Conference call 1, 'Second Life' 0

Holding conferences in a virtual-reality zone doesn't spice things up just yet, says CNET's Stephen Shankland.

I was curious about Second Life, so I thought I'd drop in on a news conference from networking giant Cisco Systems. My verdict: the boring old telephone conference call is a more compelling experience--for now.

For one thing, news conferences about abstruse technical matters can be bland under the best of circumstances. Holding them in a virtual-reality zone doesn't spice things up--unless attendees' avatars are furry animals or wear jet-packs and fishnet stockings.

When it comes to the main reason somebody might want to hold a virtual-world news conference--a more direct, engaged interaction among participants--Second Life remains a mixed bag. To me, it feels more engaging and human than a text-only chat room, but less engaging than a telephone conference call. So far, there's no substitute for real, live human interaction, with all the subtle vocal inflections.

But while Second Life isn't perfect, it's nevertheless got some promise as a choice of venue when it comes to surmounting geographic barriers.

Because corporate headquarters are rarely located conveniently nearby newsrooms, we in the tech journalism trade spend a lot of time listening to the voices of disembodied executives on the phone. The Cisco representatives who held forth on Monday in Second Life--chiefly an avatar by the name of Marie CiscoSystems who in real life is Marie Hattar, senior director of network systems--were somewhat less disembodied.

A lot of people seem to enjoy dressing up in outrageous outfits and leaving their love handles behind.

A virtual room populated by avatars does give me something of a sense of being present in the company of others. For example, I actually felt temporally disoriented by the fact that Cisco's online digs were in the dark of night even though it was daylight in my corner of the real world.

I was a reporter at the Cisco event, but I've seen such gatherings from Cisco's point of view, as well. CNET Networks has a headquarters in Second Life where we hold interviews open to public participation. Sure, we could do it over an IRC channel like the retro-hipster analysts at RedMonk, but a lot of people seem to enjoy dressing up in outrageous outfits and leaving their love handles behind.

It makes sense that Cisco, which makes its money because people need equipment to shuttle ones and zeros around the Internet, would want to foster a future rich in online interactions. Indeed, the company uses Second Life for its own internal meetings and sells high-end videoconferencing equipment.

Even in a room generated with 3D graphics, text is drab. Cisco's conference opened with Marie CiscoSystems pasting text sentence by text sentence into her chat dialog box. That might be compelling for an instant-message conversation with your budding romantic interest, but for what amounts to reading a news release, it's a pretty plodding way to impart information.

However, richer interaction is on the way that could change things substantially for this sort of event: into its virtual realm.

Which is a nice segue into what Cisco actually announced, a switch with some features that could prove handy for making Second Life a more compelling environment. Cisco unveiled the Catalyst 6500 Series Supervisor Engine 32, which is equipped with the company's Programmable Intelligent Services Accelerator (PISA) technology.

In the words of Marie CiscoSystems, PISA "is providing application intelligence, which allows you to do deep packet inspection in a stateful way so that you can better prioritize your traffic." In other words, it can detect what types of data packets it's shuttling and give the fast lane to whatever is most important.

One big reason that sort of technology is useful is for sending multimedia data--Second Life audio, for example--over the network. It's fine when computers reassemble e-mail attachments from their constituent data packets at a relatively stately pace, but it's seriously disruptive to the human senses when Web-based audio or video pauses and stutters.

There's no shortage of Second Life hype and silliness, but it's got potential to be more than a flash in the Internet pan. For one thing, some of the most staid of technology companies are dipping their toes in Second Life waters. IBM, for example, just opened its "virtual IBM Business Center," which lets IBM salespeople and customers meet for briefings, technical support and sales chats. The facility is staffed with real people who can speak English, Portuguese, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, French and Canadian French.

For another, Second Life is a domain enlivened by some of the more sophisticated products of human civilization: commerce and programmers. Sure, a lot of the profit motive involves unseemly businesses, and at least one program involved unwelcome flying penises, but both show the vitality, as well as the pitfalls, of Second Life.

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