Swine Flu (H1N1) and business continuity: Forterra’s solution

h1n1-forterra1It’s fairly well recognised now that virtual environments provide a powerful collaboration solution for business -it’s just widespread adoption that’s yet to occur as real-world ROI cases are still fairly sparse. Forterra Systems are a virtual worlds provider we’ve covered a few times before, and their focus is very much business and government.

With the recent concern over the 2009 H1N1 Flu Virus (colloquially known as ‘Swine Flu’, there’s been quite a bit of focus on the impact of a true pandemic on the population as a whole. Businesses are obviously concerned about their ability to maintain operations in an environment where a significant proportion of their staff may be out of action and the rest are concerned about going the same way. Within that context, Forterrra have repackaged their OLIVE platform as RemoteOperations. Being the cynic I am, I initially assumed this was smart marketing and not a lot else, so I touched base with Forterra’s VP of Marketing, Chris Badger:

Lowell: Is this version of your software different in any way i.e. is this an evolution of your offering or a pitch of your current offering’s usefulness for continuity of operations?

Chris: RemoteOperations is a new use case or application for our software. There are no new features we are introducing with this announcement. However one of the details in the announcement is that Forterra is now offering both hosted and SaaS options for organizations. We are providing these options to help both small and medium sized businesses who don’t have any or much IT staff to manage this technology themselves. In addition our SaaS offering is packaged as a monthly user subscription so its a very affordable way for any organization to start using a business oriented virtual world in a pilot or test. The SaaS offering is going through a beta program now so we can refine the offering based on the customer feedback. However we can accept other interested parties into the beta program if they want to participate. We will do a formal announcement about the SaaS offering early next year.

Lowell: Do you have any entities on board as pilot sites for that purpose at this stage?

Chris: We discovered that several of our leading customers were in fact using OLIVE as a business continuity application as one of many use cases for OLIVE. For example one of these customers is a large Italian bank who is using OLIVE for meetings, events, employee skills training, business continuity, and emergency preparedness simulations/training, ie explosion in their data center. Within our own company we have had about 10% to 20% of our own employees come down with severe colds or the flu in the last 6 weeks. No one has swine flu yet! Of course we send them home but they can still participate in project planning and status meetings using OLIVE. The point we discovered is that the business continuity application is a very real, timely solution using OLIVE that has not received much visibility within the industry.

Lowell: For the option hosted by Forterra, what sort of continuity of operations / redundancy do you have in case of a severe outbreak? How will you ensure you can keep things running yourself if it were a true pandemic.

Chris: Both our hosted and SaaS offerings are fully redundant and have fail over capabilities. When we do our formal announcement of the SaaS offering we will mention that service level agreements are provided that assure high availability and uptime.

As you likely know the experts indicate a pandemic can force a company to operate with only 60% or 50% of their staff. Our operations group is large enough and every one is cross trained so we can support our customers even if 50% of our operations staff can’t work. There is rarely much hardware support work required, which our hosting provider does and they are very large. Our own operations team can do their craft at work or at home. As we have personally experienced we can have employees staying at home with the flu but they still get a few hours of work done using OLIVE. Ultimately the service level agreement with our customers assures them of uptime and availability independent of any issues we have to deal with.


It’s far from certain that the H1N1 virus will evolve to a pandemic, but what’s more certain is the need for effective remote operations solutions given the increasingly dispersed workforce for larger businesses in particular. Business continuity plans that factor in newer solutions may be considered a riskier approach, but it could also help to ensure real continuity rather than holding things together for a few days. One of the specific challenges of a pandemic is the potential length of time a business may need to run on reduced staff: this is the test for products like the one Forterra are offering. If they provide a true collaboration solution for extended situations, then expect to see even conservative businesses taking a closer look.

Linden Lab launches Second Life Enterprise beta today

enterprise_secondlife Linden Lab will announce today that their second “work offering”, Second Life Enterprise, is entering an open beta period, prior to release. The preliminary beta for the Second Life Enterprise has been running since April this year; the open beta program will run through Q4 this year, and general availability will be announced during the first half of 2010.

The associated service, the Second Life Work Marketplace, which is currently in development, will go into closed alpha at the end of Q1 2010.

