Like a lot of Web 2.0 technologies, virtual reality has been slow to take off among enterprise customers, largely because of concerns that merry pranksters hacking the three-dimensional worlds for fun will disrupt online meetings, or wreak worse havoc.
IBM and "Second Life" creator Linden Lab are looking to change that with a joint effort to let IBM host the popular 3-D virtual world network behind its firewall.
Introduced at an early stage April 3 at the Virtual Worlds conference in New York, the Second Life Grid lets companies create public or private virtual environments using Linden Lab's 3-D virtual world technology.
The effort is noteworthy because, while IBM and other customers such as Intel and Toyota have used "Second Life" worlds to collaborate on Linden's servers, it is the first time Linden Lab has allowed "Second Life" to be hosted on servers other than its own.
IBM will pilot the technology internally using its BladeCenter servers and storage, allowing its employees' avatars to explore the "Second Life" mainland and cross over into IBM's hosted version without having to log on and off, Colin Parris, vice president of digital convergence at IBM, told eWEEK.
IBM likened this to using the same browser to access corporate intranet pages and external sites. The idea is to allow IBM workers to access public spaces and private spaces within one "Second Life" client interface while keeping portions of the Second Life Grid behind IBM's firewall.
If the IBM-Linden Lab venture works out, the companies said they will work to help other business develop their own virtual worlds and to create a standard platform to bridge the gap between virtual world platforms. For instance, a standard could allow an avatar created in "Second Life" to move easily to other virtual worlds like that hosted by Activeworlds.
Such an effort could go a considerable way toward convincing other businesses that it's safe to use virtual networks behind the firewall. Of course, another barrier is demand.
Traditionally, virtual reality has been a haven for gaming enthusiasts and other fun-seekers looking to create avatars to hang out in a 3-D world. There is no glut of evidence to suggest businesses want to use 3-D avatars to represent themselves in meeting rooms and collaborate on other projects.
Parris said clients he's talked to about using virtual worlds are interested, but are concerned about control. Business users want to reuse the avatars and other content they've created in "Second Life" or other virtual world programs behind their firewalls. Most importantly, businesses want to feel secure that their assets will be protected.
"It really is about investment protection, interoperability, as well as security and privacy," Parris said.
Moreover, the 3-D virtual world alone isn't sufficient for business; it needs to approximate the functionality business professional are accustomed to in the tangible world, including Web and videoconferencing, VOIP (voice over IP), instant messaging, and media exchange.
IBM is actively working on blending its Lotus assets into its Metaverse, adding VOIP, Web conferencing and instant messaging from its Sametime application, as well as profile, wiki and community tools from its Connections suite. Parris said IBM would look to bring the same capabilities to the Second Life Grid.