He’s just not that virtually into you

Once people start using avatars to hook up romantically, it won’t be long before businesses start flirting more seriously with virtual worlds, too.

A Toronto firm called OmniDate is developing technology which will allow users of online dating sites to meet on the Web through virtual versions of themselves, or avatars. In its marketing spiel, the company suggests the hype about Second Life doesn’t address the difficulty of actually installing and running it on an individual machine. It would also save on the time and money associated with actually getting together with someone in an actual coffee shop. At its core, OmniDate is simply offering a more textured way to build and manage a relationship via the Internet. And business people just love new ways to manage relationships more efficiently.

In the old days, a firm like this would have started out with a product called OmniMeet, which would have been targeted at Fortune 500 companies that were trying to minimize their travel costs and facilitate better collaboration among customers, partners and other employees. It would then most likely fail for the same reason that other forms of online collaboration and technologies like videoconferencing have (for the most part) failed: nobody wants to be the first dork to adopt new behaviours.

Web 2.0’s slow march towards the enterprise means that OmniDate (and other products like it that will surely follow) may crop up in corporations the same way some business users have started to set up Facebook profiles and groups specifically aimed at work-related contacts. In fact, depending on the nature of the project, virtual worlds may be cheaper and easier to use than videoconferencing, and the use of avatars may prove more comfortable than broadcasting yourself to a remote office.

The downsides include the same pitfalls you encounter with many Web 2.0 technologies. There may be some bandwidth constraints if many people in the same office are using virtual worlds to conduct business meetings, for example. The technology might polarize younger staffers who are acclimatized to virtual worlds versus older, more senior staff who don’t want to see themselves as a glorified cartoon. There might also be some interesting security issues – imagine a company that disguises itself as a customer prospect in order to learn more about a competitor’s product strategy or steal data.

IT managers need to keep abreast of services like OmniDate because they have a way of bubbling up in popular culture until their ubiquity has major consequences for information sharing inside and outside the office. Now that such communication tools are being offered to consumers first, business adoption might happen more quickly. Or not. All we’re really talking about are a few dates, after all. It takes a lot more than that before most of us are ready to make any real commitment.

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