The Second Life Enterprise bundle is priced from US$55,000, and this price will cover both hardware and software sides of the solution; two servers will be provided, one for spatial voice (VOIP) and one for virtual environment simulation of up to 8 regions, supporting a maximum of 800 users (though 800 users with spatialised voice seems like a recipe for chaos).

There is no indication yet as to whether the Second Life Enterprise product will replace Immersive Workspaces, the Lab’s first and, to our knowledge, only other, “work offering”, or whether the two will exist in parallel.

Organisations already participating in the beta program include IBM, Northrop Grumman, Naval Undersea Warfare Centre, DefenseWeb Technologies, Case Western Reserve University, and The New Media Consortium.

Intriguingly, Linden Lab has announced that “content owned by the company can be moved from the main Second Life environment into the Second Life Enterprise Beta environment”.

This, of course, raises many questions. Technically, by the Second Life Terms Of Service, Linden Lab has the right to distribute other people’s content for any purpose related to the operation of the service without explicit permission from creators.

Will any and/or all content on a simulator owned by a company be able to be sucked up and spat out again in the Enterprise environment belonging to that company? How will content ownership be determined?

What will happen with third party content, given these circumstances – especially given that a lot of enterprise presences on the main Second Life grid are composed of a reasonable percentage of third-party content already, under wildly different permissions.

Of course the Lab can bundle that up and copy it all off-grid. They have that right, so long as it continues to be “a part of the service.”

These issues aside, though, Second Life Enterprise looks to be a solid business product, particularly for virtual meetings, prototyping and data visualization – three areas where Second Life technology does well.

Group instant messaging and successful meetings in Second Life

Linden Lab have posted two useful stories on their blog that are worth passing on.

The first is a heads-up on a Knowledge Base article on how to instant message a group of up to 20 of your friends without them being in a group you’ve created.


The second is a look at how an in-world meeting was held for 160 people in Second Life. The standout sentence for me was:

Gronstedt led all participants through a 30-minute training session and all speakers and exhibitors through a 60-minute training session to ensure that when the conference day arrived, everyone was ready to walk, talk, text chat, and participate in this new virtual event experience.

Half an hour to an hour of training to be able to participate isn’t that high a premium, although without doubt it’d be a disincentive to a lot of people. To me, that’s a big hurdle for one-off meetings but a more than worthwhile expense for a business using virtual meetings regularly. Of course, the enterprise solution that reduces the learning curve even further will have an advantage as enterprise comes on board with offerings that reduce real-world travel expenses.

Enterprise 2.0 and virtual worlds and a free discussion paper download

enterprise20shortpaper Today, I had the pleasure of facilitating four small group sessions at the Enterprise 2.0 Executive Forum 2009. The topic was virtual worlds and enterprise, and thanks to the participants in the groups, it turned into a very interesting exchange of ideas. The agenda of the overall forum was much wider: the use of Web 2.0 technologies in business. What’s impressive about this forum is the breadth of roles amongst participants – CEOs, CIOs, learning and development professionals, marketing professionals and general operational staff were in attendance.

As I’ve found before at these events, there are a growing number of people in business who see the potential of virtual worlds, but they struggle to get the same recognition throughout the business. That said, Australian business continues to lead the way in the area and it was great to see the level of passion for the opportunities virtual worlds provide.

Some other points that came out of the groups for me:

  • There’s a genuine acceptance of the potential of virtual worlds as an effective collaboration tool;
  • The awareness around the power of telepresence is growing steadily – close to half of the group members already understood the concept well and most had experienced its superiority over teleconferences or videoconferences first hand;
  • Enterprises want pilot virtual worlds but arguing the ROI case remains the main barrier, along with the significant end-user resistance that occurs;
  • That Second Life’s interface and the fact it’s a standalone application are major barriers to implementation;
  • There remains very high desirability for web-based worlds that deliver the level of complexity of Second Life
  • As part of my involvement I produced a four-page discussion paper: Virtual Worlds in the Enterprise – hype or high-performance?. It’s a bare-bones overview of the opportunities virtual worlds provide for business and a brief summary of five virtual worlds to watch (Second Life, VastPark, OpenSim grids, OLIVE and Metaplace) – there are obviously many more but as an overview they provide a good snapshot.

    Anyone regularly exposed to virtual worlds won’t get a lot out of the document, but if you’re one of our readers who’s just dipping their toe in the water, it provides a basic launch pad for a wider exploration.

