Wanted: Applications for virtual worlds

Virtual worlds, or the 3D Internet, appeal to early adopters of games. Getting more people to come will require more applications, experts say.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Experts from IBM and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology universally agreed on Friday that there's great potential for virtual worlds, also referred to as the 3D Internet. But for now, a dearth of applications is keeping these virtual worlds' appeal limited to early adopters, they said.

"There's not a lot of stuff there," said MIT Media Lab Director Frank Moss, referring to virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft.

IBM hosted an event at MIT's Media Lab to explore the potential of virtual worlds for use in business . Already, the company is experimenting with ways to use 3D interfaces and virtual environments to improve company meetings, help training and education, and simulate business tasks, such as fixing a data center or streamlining a business process.

Virtual worlds

Unlike gaming, these business applications for virtual worlds are in very early stages. But over the course of the one-day event, MIT students and IBM representatives showed off a number of apps.

IBM employees already hold some meetings in Second Life. The company is also building applications for virtual worlds, including a virtual data center that lets administrators (through their avatars) monitor the status of multiple data center locations.

In a panel session moderated by Second Life Chairman Mitch Kapor , businesspeople and academics discussed how they intend to create a presence in virtual worlds.

PepsiCo, for example, expects to use virtual worlds to engage with customers in new ways, said Julius Akinyemi, the company's director of emerging technologies. Specifically, it wants to use the forum to solicit thoughts on what new products to develop, he said.

ProtonMedia is already using virtual worlds for training and education inside companies, said Ron Burns, president of the company.

The return on investment for those early endeavors is not always clear. Anrian Si, director at Toyota Motor Sales division Scion, said that the company has already set up a presence in Second Life with the hope of creating a positive brand association among young people who could become customers, rather than just chasing immediate sales.

Meanwhile, a business development executive at a media company voiced skepticism. The executive, who did not want to be named, said he can see the potential for entertainment or store fronts in virtual worlds. What is less apparent is the business model, he said.

"Everybody is putting money in, but who is actually taking money out? That's the big question mark here," he said.

The primary theme of the event was that virtual worlds, although nascent, represent a disruptive technology change, much like the arrival of the PC and the Web shook up the computing world. In that context, the calls for more compelling applications, better security and viable business models are not surprising.

 

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