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April 22, 2008

VIRTUAL WORLDS 2: Why you should be getting involved

Think of virtual world like Second Life and you’d be forgiven for picturing a bunch of teenagers lacking in social skills spending their lives glued to computer screens. While there may well be a number of people in Second Life fitting this bill, the reality is that not only are very normal people in there, but there are also powerful business implications for the real world, and the live marketing and meeting and events industries are starting now to investigate the possibilities that digital experiences bring to the table.

“Virtual world applications offer scope for supporting a range of different business activities, not least networking, presentation, marketing and presentational facilities as part of the 3D web. Just as companies are currently offering these aspects of their business through their websites, now they have the option to take up similar activities in the 3D worlds available,” explains Dr Sara de Freitas, director of research at The Serious Games Institute (SGI) at Coventry University. “To run meetings in virtual worlds, companies can either hold them at the SGI business island in Second Life, for example, or set up their own islands and develop their own virtual resources.”

Out of this world: companies looking to get involved
can build their own meeting spaces

Don't jump in at the deep end
Virtual worlds are already proving to be successful for both meetings and events, and clearly meetings are the easiest entry point for an organisation looking to explore the opportunities. “Our clients are using their offices for internal and external meetings, but we would recommend that your readers start 'in the shallow' end with internal meetings – we do have clients that have started their adventures in Second Life with a pitch to a new client, the success of which would be improved if time had been taken to practice and for them to find their (virtual) feet,” says Peter Dunkley, director of virtual world consultancy depo consulting.

Russell Williams of Herd, Cow PR’s social networking arm, agrees: “There are a number of ways companies can get involved. If they are serious about taking the plunge and building a long-term virtual world presence, then they could go ahead and build a permanent meeting/event space in, say, Second Life. We wouldn’t encourage companies to dive straight in without testing the water first, however. Just as in the real world, there are a number of managed meeting rooms and event spaces that businesses can rent if they need to. Unlike the real world, however, you have a great deal more choice in virtual worlds. In Second Life, for example, you can host a meeting in a medieval castle complete with attendant wizards, in mid air or on a sun-drenched beach.”

As far as events are concerned, virtual worlds present the ability to attract a global audience at a fraction of the cost of any real-life event. While it's still early in the use of virtual worlds by businesses, there are an increasing number of events being held and the experience being gathered is going to be critical in the development of successful business models in what is a genuinely new and exciting event environment. “Working within the environment is critical in gaining an understanding of why and how virtual meetings work – and in particular where they can succeed in picking up where tele and video conferencing might fail to deliver the optimum outcome,” continues Dunkley.

A new scope for finding new markets

A range of larger companies such as IBM, Reuters and PA Consulting are already using the 3D web to support their business activities and many more are developing their own presence in Second Life and using other virtual world applications, according to de Freitas. “As the costs are reasonably low, more and more businesses are getting involved,” she says. “But it is not just to keep up with other companies that businesses may want to join in, virtual world applications offer new scope for finding new markets for businesses' products, the opportunity to network and support business training needs, and scope to offer their customers virtual support for new services.”

Dunkley sees the benefits of using virtual worlds as being many fold. “From an internal perspective, the ability to hold meetings in the virtual office has a number of benefits," he explains. "The environmental gains themselves are significant. While there is a carbon impact from running the infrastructure of virtual worlds, the impact is far less than that of real-world travel. This alone should be enough to drive serious consideration within environmentally responsible companies.

“There are obviously cost-benefits from reducing travel. But also, if staff are not travelling to meetings, then that time can be used more productively. There is also a quality-of-life aspect to this. Competitive pressures have resulted in increasing demands upon the time of ourselves and our staff. Providing an alternative has to be a benefit, and shows that peoples' time is valued, appreciated and respected,” he continues. “The other significant benefit is that attendees are as likely to socialise after the meeting as in real life. This can be a significant benefit – and is fostered because there is a reduced time commitment, plus greater convenience for the attendees.”

Inside job: A safe place to start is with internal meetings

Getting in on the act
So how can companies get started in Second Life? Herd’s Williams has some practical tips. “The first thing you need to do is identify the most appropriate virtual world to get involved with, as not all of them would be appropriate for virtual meetings," he says. "Trying to host a conference in (online role-playing game) World of Warcraft might be a little tricky. Second Life is the most popular virtual world at present that most businesses are looking at.

“The best way to get involved is to check it out – sign-up, log-on and spend a little time exploring the various options, just as you would in the real world. Once you’ve decided that a virtual world is right for you, it’s probably best to get talking with a company, such as Herd, with a track record of putting on virtual events – they’ll be able to get you up and running and create a tailor-made event that is right for you.”

So where's your best first port of call? “We recommend that new business interested in getting involved contact us at SGI and we will help you to orientate inworld, find development contacts and in some cases set up your own inworld presence,” says SGI's de Freitas. “The SGI is running Second Life safari events through Chambers of Commerce to help business get a first taster of what is going on in Second Life, and details of events may be found on the SGI web site.”

And if that doesn’t tempt you, how about the offer of free meeting space? “Although depo is a developer and we like companies to get in touch with us to do projects,” says Dunkley. “We can make the sign up process easier and provide some initial training and support, as well as point you in the right direction for events and meetings. But you shouldn't think about spending any money building a presence until you've got some experience under your belt, and we provide our meeting rooms and auditoria free of charge to companies who are genuinely exploring the space.”

Virtual worlds are not just about computer games, and if large multinational organisations like IBM, Reuters and PA Consulting are in there then surely there’s scope for the rest of us. As workforces become more disparate and people place more emphasis on a healthy work/life balance, holding meetings and events in virtual worlds looks set to become ever more commonplace.

Contact details
The Serious Games Institute

Kellie Keith [email protected]

Depo Consulting




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