I have played with some 'spatial' tools for distributed teams since 2009. These can be 2d, or 3d like the tame 'the Sims'. I've watched how other companies use them too, and attended 9 conferences on the topic. I find these tools so useful I got a formal certification in this stuff (one year program, U Washington), and have 200 folks using this stuff for 2 years.
Most folks use a webcam to see facial expressions during meetings. I like tools that add a sense of venue or space. I get to see who else is in the context of the discussion, and some visual cues about how engaged they are. Adding iterative objects is also helpful.
Of course, if you can co-locate that's great. However, out of > 2,000 team members where I work only 21% have all their team members in the same building. 77% work at home at least some of the time.
Travel if you like. But I don't like the time I lose in airports (just got back from India - great to see folks, but 36 hours in planes and airports!!) Budgets are an issue, especially for international travel.
3. Traditional Webcam & Screen
A lot of tools do a mix of screen share, text messages, voice over IP, and webcam. I feel like I still lose communication context due to a lack of shared venue.
4. Two Dimensional spatial
Sococo is a 2d interface that supplies a spatial context. I like that for always on 'Osmotic Communication' for distributed teams. I designed a custom layout for my Agile teams. Sococo is easier to use than 3d environments.
5. 3d Immersive
3d tools let you 'immerse' more, or design and program some interactive objects. But they can be hard to use for newbies, are perceived as a game, and sometimes take expertise to modify the environments. Sometimes they are port hogs so can't get through firewalls. They let you do more, but is a much bigger culture change.
Webcam / screen share tools like Skype, Adobe Connect, GotoMeeting, Microsoft Lync, etc. Telepresence from Cisco gives you live size TV / webcam but is not cheap.
2d - Sococo
If you are brave, 3d tools have some cool uses:
- Terf Always on - great for collaboration on data,
VenueGen - setup a meeting for a fixed duration - great gestures for your Avatar" Avayalive engage
Weaker recommendation: Second Life (expensive, branded for entertainment, but lots of content available for purchase), Blue Mars, On24, ProtonMedia,
I have some pictures and video examples of these platforms, but am a bit shy adding the link because i don't want to look like I'm spamming. I've used all these tools and approaches to do distributed since 2009, so please do let me know if you'd like more info! I hope I can save you some of the startup woes I hit.
Don't forget the 'soft skills'. Beyond tools, we need to remember culture, timezone, language, basic facilitation, etc etc.
These tools compliment normal web based task boards / Kanban boards, which you can display as usual in your browser, or often inside the spatial context. Stuff like RallyDev, VersionOne, AgileZen, Trello, LeanKitKanban, SeeNowDo, Axosoft, Telerik, Sonic, RedCritter Tracker (which is gamified) are all key tools for those who can't gather around a white board filled with yellow stickies for their tasks.