Erica Driver recalls a visit to an island, complete with race track, where she and others whizzed about until they were dizzy. “I had to stop. I was seasick,” the co-founder and principal of independent analysis firm ThinkBalm. That was simple enough – it just took getting out her chair and taking off the headphones. The island was in virtual world Second Life.
Online worlds like Second Life aren’t simply for gamers, according to Driver. For the enterprise, there’s an opportunity for cost savings and redesigning processes in what she calls the immersive Internet. It also engages users deeply in their work and allows them to do things that simply couldn’t be done in the real world.
In ThinkBalm’s report, The Immersive Internet: Make Tactical Moves Today for Strategic Advantage Tomorrow, the research company defines the immersive Internet as “a collection of emerging technologies combined with a social culture that has its roots in gaming and virtual worlds.”
“What’s not immersive is FaceBook or LinkedIn,” Driver says – those are simply social networking sites. Three-dimensional video, directional stereo sound and haptic devices for touch feedback aren’t necessary, though “they contribute an amount to the immersive experience,” Driver says. At a minimum, it’s an immersive experience when people can meet in an environment and interact, usually through avatars. “If you feel your presences has been projected into the environment,” it’s an immersive experience.
“There’s levels and layers to that immersion,” she says.
Driver describes enterprise uptake of the immersive Internet as being at the “seedling” stage.
“In most cases, it’s experimentation and small pilots,” she says. Most of those applications revolve around meetings and conferences, or education and training. But she believes it will be mainstream in the next five years, though there are stumbling blocks, like a lack of best practices and interoperability between platforms.
But why not just teleconference? Driver says on a virtual campus, for example, you can lead someone somewhere to demonstrate a business problem and brainstorm solutions. “You can actually shake hands,” she says. “You can’t do that in a teleconference, no matter how good the resolution. You reach out and touch a screen.”
As a substitute for business travel, it saves money but retains the engagement and spontaneity of an in-person meeting. In an economy where cost-cutting messages resonate, “here’s a technology that doesn’t have to be expensive that can deliver those cost cuts and not have to hurt (the company).”
Adoption of immersive technology isn’t restricted top any particular vertical or size of company. “It’s not the company. It’s the people,” Driver says – curious, looking for better ways to work, familiar with the technology from their own or their children’s use of it.
“You can find those people anywhere,” she says, though many corporate cultures don’t encourage that type of innovation. A locked-down IT shop, where people can’t install their own applications or visit social networking sites is not a breeding ground for immersive innovation. “It’s a level of trust … it speaks to culture.”
IBM Corp., for example, encourages its employees to explore virtual worlds – but with comprehensive guidelines. Use your judgment; protect your reputation (and IBM’s); make the right impression. You can read the full list of guidelines here.
IBM began working on its own virtual worlds about three years ago. Today, it’s composed of about 50 public “island clusters” and 20 private ones, according to Chuck Hamilton, manager of new media and learning for IBM’s 3-D media group. They’re used primarily for culture and community building; there are also recruiting islands, business centres, and training and mentoring islands.
About 10,000 IBMers are members of the IBM virtual world, but Hamilton says there’s no way of knowing how many are out in other virtual worlds, though the estimate runs from 10,000 to 15,000.
“The guidelines are actually pretty old now,” Hamilton says, noting they were formulated about 18 months ago. “Nobody ever wrote one for the Web,” he said, the company figured it had better be discussed.
The basic premise of the guidelines: Virtual worlds are public places, and whether you’re in a real or virtual world, the same business code of conduct applies, Hamilton says.