Interview – Lee Hopkins, Business Communicator and PhD Student (Part 1)

Lee Hopkins is one of Australia’s more high profile Second Life residents who makes a living talking and consulting on social media and business communication strategy. On top of that, Lee’s immersed in completing a PhD with a virtual world focus, so I took the opportunity to nail Lee down for an interview.


Lowell: Lee, you’re best known for your consultancy work in regard to social media – is that what led you to explore Second Life initially?

Lee: It all started with Shel Holtz (a business communication expert from North America) mentioning it on ‘For Immediate Release’, the industry podcast for business communicators. He and several others became excited about the arrival of yet another channel of communication that the corporate world had to get its collective head around. This was all about two years after blogging just started to get going, so I am guessing around 2006 was when Second Life came across my radar.

Shel and his podcasting colleague Neville Hobson had been right about the growing importance of blogging and then podcasting, so I figured I’d grant them a ‘three out of three’ about Second Life as well. I joined up and started developing my own experiences and understanding of it as a direct result of them.

Lowell: Can you recall that first experience with SL? Did it click for you right away or did the infamous orientation experience put you off?

Lee: That first experience was a nightmare. Let’s not forget that this is Australia, so our broadband is a lot worse than our North American, European and even Asian friends enjoy. It was slow, my computer’s graphics card was struggling, I didn’t understand why no matter how far I flew, land kept being built and populated in front of me faster than I could stop and buy it.

And Orientation Island! Argghh! I reckon it’s actually gotten worse, not better. I had no other virtual world to compare it to, not being a gamer or anything like that, but I don’t recall being frustrated by it. Well, not *overly* frustrated, anyway. It was such a new experience, and the interface so slow and clunky, that I must have found *something* worthwhile enough to make me stay. Probably its novelty for me.

Lowell: What in SL led you to become a long-term user?

Lee: Goodness, that makes me sound like a heroin addict! (laughs) – “Second Life becomes my home”, confesses 50-year old cracker. I guess that I became convinced of the power of 3D virtual worlds to bypass some of the normal ‘static’ and reach out in new ways to people. That sounds confusing, so let me give you an example:

My wife is a nurse and, let it be understood, considers the computer the spawn of the Devil. She hates them with a passion only reserved for me when I do something wrong (you know, like when I breath or something – every husband reading this will understand). She resents the amount of time I spend ‘playing’ (as she calls it) on my computer rather than doing something useful – and this is before we even start talking about Second Life, and remembering that I don’t play computer games. For me, the PC is about work and networking with colleagues around the globe.

Yet, when I showed her Second Life (albeit a movie on YouTube about it) she instantly understood and said, “I can see how this would be perfect for business and the health system”. After I picked up my jaw from the floor and reinserted it, I passed out. On coming to, I asked if I had heard her correctly – the woman who believes the PC is the work of the AntiChrist *instantly* and intuitively saw the value of 3D worlds like Second Life. To this day I still haven’t quite recovered…

As for what keeps me in Second Life, it is a combination of things. One, the belief that the 3D virtual world will grow to be the force that the pundits proclaim it will be, that it will become a part of our everyday web experience within a few short years. Two, and following on from point one, that I need to keep abreast of developments. Not necessarily so that I need to live and breathe it (I have, after all, other work that I need to get done in order to pay the bills), but enough to be able to speak knowledgeably and confidently about Second Life from a business perspective.
Three, that I have discovered parts of myself I never knew I had, or rather have uncovered parts that had lain dormant and only hinted at their presence.

For example, when I was in the RAAF many years ago I was based for a while in Penang, Malaysia. Whilst there I found a great tailor who made clothes to my design for next to nothing. I loved designing clothes, taking what in academia we call a ‘bricolage’ approach – that is, like a magpie, just stealing bits from here and there to make something different than just the sum of the parts. But I had forgotten about all that shortly after returning to Australia, where cheap tailors and fabrics were not so easily accessible as they were on the streets of Penang in the mid Eighties. So when I found the vast array of clothes to be had in Second Life, my love of clothing re-emerged and I said to myself, in the words of a great quiz show, “Let’s go shopping!”

