-- an essay by Susan Kish (August 2007)
(Kish has been working with networks and communities for over 10 years. A PDF version of this essay, completed with a glossary and a bibliography, is available for downloading - see at the end.)
When you raise the topic of Second Life (SL) in a conversation, you usually get one of two reactions: 1) Dismissal as “just another game”, “people should get their first life together first”, or 2) Rapt attention as questions start pouring out, and opportunities and risks are explored.
How should enterprises look at Second Life and, more generally, at Virtual Worlds? Is the topic still too early or too distracting from “real business”? Or is SL actually close to the tipping point where, like so many technologies before, it will flip into the mainstream with unanticipated results?
Second Life is a synthetic world, a 3D online simulation where you "walk" (slow) or "teleport" (instantaneous) around in the shape of an avatar - a computer representation of actual people, in lifelike form - and can interact (through messaging, voice or video) with others, buy property and build buildings, shop, listen to music and much more. It's not a game: it's a social space. To get there, you go to secondlife.com and download a piece of software. It's free as long as you only want to "walk" around; you have to pay to buy local currency (the Linden, which is convertible into real dollars) or to buy virtual land (so you can build, invite your friends over, set up a shop, or resell).
This essay looks into these and other questions relevant to businesses in relation to the emergence of Virtual Worlds. We consider here particularly Second Life as the most important and fastest-growing, but there are several other similar entities.
Second Life can not be looked at in isolation, or you will miss where it’s going. Our emerging future will include three separate kinds of “worlds” – the Real World, the Digital World (2D Web, Internet), and the Virtual World (3D Web).
Under the umbrella of Virtual Worlds are emerging universes, ranging from MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft), and Metaverses (Virtual Worlds that are primarily social vs. game oriented, such as Second Life), to MMOLEs (focused on learning and training environments), to Intraverses (putting up a virtual world inside the corporate firewall), to Paraverses (often also called Mirror Worlds, such as Google Earth).
If we evaluate these technologies in terms of their evolution, we see that Virtual Worlds are a topic today because of a combination of advancements in software (graphics, web 2.0 communication), hardware (PC's computational and graphic capacity), and infrastructure (broadband networks) to list a few. South Korea is already seeing the power of that combination, with 95% of homes on 40 MB broadband -- which explains why digital and virtual worlds are ubiquitous there.
If you view these technologies in terms of technology adoption frameworks, such as the Gartner Hype Cycle (see image), standard patterns emerge. LucasArts launched the first of these worlds, Habitat, in 1985, and closed it down within 3 years. However, the two decades between the launch of Habitat and that of Second Life in 2003, are a classic gap between the introduction of a technology, and when it matures to a level where mainstream adoption is close.
Since Second Life’s launch, we can identify another Hype Cycle. Enormous media coverage in the autumn of 2006 and early 2007 meant a huge take up of the site – from 1 million members in October 2006 to over 7 million today. Meanwhile, the hype was brought into serious question as analysts such as Clay Shirky questioned the genuinely active number of members in Second Life (currently largely under 100'000 at any given time) vs. the curious experimenters who went and registered as members once, and have yet to return.
2) PEOPLE AND VIRTUAL WORLDS
Virtual Worlds are fundamentally immersive, visually compelling and highly social experiences. Trusted relationships, both personal and professional, emerge quickly in these environments and can carry over into the real world. These worlds provide a degree of control to individuals – control over their age, their gender, their appearance and their setting – that enables escape and fantasy. Pure curiosity, and the desire to explore and to create, causes many to visit – and often stay.
To understand why it is so immersive, we must first understand the concept of the avatar, the figure (image) which users select or design to represent them in these environments (think: user ID come to life).
Avatars make these Virtual Worlds much more similar to the real world than the digital 2D environment of the Internet. With a body in this environment, avatars interact by the same non-verbal cues of real life – moving closer to someone for a conversation, turning away when the conversation is closed, nodding (and sometimes jumping) in agreement, etc. Avatars also make issues of behavior / netiquette more acute. On the other hand, the pseudonymity of being present through the avatar makes some people more confident: for example, more comfortable asking questions in a course or meeting.
Edward Castronova's book Synthetic Worlds (2005), viewed as a classic by many in the industry, places social issues of Virtual Worlds within a historical framework of immigration. Castronova argues that when these worlds provide a more compelling world than the real one, history shows that there will be migration. Today, extreme users of Second Life can be viewed as early indicators of this trend.
