Some analysis of using SecondLife at the workplace

Let’s take a look at SecondLife.  In a day and age of remote employees, including a growing number of international employees, it is becoming more common for businesses to communicate or exchange information using a myriad of options.  For instance, imagine in which ways an employee could conduct a meeting with other employees from different organizational groups and different time zones.  There are basically three main options in order to achieve this – 1) face-to-face, 2) videoconferencing, or 3) a teleconference call.  One would need to select the appropriate meeting option based on the cost, level of social interaction, type of information being exchanged, and number of participants needed to be effective.  In general, most people would prefer to conduct face-to-face meetings over the other alternatives because of the intimate social interaction and instant audience feedback however the costs are generally higher and a room limits number of participants.  Videoconferencing is the next best alternative since facial expressions are still visible in real time and it is easy to organize, but with a large number of participants can become confusing as to who’s talking, and the concept of spatial presence is nonexistent.  Lastly, a teleconference call is the cheapest to organize, but very impersonal if participants have never met in person before.  The question becomes, is it possible to communicate internally with the social benefits of face-to-face interactions and videoconferencing and the cost effectiveness of teleconference calls?

With a constant need to operate more efficiently, some enterprises are exploring virtual world technologies such as Second Life as a means to create a more personal experience for communicating internally.  IBM is one company that is on the forefront on experimenting with virtual world technologies, so much so that the company is known to have held numerous virtual meetings on its own Second Life islands. Employees log into Second Life and simultaneously call into teleconference calls.  During such meetings, avatars of employees mimic real-life gestures and expressions as if the actual employee was attending the meeting in person.  One can even deliver media content by specifying the link to a company internal URL which helps avoids risk of non-employees viewing the content.  Virtual meetings allow individuals  to use creative means to express themselves and  transform information that are not otherwise possible or acceptable in the real world.  However, it merely augments the current methods of communication and there are still major challenges to overcome.

One major deterrent for using third party virtual worlds like Second Life for virtual corporate meetings is that it does not offer enterprise level services suitable for a company that needs to be operating 24/7 and in a secure environment.  Second Life has not mastered its technology offering and continues to provide a mediocre customer experience.  In the year 2007, it averaged about 25% session crashes in which active users were either dropped from the system or had its system freeze.  Still today, there are frequent required update downloads which speaks loudly about the quality of software.  An additional related technology limitation is that one Second Life location cannot accommodate more than 70 avatars in one location due to hardware restrictions.  If a Fortune 500 company wanted to hold a virtual all hands meeting, it would be not able to do so easily if not successfully.  Lastly, under the current Second Life user agreement, all intellectual property created within Second Life is owned by Linden Labs including any confidential conversations taking place in Second Life.  This is the number one reason that companies are starting to rethink its strategy about the role of a public virtual world.

Now, companies are now looking to “walled gardens”, in-house hosted virtual worlds, as alternative solutions for overcoming the shortcomings of third party virtual worlds.  Walled gardens offer security and privacy that was not entirely available before with third party solutions.  This helps with getting companies one step closer to having a totally encompassing virtual meeting experience since voice and virtual avatar interactions can be securely executed in the virtual world rather than in two separate meeting alternatives done at the same time (dial in and log in).  However, just with hosting any software or hardware in-house, it requires some in-house expertise.  To conclude, virtual meetings is a good opportunity for transformational value  because it is a real option for an emerging technology and based on the needs of the meetings it could be the best meeting alternative over face-to-face, videoconferencing, and teleconference calls.

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