Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Virtual World Platforms, Visualization in 3D

Are Virtual Worlds Ready for Business?: An Interview with Justin Bovington on Immersive Workspaces(TM)

Immersive Workspaces(TM): Your Private Grid Awaits

When you think business in virtual worlds you think brands. The wave of polished yet mostly empty sims that followed the press infatuation with Anshe Chung’s mythic millions. And how the brands came and then slipped out into the night, the press flaks from Linden Lab and elsewhere calling the whole thing a brilliant experiment from which, heck, we learned a lot, that was the point really, this was never GOING to be the killer app of virtual worlds, keep your hat on folks, and by the way I have a sim for rent with a nice view.

Some of the narrative makes sense. Brands invest in cycles. They shift their money around from media to media, from Facebook widgets to viral campaigns, from guerrilla marketing back to the Superbowl where they all belong – all of that floating crap shoot of brand investment a desperate search for eyeballs and returns on investment and point of purchase buying decisions. Second Life got caught up in one or two cycles, it was an extra line item or two, and when the campaign for the quarter was over it was time to look at youTube again, because the audience had moved again and it’s important to hit them where they live.

Some of it I don’t buy. As much as the Electric Sheep Company claims that they met their return on investment targets for the CSI New York build, the press they (and NBC) gave ahead of time was breathlessly proclaiming the arrival of a new immersive entertainment era based in Second Life. Problem was, there was nothing particularly entertaining about it, and once you waded through all the Cisco signs and red arrows you weren’t quite sure where to go.

So some of it was cyclical, and some of it was the platform itself: Second Life wasn’t READY to scale to 50 million users, the orientation sucked, the platform wasn’t stable, the social tools didn’t let communities naturally form with friendly facilitation by Coke or whoever.

But let’s give credit to the brands for something: they put a fire under the Lindens, at the very least. They might not have been ready for them, but the holes in the platform put in stark relief some of the reasons why. And maybe they led to King Pip’s proclamation that stability was number one, the “missing image” t-shirt moment, hiring M to take care of that pesky first hour, and the arrival of education and business collaboration as the janitors who would come in and sweep up all the odds and ends and give the Grid a shiny new purpose.

A lot of work has gone into the Grid since those heady days: Havok, Mono, new viewers, tweaks and kicks at the asset servers, a policy change or two, and although you still get the occasional memory leak or crash, the Grid IS more stable, some stuff IS easier to do, and I don’t seem to fly off in random directions anymore when I cross from one sim to another.

The Return of the Corporation
Against this backdrop, Linden Lab has announced a partnership with Rivers Run Red and has launched Immersive Workspaces(TM). This product makes a promise: that the Grid on which Second Life runs is ready for business, or for ‘business collaboration’ anyways, which can mean different things to different people. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t ready before, but there were a few things holding back investments in Second Life, which Immersive Workspaces is built to overcome:

- It is disassociated from the Second Life brand. Or, as Alley Insider said, it is um sex-free. Because no one wants to hold a business meeting in a virtual world and have some naked noob land on the conference table.
- It’s behind a firewall. Which means your data is safe. Your company secrets are guarded. And no one’s going to leak your PowerPoint file showing your earnings ratios to the world.
- It has a solid return on investment model. It can be proven to save you money.

(Read more below the fold)

Immersive Workspaces is positioned as an APPLICATION. It’s not really a “world for business”, at least in how it’s initially positioned. It serves a simple purpose: it gives companies an alternative meeting space, and opens the door to richer experiences, data display, and collaboration.

Immersive Workspaces Lobby

Personally I think that the power of virtual worlds goes beyond just meeting….and YET, some of the greatest value I’ve personally found in Second Life is the chance to go to, well, meetings – an in-world conference, say, or a Metanomics event, whatever – it’s a powerful way to connect with other people, use different communication modalities to do that (text, voice, visuals) and to have a sense of being there which adds a richness to interactions that you just don’t get on a Webex conference.

