Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Virtual World Platforms

Immersive Workspaces, Second Life and the State of My Confusion

In 1997 I sold sponsorship for the above Web site. At the time, it was kind of like selling an ad for Wal*Mart in the pages of Playboy - not only did I need to explain what it was, I needed to tell them, well look, don’t worry, your ad will be at the back, forget all the REST of the content, and for good measure we’ll seal the ad off with a little lock or whatever and only approved folks will know that you’ve somehow been associated with, um, well, the rest of it.

Maybe in my little corner of the world this was a big deal. But it wasn’t a high profile thing on the Net in general. So I didn’t have the Net pioneers come to me and say that I shouldn’t hide stuff away, it’s a free, anarchic Web, and every little bit of code counts, we can’t afford to have anything partitioned or passcode protected and we all need to share in this vast experiment that is the Web. And yet I know there were people like that, in the early days. Who shuddered at the arrival of companies and brands and enterprise…they were a threat to the guiding principles of the Web…and yeah, sure, they still ARE a threat, in their way….all this Net neutrality stuff, maybe, is really about toggling our access to all that is good and great about our interconnected Grid that we call the World Wide Web.

So maybe I shouldn’t find myself so perplexed about the response to my recent posts on the launch of Immersive Workspaces (IW) by Rivers Run Red and Linden Lab (my interview with Justin, the launch of Mobile Ripple, and the Industry Standard’s review of the application). The concerns about IW aren’t dissimilar to what’s come before, although this time there’s the added strangeness that someone OWNS a big chunk of this “new Web”, namely Linden Lab. Which is maybe where the trouble starts.

The Pros and Cons of Immersive Workspaces
So first, my own perspective: Immersive Workspaces is a good application because of the way in which it links Web-based tools with a virtual environment. Beyond that, it is primarily a meeting space.

The application encourages enterprise to meet in virtual environments because it is safe (generally disconnected from the public Second Life where the content scares the HR and legal folks at large companies), it is protected (corporate data is hidden behind a firewall and safe from the public and from competitors), and it has been developed by two companies that businesses seems to trust because of their track records (more about that later, but compare the track records of RRR and LL with, say, Qwak, and you get an idea what I mean).

As a meeting space, IW is positioned to add an extra means by which teams can get together, view presentations, and chat. There are other ways to do these things, and each of them has advantages. The advantage to IW over, say, Web casts is that virtual world meetings create a deeper sense of relationship between participants, and between participants and data than other forms of Web-based conferencing.

The problem with IW is that while it may trend, over time, towards deeper forms of collaboration, the Second Life platform is not currently constructed for enterprise use in the way that most business currently think about collaboration (about which, again, more later). Without the ability to embed Web pages (HTML on a prim), there is little or no ability to therefore embed external content in a meaningful way, where that content can be shared and worked on by multiple participants. Until HTML on a prim allows, for example, the ability to import Word documents, Adobe AIR applications, etc. IW will be a meeting space, and secondly, perhaps, a data visualization platform.

So that’s it. And what I don’t quite understand is….what’s the problem?

The Rich, Immersive Grid
OK, now one of my problems here is that I’ve started to feel like maybe I’ve slipped over to the dark side of being one of those corporate augmentationists or something. And you can believe what you want, but I’ll state for the record that I’m a Second Life Resident first, and I’m a Resident because I believe in the community, in the richness, in the depth, and in the range of SL.

Immersive Workspaces is a well packaged build with a robust Web-side application. I’m not seeing some new “killer app”, what I see is a collection of best practices, an aggregation of technologies and a few new little bells and whistles that fill in some gaps.

But to me, Loco Pocos or Golgothica do more to leverage the power of Second Life than IW does. They combine community, content, commerce, storytelling, and immersion. They’re works of art around which community ecosystems are or will arise, and as examples of branding, application development, and maximum use of the SL tools they’re unrivaled. Throw or reflexive architecture into the mix, and you have an example of what REAL virtual world collaboration looks like.

So, one of the arguments is that IW, because it’s separate from all of this creative work, and all of the creative people who MAKE this work, is losing out on the fundamental value that is Second Life: the access to what I and others have termed the largest creative “city” on the planet today, or the largest collective creative project in history. And that’s true, but my perplexity seems to lie in what the best way to arrive at EXPLAINING that to people might be.

I mean, there will always be innovators. I think of the work on Orange Island and to me, that’s the ideal model for a company to have a presence in Second Life, to contribute to the community, and as a result gain insight into trends, technologies, and attitudes towards better creating products and experiences.

But does that mean that if you don’t “get it” you shouldn’t come? And let’s say you DON’T get it - then what’s the safest way in?

Closed Innovation
One of the lines of thinking I’ve heard a lot of, especially in back chat (rather than on the blog) is that IW doesn’t “raise the bar” for the rest of us. Generally, the people who say this advocate for openSim - which baffles me. Now, I’m developing corporate stuff on OpenSim, so I support it, I’m hoping that it will make contributions to the overall community (through code or otherwise)…but at the end of the day, I’ll be deploying “privately”, some of the innovations will, by necessity, need to remain my clients’, and it will exist behind a firewall.

