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August 6, 2008

VIRTUAL PATH:Inside a new guide to events in Second Life

If you needed any more proof as to the rising importance of virtual worlds as a meetings and events medium, you need look no further than Clever Zebra’s recently released Essential Seven Point Quick Start Guide for Meetings Professionals.

The virtual events organiser’s guide is broken into seven easy-to-digest introductory chapters, outlining: why virtual events matter, three key issues, what constitutes a virtual world meeting, where virtual events work, their limitations, who’s doing it and how to get started.

Short and to the point, the guide offers a straightforward insight into why virtual worlds could well be the next big thing for the meetings and events industries.

“There is a fast-growing interest in the meetings industry about virtual worlds,” says Clever Zebra founder and chief executive Nick Wilson. “Fuel costs are at an all-time high, and the pressure to produce more sustainable events is increasing, so it's understandable that savvy organisations are looking for alternatives. The guide is designed to get meetings professionals up to speed with the technology, and provide clear direction for moving foward.”

Virtual meetings: comparing favourably to face to face

Slow burner
Although a technology in its infancy, virtual worlds are growing as a business tool, albeit slowly. The technology still needs to mature before we see mass adoption. However, as Wilson highlights, some organisations are encountering interesting results.

“Microsoft has just reported that they saved two-thirds of the cost of a physical meeting when they held a major product launch in Second Life,” he explains, a statistic that alone should have meeting planers and buyers reaching for their avatars.

“On top of this, Forterra Inc, makers of the OLIVE virtual world, reports that many clients still view virtual worlds as a serious competitive advantage and are unwilling to go public with their projects, but that training is the major driver for corporate and government adoption right now.”

Indeed, Wilson’s own vBusiness Expo, an enterprise virtual worlds event held entirely virtually, was attended by several hundred companies earlier this year.

Of course, it’s not without it’s limitations, and the guide points to three key areas for concern: capacity, stability and usability.

At the moment the numbers of people that you can get at any one event are still quite limited – around 40-80 for maximum effect. Furthermore, Second Life, the most popular virtual world, is notriously unstable, so may not be the best solution for mission-critical business meetings. Add to that the problems with orientating yourself in the world, and you can see why people might be put off.

Despite this, more companies are holding virtual meetings. In a recent survey conducted by Clever Zebra 93% of active corporate virtual world users said they had held meetings ‘inworld’ without the need to travel in the last month.

“Almost 70% reported that virtual meetings compared favorably with physical ones, and 93% said that, given the choice, they preferred meeting virtually to flying," reveals Wilson. “When you put figures like those together with anecdotal reports such as Generali Group's recently multinational training event being held entirely virtually, or Cisco Systems job fairs, Microsoft's product launches and virtual conferences such as the vBusiness Expo, the possibilities for transformation become clear."

Growth areas
So what are the areas that are taking off the most in terms of virtual worlds for business?

“We see interest in virtual worlds on a global scale, but it's predominantly business-to-business (B2B) uses, such as training, process rehearsal, simulations and meetings that are driving corporate adoption,” says Wilson.

The guide points out three key areas of virtual growth: conferences and seminars, distance meetings and mixed reality. Virtual World meetings for small groups can be very simple once the initial assets are in place. For larger groups, professional help is often required.

“Having said that,” says Wilson, “virtual worlds have been used for both short seminars and full blown expositions with exhibitor stands, networking areas and break out rooms. What often has the most appeal, though, is using virtual worlds to bring those that could not physically attend an event right into the conference itself through a virtual connection, and to stream the physical event to a virtual audience.

"In fact, in 2007, IBM, Cornell University and Clever Zebra made virtual worlds history by hosting a tri-reality event between one physical location and two entirely separate virtual worlds.”

Obviously, Second Life is probably the most well known of the virtual worlds, but it’s not the only choice, as Wilson explains. “Second Life is a business-to-consumer system that’s been co-opted for B2B use by enthusiastic corporate pioneers. It may be that the enterprise offerings from Second Life take a leap in the coming year as projects that Linden Lab, producers of Second Life, are running with IBM come to fruition.

The alternatives
“Right now, Second Life leads because it's relatively cheap to set up a pilot project there and test virtual worlds. Alternatives include: Forterra Inc, the clients of which include military and government agencies, as well as large corporations; Qwaq forums, which are more geared toward document collaboration; and Protosphere, which incorporates 2D social tool such as wikis and blogs into it's learning-focused world.”

Whatever happens, virtual worlds are here to stay, and as the report says: “If you're looking to demonstrate leadership in your industry and take first steps in virtual worlds, move now.”


To register for vBusinessExpo, go to http://vbusinessexpo.com

To buy a copy fo the guide, go to http://cleverzebra.com

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