And if you think of an adoption curve for business in virtual worlds, Rivers Run Red has simplified the curve: orient users, get them together, build some tools to facilitate things, throw in a bit of data visualization to showcase the potential of 3D content, and we’ll get to the deeper change stuff later.

Justin Bovington, CEO of Rivers Run Red
With these things in mind, I spoke with Justin Bovington about Rivers Run Red, Immersive Workspaces, and their “bet” on Linden Lab.

And I started by asking him what the value proposition is for virtual worlds and business, especially in light of today’s economy:

Justin: I think there’s two things. One is that any early technology that’s out there tends to have a long adoption curve. There’s a split now, if you like, between virtual worlds for social fun and social virtual worlds for secondary income, which is really what Second Life’s HAS been about, to now, suddenly also being a virtual world for business. With that you’re going to see people using the technology and using it to reduce their travel costs. So we’re getting a large amount of people say to us look, they’ve had their travel budgets frozen or had their expenses frozen and they need to use other forms of technology to complement that.

And really what’s happening, and at a larger level, companies are investing in alternative technology to keep them more productive. So it’s not just virtual worlds, people are looking at better videoconferencing systems, better audio conferencing systems and virtual worlds is a part of that mix now. But as we keep saying, it’s not for everyone. You see it in the reports and in terms of what we see from our clients is they’re getting a good return on it.

So really it actually raises a question, why – why will we get a better adoption rates for business versus say previous investments in virtual worlds? And the answer is in the return on investment model.

Every client that we sit down with now, we can analyze their travel, look at their productivity time and the model of virtual worlds and actually give them a proper ROI. And in most cases we actually give people a payback. So it starts paying for itself normally after the 3rd or 4th meeting. If you can show people a return, then they’re going to actually grab hold of it.

But how do you convince brands or companies that this time it’s different? Brands have been in Second Life before and left, after all.

Justin: We first started doing this five years ago, and remember, we were the first company to kind of wake up and kind of get involved with Second Life.

And actually what happened was I found Second Life in October 2003 and myself and my business partner flew over to see Phillip Rosedale and to see Linden Labs and told them that we felt they had the future of a 3D internet, and they thought we were crazy. And again it’s quite funny because everything that we laid out then have, in a fashion, happened.

There’s this kind of popular belief that we left Second Life and we didn’t. We’ve actually been, if anything, doing more and more work in Second Life. It’s just that everything that we’ve been doing has been behind the scenes in terms of working with companies who want to use this as a collaboration space. And I think it’s mainly been a misconception, people saying oh the brands failed in Second Life. The difference is, I think arguably there are more brands in Second Life than there ever have been and in fact virtually daily we still see new companies coming in.

The funny thing is, it feels very much as if people are still talking about Second Life as if it was 2006 still. I think one of the problems is, there’s brand dispersion between Second Life the “public park”, if you like, which is very much the “go start a business buy some land and carry on” part. And then there’s the Second Life Grid, which is the more private work, and that’s 100% of our work on the Grid now. We hardly have anything actually left on the main grid.

The problem is that they take the temperature still as an overall temperature, not realizing the split. And I think you saw it from Mark Kingdon’s keynotes, you know, this thing about the second wave coming through. It has been for a while. I think the problem is that we still got hung up on the old stories. The pin-up girl of that era was Anshe Chung, and we don’t hear anything of her anymore.

So then what’s the ‘pitch’ to companies for Immersive Workspaces? What convinces them that they should come on board?

Justin: Many companies have a massive problem with disparate employees, where you may have a situation where people are working on the same problem across multiple different regions or multiple divisions. How can you get people to share and transfer knowledge? How do you get very large companies to talk to each other in a non-hierarchical fashion. And so that’s obviously one of the big, big benefits is that you can help solve this.

Another thing that we’ve picked up on is using Immersive Workspaces for pre and post events, where you can organize an innovation day in real life, for example, that lasts for 3 days. The main problem is that they’re very costly, very time consuming and how do you get people to continue that conversation. And we ran a conference where we had a pre-event inside one of our virtual spaces, and then we did a post event. So it took one day off the main conference day.

