Get a Life: Enterprises Eye Potential For Second Life

Enterprises are dipping their toes in the waters of virtual worlds, but may have to wait to see the benefits.
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Even Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield isn't sure how seriously he's taking the fact that his company's next press conference will be a virtual event on World of Warcraft (WoW).

Partly, he's doing it to parody the suddenly trendy idea of companies hosting business events within the confines of such virtual worlds as WoW and Second Life (SL).

"Too much of what it's become is the easy answer for a large company to do something just for the sake of being cool," he said.

But he also admits that companies could benefit from being virtual.

"There's tremendous promise for virtual worlds being used as a collaboration platform," he said.

Some of the large companies he mentioned, such as Sun and IBM (Quote), have recently held press conferences, meetings with financial analysts and brainstorming sessions in virtual worlds like SL and WoW.

The virtual in world

These worlds are inhabited by three-dimensional representations of the users themselves, called avatars, and are filled with anything the citizens of those worlds want to make, from chairs and coffee tables to huge open-air arenas capable of seating thousands of "people."

In SL, users can customize their avatars to make them look anyway they want, and they can move around by walking, flying or teleporting themselves.

They can also create goods and services and sell them to each other using a virtual currency called Linden dollars (after Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based company that runs SL).

Linden dollars can be exchanged for U.S. currency at a rate of approximately 270 to 1 (this rate fluctuates on the Linden currency exchange).

No one knows how far this will go.

But IBM thinks enough of its potential to invest $10 million just to see what kind of collaboration tools it can develop within SL and other virtual worlds.

Sun recently held a virtual press conference on SL. And it was the first company to host its financial analyst day on SL.

But it surely won't be the last.

Consumer brands as far-ranging as Nike (Quote) and General Motors (Quote) have established a presence on SL as well, and there is so much activity there now that Reuters has set up a news bureau to report on events "in-world."

And in case you're wondering, there is an acronym for where we are right now, which is IRL (in real life).

But while this is undeniably a phenomenon, the question is whether it's a passing fad or one worth noting.

Passing fad or here to stay?

Proponents suggest a multitude of benefits.

For one, virtual worlds are an easy way for companies to test new ideas.

"You can use it as a kind of unfocused focus group with more spontaneous, unscripted feedback," noted JupiterKagan analyst Joe Laszlo.

Chris Melissinos, Sun chief gaming officer, said that SL is allowing Sun engineers to connect with users in ways they haven't been able to before.

Until now, "a lot of technology decisions have been made in a vacuum," Melissinos said.

Melissinos said Sun was able to introduce a new storage device, code-named Thumper, to a large number of channel partners, so they could see it up close and look at it from a variety of angles.

"You can't do that on a webcast. It's hard to do even in real life, because you're limited by how many people you get up on the podium. On Second Life, I can make as many of these as I need," he said.

This phenomenon isn't limited to multinational corporations.

Next page: The little ones can play, too.


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