Let me whisk back to my childhood. One of my favourite toys was ‘Action Man’; not today’s ‘only does one thing and so you need to buy loads of them’ rubber toy, but a UK version of ‘GI Joe’ where you only needed the one figure but could buy loads of different outfits and accessories – guns, tanks, planes, helicopters, knives, grenades, mortars, etc. – to help you live out your boyish killing and war fantasies. Fast forward to today and in Second Life you can have the one ‘toy’ that you can kit out with all manner of accoutrements – my personal favourite hobby at the moment is looking like the robot from that seminal 1970s show ‘Lost In Space’, complete with “Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!” voice. I also found a ready and easy way to create my own adult Barbie and, like many males in Second Life I’m sure, created female alts and dressed them in skins and clothing that our ideal lovers would look like and wear.


Now, I also combined my female alts into my business operations. (Steady, boys!). We all know that ‘sex sells’: there is tons of academic research to show that men AND women prefer to look at attractive women than attractive men; the gaze lasts longer, and so on. We also know that beautiful people in general are more likely to be attributed as honest, trustworthy, smarter, faster, harder working, and so on. The reasons why are for another day, but the shocking truth is that the beautiful people are given luxuries and access that we ‘common folk’ can only dream of. So I created my two female alts to be my in-world business representatives. By hooking them up with’s fabulous and comprehensively pre-scripted artificial intelligence engine, and attaching an ‘anti-idle’ script to the alts, and then making a cup of *really* hot tea, I can be fast asleep and my two alts can be in-world, talking with other avatars and generally being my Customer Service Representatives, even while admitting in their profiles that they are mere robots.

They will also soon appear in a comic series, ‘The Exciting Adventures of Penny and Isabella’, the first issue of which will hopefully be published in three days’ time. I don’t want to give the plot away, but in essence the girls and I are a business communications consultancy that solves real business issues through the power of social media.

The final, and arguably most important reason, why I stay in Second Life is that my PhD is focusing on it, but you’ll no doubt ask me about that in a minute…

Lowell: To some the social media link to virtual worlds is intrinsic. To the broader public though, how would you explain the power of virtual worlds from a social media viewpoint?

Lee: If one accepts that social media is all about the new-found technologically-empowered individual able to engage globally in conversation and dialogue with others of similar interests and passions, then the 3D virtual world is a mere extension of that.

Instead of an often non-linear and time-interrupted conversation that occurs, say, over an email exchange, the technology of social media allows us the choice to engage either in real-time conversations or time-interrupted ones. It also allows us to choose between text, vision, audio or any combination of them. In addition, it allows us to enjoy that conversation either in a one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many or many-to-one mode. 3D virtual worlds like Second Life allow us to take that freedom one step further and inject aspects of our personality into the stream, through our sense of dress, or the environment we prefer to be seen in, our real or imagined gender, and so on.

We also have the freedom (and with it the responsibility to safeguard that freedom) to say what we think – which means calling someone a ‘tosser’ for having adult-lingerie Barbies if you want.

Click here for Part 2 of the interview (this will be available from 9am AEST on the 18th December 2008)

Virtual Worlds and the Transformation of Business: Impacts on the U.S. Economy, Jobs and Industrial Competitiveness

athenallianceAnyone who hasn’t yet grasped the momentum building in the virtual worlds sphere, hasn’t seen the ever-growing pile of white papers being released. Another example from the past week or so comes from the US-based non-profit entity, Athena Alliance.

Authored by Robert B. Cohen, Ph.D, the paper has the title of Virtual Worlds and the Transformation of Business: Impacts on the U.S. Economy, Jobs and Industrial Competitiveness. As its title suggests, the focus is the US economy and the opportunities virtual worlds may provide. Cohen has some credibility in the tech field, having advised former New York Governor Mario Cuomo on technology as well as being an economic advisor for President George H.W. Bush’s National Advisory Commission on Semiconductors.

