The Mashing of Virtual Reality, Social Computing

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2007-11-28

The Mashing of Virtual Reality, Social Computing


The Merging of Virtual

Reality, Social Computing">

Three-dimensional virtual reality worlds such as Second Life and social networks such as Facebook have been largely chugging along on parallel planes. Now some experts are claiming virtual reality will have a warm, sunny place in social networks for consumers and businesses.

IBM Lotus programmers and engineers from IBMs research groups are currently working on ways to employ virtual reality technologies with Lotus Connections social computing software, said Jeff Schick, vice president of social computing for IBM.

For example, avatars would pop up filled with content from real employees Lotus Connections profile, displaying their experiences, skills and interests, as well as the projects they worked on. A Lotus Connections blog expressing a users opinions would be exposed on a billboard or a wall in the virtual city.

Or, avatars might walk into a virtual library and access Lotus Connections social bookmarks through a card catalog. Schick compared this specific work-in-progress to a scene in the movie "Disclosure," where Michael Douglas character used a virtual reality program to pull files from a drawer, which was basically a content repository.

Read more here about IBMs Lotus Connections software.

IBMs impetus for exploring social computing in 3-D? "Lotus Connections will serve up social bookmarks in a 2-D world like del.ici.ous, but what does that look like in 3D?" Schick told eWEEK.

He wouldnt provide delivery dates of the product versions of these virtual Lotus Connections technologies, but IBM isnt the only vendor looking to exploit virtual reality technology to make social connections.

A company called Unisfair is working on ways to include social networking tools in virtual conferences for businesses. This will enable avatars in the virtual conference to avoid the awkward process of exchanging contact information by building social networking tools into the virtual conferences.

However, the virtual reality-social network crossover isnt limited to the enterprise. When social networks opened up their developer platforms to third-party programmers, they opened the door to such fusions.

Second Life Link, an application built from the Facebook platform, enables users to display their Second Life avatars to their Facebook friends. With this application, users can search through friends on both social networks.

Next page: Vendors Spice Up Social Networks With Virtual Reality

Vendors Spice Up Social

Networks With Virtual Reality">

Gartner analyst Adam Sarner described this paradigm shift as the move to the Generation Virtual, where people arent connected by age or gender as much as they were in the past, but by common interests.

Sarner said applications such as Second Life are more immersive than Facebook and other social networks, providing more visuals, which hews well to self-actualization for people.

This is not necessarily the right route for all actions. For example, while the 3-D realm might be great for kicking back and relaxing, it might not always be the right venue for executing tasks.

"If I want to buy a car or somebody I know comes down with a medical condition, Im not going to go into a virtual world and ask other people their experiences," Sarner said. "Text is a perfect tool to go in and get other opinions."

To read more about ease-of-use issues in virtual worlds, click here.

Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li has two views of virtual worlds: While she believes virtual reality is fine for companies such as IBM to use as a virtual meeting place for workers to collaborate on tasks, she is less sanguine about the potential for virtual worlds in the consumer space.

Li said Second Life and others of its ilk havent gained the traction of text-based social networks because they involve more time and creativity-crafting an avatar and profile than most people want to deal with.

"Many people, as you can see with Facebook and MySpace, want to get in, talk to their friends, stay in touch and leave multiple times a day," Li said.

Still, Forrester Research analyst Erica Driver said companies will continue to build virtual environments, making the 3-D Internet as big in five years as the Web is today.

Schick agreed, noting that companies will actually build virtual reality platforms for customer service solutions, simulation and modeling jobs, or for virtual meetings rather than getting on a plane. There will be business-based applications and capabilities similar to what you see in Facebook, albeit with a different user experience.

People and businesses are just figuring out how to use virtual reality. Once that comfort zone is reached, look for businesses to start finding ways to make money from it.

Thats when virtual reality will become real for the world.

Check out eWEEK.coms for more on IM and other collaboration technologies.

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