Companies Explore Private Virtual Worlds

Meetings, conferences and training programs in a 3D virtual world such as Second Life can be more engaging and productive than traditional online sessions and phone calls, and much less expensive than face-to-face meetings requiring travel. But some companies aren't willing to take on the security and compliance risks of using a public platform and are instead opting for private virtual worlds created behind the corporate firewall.

"Once it's on your platform, behind your walls, it has the same security as any other intranet application," says Steven Russell, a research scientist at Siemens Corporate Research. Siemens employees study product prototypes using OpenSim, an open-source platform that simulates the user interface, content and scripting functionality of Second Life.

According to Candemir Toklu, program manager for knowledge and decision systems at Siemens Corporate Research, when employees represented as avatars are in a common location with the virtual model of a product, they can more easily discuss its appearance, functionality and relationship to its environment-all without incurring travel costs or investing in Star Trek-like hologram technology.

While adoption of virtual environments hasn't taken off yet, Gartner expects secure, business-friendly enterprise platforms will gain in popularity over time. "At some point, I would expect it would be just as natural to pop into a virtual environment as it would be to go on a call or into a conference room," says analyst Carol Rozwell.

Keeping it Confidential

Another company that moved from Second Life to OpenSim is Preferred Family Healthcare, a Missouri-based nonprofit substance-abuse-treatment organization with 29 locations serving 12,000 people a year throughout the Midwest. Last year, it received an $865,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services for a substance-abuse project on a private world running OpenSim. "We liked the immersiveness of Second Life, but we didn't like the public nature of it," says Dick Dillon, senior vice president for planning and development. With OpenSim, "no outsiders have access," he says, ensuring the company is compliant with confidentiality regulations.

According to Dillon, the virtual therapy works as well as or better than face-to-face therapy in all areas. In addition, clients in the virtual program participate in almost two-and-a-half times as many activities and remain connected with their therapy for over twice as many days as clients attending in-person sessions, he says.

Still, virtual worlds have some risks. Immersive 3D platforms are tailor-made for role playing, which is great for games and training simulations but could lead to creative yet inappropriate behaviors. That's a problem in public settings like Second Life. "I was doing a presentation to an audience of attorneys in Second Life, and I was on IBM's island and a very inappropriately dressed avatar walked up to me and began to engage in what appeared to be a romantic overture," says Robert Scott, managing partner at Texas-based intellectual-property and technology law firm Scott and Scott.

Private virtual worlds aren't completely safe, either. "Because it's virtual," Scott says, "employees might feel there's some ambiguity."

Read more about web productivity in CIO's Web Productivity Drilldown.

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