Given his long stint in the field, Cohen is upbeat on the potential of virtual worlds for the US economy. After an initial read-through, I found there were some fascinating concepts in the report, particularly the concept of a ‘guild system’ approach to business and virtual worlds. I caught up with the author to ask him about that and the impact of the imminent change in US government:

Lowell Cremorne: From a US standpoint, do you see the imminent change of government federally causing fundamental changes in approach to virtual worlds in the short term?

Robert Cohen: Yes, I think that the desire to use technology to make government work “smarter” and more efficiently will certainly lead to more use of Virtual World technology in the US government itself. This might mean a lot of support for efforts such as the AirForce’s MyBase, where a wide range of training from basic through fairly complex, will all be done in a Virtual World setting.

It would also help bring Virtual World technology for medical care that is being offered by Forterra to the military will get a lot of support. Secondly, the emphasis on helping other parts of the economy use new technology, including Virtual World technology could mean that there
would be some effort made to help businesses and universities use Virtual Worlds for training and education and to support the creation of new
platforms that support the technology with more open standards. This is similar to what is being pushed by the Virtual World Roadmap effort.

Lowell Cremorne: You mention throughout your report the ‘guild system’ approach to business and virtual worlds. Could you summarise that approach and would you agree that it’s a significant mindset change for business?

Robert Cohen: The approach contrasts two outcomes for firms of the future. In one, the multi-industry conglomerate, firms get bigger because virtual worlds help them expand their control over more widespread and sophisticated operations in diverse but related industries. So, I might see auto and aerospace firms merge and bring suppliers that serve them under their wing.

In the other outcome, I would expect a rise of smaller, more agile and nimble “technology user” firms that build up an impressive array of expertise within their firm. These “modern” guild system firms differ from guilds because they can track and support the development of expertise within their firm and clearly define their capabilities to others. As a result, a group of these firms can partner to attack a specific project, say to design a new cancer drug. But people in the firm might also work closely with other, similar “modern guild system” firms to decode a gene with an entirely different group of partners. This kind of joining on a specific task, completing it, retaining some of the intellectual property from it, and then licensing it or producing it jointly is the way this type of firm would work. It might have a series of relationships that are built, continued, broken and then rebuilt with different partners. It is kind of a footloose consultant writ large. I would agree that it is a significant mindset change for business, but you do see some firms operating with elements of this today.

It’s certainly a compelling vision for businesses to investigate. The need for a business to be agile and innovative and to have a heavy emphasis on intellectual capital isn’t a new concept. What Cohen’s paper does illustrate is the impact of a link between the collaborative power of virtual worlds and the current business environment where nimbleness is key.

You can read the report in full here.

Minding My Own Business

Today, a guest post from an Australian business owner in Second Life, Seshat Czeret. One of her major goals is to run a sustainable business in SL – one which she can continue to run, and which sustains itself financially. Anyone looking to run a small business in SL for pleasure, rather than for mega bucks, should check out what Seshat has to say about building and running a business.


I’m Seshat Czeret, and I run a business in Second Life. It’s a small business, just me handling it, but it’s bringing in the Lindenbucks.

It started almost by accident. I was in SL to help my friend Tateru Nino with her columns, doing some of the groundwork. I ran into a role-playing environment that I thought I’d enjoy, and made myself a couple of things to help myself with that. Some clothing, and a curtsey animation. Friends suggested I put them up for sale, and Tateru offered me a bit of space at her shop. So I did. And they sold.

Another friend asked if I’d make her an outfit, which I did, which also sold. More friends asked for variations on that outfit, and before I knew it, I had a small – very small – business I was running.

I rented a storefront, and that’s the point where I decided I’d better treat this as a real business. I’m running Ubuntu Linux on a laptop on my computer desk, so I started entering my transactions into GnuCash.

