Will 2012 be the year of virtual worlds?

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They say that the sign of genius is to hold two conflicting opinions at the same time without going crazy. Of course, this was said by F Scott Fitzgerald who was slowly descending into alcoholism and craziness, so take that for what it's worth. That said, here are two seemingly conflicting ideas that I suspect are true:

First, virtual worlds (think Second Life for grownups) will inevitably become more popular in business. But second, personally, I hate them and will be dragged down that path kicking and screaming.

Yet here's the important thing: I suspect I will go down that path anyway, (noisy and unpleasant as it will be for all concerned).

What got me thinking about this was a blog post by Maria Korlova over at the HyperGrid Business Blog. In it, she maintains her firm conviction that businesses will soon come around to using these virtual worlds as business tools. Just as the nay-sayers were wrong about the Internet, Software as a Service, and Lady Gaga, we will eventually integrate this technology into how we work.

The tone of the article reads a bit like a late-night primal scream (and that's not a criticism, I've written those "why don't they #@$%@%^ get it" articles myself) but it makes some good points. For those who resist Second Life, On24 and others, buckle up.

  • The technology is becoming more and more impressive
  • The worlds are becoming more life-like and less, well, creepy
  • It's becoming more ubiquitous
  • The price is dropping, and as soon as it's cheaper to do an effective conference this way instead of paying for airfare, the bean counters will insist on using it
  • Those of us who resist it on principle will either retire or leave feet-first (remember, gang, any job that doesn't end in retirement ends in death)

On the other hand, if companies want to get people to use these tools they'll have to do a better job of rolling out the technology. And there are plenty of things they need to do better:

  • Stop trying to sell virtual worlds as cool. Most managers don't want cool, we want easy to use.
  • Find a way to make avatars either look like real people or avoid the zombie-like eyes that creep me out on some deep neurological level
  • Note to designers: no grownup wants to fly between rooms. Can we please just navigate from one room to the other without a meeting turning into a giant Dungeons and Dragons session?
  • Focus on a pressing business need and show how you can solve that problem.
  • Start with a small group of influencers. Not the tech gurus, but real line managers or project managers who have the ear of others in the organization.
  • Roll it out slowly and hold people accountable for results
  • Train them- and training does not mean online tutorials. The cure for people resisting technology is not more technology.

As I said, I'm not a big fan of these virtual worlds, but I'm not stupid either. If it can really save money and be effective (and the company says I have to use it or else!) I will do it. Even though I make my living teaching people how to communicate virtually, I much prefer to be in a room with people and presenting live, I know that this is the way the world works and I've made peace with it.

Is this the year business really adopts this technology and it stops being exotic? Possibly. I won't be at the front of the line, but I'm no longer manning the barricades to prevent it, either.

Now, if they could just do something about the whole "creepy avatar" thing, we'll be getting somewhere.

If you are attending the American Society for Training and Development's (ASTD) Tech Knowledge 2012 Conference in Las Vegas, I'll be speaking on Friday, January 27th and hope to see you there. The topic will be How to Roll Out Successful Webinar Training…. Or Not. Drop me a line if you're going and let's meet in person.

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OLDER COMMENTS

while we work on importing them to the new system!

Considering that I replied to Maria's post, I thought I should reply to your post. VR in 2012? Nope. As an all encompassing destination, VR has been, and always will be an odd niche. It doesn't matter if it's SL, OpenSim, WoW, Entropia, IMVU, or the old VRML standards. Embracing it as a tool in an arsenal of WWW options is what will make the difference.

Joey1058 Gladstone, MI

I think this is a great article. I was CEO of a company that did a lot of early work in using virtual worlds for virtual enterprise applications and my sense is that you have really nailed it, especially as it relates to the way in which they need to introduced to businesses. Business users are put off by the weird and useless so it is important that they understand how it will help them meet their serious business goals

David Rolston Santa Clara, CA

Good advice. One thing I think will be critical to virtual world adoption is integration with the web to improve accessibility. We need more virtual worlds that can be accessed via any web browser. Technology like Unity3d and WebGL are steps in the right direction, and i'm currently working on a platform called "Jibe" from ReactionGrid that leverages those technologies.

John "Pathfinder" Lester Montreal

Many good comments you have made here. I am a lifetime member of SL with an online social business, and a 2003 inception veteran in SL and Entropia Universe amongst others. Right now having seen both the influx and exodus of brands in Second Life via agencies like Red Rivers Run (who have now departed for Kitely), I am working in doing just what you suggest in bringing private, secure, business only oriented virtual worlds to companies, organisations, charities and enterprise level organisations at hostavirtualevent.

Your comment about a business focussed environment 'emulating' some of the conventions of physical business life and work is apt, as is the emphasis on identifying and solving at least one key business issue or need, and this creating a tangible adoption benefit.

The key driver for many corporates at the moment especially those with multi-site operations, globally or nationally distributed sales forces or teams is reducing travel cost. Achieving a reduced, or in some cases, zero travel policy has become a goal for many large corporates including banks, energy conglomerates and major financials. This has a number of additional benefits in reduction of travel time spent away from home and office, the building of new versatile collaborative working and information sharing methods, enhanced productivity, and last but not least well-being and stress reduction benefits for real people. There is also the added publicly accountable and tangible reduction in business carbon footprint as a result of this travel and energy usage reduction.

It's primarily the learning and development departments and organisations that have traditionally started to look at the virtual arena first, but closely followed now by brand management organisations, educators, and even event management companies who see the addition of virtual exhibitions to their physical service portfolio as being a logical extension.

Focussing the virtual world on the business market we have started to see a much greater interest in desktop and home based collaborative virtual working which needs to be more engaging and immersive, and where information experienced as an avatar is more effectively retained than the now 'traditional' web conferencing or tele-presence route; these being a more 'disengaged' experience

The blog you refer to clearly picks up on that inevitable coalescence that occurs as new media and digital forms emerge and filter through into business use. It's not that long ago since businesses 'hated' social media and an industry arose to persuade them to buy software to filter it out, and now they are paying SEO and social media consultants to get them into the social media space. As the Borg famously say ' Resistance is Futile'

It's no coincidence that in a year when London rapidly fills up its hotel and venue space with the Olympics pending, and we achieve record UK fuel prices yet again, that the prestigious SC Magazine is choosing for the second year running to host its annual IT exhibition using the virtual world in the SC Virtual Summit (May 17th and 18th) so anyone who wants to see business virtuality in public access space can sign up and visit that.

As you say it's pretty much the 'tip of the iceberg' right now with business adoption of virtual worlds but with schools, universities and even recently the US Forces creating their own virtual campuses , it won't be that long before business follows suit and the integration of existing web, social media, and working-sharing collaboration finds its way into the virtual arena as a single location in which businesses engage with their clients, customers and colleagues.

Philip Solo Dundee, Leicester, London UK

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