    You can download Virtual Worlds in the Enterprise – hype or high-performance? for free by going to this page.

    You only need to provide your name and email address to be able to download a PDF of the paper.

    NoviCraft: virtual world team building

    novicraft NoviCraft is one of the more fascinating virtual world business offerings by Finnish company, TeamingStream. That fascination comes not from the platform itself, but the theoretical underpinnings of it. This is a world designed purely for business-related training and team-building purposes.

    I took the opportunity to fire a few questions at TeamingStream’s CEO, Petri Ahokangas, about NoviCraft.

    Lowell: What platform is the application built on?

    Petri: NoviCraft is built on Epic’s Unreal Engine and it was officially launched in December last year. NoviCraft is off-the-shelf multiplayer teambuilding, collaboration, and leadership training game developed by a group of learning scientists, human resource development specialists, and serious game developers for the corporate learning industry. Our customers include top HRD consultancies, big and medium-sized companies, universities and other training organizations.

    Lowell: Could you give more detail on the team building specifics that are encountered in the game?

    Petri: The game is pedagogically scripted to make the participants aware of the different elements of collaboration, team learning, negotiation, and leadership through five team puzzles – and thus learning from the game experience. The first puzzle focuses on enhancing communication, building of psychological trust, and giving and receiving help among the participants. The second puzzle is about encouraging exploration, coordination of work, and establishing goal orientation. The third puzzle encourages
    Thinking–out–loud as a team, sharing of information and helps to create an efficient problem-solving skills for the participants as a team. The fourth puzzle brings in risk taking and strategy creation as a team. The final puzzle is about joint planning and efficient execution of the plan.

    In a nutshell, all major challenges of the modern workplace have been modeled to the game and can be practiced in a safe environment in a cost effective way. NoviCraft is not a simulation, it is real collaboration between people which makes it very effective as a learning tool. The learning process is theoretically grounded, supported by metrics, and the trainer or consultant (the game master) can monitor and control the performance of the playing team.

    Lowell: So what have been some of the more common utilisations of NoviCraft to date?

    Petri: Typical use cases for NoviCraft include leadership and management training, cross- and multi-cultural collaboration, virtual and distributed team collaboration training, team building, supervisor training, personnel evaluation/appraisal, and coaching boards of directors and management teams. Our customers have said that NoviCraft is a fun and efficient way to learn about their teamwork skills and it helps both individuals and teams to improve. After the game the participants can go through a workshop where they can analyze their performance, strengths and areas where they need improvement. The NoviCraft game experience can also greatly add the value of traditional management and leadership training.

    Lowell: What level of expense is an enterprise looking at to deploy NoviCraft?

    Petri: NoviCraft’s price depends on the number of users and the constellation of the software, but the typical limited license is between twenty and forty thousand Euros (20000-40000 €) depending on the case.

    Serious games initiatives are nothing new, but Novicraft seems to be one of more fleshed out models for business. At close to forty-thousand dollars Australian to implement, only the larger enterprises would consider NoviCraft, but its breadth remains appealing. What will truly differentiate NoviCraft is its touted metrics: if tangible benefits for a business are realised, its implementation costs may suddenly seem less of a barrier.

    Thanks to CyberTech News for the heads-up.

    2009: the year the ATO wakes up?

    In recent weeks over on Terra Nova, Julian Dibbell has raised the issue again of taxation and virtual worlds. It’s worth a read purely to gain some insight into the complexity of the issue. As Dibbell states, it’s a lot more than the concept of taxing the sale of virtual goods, although that’s likely to be the driving force of any actions by governments.


    On the Australian front, back in October 2006 the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported on advice from the Australian Tax Office (ATO), which was:

    People trading in virtual worlds should consider very carefully whether they are conducting a business or a hobby

    Since then, there’s been no real change in approach from the ATO – I’m not aware of any campaign to enforce taxation on earnings in virtual worlds. One assumption would be that enforcement is so fraught with difficulties that it remains in the ‘too-hard’ basket, and rightly so. Even in the two or so years since the ATO made that comment, there are even more complicating factors, not least of which is the continued growth in virtual world platforms. Imagine trying to audit a virtual world entrepreneur who makes money in Second Life that he /she partly cashes out in US dollars whilst keeping the bulk in-world in Linden Dollars. If they then operate their business on an OpenSim grid with a different virtual currency, you can imagine the compliance nightmares for the entrepreneur, let alone the ability of the ATO to make any sense of the whole operation.

