Using Second Life as a business collaboration tool has garnered a bad reputation with previous public failures. But analyst firm ThinkBalm and vendor Forterra Systems finds real use cases are beginning to emerge that are driving enterprise acceptance

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Immersive technologies like Second Life in the enterprise have often at best been perceived as a distraction or just too complex to deal with. But a great way to understand these computer-generated collaboration and productivity environments is as the front end of a unified communications strategy, said an analyst.

 

Sam Driver, principal with Little Compton, Road Island-based analyst firm ThinkBalm, said that while an enterprise’s unified communications strategy may live in the back office, immersive technologies is what delivers that experience of voice, text, presence awareness and a sense of connection.

 

“Immersive technology is a great mirror of (unified communications) because it provides that same unification that you would expect … but in a very consumable way,” said Driver.

 

ThinkBalm recently released its latest report, The Enterprise Immersive Software Decision-Making Guide, the goal being to help enterprises identify and procure the technology that works best for them.

 

Immersive technologies has garnered a bad reputation in the enterprise for various reasons, including public marketing failures in Second Life and a lack of experience among employees with 3D environments, be it 3D business apps for data visualization or 3D games, said Driver.

 

And, Driver added, the fact that immersive technologies have their roots in video game culture “automatically puts the questions in the mind of senior management that we don’t want people playing games at work.”

 

But that’s been changing in the past three years, said Driver, as success stories emerged of businesses that found value in immersive technologies even if they didn’t fully understand how it worked.

 

Moreover, the economic downturn has really pushed interest in immersive technologies as a means of continuing to collaborate in the face of slashed travel budgets, said Driver.

 

John Burwell, vice-president of business development with Washington, DC-based Forterra Systems Inc., agreed that some real use cases are beginning to emerge now that the hype about immersive technologies has died down.

 

“People are getting real serious about doing the kinds of deployments that will give a return on the investment that they put into it,” said Burwell.

 

And being a 3D environment, computer-generated collaborative environments is a draw for some companies who want to attract a younger generation of workers with fun and interesting platforms, said Burwell.

 

The sort of immersive technology that will suit an organization will depend on the use case and corporate culture, said Driver. Rich immersive environments typically can’t hold more than a hundred participants at a time, so while that is fine for a collaborative setting, like a project, it’s not viable for a large conference, he said.

 

As a result, vendors offer a broad spectrum of platforms to suit the varying requirements of customers. For instance, a software design might place more weight on building out the collaborative environment, with popular productivity tool integration, and less on avatars. Another software might provide a classroom versus hands-on training style.

 

While some tools will let users adopt avatars that don’t physically reflect the actual person, Burwell said a business environment necessitates as much realism as possible to fuel trust. Some vendor software offer the very useful option of branding meeting rooms with company logos or matching real world corporate settings, said Burwell.

 

Besides use cases, Driver said consideration should also be given to security and corporate and legal policy where, depending on the level of risk averseness of the organization, running an app outside the firewall will eliminate some vendor offerings.

 

Overall, Burwell sees immersive technologies as falling along the continuum of collaboration solutions from audio to video to virtual. “I think it’s the next step in unified communication,” he said. “A virtual world is essentially a layer over the top of that that provides all the capabilities that unified communications does, yet it’s a much more natural and intuitive user interface that people want to use.”

 

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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