Thursday, November 27, 2008

Why use Second Life? What's so great about it?

As organizations become more global and virtual, there is an increased need to find better ways for people to collaborate and work together virtually. Today we have wikis, IRC, Skype, messaging and webcasts, but none of these methods do a good job of creating great interaction, collaboration, camaraderie, friendships as meeting in person. For example, I recently had to work with someone on organizing a number of database training sessions at a conference to prepare people for certification. We used email, IRC and Skype to collaborate on ideas. A few weeks later we met in person. During the two hour dinner we came up with more ideas, communicated more effectively, built a stronger working relationship and friendship. We kept building on ideas each other had and after the dinner we both agreed we accomplished more in two hours meeting in person than we ever could have accomplished using any of the above mentioned communication methods.

Organizations and people are required to work more virtually and remotely which has a tremendous impact on communication. While doing nothing to address the lack of social interaction and how this impacts people. So what do we do when we can not meet directly with people? Virtual reality and virtual worlds using avatars are a new method organizations are looking into to have virtual environments communicate more effectively. Second Life is the virtual environment I have been working with. Sun Microsystems, IBM, Cisco and a large number of fortune 1000 companies and universities are building large virtual environments. On the Sun Islands in Second life an avatar's conduct is held to the same standards as if a Sun employee, parter or customer was at a Sun Microsystems office.

Below are some thoughts and experiences I have found in second life.
  • If you look at how far people stand from each other in real life, when working with avatars studies have shown that avatars stand the same distance from each other when having a conversation as in real life.
  • I was waiting for a meeting to start and in the virtual world it was raining. My avatar was in a virtual world standing in virtual rain. However it started to bother me that I was standing in the rain and I ended up moving my avatar inside. I felt this interesting because it bothered me that I was uncomfortable standing in virtual rain. I should not have cared.
  • Children, teenagers and adults are learning to work together differently in real life. If you look at webkinz, World of Warcraft, Madden Football, these are extremely popular games that allow someone to experience virtual reality. Even Barnes and Noble is moving to avators. What people often miss is that these virtual environments are changing how people think, learn and interact with each other.
  • If your avatar is struck, knocked down or bumped into, someone will have a similar mental response as if they would in real life.
  • Organizations are finding they can train people more effectively and at greatly reduced costs using avatars and virtual reality.
Working with other avatars in virtual worlds creates friendships, stronger working relationships and more collaboration and exchange of ideas than any other electronic method of communication we have today. I can often communicate with you more effectively with much higher results than if I was working with you in real life. Let me give you a few examples:
  • What if I was trying to get you certified to repair jet engines? I would need a jet engine, lots of spare parts, tools and space to teach you. What if I instead build a jet engine in virtual reality. In virtual reality we could rotate the entire jet engine in a few seconds. In the virtual world we could how you how to take parts off, look at them three dimentionally, and put new parts on. The cost savings and effectiveness of this approach would be incredible. What if you wanted to work extra hours or on weekends to prepare for your certification? You could do this easily in a virtual world. This same approach could be used to teach brain surgery or anything else. Now obviously this does not replace real life interaction but this can be a cost effective and powerful way of training and communicating with people.
  • Virtual reality has been used as a strong therapy for people who have been disabled and can no longer walk or get out of the house easily.
  • Schools are using virtual reality to take students to Mexico and visit the Aztec ruins, ancient Greece and transport to all kinds of historical worlds. Virtual reality has been shown to be an excellent method to get kids interested in exploring and imagining different worlds and cultures.
  • If you were a martian and teleported instantly everywhere you would have no need for a vehicle like an automobile. Well what if I tried to explain to you what an automobile was if you had no point of reference? If you were on Mars and I was on Earth, I'm not sure Skype, IRC, Powerpoints or a wiki would be effective. What if instead I was able to show you in a virtual world a three dimensional automobile. What if I could virtually show you the moving parts of a car and how it operates. Then showed someone getting in a vehicle, starting it and driving around. I believe this virtual method of communication could be very effective.
Now because virtual worlds and avatars look like a game people do not respect its communication potential. They think virtual worlds are only for playing, people that have a lot of spare time on their hands or a waste of time. Well hear are two examples:
  • When telephones were first developed a leading scientific magazine of the time said the phone was a play toy for the rich. The magazine said it would be too expensive to run phone lines all over a city (let alone a country) and phones were just a fad.
  • When the internet first came out a lot of leading technical journals said it was a toy, was used for porn, you could meet bad people on it and was a waste of time. No one at that time could have imagined, caller id, GPS, email or text messaging, itunes, paying for things with your cell phones, cameras on phones or how small phones could be.
In the next few years, I believe we are going to see a tremendous evolution of technology of virtual worlds and as we communicate more globally the need for stronger and more effective communication will continue to grow.


Unknown said...

Why not IRC, which is far more efficient, for communication? IRC communication can be logged and archived and used as meeting minutes, too.

Anonymous said...

The thing I notice about all your examples is that they relate to some *spatial*, 3-dimensional, real-world information attempting to be conveyed. I don't doubt that 3-dimensional information is best conveyed in a 3-dimensional shared reality.

But given most information – especially systems/database knowledge – isn't necessarily related to spatial, three-dimensional information … what's the benefit of working in Second Life?

I can *kinda* understand some vague social interaction afforded by having avatars share a virtual space … but even that: not really. I just don't see what the benefit is.

Unknown said...


Everyone is so tired of death by powerpoint and powerpoint is not the best way to demonstrate the dynamics of how database servers work. 3D virtuality provides a lot more flexibility for demonstrating visually how database servers work versus powerpoint. Showing students visually, all the activity of a database server, in my opinion is more powerful that using powerpoint and other current presentation methods.
Also, the dynamics of virtual worlds I have found are much more effective for collaboration, exchange of ideas and interaction versus wikis, IRC or instant messaging.