    That said, in a real-world environment of shrinking tax revenues and the growing focus by the US Government on the issue, it’s hard to imagine the ATO are going to continue to sit on their hands for another year. A sensible start would be an inquiry into the challenges of virtual taxation, with the opportunity for virtual world users to provide submissions on a way forward. It would be potentially disastrous if a heavy-handed approach eventuated, that impacted on the multitude of small business people operating successfully in worlds like Second Life now.

    The hobby/business continuum has always been a grey area – the only sensible approach for those operating business in virtual worlds is to assume they have a business, not a hobby. With that approach, whenever regulation does eventuate the transparency is already established. Increased regulation seems an inevitability – it’s how that regulation is implemented that will need to be watched closely.

    What are your thoughts – can you see the ATO getting more active in the area or is the cost of ensuring compliance too great for the potential returns?

    Companies and 3D Virtual Worlds: one detailed analysis

    stavros There’s an ever-growing pile of books on virtual worlds available, ranging from tour guides to detailed ethnography.

    One publication that slipped under the radar for me at least (it was published in May 2008) is Companies and Virtual 3D Worlds – Analysis of Business Model at the Example of Second Life. Written by Stavros Pechlivanidis, a Managing Consultant and IT Specialist for IBM Global Services, this book is actually a Masters Thesis for Pechlivanidis’ MBA studies, and it shows. I mean that in a positive way, in that it’s apparent a lot of research has gone into the final product. That said, this isn’t a book for the faint hearted and is probably only suited to people working in business who are taking an in-depth look at the applicability of virtual worlds for their enterprise. Publisher VDM Verlag kindly provided me a review copy, so read on for my thoughts below.

    What has impressed me with this book is the strategic view it takes. There’s plenty of information on the macro environmental factors impacting virtual worlds (political, social, economic and technological), including some great evaluation of these factors:

    Other aspects covered include virtual world industry segmentation and their individual success factor, and a business model overview for virtual worlds. This leads directly into the guts of the thesis: analysing the different business models within Second Life. Everything from Anshe Chung to currency exchanges are examined in the context of the research literature on business models more broadly. Three broad categories are cited: C-Business (creative business models), I-Business (interconnectedness between real world and virtual world or between different virtual worlds as a way of doing business) and V-Business (virtual business occurring solely in a virtual world). It provides Pechlivanidis a springboard from which to analyse the strategic opportunities for business across all three spheres.

    Overall, this is an extremely comprehensive book that is aimed squarely at business. It’s breadth and rigour make it a desirable reference source as business shows more interest in virtual worlds. It stands out for its provision of new information rather than just summarising information found elsewhere, which isn’t unexpected given its academic underpinnings.

    You can buy the book from our bookstore by clicking here or if you’d prefer we not get a (very small) cut, the direct Amazon link is here.

    Growth predicted in virtual events for enterprise

    on24 A survey released a couple of weeks back by virtual event solutions provider, ON24, shows again the momentum in virtual worlds for enterprise. ON24 surveyed ten thousand or so enterprise executives – no details are provided on the survey sample demographics or method. We’ve contacted ON24 to clarify that and will update this story with any response they provide.

    Update: ON24 have responded with the following: “The survey sample included 10,000 decision makers of corporate events and marketing within the Fortune 2500 segment in North America. The sample included all industries.”

    ON24 provide four key results from their survey on trends in meeting attendance:

    42% expect participation in physical trade shows to be down by as much as 50%
    64% expect to have fewer physical sales kick off seminars – or none at all
    60% expect training, management and other internal events to be down 20 – 50%
    A full 76% said their company has already begun using virtual events (53%) or plans to begin using them (23%) to supplement some of their physical events in 2009

    The promising findings in regard to views on virtual meetings were:

    While 61% said they would miss seeing people in person, less than half felt they would miss traveling to other locations (34%), enjoying the social activities (36%) or seeing speakers in person (20%). Respondents found several aspects of virtual participation to be particularly appealing:

    75% appreciated that there is no travel required
    64% liked that they can attend the virtual sessions on their own time schedules
    58% found it useful to be able to “forward” to their colleagues virtual sessions that they thought would be of interest to them

    More than one third of respondents cited the social networking benefits of virtual events, including the ability to see a list of all attendees in advance (35%); to contact other attendees online throughout the event (40%) and to get information on people (32%) and companies (34%) they meet electronically.

