I was standing in a spacious entryway, chatting with the chief science officer at Sun Microsystems. His short-cropped hair, V-neck sweater and glasses were a sure sign of technical prowess.
Peeking just over the horizon, the sun cast a warm glow over a nearby server rack. I was wearing a Sun baseball hat, a T-shirt with the Java logo emblazoned on the front and a purple lapel pin. I was also holding a Sun helium-filled balloon that was at least three times as big as my head.
“Nice facility you have here,” I said, as he suddenly vanished into thin air.
“It happens once in a while,” said another Sun employee.
In the virtual world of Second Life, anything goes — even if your goal is to build a corporate brand, hold ad hoc user group meetings, sponsor a conference or help end users find a video card driver.
Here’s a list of the top eight sites worth visiting. To find them, just register at SecondLife.com, install, click Search and type the company name to find its island and transport. Save us a T-shirt if you go!
8. Best Buy Geek Squad
Geeks unite! At Geek Squad Island, the most impressive offering — apart from the bumper car ride that’s modeled after the original Geek Squad vehicles — is deep technical advice.
Real-world employees keep regular hours from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. and will chat about any topic. I asked about video card support for DX10 games and which USB keydrives work for ReadyBoost, and an agent knew the answers immediately.
According to Diana Garrett, a Geek Squad spokeswoman (and my tour guide), employees will consult for free until a customer needs to buy a product — for that, they have to call or e-mail.
There are no giveaways, though, and the place is dead during non-working hours.
Note: A search won’t work for Geek Squad Island, so use this URL.
7. H&R Block
The wood floors at H&R Block Island (search for “HR Block” on Second Life) are a subtle reminder: This is a top-tier financial consulting portal, modeled after the 12,000 office locations worldwide.
Despite the stuffy decor, there is an interesting point-of-sale angle. For US$100 Linden (the currency in Second Life, which is about $70 in U.S. currency), you can buy the new Tango online tax preparation software. No discount, though — that was the same price offered on the H&R Block site until a “limited-time offer” was instituted.
The bundle includes access to virtual scooters, dance shoes, a T-shirt and other paraphernalia. Of course, the real transaction takes place on the Web, where you type in an access code.
Unlike Dell Island, where you can build a virtual PC and then buy it online, H&R Block seems to want to conduct real business in Second Life, perhaps as a proof-of-concept. Now that’s an innovative spirit!
6. Cisco Systems Inc.
IT pros definitely fawn all over Cisco Systems. This well-populated island showcases its products in a cleanly designed “connected home” of the future — although it’s a little heavy on marketing. There are routers, streaming media devices and VoIP phones scattered all about the two-level dwelling.
The real draw, though, are the company-sponsored user group meetings with keynote speakers such as John Chambers, Cisco’s CEO, and Tom Malone, an MIT luminary. Second Lifers apparently formed the first groups autonomously and asked for Cisco sponsorship after the group swelled in numbers.
During one event I attended, several techie conversations erupted spontaneously in a meeting room. Product demos allow potential customers to see how a network switch actually fits into a data center, something that usually requires an in-person executive briefing in the physical world.
“For someone who wants to learn about advanced devices, a virtual world is a good environment for that,” says Joe Laszlo, a research director of broadband media at JupiterResearch and Second Life expert.
Reuters’ concrete-and-sidewalk location in Second Life has a decidedly business feel, with tall downtown skyscrapers and lush fountains. Yet, it does attract curious Second Lifers who want to discuss the hot topics of the day. During my visit, several discussions involved the recent Virginia Tech shootings, as well as the recent Supreme Court ruling banning partial birth abortion. A Reuters News Center device, available for free, feeds you the news of the day on a handheld reader.
What’s really interesting is that Reuters has a handful of journalists who wander through Second Life — visiting campuses such as Dell and Sun — to find news stories that make it onto the real-world service. This model of “virtual journalism” shows how a virtual presence can add credibility to a reporter who asks questions, can record chat history and follow up by phone and e-mail for fact checking.
4. Dell Inc.
Dell Island is mostly a portal for advancing the company brand, although there are a few sights worth seeing: a re-creation of one of the company’s commercials (the one with the giant purple gorilla), a factory modeled after a real Dell facility, a PC museum and Michael Dell’s college dorm room.
You can also use a drafting table to build the basic components of a real-world computer, such as the Dell XPS 710, and see what it would look like on an office desk. When you are ready to buy, a link takes you to a secure Web site where you type in your real name and credit card number.
Laura Thomas, Dell’s corporate online editor and main Second Life evangelist, told me she would like to see more metrics in Second Life for customer visits. She also said the company is planning on re-creating the Dell plant-a-tree initiative to help lower individual carbon footprints.
3. Sun Microsystems Inc.
The Second Life teleport blurb for Sun Microsystems says the company has a “100% focus on network computing.” When I visited, this popular destination was brimming with client/server-related chat sessions: two jet-pack-wearing visitors were talking about cell phones and Java, and several people gathered around a product demo that shows the cooling effects of Sun servers in a data center.
“Second Life allows us to do things we could never do in real life,” says Chris Melissinos, Sun’s chief gaming officer. “People feel less inhibited and will ask more direct questions about products.”
The company has no plans to sell products directly through Second Life, however, noting that the platform is not reliable or scalable. Game servers can only hold about 70 people at once, according to Linden Labs. And there’s no file encryption. In fact, to run a Second Life server, companies have to open multiple ports in their corporate firewalls — which tells hackers exactly how to break into company resources. (Most companies use a hosted service to avoid any potential break-ins.)
Second only to IBM in its innovative use of a virtual world, the Pontiac presence on Second Life is quite impressive: Its red logo is found on carpeted halls and sprawling multilevel glass buildings.
There’s a dealership where you can take recent models out for a test drive, such as the Pontiac Solstice GXP. A car garage lets you cu