IBM to give birth to 'Second Life' business group

Big Blue plans to launch a virtual reality project next month, and some of its now-private islands will open to the public soon. Photos: IBM gets a Second Life

IBM will launch an official group in January to deal with Second Life and other virtual realms from which the company hopes to profit.

Virtual reality and other visual interface work is the next project on IBM's plate, Irving Wladawsky-Berger said in an interview at CNET's Second Life offices. Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technical strategy and innovation at IBM, led the company's response to earlier technologies that rewrote the rules of the computing industry, such as e-commerce and Linux.

"I have been playing a strong role in helping us start our 3D Internet and virtual-world efforts. We are launching a new EBO in this area in January--that is, an emerging business opportunity--much like we did with Linux and the grid," Wladawsky-Berger said Tuesday. IBM believes the virtual realm has potential for training, conferences and commerce, he said.

Second Life, an online community run by a company called Linden Labs, is an electronic universe where people's virtual representations, called avatars, can chat, fly, teleport, browse stores and purchase goods. IBM has one public island on Second Life, a site named after and mimicking its Almaden Research Center near San Jose, Calif., but the company plans to open up 12 more by Monday.

Second Life, not unlike blogging, has become a new trend among technology companies hoping to show they're hip to the latest trends and that believe they might benefit from direct connections to potential customers. In recent months, IBM rivals Dell and Sun Microsystems have launched Second Life offices and held activities.

IBM employees have a significant presence in Second Life, Wladawsky-Berger said. "I think that there are close to 1,000 people in our Second Life community now active, and perhaps several thousand more that have avatars that are not that active," he said.

helped pave the way, he added: "Having our CEO Sam Palmisano jump into Second Life during our recent Beijing meeting helps a lot in legitimizing this kind of activity within IBM. If it is good enough for Sam?"

Second Life is one of the main areas in the new IBM group, but not the only one, Wladawsky-Berger said. "I really believe that highly visual and collaborative interfaces will become very important in the way we interact with all IT applications in the future," he said.

Virtual reality connects directly with the human mind, he added. "There is something very human about visual interfaces. I almost think of text-based interfaces, including browsers, as 'narrowband' into our brains, whereas visual interfaces are 'broadband' into our brains."

Read the full interview with Wladasky-Berger on CNET

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