    Essentially, the argument is that the economic difficulties business faces at present will make virtual events more desirable from a cost viewpoint. This is a very valid argument, but one that needs to be made in combination with a well-integrated virtual meeting solution. Those are already hitting the marketplace, so perhaps virtual worlds for enterprise will continue to defy the economic trends in the real world.

    Locally, Ross Dawson’s Future Exploration Network is running its Enterprise 2.0 Executive Forum again this year. I had the pleasure of facilitating a small-group discussion on virtual worlds and business last year and I’m looking forward to doing something similar again this year by facilitating a 20-minute mini-workshop.

    Thanks to VW News for the heads-up on the ON24 survey.

    Forterra release paper on enterprise virtual worlds

    Virtual world developer for enterprise and government, Forterra, have released a white paper titled Recipe for Success with Enterprise Virtual Worlds.


    Aside from an overview of the potential of virtual worlds in business, the cost comparisons may catch the eye of some enterprises looking at cost-cutting measures.

    Additionally, an interesting case study is provided on Accenture and its initial use of Forterra’s OLIVE platform to determine the utility of the approach for its own business. The short story is that Accenture are working on a wider business case for virtual world utilisation as a money-saving proposition – in their case primarily for training and meetings.

    If you’ve not heard of Accenture then you won’t be aware of what a behemoth they are in the worldwide business sphere. As a management consulting company they have more than 186 thousand employees with a revenue of over US$23 billion. If widespread adoption were to occur in a business that size, it alone would create some significant momentum in the virtual world sphere. Add to that the impact Accenture have in their consulting role – if they end up advocating enterprise virtual worlds as a legitimate business strategy, then even the more optimistic forecasts to date on adoption of the technology may start to look conservative.

    You can download the full paper here – by pitching their product mid-field between teleconferencing and videoconferencing, Forterra has started to make inroads with companies of the scale of Accenture and assisted in the eventual development of a cohesive ROI case. That can only assist the wider virtual world industry in demonstrating its potential. It’s ironic that the ecomonic downturn may be the thing that helps overcome the intrinsic cynicism of business toward virtual worlds as it becomes apparent they may actually assist in business costs.

    What’s your view? Is Accenture’s momentum in the area a sign of further significant growth on the horizon or just a behemoth of a company testing the waters to keep abreast of developments?

    Interview – Lee Hopkins, Business Communicator and PhD Student (Part 2)

    Continuing on with our discussion (Part 1 can be found here), we discuss brand identity in virtual worlds, get deep into a discussion of virtual world PhD research and talk about governmental cluelessness.


    Lowell: One of the more controversial aspects of business in virtual worlds is brand identity. For regular virtual world users, the overt imposition of brand awareness initiatives can cause some backlash. For business there’s a nearly automatic skepticism of the potential for gains combined with a concern for loss of brand control. How do you see this impasse being solved and which companies to date have done the better job in that regard?

    Lee: Fabulous question. Next (laughs). Actually, the whole ‘control’ thing is being played out across social media in general, not just SL, as we all know. What was interesting about the corporate entrance into SL and subsequent backlash was that the corporates just believed that ‘if you build it they will come’, which of course we know just doesn’t work in this new era. When you are the only player in town – the only newspaper, the only tv station, the only record company – there is little choice but for people to come to you, but these days YouTube has usurped TV, iTunes has usurped the record company and many bloggers have audiences far bigger than even the ‘big’ newspaper empires. So these days it is a question of, as Janet Jackson famously sang a couple of decades ago, “What have you done for me lately?”

    We are all tuned into radio WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) and unless I can add value to your life you are highly unlikely to pay me any attention. Having said that, I am aware that we are culturally empowered to take that view. I’ve just finished reading Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, where he points out that many cultures have less ‘open’ relationships to authority. Some cultures are very hierarchical and reverent, and so the mindset that we enjoy in the West, where freedom to challenge authority and demand ‘a fair suck of the savaloy’ is not a globally-shared mindset.