Innovation will happen in a number of ways. Some of it will be open, will include a sharing of best practices, and that’s great: the more that content and service providers can convince their clients to contribute back to the community from which they benefited, to share their stories (good and bad), the better. And in the long run, the companies that DON’T do that will find that the companies who DO will gain ‘network advantages’ - faster access to lessons learned, to technology, to intelligence.

But that doesn’t oblige anyone to make that decision, which is in the end a strategic one.

And the argument that ‘fire-walled sims’ are somehow a bad thing doesn’t seem to hold water either. Because what’s a closed off island if it’s not a weak firewall? Shouldn’t universities, for example, have the right to restrict their classrooms to their students?

Great Expectations
One of the oddest arguments I’ve heard about Rivers Run Red is that they’ll feed another hype cycle. That the hype cycle will then burst, and the ship will sink. Which I find, to put it mildly, bizarre.

The same folks who celebrated the ability to teleport from SL to OpenSim, who generated insane amounts of press because of it, who described it as if the clouds had parted and opportunity was raining down from heaven are the same people who are saying “don’t over-hype this people will be disappointed.”

I mean sure - there WILL be disappointments, and failures, and some of them we’ll know about and some of them we won’t. So for those people I think I’d recommend that they do the right thing: DON’T sell the benefits, wait until everything’s perfect, poke holes in the balloons that float up, be a voice of reason. What I don’t entirely understand is why it matters that a large balloon be pricked whereas all the smaller ones should be cause for dancing in the streets.

The brands came, the brands went, Second Life is still here. The only person I ever heard actually SAY that it sucked was Reuters. I didn’t hear Reebok say “We wasted a ton of money”, I didn’t hear The L-Word say “What an awful experience”, I didn’t even hear CSI say “What a horrible mistake”. They ALL keep claiming it was a great, useful experience. The only ones who talk about how horrible it was that the brands came and went are, well, bloggers mostly, and the media who follow them. And when was the last time you trusted a blogger or the media anyways?

The Adoption Curve and the Road Map
OK, but here’s the problem.

The problem with Immersive Workspaces is NOT the application, or that Rivers Run Red is trying to get press out of it, or that it’s hardly going to set the corporate world on fire (at least in the short term).

The problem is with Linden Lab. I don’t begrudge them some privacy over their plans. I don’t begrudge them the NDAs, and the secret meetings with their solution providers.

What I don’t like is that the Lab has no coherent communication policy for the deep ecosystem of talent that lives, works, and dreams in Second Life. There is no way to know how to focus your efforts, how to make plans, how to create a road map for your own enterprise because, well, you just never know what’s coming next.

Should they have opened up ’stand-alone servers’ to the wider community? Probably not…I mean, someone needs to go first, right? But what they SHOULD do is lay out a coherent road map with effective communication channels, and those road maps should be both focused on emerging technologies (fire-walled servers, for example), skill sets (scripters, creators, animators, etc.), and vertical markets.

Maybe I’m not on the right lists. I’ve applied but the Lab doesn’t respond. And should I need to be on the ‘right list’ to have some idea about how to plan my own enterprise, or should I just live with things being continually obscure?

Opportunities for the Rest of Us
Finally, there’s the argumentthat by concentrating content development in the hands of ‘uber-developers’ the opportunities for the rest of us become limited. And on this point I agree. If there are benefits that the “super-partners” are getting that would benefit the wider content creation community, they should get it too.

But two things: one, the stand-alone server WILL be widely available. And two, as I say above, someone needs to go first.

The deeper question is this: Second Life already contains an object and code repository that could knock the socks off of any Rivers Run Red, or IBM, or whoever wants to come along and build their own ’stand-alone’ solution. If you took all of the ideas, the tools, the content, the applications, and the experienced talent that ALREADY exists, and you packaged it up in new ways, if you aggregated it and made it easy for people to pick up and invest in….wouldn’t the power of that be a competitive threat to these ’super partners’?

Which leads to the question of: why isn’t that happening? Or is it?

Are the Worlds at Cross Purposes?
At the end of the day, I suppose it comes down to this: the Second Life public Grid is a creative city in which consumer-oriented experience co-mingle with education and science and business. The companies that recognize the deep value in having access to this rich landscape of ideas and dreams and talent can tap into the existing innovations and tools, create communities, benefit from it, thrive as a result of it, and roll with the Linden Lab punches every now and then.

The ones who don’t recognize it, are welcome to their fire-walled clean rooms where, perhaps, they’ll gain some benefit from dipping their toes in virtual spaces…or not.

Whether these two impulses are at cross-purposes, time will tell. I have faith in the public Grid. But until we can convince enterprise that not everything needs to be locked down and hidden away, I’ll hope that what they learn behind those firewalls is enough to make them want just a little bit more.

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