many reported being more comfortable approaching senior scientists using their avatars than they would have been face-to-face, Golestani says.\n \n Other benefits included reduced travel costs, time savings and \u201cquick access to busy thought leaders who may not have otherwise been able to participate.\u201d Merck continues to experiment with the virtual meeting software to determine its potential for wider corporate use.\n \nWhat to Watch out For\u2002::\u2002Maintaining as much as possible the format of the real-life meetings\u2014from simulating the posters to reproducing the lighting, furniture and floor plans of an actual symposium\u2014was critical to driving user adoption, says Golestani. So was involving \u201call of the extended key support groups,\u201d including internal business partners, the vendor and IT representatives. \u201cIt\u2019s important for all of these groups to feel a sense of ownership of the new capability so it becomes their idea and they are empowered to drive it forward.\u201d\n \nStephanie Overby is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.