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In focus: Virtual worlds inform the future of business

Content provided by IBM-ForwardView eMagazine .

If the idea of interacting entirely through software seems odd, think again. New 3-D environments such as the wildly popular Second Life virtual world—where users interact through their online personas known as avatars—are changing the ways in which people communicate and do business.

Often called virtual worlds or metaverses, these online destinations are microcosms of the real world. Participants go into business, make purchases, form friendships and explore their virtual surroundings. Because virtual worlds attract a wide range of people,understanding how these parallel realities function may help SMBs capitalize on new opportunities in the workplace as well as the marketplace.


Virtual worlds expand into the mainstream

Virtual worlds have been around since the 1980s, and have been most commonly associated with massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) where users assume avatar personas, build teams and share strategies. But the desire to mingle with people who share common interests is increasingly attracting more diverse groups of people to these parallel universes.

Today, virtual interactions are no longer just for the overwhelmingly male adolescent game-enthusiast demographic. A wide range of other groups have discovered the benefits of realistic virtual environments that allow interaction with other people from around the globe.

In fact, these metaverses are fast becoming real communities for like-minded people.Inside virtual worlds residents interact and travel through a number of 3-D settings, and have the capability to build vehicles for transportation, purchase real estate or simply socialize.


Virtual worlds get down to earth

One reason for the increased popularity of virtual worlds stems from more realistic depictions of environments and avatars. Online personas, for example, now have many convincing facial expressions and a wide range of movement. Avatars also have the ability to perform real-world activities, such as trying on clothes and holding items. This realism also points toward new possibilities for business, research and education, as virtual world personas can demonstrate any number of activities and actions.

For example, the simulation capabilities of metaverses are being used for very real-world purposes, such as traffic flow and manufacturing design. Employers and educators are also using these environments to explore new forms of remote training and distance learning.

The enhanced remote interactivity of virtual worlds, however, is the real draw. It’s one of the reasons the very real island republic of the Maldives has set up a virtual consulate on Second Life real estate—and other countries are expected to follow suit.

In the meantime, the virtues of virtual real estate haven’t escaped the notice of many businesses. Retailers such as Sears and Circuit City also have built in virtual worlds. These virtual destinations replicate physical stores, and are complete with aisles and actual product offerings. Visiting users can walk through these aisles, examine products in 3-D and, not surprisingly, ask questions of store avatars.

These immersive worlds offer much richer experiences than online shopping sites that depict products in flat, 2-D representations. And a business doesn’t need to be a retailing giant to enjoy the advantages of a virtual world, either. It’s important to note that large chain stores like Sears and Circuit City haven’t created their own metaverses. Instead, these companies use existing virtual worlds to set up shop. Plus, numerous advertising opportunities—either with existing holders of virtual real estate or in select locations in a particular metaverse—are becoming available to businesses of all sizes.


The communication revolution expands in the metaverse

And how have these environments affected users? So far the evidence suggests that virtual worlds have the potential to bring people together—and completely bypass traditional geographic barriers to communication.

Denizens of metaverses typically communicate through multiple forms of media, such as VoIP, instant messaging and chat—and switch between these channels effortlessly while traveling through onscreen 3-D. environments. For example, a resident of the Active Worlds site might be engrossed in navigating through a new virtual neighborhood, all while also using chat or IM to communicate with other users. Similarly, people visiting the InXpo site attend virtual trade shows, and communicate with vendors by chat or attend seminars via streaming video.

These actions come naturally to people accustomed to interacting in metaverses that never close down. Experience in the virtual worlds appears to foster vital skills increasingly required in today’s business environments where work is becoming increasingly distributed and faster paced—all characteristics of metaverse interactions. And as these metaverses expand, the future of business may well take us to new worlds of possibility where the potential for collaboration, communication and doing business are limitless.

Content copyrighted by IBM Corporation.

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