IBM virtual world defies laws of physics

IBMers play with giant boulder, hold meetings in the air and under water

IBM didn’t bother obeying the laws of physics when it built a virtual world for its own employees.

IBM's uptight, starched-shirt image has survived for many decades, but the stereotype may finally meet its demise at the hands of a giant boulder and a meeting room up in the sky.

IBM is building a virtual world to help its employees collaborate, and while it's not the first big technology company to do so, Big Blue may be unusual in that it decided not to mess with those silly laws of physics in its own virtual environment.

IBMers interact with a giant boulder in Big Blue's unconventional virtual world

"Why do we need walls and ceilings to do a meeting?" asks Michael Ackerbauer of IBM, who is building the company's virtual world, called the Metaverse. "We’ve had meetings under water and up in the air. Meetings are where you want them to be."

There have been some mixed reactions to the unconventional model, Ackerbauer admits.

"Some are saying 'wow, this is great, I’m ready to go.' Others are scratching their heads," he says.

Ackerbauer described the Metaverse project this week at Big Blue's Manhattan offices, where IBM CIO Mark Hennessy was meeting with analysts and journalists to show off a range of technologies IBM uses to help its employees collaborate.

IBM's two-year-old Metaverse project is in its early stages and it's not clear just how extensively it will be used throughout the company, which has 372,000 employees worldwide. While a small subset of IBMers do real work in the Metaverse, some of Ackerbauer's initiatives are simply experiments to see what’s possible.

That's where the giant boulder comes in. The greenish rock is several times the height of the virtual world's human inhabitants, who gather around the boulder like office workers chatting by a water cooler.

"You can kick this boulder about 1,400 kilometers," Ackerbauer says. "We’re just coming up with goofy games on the fly. Let’s see how far we can kick it … what would it be like in zero gravity?"

Something useful will come out of this, Ackerbauer believes. If a few people from different countries gather around the boulder, they’re more likely to work together in the future, he says.

"There’s business value to making work fun and making them want to come in every day," he says.

Ackerbauer and his team of 10 employees have learned both from massively multiplayer online games as well as Second Life. IBM interacts with customers in Second Life already, and owns plenty of virtual Second Life real estate.

The Big Blue Metaverse has a waterfall, amphitheater and an underground cave. Let’s just keep that cave a secret, though.

"I’m not supposed to tell where [the cave] is," Ackerbauer says. "For our users, it’s like a very basic surprise, if you explore the world enough you’ll find that underground, there’s a place you can go run around."

One IBM team in Europe is using the Metaverse on a regular basis because the members usually don’t see each other in person, according to Ackerbauer. But this past year's work on the Metaverse was mostly as a proof-of-concept, to show IBM could build a secure virtual world inside its network. Over the next year, Ackerbauer says the goal is figure out how to deliver real business value to a wider population of employees.

Today, Metaverse conversations happen only with instant messaging and chat rooms. Adding VoIP is among next year’s initiatives.

"I’d say more people are still finding it a novelty than a business tool," Ackerbauer says. "But … if you build enough tools that they can use, they will come."

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