Doing Business in the Virtual World

It may be too soon to fire up your CEO's avatar, but the 3-D Internet holds plenty of potential.

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.