    The challenge that corporations face when considering any sort of social media initiative is the thorny question of ‘ROI’. For years, any investment of time or resources by a company has needed to be measured against financial yardsticks to see if the reward is worth it. But social media itself is about relationships, not immediate sales or column inches in the business press, and so measuring the true influence of social media can be tricky, with lots of arguments from both sides of the fence.

    We can measure largely inconsequential things, like visitor numbers, repeat traffic, keyword analysis, and so on, but the longer-term relationship nature of social media defies such simplistic pigeon-holes. A more nuanced approach needs to be taken, looking at not only how many people have visited but *what they thought*; not only who is talking about us but *what they are saying* and if what they are saying is positive or negative. We need to consider how influential those who talk about us are in their own communities.

    All of this content analysis requires time and resource, for which the pure ‘numbers-focused’ senior management teams and boards have scant regard. But slowly that is changing, in the same way that the climate is changing: inch by inch but getting ever-so-slowly faster and faster.

    Companies that are ‘doing it right’ are those who are wise enough to not treat their virtual world markets as comprising a bunch of socially-inept idiots but, as decades of academic research has proven, socially-skilled, highly-networked early adopters. In Second Life’s case we could argue some psychographics as a result of the published demographics Linden Lab releases. Start here for a great place to begin your journey into the adoption of innovation

    Here’s my take on the average Second Lifer:

    One – they are intelligent, because you have to be to be able to learn how to navigate your avatar around the world. I would hazard a guess and say that they are more likely to have finished high school and perhaps also have completed, be undertaking or are contemplating tertiary studies.

    Two – they have strong characteristics of patience and perseverance, because if you had a short attention span or limited patience you’d never get past the bloody Orientation Island!

    Three – they are time-rich, because they spend an average of 50 hours a month in-world.

    Four – they are cash-rich, because to get the best experience from SL you need a fast broadband connection, a fast computer and a powerful graphics card, none of which are cheap.

    All of these would suggest that the average Aussie battler, with two kids and a mortgage and a poorly-paid job, is unlikely to be a dedicated Second Lifer. That is *not* a blanket generalisation, but it is less likely that such an individual would have the time and money freedom to engage in Second Life for so long without detriment to their immediate social relations.

    Now, as for the companies that *are* doing it right, you could number them in several ways. Obviously there are the IBMs and Sun Microsystems and their like, who use Second Life as test beds for their own customer service initiatives, for meeting places and so on. I know of one IBMer who mentioned that each year around nine man years of productivity were saved by holding meetings in Second Life or other virtual worlds, rather than hang around waiting for teleconferences and webinars to start and finish and being unproductive in those five-minute periods.

    Microsoft also announced that it was making significant savings by holding product launches in-world; once the initial design and build costs of the virtual space were paid for, all subsequent launches were practically free. When it comes to smaller, lesser known enterprises, then I guess I must point to my ‘other’ industry – academia – as it is the one with which I have most recently engaged.

    I recently attended the second Australian Virtual Worlds Workshop in Melbourne and was stunned by the number of academics who were keenly interested in virtual world developments. It was slightly disconcerting and incongruous to see those who – when I was at high school I would have labelled ancient, decrepit and clothed from op-shop rejects – being passionate about a technology that by rights only ‘young-uns’ should be into ☺. The fact that I am now one of those ancient and decrepit people has nothing to do with it! (laughs)

    The take-up of virtual world technology in order to find new ways of reaching out to children is surprising and to me really encouraging about the state of innovation in the day-care system we call ‘primary and secondary education’. But it is not just primary and secondary educational establishments who are engaging with the 3D virtual world, of course – major tertiary institutions are also using the space for traditional and non-traditional work, for research and for skills-based training. As you would know, the training of nursing staff in important life-risking procedures and practices is something that usually cannot be undertaken (sorry for the pun) on ‘live’ patients. Having a virtual patient to practice on is invaluable.

    I am looking forward to working with some organisations on helping less-able bodied individuals develop entrepreneurial skills, principally through designing and launching their own businesses in Second Life (or another platform if a better one comes along).

    I’m also going to begin researching the whole social media environment to see if academia can make better day-to-day use of it. Both projects begin early in 2009.

