Immersive virtual environments - such as Second Life and some enterprise-friendly alternatives - have traditionally required users to download special software and learn a difficult user interface.
But several companies are working to change that, offering business-friendly virtual meeting platforms that work right in a Web browser, no software download required, with prices starting at around $50 a month.
Immersive virtual meeting environments allow participants to use avatars to walk around a virtual environment, and are useful tools for collaborating on and prototyping 3D designs, such as new products, buildings, or factories.
Companies are also finding them useful training environments, since meeting managers can create virtual replicas of hospitals, assembly lines, or sales rooms and have employees practice skills without endangering themselves or equipment. Finally, virtual environments are also beginning to be used as alternatives to Web conferences, since they create a sense of "being there" and allow more interaction between meeting participants.
Immersive virtual meetings fall somewhere in between simple, voice-only conference calls and elaborate video-based telepresence conferences, says Marc Beattie, managing partner at Wainhouse Research, a market research firm that specializes on communication, conferencing and collaboration technologies.
An immersive virtual meeting creates the same sense of "being there" as a telepresence setup, but doesn't require all of the expensive equipment typically associated with telepresence. "I see virtual events as replacing in-person events," Beattie says.
These virtual environments aren't just Second Life in a browser. Customers get their own, private virtual spaces - no unauthorized visitors, no unauthorized content. Users can't create their own stuff in these environments as they can with Second Life and similar virtual world platforms, and avatar choices and clothing options are severely constrained.
For business use, this is a good thing. It means that visitors can't put virtual graffiti on company walls, or wear inappropriate clothing to events.
Here are some of the players:
Global cosmetics giant Avon Products had a problem. The teenage girls who were the primary salesforce for its "mark" brand of youth-oriented cosmetic products had a hard time sitting through Web conferences composed mostly of PowerPoint presentations. But the need for online meetings was unavoidable - the girls were located all over the country, and needed to participate in training and attend sales meetings.
"When you're sitting in a Web conference, it's easy to be distracted, check your email, watch TV," says Natalie Wood, assistant director for the Center of Consumer Research at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University, which was asked by Avon to help solve this problem.