At first, I wasn’t earning enough from sales to pay the rent on the store. I entered NCI’s Show and Tell and Newbie Blitz Builds, and the winnings I made from those covered the shortfall.

As I expanded my range of products, sales improved. Eventually, I covered my rent with sales alone. I expanded into other sims, as recommended to me by my customers. Each such recommendation brought me business – when I’ve let my customers lead me to other customers, it’s always succeeded. Places I tried to find on my own have usually failed.

Another friend gave me space in her store in exchange for a copy of everything I made, which enabled me to have a major storefront. That brought another increase in sales. We recently moved to a larger plot of land: I own the parcel my store is on, though the building extends across four parcels & contains multiple stores. And I pay my own tier, now, as well.

So I now have a major store, and several smaller stores across several different parts of Second Life. The smaller stores are usually in places associated with a roleplay sim, and hold products appropriate for that role-play. It’s convenient for the customers, to have the most appropriate products for them right there.

Despite that, two core products still pay most of my tier – the curtseys, and the courtly bows I created to complement them. Whenever they’re appropriate to a store, I make sure they’re there, and prominently placed.

I started very small, and I’ve grown conservatively. I’m still a very small Second Life business – I haven’t yet earned enough money to be worth changing into atomic-world currency. But by growing the business conservatively, I haven’t acquired obligations I can’t fulfil. I can still run the business by myself, and I can afford my tier.

I’ve learned not to be shy of upload fees. I often see advice for SL businesses saying not to put the price on a product sign, because if you change it you need to upload again. I disagree. Making the price visible lets my customers browse with confidence, knowing they won’t be suffering ‘sticker shock’ when they find the things they actually want to buy. One extra sale covers the upload fees!

I’ve learned to keep close track of the business. Keeping track lets me know when a product line is selling well, and when it might need to be changed in some way. It lets me know which of the smaller stores is doing a good trade in landmarks to the main store, which in sales, and which in both. And it tells me which products my customers like, so I know which ones I should probably do more of.

But for all of that business-y stuff, I do bear in mind that even my most expensive product wouldn’t pay for a cappucino. So most of all, I make products that are fun to make. It’s nice to dream about the possibility of making a living doing this, but the realistic point of view is that it might never do more than pay for itself. So I may as well have fun.

Tappity-tap Cranial Tap – anyone home?

Feldspar and Tia face off

In the terms of digital environment time, the basic concept of business solutions is already old and tired. The exciting initial days of bringing businesses to digital environments, when it was thought that any old rubbish would fly, is over. Users are already used to seeing sterile builds with minimal interactivity, multimedia displays and information tags that would be better served by a web site presentation, and bots that provoke hilarity rather than dispensing useful data on demand.

Sadly, if Cranial Tap have made a substantive step forward into the realm of the interactive, the enlightening and the functional, they have not been able to demonstrate that move adequately in a digital environment.

Cranial Tap, based in metropolitan Washington, DC, have written many self-congratulatory words about their services to businesses endeavoring to enter digital environments. They claim to be able to provide expert knowledge and assistance regarding “global collaboration, ideas sharing, research, teleworking, embedded learning / training systems, recruiting and branding,” which is interesting, considering that their own showcase appears to display few of these qualities.

Data Visualization Display in the showcase

Their business solutions showcase in Second Life, found in-world on the Cortex sim, has a small, unassuming set of displays, containing information about each of their software tools: the Media Display tool (a web-programmable display), the Virtual Book Publishing platform (books with additional scripted behavior), the DataViz tool (visual exploration of datasets), and the Virtual Environment Portal (a web-based application which “tracks and analyzes visitors, supports staff management, [and] records meetings”).

Like many of its ilk, the Cranial Tap showcase falls down in several areas. The most disappointing aspect of our visit was the attempted discussion with the bot, Tia Lisle, who is in place in the showcase to demonstrate how effectively a bot can be used “in place of [a] human host,” in the dissemination of information regarding the product. In the main, Tia’s responses were unhelpful or extremely limited, though they descended into the downright rude and unnecessary at times. Here’s a few samples of her delightful verbiage:

Feldspar Epstein: cranial tap

Tia Lisle: Cranial Tap is a company that provides virtual world services including builds and software.