When people got to the real event, they had already broken down the social barriers. They were already talking because they met in world. So if you like, and it’s one of the lessons that we learned from running the earlier Second Life Community Conventions, which I’m not sure people are very aware of. But we used to help run that up until 2006 and we noticed that people were arriving, initially picking up the conversation from where they just left off in world. And so we’ve done that. So of course as a productivity tool that’s very, very powerful.

But what we found afterward, and which was quite a surprise to us, is people were logging back in again to the space, when they got back to their offices or homes, and were continuing the same conversations. So suddenly people’s desire to share ideas and share innovation was coming through very strong.

Another benefit is in helping to adjust life/work balance. One of the biggest problems that happens in HR is that people are complaining about having on a Sunday afternoon to get to a meeting on a Monday, and helping to address that is one of the main things that we’re doing.

It’s been about productivity.

And then there are things that we’re doing in terms of the kind of second wave products that we’re developing. You know, I kind of mentioned this to the Virtual Worlds Forum that virtual worlds themselves are more than just the space, they’re more than just collaboration and a great place to do a meeting. They have a secondary area which is beyond what we’re calling “beyond the avatar”, which actually is the environment itself as its own entity.

Data Visualization Sample

Like New York City is its own story, you know, exactly the same. And so what we’re trying to do at the moment is to tap into traditional back-end databases and creating visual metaphors in cyberspace. So what happens, the environment itself becomes a living embodiment of the company. And again we call those living landscapes. Pull your mouse out and you can see this wonderful tapestry of data. That’s changing people’s perception of their companies and ways to look at data together and that’s really quite exciting because we’ve only just tapped into that. And arguably that’s going to be a very, very powerful tool.

That’s fascinating. Can you give an example of that?
Justin: I mean I think we’re only just sampling that. In fact we can see a situation and we started to do it, where you can literally see cause and effect by – so for instance we created a Manhattan skyline and where we watched the oil price dropping. And you could see visually the effect that had on the transportation market. You could see a ripple effect which you wouldn’t necessarily see by looking at one’s and zeroes or just data spreadsheets. So I think there’s something there, there’s something intangible that’s going to happen. And actually one of the most popular requests that we’re getting from our clients is can they have a window on the world system, which basically means a plasma screen mounted on their wall where they can actually see the world.

Following the brand ‘experiments’ in Second Life, different metaverse agencies took different approaches to what services they sell. Why did you make the decision to stick with Linden Lab?

Justin: First, we had a lot invested in Second Life. I mean we were there right from the beginning, 2003. I remember at a 2005 conference meeting Sibley and Giff (from ESC), and we were doing a presentation of what this could be for brands, and they hadn’t even looked at it yet. And this predated Ruben even being at Linden Lab and leaving, and I think arguably based on seeing the business that we were all doing.

So what we haven’t done is run with the pack. And I can honestly say this to you, and this is why I’m so proud of my team, is that we’ve always pretty much led. We’ve never – I think a good example of that is that we didn’t jump on the Tweeny worlds because we suddenly realized that there was only room for a certain amount of those. And running after, I think running after the herd, if you like, is always going to be very, very difficult.

Our original use of Second Life was as a collaboration tool. We actually were working at that stage on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the movie. And I needed a way to mock up story boards and also to play with a model of Marvin. And using Second Life as an active prototyping tool made a lot of sense to us. And we started to realize its potential. So that if you like, the seeds for this were sown five years ago. What we did realize though and we thought we had something that was fair is that we realized by combining Web 2.0 with the 3D space, you have something quite compelling. And we kind of realized that that was the way forward. A lot of companies did jump on t the hype wagon if you like around Tween Worlds and other approaches.

But I still get a kick out of Second Life. I still enjoy meeting in there. I enjoy hanging out and seeing what’s going on. And I think Philip touched on this, and it’s this thing called, you know he called it magic. And I think you get it and I get what he means.

