Top IT companies embracing virtual reality

Corporate czars, with their avatars, infiltrate Second Life.

Among the space stations and vampire castles in the virtual world of Second Life, a new kind of development is emerging: IT expo.

This week IBM, Intel and Sun separately staged events in the virtual world, which boasts a population of nearly 900,000.

These forays into the virtual realm are just the latest example of how old-world companies are taking advantage of new world marketing opportunities. In addition to Second Life, technology firms are using MySpace, YouTube and blogs to reach out to customers in more informal and interactive ways.

“Companies recognize that press releases still serve a purpose, but they don’t make a splash,” says Mat Small, a manager at public relations firm Bite Communications, which orchestrated Sun’s debut in Second Life.

Sun Chief Researcher John Gage appears in avatar form to talk about Sun’s entry into the virtual world of Second Life.

“The thing about new media is there are some highly sought after audiences: for example, developers. I don’t see very many developers reading press releases,” Small says. “You’re more likely to encounter them in an environment like Second Life, where companies can engage them in a fun, credible, candid, unstructured way that I think is very appealing to them and is more of a two-way dialogue.”

Sun did just that when it held a press conference in Second Life, presided over by Sun Chief Researcher John Gage and Chris Melissinos, Sun’s chief gaming officer. The two appeared in avatar form – an animated rendering that can move within the virtual world – to talk about Sun’s Darkstar gaming project and to unveil the new Sun Pavilion in Second Life. The pavilion includes an outdoor theater, meeting spaces and kiosks that will play videos showing Sun technology at work.

IBM, meanwhile, hosted a block party for Big Blue alumni last week. The Second Life block party is part of a larger program, Greater IBM, which fosters connections between IBM alumni worldwide. "One of the objectives of the meeting is to get IBMers and former IBMers interacting together," says Mathew Georghiou, CEO of educational software development company MediaSpark and a former IBM engineer who made a presentation during the Second Life block party.

For its part, Intel extended a Centrino Core 2 Duo promotion in New York City into Second Life. Virtual builder Versu Richelieu spent Oct. 12-15 living in a store window on 5th Avenue, simultaneously creating a virtual version of her experience in Second Life. Blogs and videos rounded out the Intel event.

Intel also has a MySpace page for Centrino and has uploaded various video clips to YouTube. In fact, a search of nearly any technology company should turn up a handful of YouTube contributions.

“We’re dipping our toes in a bunch of different things,” says Bill Kirkos, an Intel spokesman. “The beauty of it is you don’t have to change your investments or your focus on what I would call traditional media, whether it’s public relations, advertising, Intel.com. This [social media] is an opportunity where for a very low cost you can go and experiment and try some of these things out.”

IT vendors aren’t the only ones to see the opportunities in the virtual world. Second Life hosts thousands of commercial entities, ranging from casinos and shopping malls to movie studios and sporting venues.

American Apparel operates a store in Second Life, as do Adidas and Toyota. Major League Baseball worked with consulting specialist Electric Sheep to show a nearly-live feed of the home run derby at the All-Star Game in a digital baseball stadium in Second Life. Politicians, too, are inside Second Life: Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor who until last week had plans on running for president, showed up in avatar form for a press interview in late August.

There's an official currency in Second Life, called Linden dollars, and millions change hands every month for the goods and services residents provide, according to Second Life creators. There are even automated teller machines in many destinations to facilitate transactions.

But despite the commercial angle, IT vendors so far say their involvement in Second Life is focused more on building community than revenue.

“Creating a more emotional aspect to our brand is really important to us. That’s why we’ve embraced a number of different things in the social media world,” Kirkos says.

Sun, which has gone so far as to petition the Securities and Exchange Commission to allow CEO Jonathan Schwartz to break news on his blog, sees online media as a way to make the big company more approachable. Sun hopes to use Second Life to reach developers, engineers and technically minded people, as well as to open itself up in a more informal way to a larger audience, Melissinos says. “We are establishing a presence in Second Life, which we will use to communicate to that community what Sun is about,” he says. “So we’re not just about the financial-services guys, and we’re not just about the federal government.”

Sun plans to expand its presence in Second Life, says Melissinos, who has had a Second Life avatar for about two years. “I’ll host a couple of dance parties, invite people from the video-game industry to talk on topics,” he says. “We plan on having fun.”

Sun also will take a more pragmatic approach. In addition to providing videos of Sun’s technology, it also may introduce virtual renderings of its products for Second Life residents to test out. “This is the type of thing we’re considering," he says.

IBM, too, has multiple efforts underway in Second Life. In September IBM held a virtual event for media and analysts in conjunction with its worldwide company meeting. Also last month, 150 IBMers took part in a virtual session in Second Life as part of IBM's Innovation Jam, an ongoing effort to facilitate collaboration among IBM employees, clients and partners.

A key benefit of virtual meet-ups is they erase geographical and financial boundaries that may limit attendance at real-world conferences.

“If anything, one of the worlds that is going to get profoundly affected [by new media] is the world of trade shows and conferences,” says Tony Hynes, a senior vice president at Bite. “You go to those for peer-to-peer validation and how-to sessions. A lot of that you can do now in a more sophisticated and meaningful way by using blogs and chat rooms and things like Second Life.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger sees the potential for more Second Life-type events, especially given all the time business people spend in meetings. "If all of a sudden, we have the ability to have far more productive meetings because there are these technologies that facilitate people collaborating with each other, bringing resources, that could have a huge impact on productivity," says Wladawsky-Berger, who is vice president of technical strategy and innovation at IBM.

In addition to the social aspect, IT companies also are discovering a new way to deliver services. IBM, for instance, is working with China's Palace Museum to create a virtual recreation of the Forbidden City and associated sites in Beijing. For the Wimbledon tournament, IBM built a tennis court on Second Life where visitors could follow the path of the ball in the virtual court -- and buy merchandise such as Wimbledon towels.

But is there an enterprise angle? Wladawsky-Berger suggests ERP applications, for example, might benefit from a virtual world makeover.

Attendees mingle at IBM's virtual block party, held last week in Second Life.

Most business users find ERP applications frustrating because they take too long to implement and they're too rigid, Wladawsky-Berger says. What if instead a resource-planning application grew out of a model like SimCity, the online strategy game that lets players manipulate terrains and build cities complete with infrastructure and public services? "You could imagine richer and richer versions that essentially now become business design and business simulation tools," Wladawsky-Berger says.

Most IBM customers aren't clamoring for a place in Second Life, as the notion is still new and the business benefits are still emerging. But neither are they ignoring the possibilities.

"No one is going to say this is bull. They all hear about massively multiplayer online games, there are more and more articles about things like Second Life," Wladawsky-Berger says. "They know better than to dismiss technologies that millions are using."

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