3) ENTERPRISES AND VIRTUAL WORLDS
Many enterprises have set up a home inside Second Life, exploring ways in which Virtual Worlds may change how we do business. These worlds are proving to be entrepreneurial environments. An estimated 200 companies have been created which are dedicated to delivering services within Second Life. Combined they currently employ over 3000 people globally, with estimated annual sales of $60 million (source: Linden Labs). For many enterprises, the first venture into Second Life is often a store built for marketing and branding purposes; however other key areas of enterprise exploration are:
- Education and Training – The immersive virtual environment is extremely conducive for teaching, from language to tech training and on-boarding. There are currently hundreds of educational sites within Second Life, and over 2000 participants in their dedicated education community. The area of Serious Games, whether within Second Life or within stand alone metaverses / MOLE (multiple online learning environments), will continue to develop and grow.
- Communication and Collaboration – For many, Second Life presents a very attractive alternative to conference calls and video conferences. Enterprises already regularly use SL for meetings, conferences and connecting dispersed teams. For example, we have been using SL for weekly cadence calls with a large global client and the dispersed team, and have seen consistently good results – time is used very effectively, and participants are more relaxed and open. This potential will increase with the recent test launch of integrated audio and voice capabilities on Second Life.
- Sales - Many consumer goods, automotive, media and financial services firms (from Nissan to Adidas, from Swiss bank BCV to Reuters, from the BBC to Harvard University) are exploring Second Life as a new channel for sales, customer relationships, teaching and media distribution. From building islands to promote recording artists, to launching a new car simultaneously in the real world and SL, to customizing a shoe in SL to be bought in the real world, these organizations are pioneering the medium. However, to quote a major retailer, “it’s too early to know what will work”. Technology companies are also exploring the medium for corporate sales and services. IBM is a leader in this area, having recently opened a new Virtual Business Centre which experiments with Virtual Worlds as a sales channel. The ability to work with a client in a visual and immersive environment, will only be an advantage as products and services get more complex.
- Innovation – Companies are using SL to test and develop products. Starwood Hotels, for example built a new concept hotel within SL as a test environment before their real world launch of Aloft Hotels, using the SL members' feedback to refine their plans before starting construction and franchising (after which Starwood donated its virtual SL hotel to a non-profit youth organization).
4) WHAT'S NEXT?
Virtual Worlds will be constrained by technology and acceptance for the foreseeable future. However, environments such as Second Life are moving and evolving so fast that “checking in” every six months or a year is no longer enough.
Virtual Browsers - Many participants predict the introduction of a “virtual browser” as the next breakthrough, allowing avatars and their assets to move easily between virtual worlds. The underpinning technologies will become more widely available, encouraging enterprises to build their own virtual worlds – adding to the spectrum of virtual innovation.
- Ubiquity – Like other technologies that are fundamentally about communication, Virtual Worlds will need to go through a series of standard phases – from “Wow, you have an avatar?”, to “I have an avatar too”, to “You still don’t have an avatar?”. When there is a critical mass in a given community, then the benefits of communicating or collaborating within a world such as Second Life will be much more evident.
- Confluence – When your avatar flies through Second Life (or when your mouse maneuvers through Street View, a recent feature introduced on Google Earth) you can’t help thinking – what if? What if the next generation of technologies could allow the ultimate mash-up of Google Earth and Second Life – allowing our avatars to stroll down a real time Broadway on their way to the movies? The combination – whether a Google Life or a Second Earth or another similar entity - could be the ultimate enterprise in Virtual Worlds.
SL and other virtual worlds have demonstrated the potential to become the next generation of interface for connections, content, and collaboration – effectively the post-Web platform of choice – taking the 2D internet and transforming it to a 360-degree 3D experience. The question now is: can they overcome the challenges and go beyond the tipping point of widespread acceptance of the technology, moving from the leading edge user to ubiquity? And if so, when?
(Susan Kish can be contacted at mail (at) susankish (dot) com. A PDF version of this essay, completed with a glossary and a commented bibliography can be downloaded here (1.4 MB). Any comment and suggestion will be gratefully received. Research assistance by Lauren Du Peza).
© Copyright 2007 Susan Kish. Distributed under Creative Commons License Attribution/Non Commercial/Share Alike