And I think what there is this thing that I call the joie de vivre effect. You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s something quite compelling about it. The big difference compared to other platforms is that Second Life has always been that fully immersive experience. It’s always felt to me very real.

Did you consider or have you considered OpenSim as a platform?
Justin: There’s no doubt that they’re doing a great job with OpenSim. The problem is that from what I can tell, it’s still very much an alpha product. It’s not really ready for mainstream use yet. And the problem with this stuff as well is it really falls down in accountability. Who’s responsible for the problems that may occur and for making changes?

We could have gone down the OpenSim path, but the problem is at this stage it’s not ready and we needed to pin our colours to a flag and we chose Linden Lab because of the belief of what we found in the last nine months, particularly working with clients, that they’re very happy with that, with that as a platform.

To be honest with you, clients are not really interested in what platform it’s on. What we’re trying to sell here is solutions. And that’s been a maturing of the market. We don’t have to talk about the code, we just talk about what it can do for you as a business.

Second Life is the incredibly successful platform that creates the product and is the platform we’re using to bring this to market. And people are happy because they know it’s proven. Whereas other platforms they tell us that they’re giving us bread, but really what they’re giving us is flour and water. Those platforms want us to develop products rather than actually just jump in and create something for our clients to use.

(In my previous post, I talked about the fact that Immersive Workspaces are separate from the Second Life “world”. As Zha Ewry confirmed: “The distinction there for what it’s worth is the Rivers Run Red stuff is effectively disconnected from the Grid. It lets you get what people effectively describe as ‘Grid in a Box’ which is that you get your own little Grid and it doesn’t connect at ALL to the Second Life Grid.”)

I asked Justin to comment on the “cross-over benefits” of the private servers on which Immersive Workspaces runs and the “main Grid”:

Justin: We have consistently brought through talent from the, if you like, the consumer platform. We probably work on and off with about 25 different people from the Second Life consumer grid. So there’s always a crossover.

Now, there may be a massive bone of contention for what I’m saying. But I think there’s definitely a split between the consumer worlds and there’s certainly a split between the new second wave which is coming through and I think that’s obvious. But I don’t think it affects each other. The problem is how it’s communicated out there and it’s a situation of the fact that Second Life has been fantastic, you’ve got a fantastic economy at a million dollars a day but companies want to use this as their own collaboration solution and they can be separate from you and they don’t have to mix. But it doesn’t challenge you. It shouldn’t worry you because it’s the nature of any product that it has multiple uses and multiple propositions, and this is exactly what it’s about.

And when it comes to avatars moving between the business and consumer worlds, there are a couple of things that we advised our clients to do because there are big HR issues around virtual worlds and actually what your employees are exposed to that you’re responsible for.

So what we suggest happens is that our clients have a personal avatar so they can go in and enjoy the sumptuous designs that are in Second Life. And you know, to be honest with you, that’s how I started. You know, I’m still a massive fan of what goes on there.

But then you have your work avatar and that’s what you come to work with and you should separate them both out. After all, you wouldn’t go in a suit with your BlackBerry to a pop concert. You’d go home and change first of all.

What are some of the surprises, or the unexpected benefits to business?
Justin: One of the big surprises that they’re finding is they are starting to not differentiate between this and the real world. They’ve found that they are talking about the meeting rooms as if they’re real places. So they’re starting if you like to see
beyond the technology, see beyond barriers and they’re actually seeing this as a real part of their organization. A lot of them are saying that we never thought that would happen because they always saw the technology barrier as something they’d probably never get past.

Corporate Secrets Shared

There is also the sense of being able to tap into this wonderful amount of collective knowledge. So some of our clients have 300 people who are using the space, which is an ideal number. And we’re seeing people meet others that they might never have had a chance to meet.

And one of my classic stories is the guy who turned around and said I found out that I was going to be on the same problem as the guy was 3 floors below us, and by combining our efforts through the virtual space, by meeting there, we actually saved x amount of time and problems. You’ve actually facilitated a connection which is actually very powerful.


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