The Virtual Marketplace

By Dave Greenfield  |  Posted 2008-03-08 Print this article Print

Virtual worlds are also appealing when the growing cost of travel-and looming economic woes-are factored in. The National Business Travel Association expects that the costs of car rentals and hotel rates will increase by 5 to 7 percent this year, while airfares will grow by 6 to 10 percent.

The NBTA also reports that more travel managers are projecting travel spending to remain flat in 2008, which means that organizations need to find new ways to provide for training and education-both of which are strong areas for virtual worlds.

Unisfair builds virtual events in Second Life so companies can avoid the time and costs associated with traveling to trade shows. Edusim, meanwhile, is an interactive whiteboard that uses the Croquet virtual-world platform for training. The University of Minnesota Croquet Project uses the same technology to train students in foreign languages.

Training that would be high-risk in the real world is particularly well-suited to virtual worlds. For example, the Idaho Bioterrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program and the Institute of Rural Health at Idaho State University are creating the Play2Train environment to support emergency preparedness training and exercises without adverse risk to participants.

And let's not forget the most obvious application: design and 3-D modeling. Whether it's a complex data set or a home design, virtual worlds are natural environments in which to tackle visualization and collaboration challenges.

The virtual marketplace

Today, there's a rich mix of players in the virtual-world market, but organizations need to carefully consider the business imperative before moving into virtual worlds.

"You've got to answer the fundamental question of 'why,'" said Erik Hauser, president of Swivel Media, a virtual-world consultancy. "Your virtual presence needs to be strategized like any normal marketing program. The reason might be to recruit technology personnel or do business online, but once you understand 'the why,' then all the other decisions will flow naturally."

Those decisions include which platforms to use. Platform providers deliver 3-D engines used for rendering and maintaining virtual spaces behind firewalls or as privately hosted services. Providers include the OpenSimulator project, ActiveWorlds, 3DXPlorer, Multiverse, Forterra Systems, Proton Media, Moove and Croquet.

Typically, server hardware requirements for these platforms are nominal, with vendors claiming to run many "worlds" on a single server. Desktop configuration is different, however, with some applications, such as Second Life, being substantially more graphics-intensive than others. IT staffs will want to be sure that PCs meet minimum specifications before deployment.

Virtual-world services build communities on these or their own platforms. The virtual worlds of interest to business-including Second Life, HipiHi, ActiveWorlds' demo service and Qwaq-can be adapted for a range of purposes. With these services, companies can build virtual presences and use them for custom purposes.

Other providers deliver services that plug into virtual-world platforms. Two examples are Vivox, which provides the VOIP (voice over IP) component of Second Life, and Vollee, with its Second Life mobile client.

The essential problem

While virtual-world applications may exist in abundance, a lack of critical mass inhibits the technology's acceptance.

Second Life certainly has name recognition at this point and is probably the most widely used virtual world on the consumer side, but it must overcome a number of challenges before becoming widely deployed and relied on as an enterprise platform.

Scalability remains a major problem. Second Life is plagued by routine outages, and social events organized in Second Life can't accommodate a large number of users.

Usability also remains an issue. Users must download and configure a client onto their PC, and the interface into Second Life remains more cumbersome than your typical business application.

Both of these issues will have broad repercussions for IT departments. Active Worlds and There are a bit simpler to use than Second Life, but users still must master an array of keystrokes and mouse options to interact with their virtual environments.

Then there are the business problems. For example, business users have complained about disruptions in the Second Life payment processing system and, more broadly, have criticized Linden Labs for not communicating its strategic direction for Second Life.

Compliance is another challenge. Increasingly, organizations are required to log all electronic correspondence. Some of these services and platforms provide centralized logging, whereas others do not.

These worlds are also the new frontier, and, like the Wild West, law enforcement is problematic.

Ginsu Yoon, vice president of business affairs for Linden Labs, said plans are in place to make the Second Life infrastructure more enterprise-friendly. But even if Second Life does provide better scalability, performance, usability and security, that won't be enough. For 3-D worlds to make sense for business, Second Life-or any other virtual world-can't exist in a vacuum.

Dominant players in nascent markets-such as Second Life in the virtual-world market-rarely see benefit in interoperability. Such companies would rather develop their own ecosystems and attract customers.

Even if a virtual-world vendor did want to interoperate, the technological issues in a 3-D world are immense. Avatar configuration and security credentials need to transition among worlds; cross-platform communications and travel will be necessary; objects need also be transferable; and accommodations need to be made for currency exchange.

In October, IBM organized a conference called the Virtual World Interoperability Community Summit to tackle these very issues. The meeting pulled together a who's who of virtual worlds. But while inter??í??íoperability discussions have begun, don't get your hopes up.

"It took 15 years to arrive at tech standards for the 2-D Web," Yoon said. "I expect that it shouldn't be incredibly shorter in the virtual worlds."


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