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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Collaboration and networking are two other sweet spots for companies to make use of virtual worlds. Tech heavy hitters such as Dell, IBM, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems 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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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 (often, 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 more than a year ago. "It will be fascinating to see where this ride takes us in the future."
-- J. Peter Bruzzese