Where Have All the Avatars Gone?

Many have already written eulogies for the virtual worlds. Dead, they claim; the avatar is dead in the corporate realm. But the truth reads like the “Star Trek” script for the “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode: just because you don’t see them, doesn’t mean they are not breeding like mad in a closed grain bin. Without doubt, many corporations are indeed tribbling their avatar action.

“The ease with which entities can close off public access in Second Life makes it difficult to know exactly what might be going on behind closed boardroom doors with regards to their presence in Second Life or other virtual worlds,” Shenlei Winkler, CEO of The Fashion Research Institute, told TechNewsWorld.

Winkler is also author of Shengri La Spirit: A Designer’s Perspective of the Making of OpenSim on content licensing for virtual goods, virtualization of enterprise in immersive workspaces, OpenSim enterprise application development, and user immersion in virtual worlds. A successful designer, her real-life apparel designs have now reached more than US$70 million in sales. Her couture work has appeared on stage, movie screens and in Second Life.

Invasion of the Invisible Avatars

There is no conspiracy at foot backing the presence of legions of corporate-made avatars in the virtual world space. Rather, the brouhaha surrounding many early virtual world failures made the rest a wee bit shy. That, and corporations like to keep their intellectual property and company secrets, well, secret.

“The first camp would readily agree that Second Life and other virtual worlds ‘used to be the hotspot for corporations looking to do all sorts of things in the virtual world’ and that virtual worlds are just another fad not worth serious exploration,” AHG CEO Alex Heiphetz, Ph.D., told TechNewsWorld. Heiphetz has published research papers on virtual worlds and is a prominent speaker and panelist on the topic. Together with Gary Woodill, Ed.D., Heiphetz authored Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds: How to Create Cost-Saving, Efficient and Engaging Programs.

“The second camp consists of the companies that were slower to adopt Second Life for business purposes, but did it in a less hyped, more deliberate manner,” he explained. “Moving slowly, they avoided major pitfalls that derailed early implementations.”

In Second Life, the Michelin Group, for example, has an “extremely successful complex training program and interactive simulations for training worldwide employees in Enterprise Architecture,” Heiphetz said.

Michelin selected the platform exclusively because all other training methodologies had failed, he notes in his book.

“Due to security considerations, you will not be able to find Michelin’s ‘place of business’ in Second Life. It will not come up in any search, so you need to know what to look for and where,” he said.

“Moreover, unless you are cleared for access by one of the project managers, you will not be able to access Michelin in Second Life even if you know the location. Similar protections exist in most other successful Second Life projects, such as nurse and physical therapists training developed in the University of Kansas Medical Center,” Heiphetz added.

“This difference between access to a corporate Web site and [the] intentionally closed, secure nature of a successful corporate Second Life project that is often oriented exclusively towards internal training and collaboration makes for lack of public knowledge about many successes of corporate Second Life projects,” he pointed out.

“In our own experience working with potential clients, Second Life security makes it harder to communicate possibilities and demonstrate successes,” said Heiphetz.

The Hybrid Arrives

While the high security in virtual worlds adds to the corporate appeal, it also restricts how and where the avatars can be used. So along came a hybrid approach — and this avatar species roams about in the mainstream.

“While most of Heartland GreenUp’s presenters will appear live in Des Moines and on livestream video in Heartland GreenUp Virtual, London-based keynoter Simon Mingay, vice president of research for Gartner, will do the reverse: connecting from his London office via the Internet, appearing live in the 3-D environment in avatar form, and via real-time video in Des Moines,” Kim Smith, chief operations officer and vice president ofWorld2Worlds, told TechNewsWorld in April.

“Mingay’s use of Second Life eliminates fears that a follow-on eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, considered likely, will cause cancellation of international flights, preventing a physical appearance in the U.S.,” added Smith.

For his part, Mingay was excited about appearing as a keynote speaker dressed in an avatar. Perhaps, he felt that way the audience wouldn’t see him sweat?

“No, it’s because my avatar is much better looking than I am,” he laughed, as he explained to TechNewsWorld prior to the conference how the hybrid Avatar approach would work.

“Technology is pretty basic at my end,” said Mingay — a fast broadband connection to his home office, but nothing fancy.

“We are using Skype for the voice because people sometimes have problems with Second Life if they don’t have a good Internet connection,” he explained. “We’ve worked a little on the quality of the audio, so I have a very good headset and USB audio attachment which should ensure good quality.”

Mingay planned to use basic PowerPoint slides, “though there are a couple that might challenge the limits of Second Life.” Beyond that, the group decided to keep it simple, so they were not planning to integrate any live video.

It would be Mingay’s first presentation as an Avatar. “My expectation is that it will be much more interactive, and that I’ll be able to respond to the chat to some extent, something that is almost impossible in a typical large gathering,” he said. “I’ve played around with some of the features of Second Life — like gestures and movement — but I don’t anticipate using that, because I think it is just a distraction for all concerned.”

Peeking Behind Virtual Doors

While it is difficult to count heads secured behind virtual fortresses, there are a few number gatherers to give us a clue as to how much corporate avatar tribbling is actually going on.

“Over 2,000 global enterprises, 600 universities, 35 international governments, and several divisions of the U.S. federal government — including the Departments of State, Homeland Security, NOAA, NASA, Army, Navy and Air Force — now exploit Second Life technology to connect with stakeholders around the world, communicate complex ideas, train and collaborate,” said Smith.

“Early (2005-2007) corporate experiments aimed at using Second Life for consumer branding have given way to more sophisticated strategies based around business-to-business events, executive briefing and customer education, immersive data visualization, simulation-based instruction — and on use of the platform for creating impactful, low-cost animated video,” she explained.

But don’t expect corporations to pick just one virtual world to play in.

The Fashion Research Institute, for example, maintains a substantial virtual world presence:

  • twenty regions in the ScienceSim grid dedicated to education;
  • a private development grid behind the FRI firewall dedicated to product design and development;
  • an initial presence in IBM’sv-Business grid; and
  • until recently, three islands in Second Life dedicated to ongoing research in immersion and orientation of new users.

“We have scaled back from Second Life and have been a critical part of the OpenSimulator development pathway, both through providing performance testing, content workloads, and feedback, and through our core developers on the OpenSim project.” said Winkler.

Why are businesses investing so heavily in virtual worlds? There is no one set reason; it all depends on what any given corporation is trying to achieve.

“We have developed a patent-pending design methodology and new technology infrastructure using virtual worlds as the user interface,” noted Winkler. “This infrastructure reduces related fashion industry production landfill wastes and by-products to up to 60 percent over traditional fashion production methods and cuts time-to-market for products by as much as six weeks.”

“To that end, from a corporate perspective, it behooves us to look at cost-effective ways to use virtual worlds,” she said.

As is the case with most enterprises that are focused on work related to their core business, the social networking community of Second Life is not the primary audience or market. It is, therefore, the platform that appeals to corporate. However, Second Life isn’t the only game in town.

“We are quite able to conduct meetings, collaborate on projects and prototype, test, and pilot new concepts and ideas on public virtual world grids such as ScienceSim and ReactionGrid, or more particularly in our own, private OpenSim-based grid behind our firewall, the Fashionable Grid,”said Winkler.

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