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IBM's virtual pioneer

Second Life is much more than a chat room--it "changes everything," says IBM's Irving Wladawsky-Berger.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger has overseen IBM's efforts to catch waves that have swept over the computing industry--e-commerce, Linux, open-source software, grid computing. His new responsibility: guiding Big Blue into virtual-reality realms such as Second Life.

Wladawsky-Berger was exposed to high-end 3D visualization technology from his supercomputing background. He believes that Second Life--even though its computing infrastructure is "painfully slow" today--is an example of how graphical interfaces will transform how humans deal with computers and with each other.

Rather than slowly processing information from e-mail and Web browsers, immersive 3D environments communicate on a deeper level--what Wladawsky-Berger describes as "broadband into our brains."

He's involved in IBM's January launch of a new business focusing on what he described as IBM's "3D Internet and virtual-world efforts."

IBM plans to open 12 new islands of Second Life real estate to the public by Monday, and Wladawsky-Berger has high hopes that the property will be helpful for training, meetings, commerce and other business activities.

The only IBM site in Second Life, a mock-up of its Almaden Research Center, offers helpful pointers for Second Life newbies who want basic control of their virtual representations, called avatars. Tips include how to handle objects, chat with others, gaze around a room or teleport to new locations.

The virtual incarnation of Wladawsky-Berger spent an hour in CNET's Second Life offices talking to News.com's Stephen Shankland and fielding questions from the audience.

To start, why don't you tell us what you do at IBM and how you came to be interested in Second Life.
Wladawsky-Berger: I am vice president of technical strategy and innovation at IBM. I have been very interested in visualization for a while now because of my association with supercomputing, where visualization is commonly used. As game technologies have become increasingly popular for advanced visualization, including MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games), I have become very interested in SL.

Our brains are wired for sight and sound--that is what makes Second Life different from chat.

I have seen a lot of sophisticated visualization in science and engineering applications, but they have not been immersive in the sense of (having) people and avatars in the picture. The appeal of Second Life and similar environments is that they are both visual and immersive.

When I first heard about Second Life, I was skeptical that it was more than a glorified chat room. But now having tried it, I feel like there is a bit of a sense of place--more than just me sitting behind a keyboard. Do you agree?
Wladawsky-Berger: Yes, totally. 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. Our brains are wired for sight and sound--that is what makes Second Life different from chat.

How long have you been in Second Life?
Wladawsky-Berger: I have been in it for a couple of months now. I saw it in use for a few months beforehand, and then I took the plunge around October or so.

Do you have an official role at IBM, trying to bring others in--either other IBM employees or others in the industry?
Wladawsky-Berger: Not really an official role, but 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, emerging business opportunity--much like we did with Linux and grid (computing).

In the Second Life area specifically?
Wladawsky-Berger: Second Life is one of the main areas, but not the only one. I really believe that highly visual and collaborative interfaces will become very important in the way we interact with all IT (information technology) applications in the future.

This may be one of the most revolutionary changes in IT because it changes everything and transforms the applications. Second Life is a very good platform for collaboration, but there will be other styles of visual applications as well.

How will Second Life be integrated with other parts of the Internet? Right now, there's not too much overlap.
Wladawsky-Berger: It has to be integrated. We need to make it easy to interoperate with other virtual worlds on the Internet and be able to go back and forth between virtual worlds and Web sites in an easy way. The problem now is the lack of standards like we had with HTTP, HTML (languages for sending and describing Web pages), etc. We need to create them across virtual-world platforms as well as Web sites.

You oversaw some of IBM's early work with the Internet, correct? E-commerce for example. Do you think that Second Life is just an extension of that, or is it qualitatively different?
Wladawsky-Berger: I think that virtual worlds and collaborative worlds like Second Life are a major extension to the Internet. That is what it reminds me of the most. Do you agree?

I see it as an extension--the revolution already happened.
Wladawsky-Berger: You mean the Internet revolution?

Yes, the Internet revolution. The real change was moving to online communities and virtual communication. A virtual presence.
Wladawsky-Berger: I honestly think that as we learn more about visual interfaces, we will have another very serious revolution in field after field and industry after industry, because changes in interfaces invariably are followed by major changes in applications.

I'm willing to be persuaded.
Wladawsky-Berger: Well, it takes time for these things to unfold. The tools are still very primitive. We are just learning at this stage, but I am pretty convinced that profound changes will come in science, business, engineering, medical, learning and training and, of course, entertainment.

IBM's Almaden island is open to the public, and I understand that you'll open up a dozen more in the next few days. What will Big Blue use all those sites for?
Wladawsky-Berger: We will use them for a variety of purposes: some internal, to hold internal meetings among people with IBM--the "intra-islands"; some external to have meetings with clients. Some will be for experimentation. We wanted space for all kinds of activities.

We have some audience questions that are relevant here. Gwyneth Llewelyn asks: Can you give a good example of a "killer application" that could be deployed by IBM inside Second Life? I understand that internally, it's being used for employee training. Would training or e-learning be the killer application for Second Life?
Wladawsky-Berger: For sure, learning and training will be one of the major killer apps, but not the only one. For example, we like the idea of creating virtual branch offices for our people in the field. Close to 50 percent of our work force is mobile--mostly sales or field people. That is very efficient, but it can be lonely. It would be nice to have something like the old branch office, where people can congregate to work, chat and just plain hang out.

