Crackpot tech: Virtual worlds

The likelihood of Second Life having a long-term impact on the enterprise may appear virtually nonexistent, but consider this: Education, collaboration, and networking -- three productivity mandates for today's enterprise -- are fast catching on in the virtual world.

Before laughing and glancing sideways at your well-worn copy of Snow Crash, know that even old-guard institutions such as Harvard University have a Second Life presence, with virtual campuses where learning, discussion, and content creation occur.

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Dobbs Island, with tradeshow booths to the left and, in the distance, the amphitheatre where conferences are held.

Training, for one, has real ROI potential in Second Life, as virtual worlds expose participants to RL (real life) learning scenarios that would otherwise be too expensive or dangerous to explore. Take dealing with a pandemic flu, for example. Medical students are already tapping virtual worlds to learn how best to respond. No need to pay for a trip to a foreign country to learn language basics. Virtual immersive language study allows you to travel to worlds where only that language is spoken, with all signs and advertisements written in the language being learned.

Collaboration and networking are two other sweetspots for companies to make use of virtual worlds. Tech heavy hitters such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Dell, and Microsoft are already tapping Second Life as a platform for development, conferences, and forums. IBM, which has established a Business Center in Second Life, boasts nearly 4,000 employees with Second Life avatars to date, with about 1,000 routinely conducting company business inside Second Life.

But what of the many technologies already serving companies' collaboration, networking, and training needs? How can virtual worlds find a long-term place in the mix?

"The 3D aspects and the ability to put a whole group of people in the same 'space' at a distance, where everyone can hear everyone else as you would in a real hall or space, gives SL an advantage over other social networking systems, chat systems, or conference calls," says Todd Cochrane, of the Wellington Institute of Technology in New Zealand. "People seem to be more engaged."

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Conference room designed by Todd Cochrane, where one can watch Windows Vista training clips (provided by ClipTraining.com).

And that is the immeasurable edge virtual worlds may have over traditional modes of training and collaboration: user engagement. Perhaps more so, as Generation Y grows up with virtual technologies such as Second Life.

Of course, anonymity, which people tend to prefer in the virtual world, hinders collaboration carryover into the real world. Moreover, plugging in to Second Life for business-grade collaboration has other detractors, such as quality of experience (SL is consistently slowing down and crashing for a variety of reasons), privacy (oftentimes, depending on the type of conversation, others can “hear” you), and security. But as the technology matures, these issues will no doubt be addressed.

Either way, crackpot or not, tapping virtual worlds such as Second Life in a corporate setting has already drawn significant interest.

“Once more we have the very strong feeling that [Second Life] will have a huge impact on business, society and our personal lives, although none of us can quite predict what that impact will be," Irving Wladawsky-Berger, chairman emeritus of the IBM Academy of Technology and visiting professor of engineering systems at MIT, wrote in a blog over a year ago. "It will be fascinating to see where this ride takes us in the future."

-- J. Peter Bruzzese

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