Cutting edge tech makes the virtual world your oyster
by Stevenson Swanson
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
31 March 2007
From being a flat presence on a computer screen, the Web is rapidly morphing into a three-dimensional virtual world.
Powered by such popular social-networking sites as Second Life and There.com, where users represent themselves with animated figures called avatars, virtual technology is finding a host of new applications that are likely to prove as revolutionary as the rapid rise of the Internet a decade ago.
From holding virtual training meetings with employees to visiting your doctor for a 3-D check-up or spending time in a virtual Elizabethan world to learn about Shakespeare’s plays, the possibilities for virtual technology are unpredictable but almost limitless, according to business executives, tech-savvy designers, and marketing consultants.
“This is going to be one freaky-deaky 21st century,” said Jerry Paffendorf, the “resident futurist” at the Electric Sheep Co., which designs virtual world projects for businesses. “The amount of technological change in the next 10 years is going to equal the entire last century. We’re not going to use that technology to send e-mail faster. We’re going to use it to build virtual worlds.”
As one measure of the recent explosive growth of these online worlds, Second Life has grown to more than 5 million registered users, up from 1.4 million in November. In that virtual adult playground, avatars chat, attend concerts, buy virtual cars and clothes with virtual money called Linden dollars, and even have simulated sex.
But such activities barely scratch the surface of the three-dimensional Web, according to speakers and some of the 600 attendees at the first-of-its-kind Virtual Worlds Conference, held last week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.
Robert Gehorsam, president of Forterra Systems Inc., said that with improvements in technology, virtual worlds could be used to train new employees and allow them to practice job skills. Nurses need several hundred hours of on-the-job training after they graduate from nursing school, but working such trainees into the hectic operations of a hospital can be difficult, he said.
“If you can train nurses on shift-change communication, or the right drug, you’re going to reduce the number of preventable deaths,” said Gehorsam, whose company adapts commercial game technology for the government and medical and corporate clients.
One nonprofit group that has started to tap the potential of virtual worlds is the American Cancer Society, which has held two “Relay for Life” fundraising events “in world,” as denizens of the 3-D Web refer to events in the virtual world. Second Life users made pledges for their avatars, who took part in the runs. At a cost of only $1,200 to rent space on the site, the cancer society raised more than $46,000. It hopes to realize $75,000 at this year’s relay.
And, in addition to fundraising, the society has a link that takes Internet users back to the organization’s home Web site.
“What we’re talking about here is the convergence of the virtual world and the real world,” said the society’s Randal Moss.
The educational potential of virtual worlds has barely been tapped, several speakers noted. At their most basic, virtual worlds would allow students to attend a “virtual” classroom to hear a lecture or see a science demonstration. And then there are more ambitious projects, such as Arden, a virtual world project being developed at Indiana University’s Synthetic Worlds Initiative.
In Arden, a visitor could walk the streets of 16th century London and encounter characters from Shakespeare’s plays, engage in conversations that would borrow from the Bard’s texts, and become accustomed to the language and society of Elizabethan England. Last year, the institute received $240,000 from Chicago’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to fund the project.
But a virtual world carries some of the same risks as the real world, such as concerns over privacy.
Since a virtual world exists inside computer servers, every action of every avatar can be tracked, noted Paul Hemp, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review. If an in-world retailer had access to that information, it could design a specific sales clerk avatar for each customer, based on the customer’s known preferences in merchandise and the kind of sales behavior that had proven most effective with that customer.
“It’s just plain spooky,” said Hemp. “An avatar clerk could adjust itself to be more appealing, based on the information about the shopper. It comes back to the old salesman’s trick of acting like your customer to make yourself likable.”
But companies are learning that they cannot maintain the iron grip on their brand when they venture into the “metaverse,” the term that author Neal Stephenson coined for virtual worlds in his novel “Snow Crash.”
Disney, known for guarding its brand more zealously than most companies, established its Virtual Magic Kingdom in the hope that it would keep “tweens,” children from roughly ages 8 to 14, from losing interest in its characters and theme parks. But its research showed that the company’s signature character – Mickey Mouse – was not popular with tweens.
In the past, that wouldn’t have mattered. The mouse would have been in the virtual house. But not now.
“Mickey isn’t there,” said Disney’s Roger Holzberg, referring to the company’s virtual world. “There aren’t parades because our tweens said they don’t like parades in the real world. It’s market-driven, not marketing driven.”
Likewise, when Pontiac set up Motorati Island as a way to revive its flagging fortunes among young car buyers, it furnished the island with a virtual car dealership and a test track. But the carmaker asked visitors to the island to design the other features. As long as the proposals had an association with car culture, they were accepted, and now the island’s 96 acres are fully developed. Among the features on Motorati Island is a concert space, called Pontiac Garage, where rapper Jay Z “appeared” as part of a simulcast of a Times Square performance.
The island has had 2.1 million visits from about 30,000 registered users, and Pontiac has sold 1,200 virtual cars on the site. Has it resulted in any real-life sales? Tor Myhren, of advertising agency Leo Burnett’s Detroit office, says he has no idea.
“But that’s really beside the point,” said Myhren, who directed the Motorati project. “It’s not direct marketing. Does it sell cars now? No. Does it sell cars a week from now, a month from now, a year from now? Yeah, I think so. The point is that someone who comes across Motorati Island in Second Life comes away with a different view of Pontiac.”