Second life may need second look

Recent reports in major business and technology publications have prophesized the demise of corporate presence in virtual worlds such as Second Life.

First, there’s the story about American Apparel, who set up a store on Second Life last year, only to close its virtual shop after the Second Life Liberation Army gunned down the company’s virtual shoppers.

Another often cited failure is Starwood Hotels, which set up a virtual hotel chain for Second Life users, but pulled out after realizing online avatars don’t require sleep.

And one of the more bizarre Second Life lowlights came when Anshe Chung, a famous avatar who has earned over US$1 million selling virtual real estate on Second Life, was attacked by flying cartoon penises during a press interview.

Marketing aside, these virtual worlds can also be used for internal communications, such as providing a forum for corporate training.

And this brings us to another major criticism leveled at Second Life recently. One that is more relevant to CW readers.

A recent Gartner report stated that enterprises can face potential IT security risks when using virtual worlds for internal use. Access management and avatar identity issues were highlighted as particular areas of concern for IT managers.

And while this doesn’t sound like an environment that enterprises should want anything to do with, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

There’s no question that the potential risks are real, but the rewards could outweigh the risk in this case.

Erik Hauser, creative director of San Francisco, Calif.-based Swivel Media, certainly agrees. “Second Life has been getting a lot of bad press and backlash and it’s really unjustified to a certain extent,” Hauser said. “It’s at the very beginning of the lifecycle as I consider them, potentially, one of the most powerful tools an enterprise can use.”

Hauser’s company helped create Stagecoach Island, a virtual destination for U.S. bank Wells Fargo which resides on the virtual community of ActiveWorlds.

His advice to enterprises venturing out to the virtual world is to know the environment they’re getting into.

And if you look back to the early years of the World Wide Web, you can certainly see the parallels. There were security risks. Many enterprises forced themselves online without proper planning. And the technology and usability still had a long way to go.

But looking back, it was something that CIOs and IT managers had to work out if they wanted to be in on one of the most important technologies of our time.

And the same applies to worlds like Second Life.

Looking at today’s virtual environments, there is still much progress to be made, but it’s already easy to see great potential in the technology.

And once the time is right, significant benefits, as well as profitability, will come from these virtual environments, overshadowing the potential risks they currently present to IT security and corporate image.

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