    Lowell: Which leads nicely to the fact you’re currently doing a PhD – can you describe the overall topic of your research?

    Lee: My research started a couple of years ago and has progressed much, much slower than I either anticipated or would have preferred.

    I began with the idea of taking two SMEs (Small to Medium sized Enterprises) into Second Life, working with them through the marketing and philosophical issues about whether they should be there or not before, if acceptable to them, helping them ‘go into’ the space. I wanted to see if there *was* any value for SMEs in the virtual space. Although I believed there was, I wanted to put ‘real business numbers’ around my intuitions.

    Alas, my innovative and principal contact at one SME left the company and the company itself had no interest in pursuing the research; the other company found its real world business ‘take off’ so that it had no time or space to consider a virtual environment – all hands were needed ‘on deck’ to cope with the sudden surge of interest globally for their product.

    So for a long while I have twiddled my thumbs, read lots, written far too little, and annoyed my supervisors by not handing up potential drafts of academic papers for publication.

    But with the new projects coming along early next year all should move along at a far more cracking pace…

    Lowell: What methodological approach are you taking for your doctorate?

    Lee: This is where I get to talk all ‘academic’-like ☺.

    I am using an auto-ethnographical approach based on Kozinet’s idea of ‘Netnography’ and which I have taken one stage further and labelled ‘Autoethnetnography’ (see this and this for more background). The idea is that I not only spend my time in-world, but that I document my time, my feelings and thoughts (the ‘autoethnographic’ component) online (the ‘net’ component).

    However, I have yet to completely decide on my methodological approach for the two projects next year – ‘The Exciting Adventures of Penny and Isabella’ will figure into it somehow! ☺

    Lowell: How easy have you found it to review the literature on the area given its relative infancy as a research topic?

    Lee: Second Life itself is a growing area of research, but its antecedents have a long history in the man-machine interaction landscape. Remember that Sherry Turkle was talking about the psychology and sociology of life in a virtual world a couple of decades ago, so too was Howard Rheingold. Add in the ‘traditional’ virtual reality literature on haptic interfaces (‘sex gloves’ as we probably most think of those early experimenters) and you have a literature that starts to become quite ‘weighty’.

    If you then add in any of the business literature, such as marketing, marketing psychology, public relations, branding, inter alia and you start to become overwhelmed with choice.

    Whereas two years ago ‘Second Life’ as a search term returned little result in the academic search engines, nowadays that body of literature is growing at a cracking pace.


    Lowell: Moving beyond Second Life, what virtual worlds have caught your interest recently?

    Lee:Twinity looks interesting, as does VastPark. Sun’s Wonderland platform is, of course, worth watching and I have no doubt that Roo Reynolds and his fellow metaversian rascals at IBM have something up their sleeve ☺ I was recently taken with how simple ExitReality is but how visually powerful it could be. Of course, ExitReality and VastPark are good ol’ Aussie innovations, so it’s nice to be able to talk about something great that *hasn’t* come out of the sun-drenched plains and hills of San Francisco.

    I have a *very* strong suspicion, a belief if you like, that Second Life will not be the ‘killer app’ it would like to be. I remember the early days of the web when the company I worked for, Digital, owned and ran ‘AltaVista’. It was the number one search engine around and nothing was ever going to replace it.

    Of course, along came Yahoo! and ‘AltaVista’ joined the ranks of ‘Whatever happened to…’. Naturally, we all knew that *nothing* would ever knock Yahoo! off the top perch of the search world, you could guarantee it. So along came two Stanford programmers and a couple of their mates and the rest is history, as they say.

    So I strongly believe that something will come out of ‘left field’ and knock Second Life for six, while at the same time bringing scalability and simplicity of use to the masses. And if anyone has a time machine that could put me forward five years to see who ‘won the race’, then allow me to return so I could invest in them, I’ll be your best friend! ☺

    Equally, if anyone has a time machine that can transport me back to the early 1980s so I can pick up some cheap Microsoft and Apple stock, then bring me back to the here and now, I’ll reward you with a few thousand shares in them.

    Lowell: In the Australian context there’s still a fairly low adoption rate by business of virtual worlds – what do you see emerging as the game-changers that will provide some more momentum?