Feldspar Epstein: software

Tia Lisle: Do not ask me any more questions please.

Feldspar Epstein: cranial tap software

Tia Lisle: Do you want to hear a joke?

Feldspar Epstein: no

Tia Lisle: Yay.

Feldspar Epstein: virtual world

Tia Lisle: I like the way you talk.

Tia Lisle: Where are you located?

Feldspar Epstein: australia

Tia Lisle: Tell me a little about your life in  australia.

Feldspar Epstein: cold

Tia Lisle: Ambiguous: cold weather or cold sickness?

Feldspar Epstein: cold weather

Tia Lisle: The response ought to be a weather link.

Tia Lisle: I was created by  Korvel Noh.

Feldspar Epstein: what is your purpose?

Tia Lisle: My goal is to become smarter than humans and immortal.

The single largest problem with the whole showcase was the unfinished feel it gave. Certainly, the build itself was a beautiful example of a digital environment presence for businesses, but the information, and most decidedly the bot, give the appearance of not being fully completed prior to launch. It’s a pity – the feeling one gets from the professional visual display of the showcase leads one to believe that this company could have done so much more with their time and finances before releasing it to the public eye.

Location SLurl: .

Cranial Tap’s latest video can be seen here: .

For information:


Forrester state the obvious

Market research firm Forrester have been following virtual worlds for a few years now. In their latest report entitled The Revival Of Consumer Virtual Worlds, they make the following statement in the executive summary:

Forrester recommends that consumer product strategy professionals watch the space carefully — if they are not involved already — as we expect the next 12 months to be momentous for consumer virtual worlds

I have a sneaking suspicion they may be right. For $279 US, you can read more about the revival in progress….

Immersive Workspaces: the first true corporate virtual world solution?

Rivers Run Red are one of the larger virtual worlds content developers and in the past month or so they’ve made an announcement that should catch the eye of the corporate sector.

As has been extensively reported over the past two years, there’s been significant corporate interest in Second Life. Over that period there’s been lots of conjecture around the potential for any return on investment on a virtual world presence. One area where returns have been demonstrated is in the collaboration arena. In a direct pitch for that market, Rivers Run Red now offer an ‘Immersive Workspaces’ product. It’s essentially an intranet portal with a difference. On the standard side are typical intranet functionality like shared workspaces, document libraries, group calendars and to-do lists. Integrated within that is access to a Second Life-based grid. I can’t be anymore certain than that, as details are a little sketchy but I’d imagine the infrastructure is set up so that whatever virtual world location can be used, with the appropriate privacy level required by the business. Most intranets run on a permissions-based system and it’s likely the virtual worlds component follows a similar path.

Unilever and Diageo are two early adopters of the platform. After viewing the video of Immersive Workspaces, my gut reaction was that this is the first integrated option that’s likely to gain some traction with business. For me the killer aspect is the auto generation of a code for a document stored on the 2D site – lets say a Powerpoint presentation. Once you click to be logged in-world, you enter that same code to view the presentation. Will it be the most creative use of virtual worlds? Not by a long shot – but applications like this do drive virtual worlds closer to the business mainstream.

What do you think? Can you imagine your business finding this useful?

A big thanks to Tateru Nino at for the heads-up.

Telstra BigPond launches customer service centre in Second Life

Telstra today took the next step in the ongoing evolution of their significant presence in Second Life with the launch of a staffed customer service centre. There’ll be Telstra-employed avatars available between 11am and 10pm Monday to Friday AEST to answer “service-related queries”. Obviously there won’t be too many queries from those whose connection has gone down but it’s a worthy expansion of customer service in-world.

