Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Has Second Life Poisoned the Well for Business? Thoughts from 3DTLC

The 3DTLC track at the Engage Expo in San Jose featured some of the usual suspects, Metanomics among them, and an overall sense that we’re nearing the finish line – the chasm is about to be crossed, and with the help of ThinkBalm’s handy but dense guide to overcoming objectives, we’ll all be deploying, well, something 3D, something cool, although we’re not really sure yet what the killer app will be.

Among the presenters was chief sponsor of the 3DTLC track, Proton Media and they had some pretty impressive business-friendly stuff to show off, including integration with Microsoft’s Sharepoint. I was in love with how you could access document archives in their 3D conference hall or whatever that build was…it was a sort of carousel of files, and it had me drooling over the day when Linden Lab’s Media API hits the Grid – I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again now….it’s going to be game changing stuff when it comes.

But Ron Burns, ProtoPrez, lay part of the blame for a lag in industry adoption of virtual worlds at the feet of Second Life, saying that virtual worlds have a reputation for being a place to ‘goof off’, and this fit into the broader meme that we need to stop CALLING them virtual worlds at all, which Erica Driver was of course all over with robust Twitter nods, preferring her term Immersive Internet which is meant to paint a broader picture to include – well, to include what I’m not sure, because ThinkBalm doesn’t often look at things like PaperVision or augmented reality or, dread term….games.

During my own presentation, I talked about selling to the strategic priorities of companies who are struggling in both a down economy and a rapidly changing world shaped by the forces of social media and Wikis and Facebook and the constant challenge of trying to find out where their customers actually ARE….who can keep track of them anymore, and how come the brand message keeps getting lost in the back channels of Facebook or user-generated videos on youTube?

And I threw a few slides in at the end which were purposefully meant to be provocative, although who knows – maybe everyone just ignored my point or thought I was a nut case. One of the slides was a photo of Immersiva, the sim we sponsor by Bryn Oh. And the other was a slide of MadPea Productions, who we also sponsor and partner with. Which led to someone in the audience asking: “Do you really show GAMES to corporate clients? Because if you use the G-word you’re pretty much booted out of the company”.

You see, I’m starting to think I’m totally out-to-lunch. There’s this growing consensus of a few hard truths about virtual worlds for business:

- We can’t call them virtual worlds anymore, it sounds frivolous, it reminds everyone of furries and ‘goofing off’.
- We can’t ever ever use the “game” word. Talking about games or play is like giving a corporate mandate to employees that they can play solitaire all afternoon (or, the modern equivalent, watch youTube videos when the boss isn’t looking).
- We need to scrub our language of terms like ‘creative cacophony’ or ‘fun’ and use things like ‘increase ROI’ or ‘improve learning retention’ and we need to be talking about things like enterprise-level integration with Sametime or SCORM-compliant LMS systems or other blah blahs.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer that virtual worlds don’t stand alone. They succeed when they’re aligned to a broader CEO-level strategy – of innovation, say, or design thinking. They also succeed when, at a program or tactical level, they integrate well with others – with your Web site strategy, say, or your internal team collaboration tools.

But listening to how people in San Jose talk about virtual worlds they all sound like Microsoft pitching the Zune when it first came out: “hey, we can speak your language, we have better specs than the next guy, we may not LOOK that great but don’t let THAT fool you, we’re a PLAYER man, and to prove it, I’m not even wearing a tie!!!”

But contrast that to Steve Jobs, say. Or even better – to Philip Rosedale on Metanomics, who said:

Second Life is something that genuinely enables people to create value whether monetary or not. Some of these virtual objects are things that people are selling to make their living and others of them are purely expressions of art. The fact that those two things can happen side by side in a virtual world is delightful…. Second Life is a platform for people creating content and the more complicated and interesting content you allow people to create the more they tend to do it. The upper end of how creative we as humans want to be is apparently not found yet. We seem to be almost infinitely creative.

But here’s the strange thing: when you talk to many of these same people who are worried about making virtual worlds (um, the immersive Internet) palatable for business, over dinner say, or in the hall of the conference – more often than not you get into a discussion of their OWN experiences in finding virtual worlds. And there’s usually a story in there about rezzing a prim. Or about their first social experience. Or about attending a discussion or a Metanomics event or meeting someone, quite by chance, who took them on a tour somewhere.

It’s not unlike Chris Abraham’s post – Second Life was a non-starter for him, but somehow he managed to get a better sense of possibility because he saw a couple of cool things and, more important, he got himself kitted out with decent hair and clothes.

But in the language of “selling to enterprise” the idea that an employee would write something like what Chris wrote would probably be, well, horrifying. You log in to Protosphere and you might have a few choices of business friendly avatars, but you’re using your real name, and the range of self expression is limited. And more important – you can’t rez a prim. And if you want to move your conference chair around or goof off by sitting on the ceiling or something then send a purchase order in.

There’s a paradox, I suppose: we are here, in virtual worlds, because something about them sparked a passion. They opened our eyes, our minds and maybe even our hearts to something larger, something filled with some other potential, and maybe that ‘thing’ was creativity.

These are new WORLDS as much as we might label them applications or platforms. And these new worlds hold a key, although not the ONLY key, to how our collective futures might unfold: with companies who succeed not because they launch a Zune, but because they launch an iPod. Where we might be able to go to work and find that we have the tools to liberate our creative impulse, where the word ‘play’ or ‘game’ is part of a broader value proposition which includes innovation and design thinking and human-centered product development. Where goofing off is a REQUIREMENT for remaining flexible in our thinking, transparent and trustworthy in our actions, and resistant to dogma.

Play is not contradictory to performance. Goofing off is not decoupled from discipline – whether it’s design discipline or the discipline of radical innovation. Personal creativity may be a threat to the corporate order, but it’s not a threat to corporate results.

And look – if you don’t want to join me on a journey into goofing off, into exploration, into the odd frontier where we just let things run a little wild for a while – that’s OK too. Maybe your competitor will get it. Or that little scrappy company being run out of a basement somewhere where they understand that goofing off may well be their ticket to a future in which we keep striving to find the upper limits of our dreams.


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