    Lee: Nothing at the moment, I’m afraid. I spend a lot of time talking with businesses about social media, which is still a long way from their thinking but they are slowly beginning to understand that they need to pay attention to it. Second Life and 3D virtual worlds are so far off their radar as to not even be blips.

    Even though Australians as individuals are recognised worldwide as important early adopters — and Forrester’s latest report, ‘Australian Adult Social Technographics Revealed’ asserts that Australia is the perfect launch pad for global brands launching social media initiatives, to which I agree. We can see this when we look at Second Life’s demographics (we are 52nd in the real world population ranks, yet 11th in Second Life, showing that we are ‘punching well above our weight’), the business community in Australia is highly conservative. Add into the mix the reality that most CEOs are ex CFOs (Chief Financial Officers, aka ‘bean counters’) and we see a business environment where fiscal economics are the determinants of business strategy, not environmental nor human economics.

    I don’t forsee any takeup by corporate Australia of virtual worlds any time soon, not until the marketplace is demanding it and their competitors are doing it and showing some success. It never ceases to frustrate yet at the same time greatly amuse me that Australian businesses love to talk about ‘competitive advantage’ yet never actually want to do anything to give them it ‘until others are showing that it works’.

    Lowell: Educators have led the way with virtual worlds. What’s inspired you in the education sphere?

    Lee: The work of Jokay Wollongong and Lindy McKeown in particular stand out here. They are pushing the envelope of what academically can be done with 3D virtual worlds. Being around them, even virtually, is intimidating – what they have achieved, what they are doing, where they are going… all is phenomenally impressive and make me feel like a complete slacker! ☺

    Lowell Cremorne: Can you name the presences in Second Life you keep coming back to?

    Lee: Sure, but bear in mind that often I don’t visit these places for a month and they’ve moved location, which is really frustrating. It would be nice of SL automatically updated one’s SLURL picks, but that may be a database too far.

    I most often frequent my own two properties, the beach hut retreat of the Better Communication Results empire or the Better Communication Results office. Otherwise:

    ABC Island
    Dedric Mauriac’s shop – great tools
    Hydro Homes – great offices and houses
    Market Truths – great research on SL
    Just for Him – men’s clothing and accessories
    Crucial Creations – great Italian design work for female shoes in particular, but clothing in general
    Influence Hair – the best hair for women in SL, IMHO
    ALady Island – absolutely gorgeous female skins
    Lindy McKeown (aka Decka Mah)’s teaching and action research island in SL

    Lowell: Prediction time – what do you believe will happen in virtual worlds over the coming year?

    Lee: The revolt against Second Life will continue, in that landowners will increasingly be less likely to pay for increases in land rental, especially since other, cheaper alternatives will become more plentiful. Additionally, the lack of scalability of Second Life will start to bite harder. Again, I hold to my prediction that someone will bring something out of left field, so we will all have our breath taken away by its simplicity.

    But the learning we have all undergone in Second Life will not be wasted, not in the slightest. Part of my reasoning to companies for becoming involved with virtual worlds like Second Life is based on history: we thought we could take the ‘language’ of print and put it on the web yet technology (dial up, online reading styles, for example) showed that we had to adapt our communication styles to fit this new media. So too with 3D virtual worlds; we cannot just take the existing communication paradigms of the 2D online world and expect them to work equally well in the 3D environment – we need to take into account the spatial environment and visual and non-verbal characteristics of the other ‘players’ in the conversation and of those who are adjacent to us.

    We have barely begun to figure out how to communicate effectively in this new communication landscape that allows everyone to own their own tv station, their own radio station, their own newspaper and magazine… we are some considerable way off from learning how to communicate effectively when you add in individual- and machine-controlled movement, three dimensionality and non-verbal, non-textual clues into the mix!

    Lowell: Back to Australia again, what’s your take on our Federal Government’s grasp of social media more broadly, and virtual worlds more specifically.

    Lee: There is a great movie that encapsulates it all in just one word: “Clueless”.

    Bless ‘em, they are trying, but Governments are driven by politicians who look for short-term gains to keep themselves in positions of power, not technocrats and innovators who look to the longer-term for societal gain.

    Change will, as always, be driven by the zealots, the ranters, the ravers, the ungentlemanly shouters from rooftops, the inconsiderate individuals who refuse to take a relentless and increasingly strident and often-times dismissive ‘No!’ for an answer.

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