For the last six months, Little Wonder Studio, based in Burbank, Calif., has been using SL to create virtual models of complicated wind-up toys before building actual prototypes.
CEO Robert Curet said that SL has changed his business by allowing him to think through complex design problems more quickly.
"I can think of something on my drive into work, build a rough model in SL by lunch, troubleshoot and adjust the build by mid-afternoon and e-mail images to a China factory by 5 pm. It's amazing! I can then talk with engineers in China that night and have preliminary costing on a project the next day," he wrote in an e-mail.
IBM sees a vast potential for using virtual worlds to encourage collaboration among colleagues.
In a recent blog post, IBM CTO Irving Wladawsky-Berger noted that human beings are more likely to understand complicated concepts when they are presented in visual forms.
He said that IBM may be able to drive more revenues through its consulting services by visualizing business processes through virtual worlds.
"Perhaps for the first time, we will be able to understand what is really going on in a business and its various processes, and then systematically improve and optimize them," he wrote.
Virtual worlds are also places where employees can mingle and interact more freely than during a Web cast or video conference call.
According to Joi Ito, vice president of Technorati, virtual conferences or meetings make information more memorable than conventional ones.
"Landscapes and texture contribute to your ability to remember," he said.
But people are also finding that participants in virtual events can be more easily distracted from their strictly business purposes.
"I am experienced with the SL world," noted Curet. "But for my clients it's always a new experience. They tend to want to experiment with moving their avatars, or they don't quite know how to chat, or adjust their camera angles. Still, they enjoy the experience."
SL in particular has attributes that make it more attractive to businesses than other virtual worlds.
Ito noted that SL "has gotten a bunch of things right."
Principal among them, he said, is that content created by users remains their property, both in-world and IRL.
"SL is one of the few or maybe the only virtual world that provides a creative commons and allows people to own stuff," he said.
"There's more incentive to be creative inside the game."
One SL inhabitant created a game called Tringo in-world and has since licensed it to electronic game manufacturers IRL.
Catherine Smith, director of marketing at SL, said that "you own the intellectual property rights of anything you create in-world."
Trouble in virtual paradise?
But virtual worlds are far from trouble-free.
"People tend to do things they wouldn't do in life, like storm the stage or chatter incessantly," said Melissinos.
They are also less secure than many enterprises would like.
Thus, companies will have to strike a balance between the spontaneity they wish to inspire in virtual worlds and the caution they have to exercise because of the inherent insecurity of places like SL.
They might want their employees collaborating -- even, sometimes, with competitors -- but they wouldn't want to reveal too much information.
Not to mention that scammers or even corporate spies could crash a corporate event and steal trade secrets.
The site has also been vulnerable to viral attacks like copybots, which copy assets and then allow its authors to resell that property as their own.