Last week I went back to the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit. It was a very stimulating event, both because of the talks and panels as well as the people that this conference attracts. I participated in a panel on How Real is the Virtual Web?, which was moderated by Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in Virtual Reality and currently Scholar-in-Residence at UC Berkeley. The panel included Craig Sherman, CEO of Gaia Interactive; Chris Melissinos, Chief Gaming Officer at Sun Microsystems; and Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Second Life, who also gave a short talk - A Brief Look at Second Life just prior to the panel.
We discussed a wide range of subjects, including the use of virtual worlds for serious applications beyond online games and related social environments. When will virtual worlds become a real business?, our moderator asked.
I expressed my opinion that meetings and learning and training may very well be the killer apps of virtual worlds, that is, those applications that turn out to be unexpectedly useful and help propel the success of a new product or service in the marketplace. For example, there is general agreement that spreadsheet applications had a lot to do with the initial adoption of personal computers in business.
Some panel members agreed with me, while others thought that it would be a pity if the reason business adopts virtual worlds is for something as mundane as conducting virtual meetings. But remember, spreadsheet applications were successful not because they were exciting. The reason that spreadsheets and word processing are viewed as killer apps is because they helped validate that PCs were becoming a tool for real work and would improve personal productivity.
Similarly, I think that virtual meetings and virtual learning and training are helping drive the adoption of virtual worlds in business based on my impressions of how they are already being used by thousands within IBM and in other companies we are working with. I also see quite a number of universities experimenting with the use of virtual worlds for online courses.
Moreover, I actually think that meetings and learning are fascinating subjects to study, especially if the object of the study is to understand how to leverage new technologies like the Internet, social networks and virtual worlds to significantly improve them. Let's not forget that meetings generally involve people coming together for some common purpose - to make an important decision, to come up with a market strategy, to try to formulate a new innovative solution to a problem, and so on.
Meetings also occur for many purposes - to train people in a university or business, to consult on a medical problem, to try to close a sale, to offer financial advice. Meetings constitute a huge part of our economy, and of the work that people engage in. We should not be surprised that meetings, - namely collaborative decision making, problem solving, learning and innovation, - will be even more important in the talent-based knowledge economy that we are entering.
I think that it would be a huge breakthrough if we can significantly improve the quality of meetings through the use of new technology-based capabilities like virtual worlds - simultaneously making them more appealing to the people involved as well as making them more effective in achieving their goals. I am convinced that such breakthroughs will inevitably lead to serious financial returns for the companies involved.
Another fascinating topic discussed in our panel was whether people behave better in virtual worlds than on blogs, forums and chat rooms. Does the visual element in virtual worlds - the fact that avatars remind us that we are interacting with other real human beings - make us more polite?
The consensus of the team was that virtual worlds do indeed encourage more polite behavior, - perhaps not a very high bar considering the level of anger and insults often expressed in social networks. We all felt that people fight less and their behavior is more civil toward each other in virtual worlds than in forums or blogs, although we cannot quite prove it yet. We clearly need a lot more research on the subject.
To do its part to encourage good behavior, IBM just posted the IBM Virtual World Guidelines, designed to help our people navigate the brave new virtual worlds that we are encouraging them to explore. I believe that the only way for people to appreciate the impact of new technologies and capabilities, and to figure out their value in the marketplace, is to go out there, use them, experiment with them, and come up with innovative new applications. As with blogging two years ago, guidelines are meant to help people new to virtual worlds feel more comfortable about getting out there and experimenting.
The guidelines read like a combination of common sense and motherly advice. They range from Use your good judgment and Protect your - and IBM's good name to Be truthful and consistent and Be a good 3D Netizen. Jaron Lanier, our panel moderator, whose impressive dreadlocks would be worthy of a Jedi Knight asked me if IBM would allow its people to have avatars with similar dreadlocks. Before I could answer the question Philip Rosedale stepped in and said that one of the coolest avatars he has seen in Second Life is that of epredator, - aka Ian Hughes, - one of our virtual world pioneers and evangelists.
Here is what the IBM Virtual World Guidelines have to say about appearance:
"Virtual worlds give you the ability to create the way in which you want to represent your digital persona visually. This can be anything from a reasonable likeness of the actual person to a fictional creature.
Avatar customization, clothing and all aspects of appearance and behavior are among the forms of innovation in virtual worlds. In general, your digital persona’s appearance is up to you. When you are using your avatar or persona in association with IBM, however, your judgment in these matters should be shaped by the same general guidelines that apply to IBMers in physical environments – i.e., that your appearance be appropriate to the context of your activities. You need to be especially sensitive to the appropriateness of your avatar or persona’s appearance when you are meeting with IBM clients or conducting IBM business."
For a while now I have felt that virtual worlds have the potential to significantly humanize IT, by helping us develop applications that are much more visual, interactive and intuitive for their users. I was thus really intrigued when toward the end of our panel, Jaron Lanier said that he believes that civility is the killer app of virtual worlds, - especially of open, creativity oriented, virtual worlds. It may very well be that another major way in which virtual worlds are humanizing IT is by encouraging us all to be more civil, and just plain nicer as we communicate, work and collaborate with each other in virtual communities. What an appealing thought.