BeauZeau Zhao (question from audience): Does (Second Life company) Linden Lab consult with IBM on their freaking database?
Wladawsky-Berger: We have some conversations with the Lindens, but not much. It is something (on which) we would like to collaborate with them more, especially in the area of standards and open source. I think it would be very good to get the various virtual-world communities to participate in efforts to define standards and to define what it means to interoperate across virtual worlds--something that needs lots of innovation.

Colby Hill (question from audience): Thinking way out there, how do you think virtual worlds could impact society even beyond business?
Wladawsky-Berger: I see huge potential in learning and training. It gets back to my point that visual interfaces are broadband and perhaps easier for many more people to absorb information through them. Perhaps we can make major changes in how to teach kids of all sorts, including kids with disabilities and kids from poorer communities who might be disadvantaged in very text-oriented styles of teaching.

There are probably people out there with good ideas about standards. We need them to come forth and start collaborating.

Tommy Oz (question from audience): What do you think the role of open source will be in this new emerging system?
Wladawsky-Berger: We need to have open-sourced the major layers of commonality we want across virtual worlds--say, the equivalent of Apache (open-source Web server software) that runs on all platforms and lets them interoperate at some level. It's the same with tools. It would be nice, perhaps, to have avatars be portable so your avatar can attend an event in some other virtual world. That is all stuff that needs to be worked out.

GreeterDan Godel (CNET News.com reporter Daniel Terdiman): So there are applications in Second Life, but what about return on investment? What does IBM see as the long-term ROI?
Wladawsky-Berger: I think about ROI here the way I did (with the) Internet and e-business. If you unleash lots of creativity and innovation, people will invent lots of new stuff. Most of it we cannot predict at this time, just like we could not have predicted e-business in 1995. I am comfortable that the more new stuff gets invented, the more we can sell systems, software and services--that is, the kind of stuff we and others in IT do.

Chalmerswayne Kondo (question from audience): Does IBM see any e-commerce with end-user consumers/services clients in Second Life?
Wladawsky-Berger: Absolutely! I think that the e-commerce paradigms today are pretty much "catalog"-based, which very nicely fits the text orientation of the Web and Web pages. But with virtual worlds, you open up commerce to virtual stores of all sorts, where you walk around and see the merchandise, and you can have expert sales clerks assist you if you have any questions, much as happens in FL (first life--in other words, the real world).

I think Second Life and similar virtual worlds will open up lots of interesting opportunities for e-commerce to become more visual and to include people as sales help.

HatHead Rickenbacker (question from audience): Is it too early to begin defining standards for virtual worlds? Does more exploring need to be done first?
Wladawsky-Berger: We need to very much start defining standards. I suspect that it will take us a while because we need the research to be done, but we have to start now and see where it leads us. There are probably people out there with good ideas about standards. We need them to come forth and start collaborating.

Chalmerswayne Kondo: When, if ever, will IBM require some employees to have avatars (for virtual training, etc.)?
Wladawsky-Berger: Good question. We are not there yet. Right now, there is a volunteer community that participates in Second Life, but over time, that could change. If we start holding more and more meetings in Second Life and teaching courses, then people will have to have an avatar. I cannot predict when that will happen.

Chalmerswayne Kondo: How many (IBM employees) have avatars and use them for work now?
Wladawsky-Berger: I think that there are close to 1,000 people in our Second Life community now active and perhaps several thousand who have avatars that are not very active. It is very much in an experimental stage now. 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.

Orlander Lucerne (question from audience): What do you view as the greatest opportunity presented by Second Life? Gaming/entertainment, research, marketing, societal development through social networking or something else?
Wladawsky-Berger: I think these are all very important. For Second Life itself, I think it is virtual meetings and collaboration, since this is the nature of the platform. Other virtual-world platforms--for example, World of Warcraft--are more designed for gaming, and others have to emerge for more "serious" business and professional applications with far better security and scalability.

HatHead Rickenbacker (question from audience): Will people have to maintain a separate avatar for personal use (so that the IBM code of ethics isn't in effect)?
Wladawsky-Berger: Very interesting question. I have wondered whether we will have different avatars for business and informal use. I have only one avatar. As you see, is not very imaginative at all--it sort of looks like me.

Certainly, many of us have separate e-mail addresses, but we don't have separate human bodies.
Wladawsky-Berger: Every so often, I don a suit and tie like I did for the Beijing meeting with Sam. Most of the time, I walk around in my informal baseball shirt. For people who have more fanciful avatars, they will likely have something more "modest" for business meetings.

HatHead Rickenbacker (question from audience): But not a nightie, if you know what I mean. ;)
Wladawsky-Berger: I suspect that a nightie is not good business apparel--probably not even informal apparel with friends in general. So it becomes a matter of common sense. I suspect that we will (base) Second Life code of etiquette on the first-life code of etiquette. I honestly find these kinds of human learnings the most fascinating--what works and what does not.