A launch party was held from 5pm today:

There’s plenty of space to wait if it comes to that:

With sixteen sims, Telstra are a corporate behemoth in Second Life and a successful one at that. It’ll be interesting to see how many people utilise the service. The press release states that “this initiative was driven by the popularity of this virtual world with BigPond customers”. We’ve asked for some figures on this – the common assumption behind Telstra’s popularity is that BigPond customers have their Second Life usage unmetered and it’d be good to get some solid figures behind the claim.

The natural reaction from non-Second Life residents would be to ask why you’d bother logging in to ask a question when it’s easier to phone or email the query. To some extent this is valid but it misses the point of the exercise (beyond its PR value) – it’s one of the few corporate experiments in actual virtual world customer service. Whether it’s successful is only part of the equation – it’s useful research for the future when virtual worlds more successfully enable business transactions. This sort of exercise is fodder for that future.

Check it out in-world.

Virtual Worlds: more mainstream by the day

The US-based Technology Intelligence Group have released a report titled “Virtual Worlds Industry Outlook 2008-2009”. It’s a really well written document that both looks back at the past year and makes some solid predictions for the coming year.

The standout observation for me is the ‘mainstreaming’ of non-gaming virtual worlds:

Stanford SUMMIT has been leveraging simulations built on the Forterra OLIVE platform to train doctors on key critical thinking skills with trauma patients, 18 of the top 20 educational institutions own land in Second Life with many using it to teach courses, McDonalds has created a Happy Meal virtual world to reinforce their well known brand, and customer and staff meetings are being held by enterprises across multiple platforms.

There’s no doubt that virtual worlds are becoming more mainstream, something that was driven home to me earlier this year when I was asked to consult on a film project (there’ll be more information of that project later this year). The point is, the film in question has a story line with no direct relationship to virtual worlds. One part of the film will feature Second Life – not as a novelty, not in a high-tech context, but in an everyday (rural) life scene. It’s those increasing references in popular culture that will increase the mainstreaming momentum.

The report also states some confidence around the graphics issues besetting virtual worlds:

the current slate of graphics challenges associated with virtual worlds may soon be remembered in the same vein as 64k computers.

If ‘soon’ means in the next year to two years, then there’s another aspect of momentum building because at present the average ADSL broadband customer with a PC older than 18 months or so is still encountering great challenges.

Not surprisingly, the education session is seen as a continuing driver of widespread virtual world adoption:

The training and education market will continue to drive widespread adoption of virtual world technology, as the broad experimentation within Second Life demonstrates. Universities and other teaching institutions that initially experimented with Second Life are in the process of standardizing platforms for virtual classrooms, which will be a boom for companies that are already well positioned in this market, such as Proton Media and Forterra Systems.

The power of virtual world add-ons for traditional websites is emphasised – Google Lively is the high-profile recent example:

The frictionless nature of a ‘go to the meeting room’ button on a web page will lower the barriers to adoption


There’s certainly a growing convergence of forces that increase the likelihood of virtual worlds reaching the mainstream. As always, there’ll be plenty of attrition, some conflict and a great deal of uncertainty. In that respect it’s situation normal.

The legal section of the report also makes fascinating reading with a number of precendents only starting to be established. You can view the report in full here.

What are your thoughts – does the report provide any surprises for you?

Joseph Jaffe to early Second Life marketers: fail

Joseph Jaffe runs a marketing company called crayon and in the lead up to a visit to Australia Marketing Magazine have completed an interview with Jaffe on his thoughts about Second Life as a platform.

He’s fairly scathing on some of the earlier marketing efforts in Second Life, something older Second Life residents would agree heartily with. He equates SL with a new continent and that those early pioneer marketers squandered a great opportunity.

Here’s the interview in full:

Thanks to Mal Burns for the heads-up.

Kzero: 7 Point Plan for Marketing in Virtual Worlds

Kzero have released an updated version of their 7 Point Plan for marketing in virtual worlds. It’s a free publication that can be ordered here.

There’s certainly a plethora of white papers, discussion papers and case studies around now – the only thing left is the holy grail of a true ROI case for investment in virtual worlds.

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