"Virtual worlds" such as Second Life hold out a promise that is dramatic, liberating, and irresistible to most: a parallel, electronic world where people can conduct their lives unencumbered by many real-world constraints and limitations. But is this promise merely a phenomenon conjured up by over-zealous marketers, technology buffs, and commercial interests, or is it backed by real capabilities?
Second Life, the most popular virtual world environment, certainly appears to have expanded past the early adopter stage. The company reports a total number of users at 5.9 million, of which about 1.76 million have logged in during the last 60 days.
More importantly, many leading companies have put together a Second Life act. Adidas Reebok, Nissan, Mazda, Toyota, and Starwood Hotels all have Second Life initiatives. Dell sells computers there. IBM and Sun are active. IBM CEO Sam Palmisano visited and held a meeting in Second Life recently. IBM is reputed to have set up a business group to address Second Life. Reuters has a news bureau in Second Life. Harvard Law School has offered a course there.
Perhaps a key sign that a technology has arrived is when governments start adopting it. The Swedish government is setting up an embassy in Second Life, through the Swedish Institute, an affiliate of its foreign ministry. The city council of Manchester, UK, has taken a few Second Life islands too.
Of course, all is not hunky-dory. There is a need to look at success metrics that go beyond raw usage numbers. A very down-to-earth caution is that the products and services that real world companies offer may appear mundane in the context of the fantastic, imagination-stretching possibilities that are common in cyberspace. In an environment where people seem to leap tall buildings, athletic shoes are hardly exciting.
Nevertheless, a virtual world offers people the possibility to break out from real world constraints and do things impossible in the real world. With increasing familiarity and access to technology, people will welcome the chance to use this new-found freedom in ways that they could previously only imagine. Even more fundamentally, it is not inconceivable that many people will see this as an opportunity to create, from the ground up, a new identity that they have always wished for but could never have in real life. Thus it can safely be expected that virtual worlds such as Second Life will see widespread traction and uptake from people of all ages and persuasions. The sociological ramifications of a blurring between the real and imaginary worlds can be staggering, but that will not stop adoption.
How seriously should businesses take this phenomenon?
Smart companies go where people go. If people are flocking towards the virtual world, companies need to go there too. That is, if they want to show they are tech-savvy, and gain mindshare with the young crowd — who make up the market of the future. They can also actually generate revenues by selling products and services in virtual space. As with any endeavor that needs to catch people's imagination and fire up large numbers of people, first-mover advantages are obvious.
Is the road ahead paved with silicon?
While that may be overstating things somewhat, it seems clear that the lives of large numbers of people will increasingly involve excursions into the wild blue yonder of worlds that exist only in computer-enhanced reality. In the meanwhile, it appears inescapable that every company worth its salt should busy itself thinking up a Second Life strategy — even if that strategy is only an informed wait-and-watch.
The best approach is perhaps to be like a cat: wait and watch with great care, but be ready to jump when the time is ripe. But unlike cats, companies (and people) are not naturally endowed with nine lives, and so should welcome the opportunity to be granted a lease into a second life.Powered by Sidelines