Doing Business in the Virtual World

By Dave Greenfield  |  Posted 2008-03-08

Doing Business in the Virtual World

The battle for the 3-D Internet has begun. And the spoils are nothing less than the online economy of tomorrow.

Virtual-world proponents such as IBM and Linden Labs, the maker of Second Life, are adapting online gaming technology to business requirements. Meanwhile, Google and Microsoft are leveraging their mapping services for a similar goal. All these companies are investing heavily to make this vision-which promises to transform business-possible.

Short of an immediate-use case, companies should wait before making anywhere near the same kind of investment in the 3-D Internet, but explore it they must-or risk being left behind. "The 3-D Internet is a transformational opportunity that will change many industry processes, gather new revenue streams, and increase productivity and brand opportunity," said Colin Parris, IBM's vice president of digital convergence and the person spearheading IBM's own virtual-world deployment.

Four paths to the metaverse

The road toward the 3-D Web is a convergence of four different paths. This was expressed in May 2006, when the Accelerator Studies Foundation gathered leading thinkers across many fields-including geospatial engineering, social networking and video game design-to postulate the future of the 3-D Web. The Metaverse Roadmap was the outcome, and it described four types of virtual spaces: virtual worlds, mirror worlds, augmented reality and lifelogging.

The four are related through the intersection of two continua of technology development, according to the road map: augmentation-simulation and external-intimate. The augmentation-simulation continuum refers to technologies that enhance physical reality with new capabilities (augmentation) or that model reality creating a whole new world (simulation). The external-intimate continuum describes technologies focused on the world around a user (external) or on a user's identity and actions (intimate).

While virtual worlds such as Second Life combine a created world (simulation) with the actions of the individual (intimate), mirror worlds blend the real world (external) with mapping, modeling, location awareness and other technologies (simulated).

Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth are examples of advanced mirror worlds, fusing cartographic surveys, satellite imaging and ground-based imagery.

Last April, Microsoft publicly sponsored academic research to map real-time data onto very-high-resolution maps. One project, City Capture at Georgia Institute of Technology, takes hundreds or thousands of pictures to create a single panorama several billion pixels deep. Typical panoramas use a dozen or so pictures, according to Frank Dellaert, an associate professor at Georgia Tech's College of Computing.

Fully mapped, a high-definition mirror world would provide a compelling space for business-to-business and business-to-consumer advertising, logistics, and search. Collaboration could also be improved by providing remote users with a photo-realistic rendering of the main office. With the use of avatar technologies, user location could be accurately rendered in this mirror map, reading location information off a GPS sensor, a phone or an RFID (radio-frequency identification) sensor. Users could then collaborate with existing tools in this virtual space.

Indeed, mobility will ultimately play an important part in virtual worlds and mirror worlds. Virtual worlds are already starting to merge with smart phones. Vollee, for example, showed a mobile client for Second Life at February's GSM Mobile Congress.

These applications not only will allow the user to access a virtual work space from on the road but also will reflect the user's actual presence in the online world. Knowing the user's location naturally improves the realism of the virtual collaboration space. So if, for example, a user is at the coffee machine, it's possible to reflect that in the virtual world allowing for incidental communications with other users at coffee machines in the virtual world.

Ultimately, the mobile versions of virtual and mirror worlds butt up against augmented reality-wearable devices that overlay virtual information (augmentation) on the physical world (external). Augmented-reality technologies, such as Microvision's Mobile Device Eyeware, enable users to see information about an object containing an RFID tag or some other physical hyperlink projected onto a heads-up display.

The fourth type of virtual space-lifelogging-plays a role in each of these worlds by logging the history of an individual or object.

While lifelogging's security and privacy implications are enormous, so are the benefits.

With lifelogging technologies, historical information has the potential to enable individuals to make better decisions for themselves and their organizations. The TrackStick, for example, records the path of an object based on its GPS coordinates, sending that information to Google Earth or Virtual Earth. In-car cameras, meanwhile, gather continuous information about the auto, offering effective protection against theft. And Nike and Apple have partnered to create Lifelog sneakers that record running statistics.

Real problems, virtual solutions

Virtual worlds have gained the widest adoption (though still relatively low) among the 3-D Web technologies because they address so many of the problems facing today's organizations.

With employees increasingly distributed, the incidental interactions that are so important in building team experiences are often lost. It's what Dave Elchoness, former outsourcing executive from Qwest and current chairman of the Association of Virtual Worlds, calls the "global hallway."

"We know that real work doesn't get done in 3-hour meetings or conferences," Elchoness said. "Instead, a chance meeting in the hallway or a 'drive-by' into your office is what really gets ideas shared and work accomplished."

Virtual worlds can help organizations create these opportunities for interaction, but they also can allow organizations to view and manipulate information from a variety of applications. The Crown Plaza, for example, lets individuals reserve virtual conference rooms in Second Life. Within these rooms, applications such as streaming audio, video and, say, a PowerPoint deck could be shown on the walls.

The Virtual Marketplace

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."

Rocket Fuel